Sometimes I exaggerate.
Wade (my writing parter) and I had found ourselves in a familiar position: writing for a reality pilot that had little chance of making it to the air. The initial concept was fun—a squad of brainy actors would use an elaborate Punk’d-style hidden camera prank to help a real-life former Nerd get revenge on the Bully who picked on him in high school.
But thanks to Chuck Mercer, our domineering producer, things had gone horribly awry. Zach, the kid we had selected to be our real-life “Geek,” had actually been a popular jock in high school. And Ben, the unsuspecting “Bully,” had actually been an overweight nerd who got picked on because he knew all the words to The Phantom of the Opera. Now Ben lived in Los Angeles, worked the concession stand at a movie theater, and was hoping to make it someday as a screenwriter.
We tried to raise these concerns, but it was too late. Shooting would begin the next day. Instead of giving Ben his chance at revenge, we were going to depict him as a bully and then help his nemesis humiliate him once again… on television.
Two weeks of pre-production on this train wreck of show had already taken its toll, and Wade and I were eager to move on to another project. Sure, we had worked long hours, our creative contributions had been largely ignored, and our script had been entirely rewritten by the executive producer Chuck Mercer. But that’s the job. We were reality show writers. If we wanted a job with more respect, we’d be tour guides at Universal Studios.
Chuck treated everyone at his production company like utter dirt, so there was nothing special about our little place in hell. In fact, one night we noticed that in one of the stalls in the men’s room, someone had scrawled: “Surprise! You’re on the new Chuck Mercer reality show: Will You Marry My Butt?” Incredibly, the night before filming was to begin on our evil pilot, Wade noticed the last word had been crossed out, and it was changed to “Will You Marry My Crack?” See? Everyone gets rewritten in this place.
Meanwhile, I had been unexpectedly called into Chuck’s office to “touch base.” While the other offices were outfitted with lifeless industrial carpet and temporary furniture, Chuck’s office was decked out with hardwood floors and slick leather sofas. He sat behind an enormous desk, and for some unknown reason, dozens of dollar bills were pinned haphazardly to the wall behind him. They fluttered whenever Chuck made one of his grand, sweeping gestures.
“The script looks good,” he barked at me, leaning way back in his chair. Even though the pilot would culminate in a hidden camera prank, the first 20 pages were scripted. “You guys did a great job, but now I want to discuss what your role will be tomorrow on the set.”
When I returned to our desks, I relayed Chuck’s message to Wade.
“One of us is getting fired.”
Wade sighed. “Thank God.”
I elaborated: Chuck had decided they would only need one writer on the set “in case something goes wrong.” This arrangement was troubling because pre-production had consisted entirely of Chuck using the power of his personality to shout down his skeptical employees. When one of us would point out something like we didn’t have enough hidden microphones, Chuck’s loud response was usually akin to: “I don’t know how you’re gonna do it. Just make it happen.” How are we supposed to steal and destroy somebody’s actual car? “I don’t know. Just make it happen.” This hidden camera bit is going to take five hours to film, and our mark is going realize it’s a prank well before that. “Just make it happen!”
How many times can you say that before it just doesn’t happen?
Unfortunately for me, I lost the coin toss (fair and square), so Wade would get to file for unemployment while I’d be the one standing next to Chuck on the set when it finally didn’t happen.
FIRST DAY OF SHOOTING
The first day of shooting got off to a slow start. This was probably because no one received a script. Not the actors, not the director, nor any of the crew. The only person with a script in hand was me, and I had brought my copy from home. Confused, I turned to Mike the Production Supervisor and asked, “Where the hell are the scripts?”
“Good question,” Mike replied with only a mildly concerned look. “Last I heard we sent them off to the copy center.”
Instead of trying to track them down, Chuck had decided to stand just off-camera and coach Zach and the other hidden-camera actors on what exactly he wanted them to say. He’d give them the “gist” of each scene and then call action. Then we’d all watch the improvised comedy flow from the actors’ mouths like it was an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It went just as smoothly as you’d expect.
Halfway through the shooting day, a production assistant finally found the scripts— stacked and forgotten under a craft services table. They were packed tightly in a Kinko’s box, bound and pristine, but someone had simply forgotten to distribute them.
With this discovery, the scripts were circulated and production halted for a few minutes to allow the actors to digest the 30-some pages. Chuck soon had the cameras rolling again, but the first take using the actual script was slow and awkward. The actors tried valiantly to recite lines they’d first encountered only moments before, and the scene fell flat. Chuck stood at a monitor in video village shaking his head, dissatisfied. Then he marched up to the set and grabbed a script out of the hands of one of the actors and tossed it aside.
“Look, forget the script!”
Soon, all the scripts were discarded in a pile, and production was back on track. I rubbed my forehead and stifled a cough. I had been feeling sick all day.
Late that night, Wade called to check in. “How’s it going over there?”
“Still on the set,” I rasped weakly. “I’m losing my voice.”
“Oh, man … ” Wade sympathized. “You sound terrible.”
“He threw out our script. Like, literally. Threw it. Now we’re just ‘making it happen.’”
Wade tried to buck up my spirits by telling me about a job offer we’d received for next week. We’d have the great honor of writing voiceover for a clip show that the producers referred to as “a dumbed-down version of America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
“I gotta go,” I croaked. “They’re throwing out the actors now.”
And I wasn’t kidding. I stuffed my cell into my pocked and looked on in horror as Chuck forced an actor to climb into a garbage dumpster for an unplanned shot. Not a prop dumpster, mind you, a real garbage dumpster. The bin was full of actual rancid garbage, and Chuck thought this was absolutely hilarious. He guffawed loudly as the cameras rolled, “Brilliant, just brilliant!”
After the shot, the actor skulked passed me, muttering angrily as he wiped filthy refuse off his costume. I tried to apologize, but when I opened my mouth, no sound came out.
SHOOTING: DAY TWO
With the “scripted” portion of the pilot in the can, we moved on to the elaborate hidden camera prank. With multiple locations, dozens of crew, and actors planted throughout the city, everything had to go perfectly for this prank to work. Needless to say, we didn’t have high hopes.
To coordinate our complicated sting operation, all of the actors would be wearing ear buds (tiny devices to allow producers to secretly speak to them in the moment). Naturally, one of our lead actors was deaf in one ear. If he wore the ear bud in his bad ear, he couldn’t hear the producers. If he wore it in the good ear, he couldn’t hear anything anyone in the scene with him was saying. You can’t make this stuff up.
But it didn’t matter to me one way or the other. By this point, I’d lost my voice entirely. Whenever I tried to speak, I could only make a sickly, hollow wheeze. If someone was going to be feeding the actors lines, it wasn’t going to be the writer. It’s hard to say, even now, if this sudden illness was psychosomatic or self-preservation.
Incredibly, somehow Chuck did make it all happen. Sure, there were hiccups along the way, but the production team held everything together, and Ben, the non-bully bully, didn’t see his humiliation coming. By the end of the day-long prank, Ben had been completely tricked into believing he’d lost his job at the movie theater, and he was forced to watch his prized car be crushed by huge hydraulic arms and left a warped, metal cube in a desolate junkyard.
In the final reveal, Zach, the non-nerd nerd, leaped out of hiding as four different cameras flooded the scene, all pointed at a very confused Ben. To drive the point home, Zach shouted the only line from our script that made the final pilot:
“This is for what you did to me back in high school!”
Poor Ben, with all the past humiliations of his childhood flooding back into his face, could only stare back at his high school bully in abject horror. After a moment of breathless silence, Ben stammered, almost in tears:
“Why do you keep doing this to me?”
It was a moment of genuine pain and helplessness that revealed the true mean-spiritedness of our ill-fated show.
Chuck was instantly on the scene in damage-control mode, his arm wrapped around
a shell-shocked Ben as he ushered him away from the cameras. We couldn’t use that response, it was too heartbreaking. There was no satisfaction, no comeuppance. It was tragedy. Somehow Chuck would have to convince this poor guy to sign a release form allowing his latest humiliation to be shown on television.
But if I learned anything working for Chuck Mercer, he always got what he wanted.
Moments later, the crew watched in amazement as Ben signed the invaluable release form. Then Chuck walked him back to the scene, announcing that we would be re-shooting that big reveal again to get a more “bully-like” reaction from Ben. And, even more incredible, Ben was happy to play along.
Standing stunned in the background, I watched as Mike the Production Supervisor turned to Chuck and asked, “How in the hell did you get that kid to sign the release?”
“I promised to read his screenplay,” Chuck laughed wildly. “He’s a wannabe writer; he’ll do anything.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
The Bully - Part Two - Originally published in Script Magazine’s July/August Issue