Sometimes I exaggerate.
YOUR LEOPARD IS STUCK IN CUSTOMS
THE UNLAWYER: PART TWO
For the past few months, I’d been masquerading as an entertainment lawyer at a high-profile firm in Century City and, frankly, I was really starting to enjoy the perks. I was billing clients by the quarter-hour while kicking my feet up on the glass-topped desk in my contemporary office and musing that life couldn’t get any better. Turns out, I was right.
CAT’S OUT OF THE BAG
The red light blinking on my phone was nothing unusual. On any given day, I’d arrive at the firm to find about a dozen messages waiting for me on the voice- mail. Part of the job. However, this message was different.
“Mr. Ginsburg, it seems your leopard is stuck in customs.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Every struggling writer has to find ways to pay the bills. When I took the menial job reorganizing billions of cluttered files in the bowels of a prestigious (unnamed) law firm, I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the oddest employment experiences in my Hollywood career.
After months of painful paper cuts, I managed to impress Chase Collins, the head honcho of the firm. One afternoon he called me into his office. I’d asked for a raise, but Chase offered me something much, much better: filling in for a lawyer who was taking maternity leave.
The guidelines were simple: Never say outright that I was a lawyer. Imply it until my heart was content. Also, should I ever have any legal conundrums along the way, don’t hesitate to knock on Chase’s door.
I took the promotion and quickly settled into my new identity as Aaron Ginsburg, Esq.
At first, my tasks as The Unlawyer in the office were simple. Seeing as how the closest I’d come to passing the bar was driving past Trader Vic’s on the way to the office, Chase allowed me to study contracts he had drafted before having me distribute them to the appropriate parties for signatures. Simple stuff, but this allowed me to become familiar with the distinctly litigious language entertainment lawyers used. Under Chase’s guidance, I soaked up these documents—memorizing the wording, the lingo, the rules of the industry.
After a few weeks, Chase asked me to draft a contract on my own as a test: a boilerplate agreement for one of his smaller clients.
“Piece of cake,” as he saw it.
Time to see how much I’d soaked up in my faux law school studies. I was terrified. How on earth was I going to pull this one off?
I sat down and stared at the blank Microsoft Word document on my screen. Then I realized that this was just another type of writing. If I ever hoped to create a character who was a lawyer, I’d need to be able to fake this kind of language to some extent.
So, imagining I was churning out an elaborate treatise for a David E. Kelley spec script, I launched into my very first legal agreement. It took me several hours, but when I printed out the early draft, I was struck by how much my document actually looked like a real contract. I felt like a little kid who’d been haplessly smearing fingers across construction paper for hours only to discover he’d managed to draw a realistic-looking horse.
Chase was impressed. Sure, he marked up my agreement like a high school teacher, circling my novice errors in his distinct green marker, but all in all, I’d done it. Once I’d completed a second pass, Chase asked me to get it signed by the client. My first contract was heading out into the real world and it would be binding!
I barely had time to celebrate, however. Chase wanted to talk to me. He sat me down in his office, never once taking off his top-of- the-line wireless headset.
“Ever heard of production legal?”
It makes sense when you think about it.
When you’re making a movie, every single person needs a contract. Everyone knows the director has a contract. And, of course, the lead actors do, too. But there are dozens and dozens others who need contracts as well. The director of photography. The composer. The production designer. The costume designer. The editor. The producers. The caterer. Even the extras… the list goes on and on.
That’s a hell of a lot of (tedious) paperwork, and hundreds of man-hours. And that translates to big money for any law firm the production company hires to draft all of those contracts. Chase’s firm had just been hired to do the production legal for a five-to-ten million-dollar independent action movie, and he wanted me to put my newfound drafting skills to use. Suddenly I was in the major leagues, and my days were packed writing one contract after another.
The film was going to be shot deep in the jungles of South America, and this location quickly raised red flags with the unions. Would the lead actors be getting proper dressing rooms? Try explaining to a rabid, high-powered agent that there wouldn’t be a “traditional Airstream trailer” on set for his client because the set was, you know, located three solid days of trekking through a dense Peruvian rainforest. His client would be lucky not to contract malaria.
More and more issues like that one began to stymie my unlawyering abilities. While it was no problem getting the editor’s contract signed, the contracts for the lead actors were proving to be nearly impossible. Everyone’s agents had conflicting demands, and I was quickly getting in over my head. Making things worse, every contract needed to be signed and countersigned before the first day of shooting and, frankly, my time was running out.
At one point, the director wanted contracts for the indigenous “natives” who still lived in the rainforest—a complicated request considering their ancient culture had no written language. How we would communicate the very concept of a “contract” to these indigenous Peruvians became an intense legal quandary well beyond my skills. I couldn’t imagine my once-fun job as a fake lawyer getting any more difficult.
Then I got word that I’d need to draft a contract for a trained panther.
IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
How does one negotiate for a 150-pound carnivore? Is there a trained-panther union, and if so, I sure as hell don’t want to cross it. Having no clue what I was doing, I decided to stall—working, instead, on other simpler contracts. However, the producers were anxious and called to see how the panther’s agreement was coming along. Cornered, I explained that I’d have it done that day. I just needed a few more hours. A perfectly acceptable lie until I discovered that in all my dallying, the panther booked another job. Apparently, that cat worked nonstop.
So, naturally, I panicked. How would I break this bad news to the producers? They’d need to find another panther for the pivotal scene in their film, and they’d need to find it soon. Yellow Pages open, I started contacting all of the performing-animal companies in Hollywood. How hard could this be? The answer: pretty damn hard. There were only a few reliable panthers around, and all of them were working. The best we could get was a trained leopard that supposedly could convincingly play the role of the panther. The leopard’s handler assured me his cat was versatile.
The next few days were a blur. I started researching trained-animal agreements and did my best to emulate everything I could find. Time was running short. At nights, I couldn’t sleep. My jaw was perpetually clenched, and in my stress, I actually filed down one of my front teeth. Trust me, it was noticeable.
At last, the contract was complete. Both the producers and the agency repping the feral thespian were happy with the deal points, and the document was signed. The leopard was not required to initial the final page with a large, clawed footprint, and—I won’t lie—that part was kinda disappointing.
All that was left to do was fill out the very self-explanatory international customs paperwork for our spotted mammal. The weight of the contract now off my shoulders, I breezed through these forms, checking boxes and filling in blanks with ease.
As Chase would say, “Piece of cake.”
The legal marathon was complete, and I’d aced it. The feline was in a climate controlled crate in the cargo hold of a 747 heading to South America, and I was on my way to a bar to celebrate.
“YOUR LEOPARD IS STUCK IN CUSTOMS.”
I still don’t know exactly where I’d screwed up on the simple forms, but as I spent the next 20 hours trying to correct my mistake without shutting down the entire film, I couldn’t help but imagine the poor, oblivious customs employee, just trying to do his job.
“The forms for this crate are all wrong. Pop it open … wait—was that a … growl?”
© Aaron Ginsburg
Your Leopard Is Stuck In Customs: The Unlawyer - Part Two. Originally published in Script Magazine’s May/June Issue