Passing into the building’s spacious lobby, Gil felt relief that Natalie was not with him. It was bad enough that, were she with him, she would realize very quickly that he hadn’t even bothered to read the script, and they would undoubtedly have a horrible flight about that. He remembered that the last time this had come up almost three years ago when he had made the mistake of reading Wasp Season a couple of days before the scheduled pre-production meeting. He had immediately found fault with its contents and complained to Natalie. This had earned him a long and bitter fight in which she reiterated that his job was just to realize on film what she had written, and she wanted to hear no more about it. He had spent a couple of long and sleepless nights subsequently in a bedroom not their own. He had finally resolved therefore not to let this happen again. He would find out what it was all about from his people, who had all received script copies last week, and deal with matters as they came up.
He was now striding towards the security desk situated just in front of the bank of elevators. Behind this desk he spotted the usual guy, a big black man in uniform with a closely-cropped afro, who was obviously absorbed in the Times sports section. Walking over to the desk he said casually, “Hey DeVon! How’s it goin’?”
DeVon looked up from the paper, momentarily startled back to reality. “Oh hi, Mr. Hall,” he remarked, then looked down at his paper again. “How ’bout those Dodgers? They won again last night. They slaughtered Atlanta! Looks like this might be our year, huh? I mean, we ain’t been in the Series since we beat the A’s in ’88.”
“Yeah,” replied Gil, who knew nothing about sports and cared less. “Here’s hoping, huh?”
Satisfied, DeVon went back to his paper and Gil walked over to the elevators and pressed the button.
As he reached the tenth floor, he thought again what a good idea it had been to spend all that money remodeling the floor. It was now set up so that the elevator opened onto the main reception area which could be staffed by only one or two people at most, thereby cutting down on the need for permanent employees. The receptionist sat at a large desk which contained mostly a large call director and many Rolodex files. Its main feature however was the buttons underneath the center drawer just above the leghole. The button on the left automatically opened the rear door of the reception area through which access to the main hall and the rest of the floor was obtained. The button on the right immediately summoned security in case of any problems. In this way inquisitive newspaper people, pushy actors and agents, and the large contingent of just plain nuts that frequented Hollywood could be easily kept at bay by a single person sitting behind the desk.
The doors of the elevator now opened onto this very scene. As Gil entered the reception area he saw that sitting behind the reception desk was a young woman he did not recognize. With a puzzled expression he walked over to the desk and said, “Uh, hi there.”
The young woman looked up, obviously from something in her lap she was reading, probably a movie magazine, thought Gil. They always read movie magazines in the office when there was little else to do. Slightly flustered she said, “Oh, hello.” Then as the light in her head slowly began to illuminate she said, “Oh, you must be Mr. Hall. Yes. Everyone else is here. They’re expecting you.”
“Okay,” said Gil, “that’s good. But who are you anyway, and what happened to Marcy?”
“Oh,” she said again, “that’s right. I guess you haven’t been to the office in awhile. Marcy’s out on maternity leave.” And then with a little sigh she uttered, “I’m just a temp. Been here about two weeks.”
Gil looked her up and down, noticing that she was really quite something to look at. She was young, couldn’t be more than legal age, Gil thought. She had lustrous straight black hair which she wore down to her shoulders and a creamy café au lait complexion which made her look as if she spent long summer days at Santa Monica or maybe Malibu. She was dressed in a fairly demure white businesslike blouse and as she was sitting, Gil could see no more though he desperately wanted to. The top half of her made him wonder if the bottom half could possibly complete its promise. Still looking at her steadily he remarked, “Well, you got that right, I’m Gil Hall. And as they say on The Simpsons, who the hell are you?”
“Me,” she said with a question mark, as if she never suspected that anyone in Gil’s position could possibly be interested in who she was, “I’m Rosario Batista.” Then for the first time she gave him a warm smile. “But everyone calls me Rosie.”
“Okay by me,” replied Gil, flashing her a big one in return. “Rosie it is. Now would you mind opening that damn security door so I can get to my meeting?”
“Right away, Mr. Hall,” she said in a businesslike manner, and immediately the rear door buzzed and Gil, with a little wave of farewell, pushed his way through it. On the other side of the door was a long hall with about four or five doors on either side of it. He knew where he was going of course, they had been meeting in the same place for the last decade and more—Conference Room A at the end of the hall, the one with the big carved oak table and the twelve plushly upholstered chairs surrounding it. It was lushly carpeted and the walls and the ceiling were lined with acoustic tile so that even if there were raised voices and arguments the volume was decreased and somewhat muted. As Gil strode down toward the end of the hall to the aforementioned Conference Room A, he began to hear the faint buzz of conversation punctuated by occasional laughter. Good, thought Gil, they all seemed to be in high spirits and presumably they’ve all read the script. How bad can it be?
As he entered the conference room he was reassured as always by the sight of the same old familiar faces as his regulars sat grouped around the big conference table, still laughing and talking to one another. A gradual hush however began to fall over the room as they looked up and saw Gil settle into his accustomed place at the head of the table, his back to the door. There were eight people in all, his permanent production staff. He of course was the ninth, occupying the positions of vice president and director. On his left was his sprightly young assistant director Nancy Chaney. Cute, perky, and still on the sunny side of thirty, she was nonetheless possessed of a creative and imaginative mind, one that seemingly never stopped coming up with clever suggestions to enliven even the most plodding and pedestrian of Natalie’s scripts. To his right was the man on whom he depended the most, the man who had over the course of years become his best friend. This was his cinematographer Richard Ellsworth, now well into his fifties but as able as ever. At the opposite end of the table sat the corporation’s treasurer and chief financial officer, George Mooney. He was a thin-faced sober Irishman, the joke being that he was probably the only Irishman in existence who was both sober and had a great head for figures. Mooney, who everyone called Money, could make the most lightning-quick budgetary calculations in his head, almost never using a pocket calculator or even pen and paper. He had been one of Natalie’s acquisitions. Years before, Mooney had been a financial analyst and investment counselor on Wall Street who had greatly helped in the managing of her father’s financial affairs. As he was now just over sixty, Natalie had persuaded him to come out to the Coast for the easy work of the production company and the much-better Southern California weather.
Other members of the group were LuAnn Wright, the casting director, who sat near the end of the table near Mooney. On the right hand side of the table was Tommy Thompson, a large bulky woman with extremely short red hair that she always wore in a severe buzz cut. She had more tattoos and piercings than Gil would have believed possible and her deep contralto voice, stocky build, and shapeless work clothes made Gil sometimes wonder which sex, if any, she actually was. But he knew enough not to ask. She occupied the position of set designer and supervised any construction, set decoration, and properties that would be needed on any given production. Sitting beside Richard was a dreamy looking little man, still very young, their newest acquisition, having only been with them for the last few productions. He reminded one vaguely of Wally Cox in his youth, and his distracted air made Gil think that he was constantly listening to music that no one else could hear. Fittingly enough, he was the sound designer who went by the name of Carl Podolski. On the other side of the table was Margo Magee, their formidable publicist. She was always dressed impeccably in a rather mannish suit with sleek black hair drawn back tightly across her scalp and tied off in a sort of bun at the back. She was in charge of all publicity and marketing decisions and quite often found herself resorting to a rather restrained sort of hyperbole which might or might not have much to do with the film people would see in their neighborhood theaters. But somehow she always seemed to be able to wring a profit out of even the most mediocre films put out there by FineHall Productions. Rounding out the group and sitting by Margo was their very stylish and well-preserved, middle-aged costume mistress, Sheila Robinson. She was in charge of everything from necessary costume design to finding costume procurers, cleaners, and launderers. She was also nominally in charge of hair and makeup, though she delegated that almost completely.
“So,” said Gil once everyone had quieted down and were giving him at least their nominal attention. “What do you think, guys? Have we got a winner here or what?” His attempt at optimistic heartiness was met by stony stares all around. Nancy looked at him accusingly and jabbed a manicured forefinger into his shoulder. “You didn’t read it yet, did you, Gil?”
Gil began to squirm and prevaricate. “Uh, well, you know, I’ve had sort of a busy week. Yeah, that’s it, a busy week. And I really didn’t have time to do more than glance at it.”
Richard shook his head knowingly. “Okay, Gil,” he said, “what’s the title?”
“The title?” Gil asked, as if Richard was asking him how close it was to the nearest star.
“Yeah,” Richard said, “you know, what we’re going to call the film? What Natalie is calling the film?”
There was a chorus now from most of the assemblage, “Yeah, come clean” and “You didn’t read it, did you?”
Gil threw up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, ya got me. But really, after what happened with Wasp Season, let’s just say I’ve got issues.”
Richard stood and in his best pontificating voice said, “The accused will now be silent while the jury deliberates his fate.”
On this cue everyone except Gil rose, went down to the foot of the table near Money, and put their heads together, emitting whispered ejaculations along with much finger-pointing at Gil. After a few minutes the group broke up and resumed their seats at the table.
Richard turned and looked at Gil solemnly. “Do you have anything to say before I pass sentence?”
Gil was not as taken aback by this as one might expect. One of the reasons that he was able to keep all of these talented people under what amounted to perpetual contract was that he always took care to run a very loose ship. If that meant being embarrassed once in a while just to show that he was one of them, he would play along with it. He knew damn well that everyone here, when the time came, could and would turn whatever script they were presented with into the best possible film that could be made anywhere for any amount of money. “All right, Dick,” he said with an air of resignation, “lay it on me.”
“It is the decision of this court,” intoned Richard, “that you, Gil Hall, the accused, have been found guilty of not bothering to read your own wife’s latest script. Your sentence is to rise from the chair in which you sit, crouch down, and walk around the conference table, flapping your arms and squawking like the chicken that you are.”
“Really?” Gil squeaked. “You want me to do that?”
There was a loud and unanimous chorus of eager affirmatives in the assembled group.
“Okay, might as well get it over with.” He stood up, crouched down, and did as he was told. Enduring the jeers, catcalls, and frequent pats on the head as he passed around the table, it was only a minute or two but what seemed to Gil an awful lot longer, before he was able to straighten up and resume his seat once more. “Okay,” he said, trying to reassemble some shreds of his lost dignity, “let’s get down to business. Let’s start with you, Nan. Give us if you will a synopsis of Natalie’s latest gem.”
Nancy did not even bother to open her script as she began. “As most of us already know,” here she gave Gil a reproving look that made him turn his head in shame, “the working title of this film,” she continued, “is Raising Ezekiel. It is about a white working-class couple in the suburb of an unnamed large Midwestern city—think Chicago or maybe Detroit—who find out that they, for biological reasons which are never gone into, cannot have children in the normal way. The wife, full of an inexplicable maternal instinct, talks her husband into trying to adopt a child. The early part of the film shows their increasingly desperate search from one adoption agency to another, with the result that they are uniformly turned down due to lack of income, credit, et cetera.
“They finally decide that the only way is to try to adopt privately, so they advertise in all the papers, you know, the usual channels. Finally they get a reply from a poor black family, the wife of whom has just given birth to their sixth child, and are at a loss as to how to make ends meet. The upshot is they agree for an undisclosed sum of money to give their infant, who at this stage is only a few months old, over to the white couple. Fast forward about six months, when it appears that the child is not developing correctly. After much anxiety, confusion, and many expensive medical tests, it is determined that the child has not only an unspecified developmental condition which will render him able to advance only to the mental age of about five or six, not only this, but they later find out that there is an accompanying physical problem that may well kill the child before he turns twenty-one. I won’t bore you with the details, but most of the rest of the film divides itself between showing the undying affection of the parents, particularly the mother, for their doomed child, and alternately scurrying from office to office, medical, legal, social services, any help they can get, to be able to help or possibly cure the baby’s condition as well as keep them afloat financially. The mother has to quit working in order to care for the child full time because, at least as it is presented in the script, the cost of the specialized day care that the child needs would be more than the mother could make on an average secretarial salary, which is all she is qualified for. The film ends with a touching deathbed scene in which their now-eighteen-year-old son, still with the mind of a five year-old, asks heartrending questions such as, ‘Mommy, am I going up to heaven to be with the angels?’ to which the mother invariably responds with tears in her eyes, ‘Yes you are, yes you are.’ And then,” concludes Nancy, miming wiping away a tear, “the movie mercifully concludes with a swell of hearts and flowers music and the inevitable ten-minute credit crawl.” She looked up and glanced around the table. “Well gang,” she said brightly, “waddaya think?”
Gil was not the only one to look slightly stunned. He gave Nancy a look as if the preceding were somehow her fault. Catching the meaning of his look, she held up her hands in mock surrender and said, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, okay?”
Gil’s shoulders sagged. To no one in particular he remarked, “Why don’t we just film this thing as quickly as possible and sell it to Lifetime where it belongs? But,” he continued with a sigh of resignation, “let’s be professional about this. As is usual in these initial pre-production meetings, let’s go around the table and each of you give me your thoughts on things like, what you’re going to need, how much time it’s going to take, all that jazz. I understand that Natalie would like to get this into production within about a month. As usual, she’s going to cast the principals herself and as yet I don’t know who she’s going to be able to get. I hope,” he added fervently, “that she can get a couple of top box-office draws. That is the only way I can see this thing making any money.”
LuAnn, the casting director, was the first to speak. When Gil formally recognized her signal she said, “From what I understand and from what Nancy just said, this was supposed to take place over an eighteen-year period. I’m going to have to go over it, scene by scene, to see what kind of black kids we’re going to have to get a hold of. That may take me a good couple of weeks right there. But on the bright side, I don’t see the casting of any of the other parts being difficult at all, aside from the young black couple who only appear at the beginning anyway in what amounts to a cameo. Everybody else will be just your stock central casting—professionals, doctors, nurses, lawyers, social welfare bureaucrats, et cetera.”
“That’s a good point, Lu,” Gil replied. “Just make sure that you get lots of ethnics for these professionals—you know, Asian doctors, Filipino nurses, African-American lawyers, Hispanic social workers—you know, the PC lot. Our target audience, which is mostly white middle-class liberals anyway, eats that stuff up.”
LuAnn obediently made some notes on the pad that was in front of each member of the group, thoughtfully provided as always by the office manager.
“Who’s next?” said Gil.
Tommy then spoke up. In her usual brusque manner and contralto voice she said, “It don’t look like we’re gonna need any set construction on this, so I suggest that me and my guys spend the next couple of weeks finding the living rooms, bedrooms, and offices Nat wants in the script. We should be able to rent these places pretty cheap. Like I said, we’ll make inquiries. I’m also gonna go over the script and make a list of the set dressing needed if we have to add or replace something that’s not already there. You know, tables, chairs, couches, filing cabinets, whatever.”
“Sounds good,” said Gil. Then he asked, “What about you, Carl?” Carl always had to be prompted to speak. Often Gil couldn’t tell whether the young man was distracted or merely too shy to open his mouth without invitation.
“Well, Mr. Hall,” Carl began in his quiet Midwestern voice that was tinged with just a hint of a Southern accent, “looks to me like this is gonna be another one of those movies that needs punchin’ up with a soundtrack. I’ll see what I can do about that and get with Jimmy the editor on post-production. I’ll also try to get together somethin’ for the beginnin’ and th’ endin’. I’m thinkin’ a little more Henry Mancini and not so much John Williams.”
“Good, good, you do that,” said Gil, who really didn’t know what he was talking about half the time, but he trusted the young man’s instincts and anyway, with something like this, how much could it hurt? “How about you, Sheila?” he asked the costume director. “Do you foresee any difficulties?”
Sheila replied, “No, not directly, not from my point of view anyway. I mean, it’s all going to be nondescript modern urban dress anyway, right?”
“Right,” Gil agreed.
“I was thinking though,” she continued, “that you might get a little contrast and maybe a little more drama out of it. I mean, it takes place over an eighteen-year period, right? Why don’t we take the two main actors, the white couple, see if we can age them slightly from scene to scene? I’ll get with Maggie, she’s my hair and makeup go-to gal, and we’ll figure out something if you give me the go ahead.”
“That sounds good,” agreed Gil. “Do you suppose it’s going to take much extra time? You know, to make up the actors?”
Sheila gave a chuckle. “We’re not talking Klingons here, Mr. Hall. I’d say thirty minutes to an hour for even the final scenes ought to do it. But like I say, I’ll get the word from Maggie and let you know.” She turned her gaze to Nancy. “I’ll let you know, hon, if there’s going to be an early call for the actors.” Nancy dutifully made a note of it.
“Okay,” said Gil, “and now comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Margo honey, how’re we gonna sell this dog?”
Margo the publicity director was always businesslike and never at a loss. She was the only one who hadn’t even cracked a smile at the preceding merrymaking. “Well, Mr. Hall,” she said in a richly-controlled voice that sounded as if she belonged in front of the camera herself, “I think the theme we’re talking about here is unconditional love versus the hardships that that love sometimes creates. There’s a lot we can do with this. We can hit on the unfairness of the adoption system in America as well as the inadequate health care system. In fact, while Nancy was giving us that admirably complete and concise synopsis, I was just thinking of the recent attempts—apparently failed however—by Hillary Clinton to reform the health care system and hopefully to revolutionize it as well. That can be brought up and I’m even thinking about trying to get some kind of statement, even endorsement, from the Administration to that effect.”
“Whoa.” Gil considered this. Finally he pumped his right fist in the air. “You go, girl!” Then, turning his head to the right, he said, “Well Dick, whaddaya think?”
Richard Ellsworth, cinematographer and lighting director, shrugged his shoulders noncommittally. “Sounds like your usual Natalie script to me, tight, white, and interior. I swear to God, that woman missed her calling. She should be writing stage plays.”
At that all eyes turned toward the end of the table. George Mooney, the CFO and budget guy, heretofore had not said a word but now he mused, “Well Dick, there’s a lot of good reasons why Natalie doesn’t write stage plays. Look at it this way.”
Everyone settled back in their chairs. They knew that Money was off in one of his frequent flights of financial projection.
“Let’s say that Natalie did write a Broadway-worthy play. Let’s say it was so good that a producer booked it into a 1,000-seat Broadway theater where it was so popular that at eight shows a week they filled at least half the seats with full price admissions for every performance. Now,” he said, as if speaking to a beginning algebra class, “how many paid admissions would that be in six months?”
The group knew better than to try to calculate it.
“I dunno,” said LuAnn. “How many, Money?”
“Just over two hundred thousand people,” he said. “Not bad for a Broadway play. But now let’s say she turned it into a movie script and it was produced and opening weekend it only grossed oh, let’s say, two million. By Hollywood standards that’s not a good opening at all, right Gil?”
Gil responded with a shrug. “I guess not,” he replied. “Even Wasp Season grossed two point five.”
This answer seemed to satisfy Money. “Right,” he said, “let’s say two point five. Now at an average of ten dollars a ticket and,” he said, “I know that’s a high figure, but hear me out. Even at the outrageous price of ten dollars a ticket, in order to gross two million, that means two hundred thousand people on opening weekend. And even that’s a low figure, considering most ticket prices aren’t nearly that high. Not to mention discount tickets, children, seniors, whatever. So, in three days Natalie has a bigger audience than she would be able to get in six months of a smash-hit Broadway play. For all you Harvard graduates out there, quod est demonstrandum.” His eyes regained his focus now and he looked around the table a bit sheepishly. “Sorry folks,” he said, “I kind of get carried away sometimes.”
LuAnn, who was sitting beside him, patted the top of his nearly bald head. “Yes you do, Money, yes you do, but that’s why we love you.”
Money blushed a bit and mumbled, “I should’ve stayed on Wall Street. At least there I got some respect.”
This evinced a Sendakian chorus of “Don’t go! Don’t go! We love you so!”
After a few moments Gil was able to restore order. “Dick, you were saying?”
“Well, you know, interiors are pretty much interiors. We’ll talk about it later. I did have one idea though. I seem to remember that in the script there’s a certain amount of driving from place to place, office to office, orphanage to orphanage, whatever. Apparently this couple owns a car and I was thinking, all Natalie’s script really calls for is the interior shots of the car. But maybe we would open it up a little and show some actual driving scenes, you know, place to place, buildings, landmarks, that sort of thing. I was thinking maybe,” he shot a quick look at Money, “we could do some crane shots.”
“Yeah,” agreed Gil, “that’s a great idea, Dick.” He looked at Money in mock supplication. “Can we do some crane shots Money, can we, can we, huh?”
Money, who had regained his composure as well as his normal skin coloring, immediately replied, “Well, I don’t see why not. In fact we used it to great advantage when we were doing Running Against the Wind. Sure,” he told Dick, “go for it. This is going to be a low-budget production anyway. I’m going to meet with Natalie next week sometime when we get all the departmental expense reports in and make a budget projection for her. I don’t think there will be a problem.”
Nancy, who had been listening to all this, said, “Hey, that gives me a great idea.”
Turning to his left Gil said, “What’s that, Nan?”
“Well, I was thinking that you’re gonna have crane shots and follow this car anyway, why not get them involved in an accident. An accident or a near-miss, nothing that would hurt them or change the course of the film as Natalie’s written it, but it would serve two purposes: one, it would lend some needed action and drama to the film and two, it would also help the audience to sympathize with the couple. We’ll show clearly that the accident or near-miss is the other guy’s fault. You know, some drunk or something. I don’t see how Natalie could turn it down.”
“You know,” said Gil thoughtfully, “I think that’s a great idea. I’m gonna work with all these suggestions over the weekend and see what Natalie thinks about it when I get finished. Then I’ll let you guys know. So,” he concluded, “I guess we’re about finished here. We’ll meet again next week, let’s say about Wednesday. As far as I’m concerned this meeting is adjourned. As usual, you guys can break off into little groups, talk amongst yourselves, whatever, feel free to use the office, et cetera, et cetera, you know the drill. But I say, it’s noon now, and high time for lunch.”
“Good idea,” said Dick. He patted the considerable expanse of his waistline and said, “The beast must be fed.” To Gil he said, “Why don’t you and me go over to the Cat. I’ll buy you lunch.”
Gil said, “Nah, that’s okay. All you gotta do when we get there and sit down and say the magic words Raising Ezekiel. Then it’ll be a business lunch and I can put it on the corporate MasterCard.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Dick. And then they all stood up to go their separate ways.