Sometimes I exaggerate.
NO BONES ABOUT IT
The smell is absolutely disgusting. A thick, putrid stench of decay and death chokes the air. Struggling not to gag, I involuntarily cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, my eyes watering.
I’m standing in the fictionalized version of the Forensic Sciences Department of the Jeffersonian Institute, a sprawling, high-tech laboratory soundstage that’s home to Fox’s hit crime series Bones. In front of me, creator Hart Hanson has removed what’s left of a decomposed human skeleton from a large, stainless steel vat.
As my body fights back another round of dry heaves, I turn to my equally nauseated photographer and stammer, “I thought this was supposed to be fake…”
TEN MINUTES EARLIER
“Are you bored yet?” Hart Hanson asks me, with a self-effacing charm. The creator and showrunner of one of Fox’s top-rated shows embodies a warm, jovial spirit and a youthful energy that’s downright infectious. Of course, at this point we hadn’t yet found the rotting body. He’s in the process of taking me and my friend (and substitute photographer) John on a private tour of the massive set while I ask him about his show’s humble beginnings.
“Back in 2005—oh my God, that’s so long ago—I went to meet with producer Barry Josephson. He had gotten the rights to a documentary on Kathy Reichs, who had written the books about Temperance Brennan.”
Reichs, a real-life forensic anthropologist and best-selling novelist, has now written 13 novels that tell the tales of her beloved heroine Temperance Brennan (played onscreen by Emily Deschanel). However, when Hanson began creating his series, he believed he only had the rights to Kathy Reichs’ real life. “So, I created the world of Bones from that documentary. There’s nothing from the original books in the show. In the books, Temperance Brennan is a 50-year-old, divorced, former alcoholic who has a grown daughter. She works in Montreal and North Carolina, in two forensic labs. But I didn’t take any of that world … ”
In fact, Hanson didn’t even use the name Temperance Brennan initially “because I didn’t know we had the rights to the books or the character!” It was Kathy Reichs, of all people, who suggested the show use her character’s name. Hanson remembers Reichs asked him, “‘Would you mind making her Temperance Brennan?” And I thought that’d be great because Kathy has, you know, a mass market published following—a big following.”
As it so happens, Josephson had obtained the rights to one of Reichs’ books, but this was a detail that Hanson never knew. “It’s something I just found out last week! I didn’t know we had the rights to one of the books. I thought we only had the rights to the documentary.” Then he muses, “If I’d known everything I should have known, I don’t know if we’d still be on the air … Watch your step.” And with that, Hanson produces a very realistic-looking FBI identification card and swipes it through a sensor. Just like on the show, the machine chirps and we’re granted access to Temperance Brennan’s primary research area.
Both John, my photographer, and I look at each other — excited to be on the Bones set where Dr. “Bones” Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (Deschanel and David Boreanaz) catch bad guys week after week. Hanson, meanwhile, looks like a federal agent himself, twirling his FBI badge while describing what happened when he was tasked to write the pilot. Before he ever set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), he told 20th Century Fox, “Look, I’m not going to do a CSI. I’m not going to do a procedural. I’d die of boredom before I got halfway through the year.” Hanson chuckles at the memory, “And Fox said, ‘No, no, no, do it your way, with character and humor and all that stuff,’ and I knew they were lying … that they would never make it because they wanted a CSI. So I wrote the pilot and, much to my surprise, Fox bought it and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we like this!’”
And so did America. The series premiere was watched by 10 million viewers, and after only three episodes, Fox ordered a full season. Now, over 100 episodes later, Bones is in its sixth season and still going strong.
“So, in all your episodes, do you have a favorite murder weapon?” I ask.
Hanson stops mid-tour, and grins, “That’s a great question! You know what: I think we’ve used up every goddamn thing we can think of that you can kill a person with.”
“So, if you were to murder someone today, you’re saying you wouldn’t have a personal preference of murder weapon?”
Hanson eyes me, “Do you mean, have I learned how to get away with murder?” For a moment, neither of us says a word. Finally, I smile back, “I did have that on my list of questions, yeah.”
Hanson looks around, making sure the coast is clear, and then he leans against a large stainless steel vat. His voice is low, conspiratorial, as he reveals, “Here’s how I would kill someone if I had to get away with it: I would whack them on the head with something you could buy at Target or Walmart—something that they sell gazillions of units of—like a kids’ aluminum baseball bat. Then, I would wrap the person up in a sheet so that blood didn’t get anywhere. I would take him out to the Mojave and dump him in the middle of the desert, without burying him, with no clothing, and just leave him there. And if no one found that body for three days, then I’d be free and clear. I’m in grave danger for those three days, but after three days, trust me, there’s nothing left of that body.”
I nervously glance over at John, my photographer. We both watch as Hanson’s eyes glimmer with excitement. He continues, “Coyotes and wildlife have just taken care of the body. Everything is scattered over, like, 25 miles. They’d never catch me. That would be my method of killing someone.”
He takes a breath, then adds, “Not that I’ve thought about it.”
And that’s when we discover the body.
As Hanson moves to continue our little tour, he accidentally brushes against the steel vat, knocking a transparent odor shield onto the floor—and instantly, the room is clogged with the overwhelming smell of decay. As we peer at the putrefied remains, I struggle not to wretch. Good thing my photographer had a stronger stomach and was able to catch the moment on film. The vat is a tool that forensic anthropologists commonly use to macerate remains, literally boiling the flesh off the bones in a nasty cocktail of powdered Alconox, sodium carbonate, and water. But, Hanson assures us that this industrial macerator is just set decoration. It’s not real. Or, at least, it’s not supposed to be.
The three of us all exchange a look. One thing’s clear: “These bones aren’t props.”
In all of my assignments over the years, discovering a rotting corpse mid-question was definitely a first. I quickly decide I’m going to try and keep my interview with Hart Hanson on track. I only get a few hours with him, he’s a busy man, and the whole day was nearly ruined earlier when the magazine’s original photographer flaked and didn’t show up. I was able to call in a favor from my good friend John, and now my interview was happening… with or without the potential murder investigation.
That said, it’s hard not to be a little freaked out. “Shouldn’t we call the cops?”
But, Hanson gives me a cool wink: “How about after the interview? The cops are used to me doing a little scientific inquiry on my own.” And with that, Hanson moves to a lab station and begins carefully extracting microscopic particles from one of the femurs. He places his findings into some medical-looking centrifuge, and I can’t help but ask, “I thought you said these were all just set decorations?” Hanson shrugs, “I find it really informs the writers on the show to know everything about how these things work. Believe it or not, given how goofy we are, we don’t make shit up… ”
He presses a button and the centrifuge begins to spin. While a nearby supercomputer begins assembling partial strands of the victim’s DNA, Hanson reflects on the murders in his TV series. “Keeping the cases from being repetitive is getting really hard. Who knew we were going to go this long? I hate to admit this, especially to another writer, but the network guy on our show once said, ‘The best episodes start when you come across a body and you go, ‘How the fuck did this get here? What the fuck happened to this guy? How the fuck are we going to solve this question?’ And I remembered that. Now we call that moment ‘The Find.’ So, by about episode five of the first season, we would start with the discovery of a body by civilians. That was a production decision, by the way, because it gave David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel a half a day to breathe. Or they would come walking up and there would be human remains in some gross, yet engrossing, position.”
The centrifuge beeps and Hanson begins typing into the supercomputer, “We always had that beginning, at around five to seven minutes into the show you were going to be looking at something horrible and, we hoped, interesting. We’ve done that every time.”
“Do you feel that, as a writer, you’ve gotten better at solving murders?” I ask, my eyes drift to the half-assembled skeleton.
“That’s a great question. No one has asked me that in six years.” Hanson peels off his plastic gloves and tosses them in a medical waste basket. “Because here’s the thing: I certainly was never perceived as a procedural writer. I’m a character and humorous, light-drama guy. I originally hired a bunch of people with a lot of procedural experience and they’re all gone now.”
“Dead?” I ask, nervously.
Hanson chuckles, “No … it just didn’t work out. You always need people who are very good at plot, but I think most writers should be able to tell a story. Certainly, I know the science now. I know forensics and I know our actors, so things go more smoothly. I would say we struggled very hard in the first season to figure out how to tell these murder stories. We made classic mistakes, like we almost had people in the drawing room at the end of the episode saying, ‘and then you killed him with a candlestick because he was sleeping with your sister!’ We’ve gotten better at parsing stuff out. So, I guess I am better at telling murder stories now than I was when I started on Bones 116 episodes ago. I could have answered that question with a simple ‘yes.’ See what you’re in for?”
Before I can respond, Hanson clicks a few more keys on the computer and the ID of our victim is suddenly displayed on a large monitor in front of us: DYLAN SERRANO, 36, PART-TIME PARALEGAL. Hanson looks at me, “Know him?” I shake my head; I don’t. So the question becomes: How did this 36-year-old part-time paralegal end up boiled to death in a huge vat on the set of a hit Fox television series?
“Somewhere in season three, I said to my writing staff, ‘Okay, I don’t want to hear the words ‘blunt force trauma’ again. We will not solve another murder by finding an impression of the weapon in the bone that tells us ‘this is a Colt 45.’” It’s clearly one of Hanson’s storytelling pet peeves, but even as he says it, he holds up Dylan Serrano’s skull—pointing to a dent in the bone. “Of course, when it works, it works.” I look closer and see a nearly indiscernible cranial rupture to the parietal bone. “An impression of the weapon?” I ask. Hanson nods. Maybe Serrano wasn’t boiled to death…
With incredible skill, Hanson slides the skull under Brennan’s high-power Scanning Electron Microscope and magnifies the damaged area by 300 times. What becomes clear is the faintest trace of something silver, something metallic, in the bone indentation. I look around the lab, but everything looks silver. “Maybe Serrano fell and hit his head on the lip of your maceration vat?” I offer. Hanson nods, it’s plausible. “Or maybe he was pushed. Only one way to find out.”
We begin analyzing the metallic substance together. John snaps photos of us working while Hanson shares more of his process.
“In the first season, what I had to do to start writing—and I started this in the pilot— was draw a little dead stick figure. And in and around the stick figure, I’d draw all the evidence. All of it. Because that’s what our show is, especially bone evidence. So you’d have to have two or three things on the bone, knowing that in Act Five or in Act Six the final bone thing would click into place and you could catch the bad guy. But also there’d be: What did he have in his pockets? What does his clothing say? What bugs were around him? And so I’d draw pictures.”
I ask Hanson if he uses any other shorthand terms, like his stick-figure drawings,
on the show and he nods. “As I mentioned, there’s ‘The Find.’ Then we have what we call ‘Brennan’s Big Moment,’ which is the final clue that leads to the murderer. There’s also ‘Booth’s Big Moment’—what does his gut tell him as a humanist interrogator and investigator that turns out to be true? And then we have ‘The Download.’”
“Right. That’s when we find out how and why the murder happened from the murderer or with the murderer in the room. And we try to minimize this. My motto is: ‘Minimize The Download.’ And we have what I always call the ‘Glug, Glug, Whoopee Moment.’”
At this, John lowers his camera and, for the first time since we found the rotting dead guy in the metal vat, we can’t help but laugh. Hanson joins in the laughter, explaining, “That’s from the pilot. In the pilot, there was a line when Brennan is depressed and her friend Angela comes to her and says, ‘Want to get a drink? Non-topical application. Glug, glug whoopee.’ Then they talk about whatever is bothering Brennan. Now the ‘Glug, Glug Whoopee Moment’ has gone from being just Brennan and Angela discussing something personal to Brennan and anyone. Usually Booth now, or Booth and anyone. After all these years, you can just say ‘Glug, Glug, Whoopee’ and [we all] know what you’re talking about.”
Suddenly, Hanson bolts up, pointing to the computer screen in front of him where a series of numbers are now displayed: Al3Sc. “The silver found imbedded in the skull of Dylan Serrano is Scandium-Aluminum Alloy.” Hanson reads from the monitor, explaining that Scandium-Aluminum Alloy is used in the manufacture of Smith & Wesson pistols. Hanson shares his theory: “He could have been hit in the head with a handgun.”
As Hanson moves to re-examine the skull bone, my eyes drift back to the computer and something else catches my eye … Scandium-Aluminum Alloy is also used to manufacture kids’ aluminum baseball bats … you know, the kind they sell gazillions of units of at Target and Walmart.
“YOU! You did it!” I blurt out. “You killed him!”
Hart Hanson turns to see me nervously holding Dylan Serrano’s femur like a weapon. “You admitted that a baseball bat was your ideal murder weapon, right?” But Hanson only shakes his head, “You know what the other deal we made with our audience was? On Bones, it would never be a surprise killer. It would always be someone you met in the first half of the script. The show is a murder mystery, it’s a whodunnit. And we weren’t going to catch somebody we’d never seen.”
That sounded like a confession to me. I turn to my photographer, John, and ask him to take a photo of this moment—a snapshot of the two of us busting the Bones creator red- handed for cold-blooded murder. John leaps at the chance, frantically struggling to set up his tripod. With an unexpected crash, it topples over … the tripod’s leg brace curiously damaged. And that’s when Hanson demonstrates his own Big Moment.
“Think about it in terms of the show,” Hanson explains to me calmly. “There are only a few motives for murder: love, jealousy, revenge and greed. None of those could explain why I would murder a part-time paralegal.” Hanson does have a point. He slowly moves back to the computer console, adding, “It’s a bad motive when someone is just nuts. There’s no fun to it. They have to have a character reason for wanting the dead person dead. Right?”
I’m not sure where Hanson’s going with this line of reasoning, but I won’t lie, I’m intrigued. He continues, “On the show, we are trying to never repeat our finds, how we discover the body, and to not repeat the basic storyline of the murders. You know, ‘the brother of an abused wife kills the abusive husband,’ for example. We’re trying very hard not to repeat any pattern and it’s getting more difficult. But this … ” He gestures to our own skeletal discovery. “This is a new one.”
He types quickly into the computer, leading me through his logic. “Now, our interview started late today because you were missing your photographer, right? A photographer who only makes his living snapping pictures part-time for Script magazine.” Onscreen, Hanson pulls up the magazine’s employment records and, sure enough, listed under “Freelance Photographer” is the name Dylan Serrano.
My mouth drops, stunned. “Appears he paid the bills working part-time in a law office.” Hanson smiles, sadly, “And your photographer wasn’t on time today. But he wasn’t late … he was early. And your wannabe-photographer friend here, John, was waiting for him. He cracked poor Dylan across the head with his three-sectional camera tripod—a brand of tripod that’s coated with the same Scandium- Aluminum Alloy used on baseball bats. Then he shoved Dylan’s body into the macerator and hoped we wouldn’t notice his broken tripod.”
My eyes go wide and I stare at John. At my friend. At the murderer. After a beat, John sinks to his knees, defeated, “I just needed the work … needed a job … and I really do love the show.” Hanson looks at me: “See? Greed.” I can’t help but nod, stunned by the whole confession.
Talk about minimizing The Download.
Special thanks to photographer JOHN ALES, a professional actor and photographer who performed the shoot for this interview. He is a recurring guest on Burn Notice, and he’s currently serving two life sentences for the murder of Dylan Serrano.
Additional special thanks to ALEC GILLIS of Amalgamated Dynamics who created the realistic corpse especially for this interview.
© Aaron Ginsburg
NO BONES ABOUT IT - Originally published in Script Magazine’s May/June Issue 
We’re looking for a box. When I contacted Matt Nix, the creator and executive producer of Burn Notice, hoping to get insight into the secret to his massively successful hit USA Network series, Nix was game.
However, Nix didn’t want to just talk about the adventures of burned super- spy Michael Westen, he had a better idea. And that’s how I ended up sitting beside Nix in a nondescript sedan, scoping out the fenced perimeter of an intimidating industrial fortress tucked deep within the Angeles National Forest. As Nix focused a pair of binoculars at the razor-wire fence, I could almost picture a flashy chyron popping up below me, announcing my part in this unusual story: “Client: JOURNALIST.” This would be an interview I would remember for a very long time …
Assuming I could survive it.
Bursting onto the scene in the summer of 2007, Burn Notice instantly leapt to the top of the charts, becoming one of the top-ranked scripted series on basic cable. A snarky, clever take on the spy genre, the series follows Michael Westen (played by Jeffrey Donovan), a government operative who mysteriously finds he’s been fired, spy-style. Thanks to this “burn notice,” Westen suddenly finds himself stuck in Miami with “no cash, no credit, no job history,” desperately trying to discover the forces behind his sudden termination.
In order to keep his spy-senses sharp, and his bank account alive, Westen freelances as a private investigator. Through reconnecting with his family and friends—mother Madeline (Sharon Gless), ex-love Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and best bud/babysitter Sam (Bruce Campbell)—he pieces together clues from his past life and grapples with the challenges of his new identity.
Nix got his start writing features, but it was an unlikely friendship with Michael Wilson, a man who used to work in private intelligence, that led to the creation of Burn Notice. “It’s funny. The first voiceover I did [for Burn Notice] said that spies do a lot of waiting around.” Nix says this while handing me the binoculars, gesturing to the east side of the fence. I look as he sips coffee from a thermos. “If you work in private intelligence, you spend a lot of time in foreign hotel rooms, and you generally don’t go out and make friends in this foreign country because you deal in sensitive information, and anybody you meet … ” Nix chuckles. “There’s just a lot of reasons to stay in your hotel room.” Something catches Nix’s eye, and he jots something down in a notebook on his lap. I refocus the binoculars, but all I can see is razor-sharp barbed wire.
Nix goes on, “So what do they do? They read. Or they watch short films on the Internet, apparently.” That’s right. Wilson stumbled upon a sci-fi short film that Nix did on the Internet and enjoyed it so much he contacted Nix. Out of this communication, a friendship developed, and at some point Nix asked what Wilson did for a living. “He said he was a consultant for a company that did private intelligence work, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should do a series based on some sort of intelligence person who does private intelligence work.’”
USA snapped up the idea, but Burn Notice didn’t begin as the vibrant, beach-soaked, color-saturated action-comedy that now pulls in big numbers each week. “I’d set the show in Newark, and it was really dark and really gritty,” Nix reveals. When USA read the pilot, their response was, “We really like this. But it’s too dark. Maybe if you set it in a lighter place, like Miami?” Nix wasn’t on board. “I came out and said, ‘No, no. It has to be in New Jersey. Its roots are in Newark. It really ought to be in Newark.’ And [USA] said, ‘All right, all right.’ Then I did all their notes and I gave it back to them, and they were like, ‘Wow, we really like it now! Except what if it were in, like, Miami or something?’ And I said, ‘No, no. It really needs to be in Newark. I really think that’s important.’ I did other notes, and they really liked those notes, but they said, ‘This is fantastic! It’s. Set. In. Miami.’ And I said, ‘Right you are, sir!’”
Although Nix wasn’t a fan of transplanting his show from the mean streets of Jersey to the sandy beaches of Florida, he soon came to love the idea. “What I realized was that I was really writing a fish-in-water story. Michael Westen was a dark fellow with a murky past, and I’d put him in a murky, dark place. Then, when I started working on drafts where he was in Miami, the humorous elements just popped. The contrasts were better. You know, here’s this guy who doesn’t fit in with his surroundings. It was actually a really good lesson for me, and I called USA and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to set it in Miami, but … is it okay if he never wears a bathing suit? Like, can I make him a not-Miami guy in Miami?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’”
And with this, Nix pops open the sedan door, grabs a duffel bag from the backseat, and says, “Come on. It’s time.”
BREAKING (& ENTERING) STORIES
Nix walks confidently, even calmly, up toward the 10-foot-high chain-link barrier that surrounds the windowless building. My nerves are getting to me. I’d assumed this whole, “I’ll show you how we make Burn Notice” was just a stunt, a joke, but when Nix pulls out a large pair of garden shears and starts snapping through the chain-link, I realize this is for real.
“To be honest, I still find myself pretty curious about how other people run their writers rooms because I never worked a day in television before being basically put in charge of Burn Notice.” Less than a minute later, the tension of the fence strains, allowing Nix to curl back an opening large enough for us to slip through. We’re inside the compound.
From this side of the fence, our sedan seems very far away, discreetly parked in the bushes down the dirt road, and I wonder aloud if breaking episode stories for Burn Notice is as easy as breaking into this unidentified compound. Unfazed, Nix talks me through it. “Usually, someone has an idea for an episode and they’ll talk to me about it.” Nix and the other writer then figure out what direction works best for the series, and once the concept has been fleshed out, the writer brings it into the room. “We really talk about how the baby has to have enough feathers on it so that it can fly when it’s pushed out of the nest. Otherwise, it just falls to the ground and dies. So, once the ideas have enough feathers, they come into the room and then we all will talk through the episode together, pitching ideas for what should happen at any one point.”
Following Nix’s lead, I position my back against a gray brick wall in the blind spot of a swiveling security camera. As Nix begins ruffling through the black duffel bag, he chats breezily, “The thing we talk about all the time is the fact that Westen needs to solve problems in a spy way. We’re using spy technique to solve problems. And spy technique has to be demanded by situations. If we present Westen with a situation that’s really best dealt with by a cop, then Westen’s answer to the problem should be, ‘You really need to call the police.’ And sometimes we’ll have him say that. If it’s something best dealt with by somebody who can crack heads, then he really ought to crack heads, and that’s not what the show is. So, we really have to engineer problems each episode so that it demands the use of spy craft.”
Nix punctuates this last point by taking an old cell phone and skillfully attaching it to several sticks of dynamite with duct tape. To the untrained eye, this contraption looks a lot like a bomb. To the trained eye, it actually is a bomb. Nix just smiles and refers to the device in his hands as “a contingency plan.”
Then he positions the contraption on the wall, adding, “It’s funny. It’s sort of a breezy show. The characters banter a lot. But because we’re not all Michael Westens, people don’t think about all the math that goes into working out one of these plots. It takes a lot of work.”
Nix and I are now inside the unmarked building, navigating a series of narrow, winding hallways, and I can almost hear Michael Westen underscoring our felony act with an ironic, dry-as-a-bone voiceover. These voiceovers have become one of Burn Notice’s iconic bits, and it turns out they were actually inspired by Wilson. Throughout their friendship, Wilson would constantly give Nix advice that he couldn’t imagine using in practical, everyday living. “He’d say something like, ‘When you’re loading a clip for an automatic weapon, you really don’t want to use all the same ammunition. You should always throw a tracer round in at the bottom so you can hear when you’re running low on ammo.’ And I’d go, ‘Ohhhkay, I’ll remember that when I’m loading the automatic weapon.’ That’s the sort of thing I find fascinating.”
Wilson acts as a consulting producer for the series, and Nix and his writers will go to him for authentic spy insight. For instance, in the eighth episode of the second season, Nix had Westen going through a target’s trash. He wanted to indicate that the target was deliberately destroying documents in some way other than shredding. “That’s too commonplace. What’s something that would indicate to me that the target is someone trained in getting rid of documents? That feels not too high-tech? Not zapping it with a laser, but not too obvious. It’s a very delicate thing. What would be unusual enough to indicate expertise, but not so unusual that it just gives away the store? Anybody could look at the trash and say, ‘It’s a laser, obviously.’”
In this case, it was laundry blueing. It’s easily accessible, inexpensive, and people use it when bleaching clothes. When Wilson suggested this, Nix knew he had his solution: “If you want to ruin documents, laundry blueing is a great way to do it. And to the untrained eye, no one would think anybody would put laundry blueing in their trash.”
We turn a corner and Nix approaches a locked steel door with a logo that reveals we’ve just broken into the office of a major defense contractor. More household tools are removed from the duffel bag, and in no time Nix has picked the lock and we’re standing inside a large room stacked with file boxes. He begins searching through them. Nix may be full of surprises, but I have one of my own.
“I have spies in your organization,” I announce, “And I’d like you to tell me about ‘The Sidle Sheet.’”
Nix shoots me a look and laughs, “Ah, yes, the ‘Sidle.’” He spills, “What do spies do? They’re generally getting information in one form or another they ought not to have. They’re stealing that information, or they’re seducing someone to get that information. When we were first working on the show, we would say, ‘Okay, so Westen’s going to sidle up to this guy pretending to be X, or he’ll sidle up to this guy pretending to be Y.’
Then, over time, sidle stopped being a verb and became a noun. And the ‘Sidle’ of the episode became the role Westen plays in the episode. “So, usually we have some sense of what the information is that we want, right? Then we’ll think, ‘Well, who is the person who the bad guy would feel most comfortable giving that information to? Or, under what circumstance would the bad guy feel like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world to give away your bank-account numbers?!’ So usually we reverse-engineer the Sidle from the situation. But we realized it’s a real challenge for costume people and props people who are dealing with accessories, watches and guns. We have our main character playing sometimes multiple characters in an episode. Well, he needs a costume for all of those— different jewelry, different watch, a different everything. We realized we needed to start describing who Westen was in an episode, or who Fiona was in an episode, or Sam. We had to start describing [their Sidles] as if they were separate characters. That’s the origin of the ‘Sidle Sheet.’”
With Nix letting me in on his writer secrets, I’m confident I’ve sidled up to the right showrunner. At last, Nix finds the box we are searching for, and he pulls it from the stack and sets it by my feet. Then, suddenly, a piercing alarm sounds and Matt Nix pulls a snubnose revolver from his jacket and presses the cold barrel against my forehead.
THE FOURTH-ACT RAT FUCK
A dozen uniformed guards stream into the room, weapons drawn. Nix keeps his gun trained on me and joins them. “Here he is. Caught him breaking in.” I look down and see the file box Nix had set by my feet. I raise my hands in surrender. Things don’t look good.
As Nix cooly hands some CIA credentials to the head operative, he says to me, “I was the first person to start using the term ‘rat fuck’ on the show. It was actually a term coined by Richard Nixon’s campaign team. They would all brag about rat fucking rival candidates, and there was a particular flavor to that.”
Nix uses the term to describe the perfect climax for an episode of Burn Notice. He explains, “In the fourth act, it’s not satisfying if we solve the client’s problem by letting a murderer go. If someone says to Westen, ‘Someone killed my wife and stole my house,’ we can’t, at the end of the episode, have him say, ‘You got your house back!’ Because now that bad guy is going away to do it again.”
It’s a good point, but Westen and his team aren’t cops. They can’t just arrest bad guys, so there has to be a way to screw villains over without the law getting involved. Nix points out that comeuppance is even more complicated than it seems because, “It’s not as satisfying if we solve the client’s problem but the bad guy never realizes he’s been bested. So, how do you deal with getting rid of the bad guy but also make sure the bad guy knows what happened to him? And how do you solve the client’s problem at the same time? Those two scenes can’t be too far apart from each other or you’ll end up with two climaxes. There’s the, ‘Congratulations, Client, you’re all fine.’ Then there’s the, ‘Bad Guy, you’ve been bested!’ You can’t really separate those, so we spend a lot of time thinking about how do we bring all of these moments that are going to create that sense of satisfaction and resolution together?”
The primary operative storms back into the room shaking Nix’s CIA credentials. Apparently they were only props. But Nix confidently assures the guard, “This is a mistake. I’ll make a call.”
As he fishes into his jacket for his phone, Nix turns to me to finish explaining the fourth-act rat fuck, “So, the shorthand for it typically would be one scene in which the client’s problem is solved, the bad guy realizes he’s been bested, Westen’s trail is somehow cleared (so we don’t have the cops showing up for him or bad guys chasing him forever), and the bad guy’s put out of commission.”
Nix has found his phone and nods at me as he dials a number and hits “send.” The explosion that follows is gigantic, an epic ball of flame that rocks the entire building off its foundation, sending the bewildered operatives diving for cover. Nix grabs the file box by my feet and starts to run, ducking through a huge hole that’s now appeared in the brick wall. I follow.
We race back to the sedan, leaving behind us chaos and more explosions. A thick column of black smoke can be seen rising from the remnants of the building. Nix throws the file box in the backseat, guns the engine, and we skid away. “When you want to pretend to hold someone hostage, you get the best performance by not telling your hostage that you’re pretending,” he explains. Once we’re clear of the building, I look to the backseat: “So … what’s in the box?”
Matt Nix adjusts the rearview mirror and smiles, “Season three.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
SPY GAMES - Originally published in Script Magazine’s January/February Issue 
Many people warn against burning bridges in Hollywood. My buddy Craig, however, practically lives like an arsonist, a smoldering match perpetually clenched in his hand. For years, I teased him for his incendiary credo, only to learn (the hard way) that there are indeed times when torching a professional connection isn’t just fulfilling. It’s required.
Craig’s theory goes like this: If you work in Hollywood, you’re going to get screwed at some point or another. It’s part of Hollywood’s charm, really. Point of fact: I’m reminded of the time Wade (my writing partner) and I “collaborated” with Kevin Scott (see my previous essay entitled “Additional Writing” for the full story). Needless to say, what began with great promise ended in heartbreaking disaster as Kevin unilaterally crowned himself the sole “Writer-Slash-Creator” on the project that Wade and I had, in fact, written, erasing our entire contribution (and names) with a few simple key strokes and demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the word “collaboration.”
After something like this happens, Craig believes it’s best to end your business relationship with the Screwer so definitively, so decisively, so methodically that there’s absolutely no going back. Scorched-earth style. Why?
According to Craig, years will pass and you will forget just how badly you were screwed by this person. The pain will fade. Life will move on. Then, inevitably, you’ll run into the culprit at some schmancy party in the Hollywood Hills, and before you know it, the two of you are toasting cucumber mojitos to your brand new collaboration—leaving you vulnerable to be re-screwed. As Craig sees it, by permanently burning your connection with the guilty party immediately following the first offense, you are simply protecting the “Future You” from naively crossing the same untrustworthy bridge that the “Present You” had previously crossed.
While amusing, I didn’t really subscribe to Craig’s philosophies—which, I suppose, explains why Wade and I decided to work with Kevin Scott for a second time.
For years, Wade and I had worked for a certain network, making hundreds of hours of reality television for them. One fateful afternoon, Susan (an upper-level development exec) brought us into her office. She explained that the network was finally thinking about dipping their toes into the cool, refreshing waters of scripted television. Half-hour comedy. Single-camera style. Edgy, funny, weird. She immediately thought of us.
“So … you guys have any scripted concepts just lying around?”
As a matter of fact, we did. One idea in particular popped into our collective mind. However, before we could pitch it to Susan, we would need to pay a little visit to our former “collaborator-slash-backstabber.”
Since the stormy days of Kevin Scott’s shameless betrayal, Wade and I had avoided the man like the swine flu. We’d tried to put his treachery behind us, and vowed to never work with Kevin again. That said, whenever the topic of our initial project with Kevin came up in conversation, our eyes lit up. We couldn’t help it. We both knew the concept was begging to be adapted from a short film into a full series with wider scope, expanded characters, and a more complex mythology. It would be edgy, funny, weird. And we knew exactly how to do it.
But since Kevin had helped create the original material in question, he had partial ownership of the intellectual property. We couldn’t do anything without him. So, setting aside past infractions, I phoned Kevin to gage his interest in re-booting the project. Keeping my cards (and contacts) close to the vest, I merely explained that we wanted to develop our material into a TV concept and pitch it around to some of our TV relationships.
Kevin, who was, by that point, directing full- time for well-known TV shows, couldn’t care less. Pitch it. Bury it. Light it on fire. He didn’t care. He was already regularly booked with bigger and better things, and didn’t have time to think about our puny little series idea.
With Kevin’s “blessing,” we polished up our pitch and sat down with Susan.
The next day, we sold the show.
A DREAM COME TRUE
Here’s how it doesn’t work in Hollywood: Two young writers, whose previous television experience consists almost entirely of soul-sucking reality dating shows, get an opportunity to write and produce their very own scripted, single-camera television show.
It just doesn’t happen like that.
However, shortly after our pitch, Susan called to inform us that the network was interested in buying our show. We’d make a pilot episode and based on how it turned out we’d get to, you know, make more of ’em. Wade and I were dumbfounded. We’d set up our first series? Somehow? We were so used to career disappointments that we never really believed our pitch would actually sell. We’d just been going through the motions while subconsciously preparing ourselves for inevitable rejection.
But rejection was nowhere to be found. Susan was offering us the chance to be showrunners, head writers, and executive producers of our own show. It was an amazing opportunity, one we had been dreaming about for years. It felt too good to be true.
Then we remembered: We still had to deal with Kevin. And just like that, the ingrained expectation of everything falling apart crept cruelly back into our minds.
The euphoria was nice while it lasted.
To our surprise, when we sat down to share the news with Kevin, the meeting went incredibly well. He was excited to hear we’d breathed new life into the original material, and he absolutely wanted to be involved. He would direct the pilot and as many future episodes as he could fit into his busy schedule, and he understood that Wade and I would be getting sole writing credit on the series.
Within the week, our lawyers and manager began the tedious process of negotiating the deal points for the series. In addition, Kevin’s manager had joined the process. The network’s first offer came in: $80,000 for an 11-minute pilot. Our concept was to make each half-hour of television comprised of two short episodes (like live-action Bugs Bunny cartoons), each 11 minutes long. And $80,000 seemed more than doable. Just thinking about a number like 80 grand made my mind swirl. Eighty. Grand. All those beautiful zeroes … However, while Wade and I were thrilled by the offer, Kevin and his manager balked. This was an insult and, to my dismay, Kevin was ready to walk away from the deal. From our deal.
That night, I called Kevin and explained that we shouldn’t be surprised by the network’s “offensive” first offer. That’s how it works. In fact, we should counter with an equally “offensive” offer, and somehow all sides would meet in the middle. Pretty sure it’s called “negotiation.” What we shouldn’t do is let this potentially exciting opportunity evaporate into thin air.
Kevin wasn’t sure but agreed to sit down with his manager to come up with a proposed budget and counter offer. Bullet effectively dodged. Then Kevin and his manager essentially disappeared.
THE COUNTER OFFER
For weeks, Wade and I tried to get Kevin to return our calls and e-mails. For weeks, our lawyer tried to get Kevin’s manager to submit the budget and counter offer. For weeks, Susan at the network kept calling to see what was happening with our deal. And for weeks, we sat and watched our dream of having a television show slowly fade into the foggy Southern Californian ether.
When Kevin finally resurfaced, his managers proposed: $150,000 for the 11-minute pilot. They also included a detailed budget explaining exactly why the pilot should cost so much money. As we reviewed Kevin’s proposed budget, we noted extra line items for his “directing fees,” and yet nowhere could we find money allocated to our writing fees.
In fact, our full names weren’t even listed on the document.
Wade scoffed, “If Kevin is having a hard time finding my last name, maybe he should GET IT OFF THE SCRIPT!”
Predictably, Susan wasn’t thrilled with the counter offer. The budget had doubled because of Kevin’s affiliation with the Directors Guild. If Kevin were to direct the pilot, the DGA had several demands. If we met those demands, the budget wouldn’t come close to Susan’s offer. But not all hope was lost. We still had one viable option: convince Kevin to NOT direct the pilot. It happens all the time. Instead, Kevin would be an executive producer and pocket a co-creator fee every episode. Easy money!
We spent hours crafting an e-mail appealing to Kevin’s humanity. Did he really want to stand in the way of this deal happening? Did he really want to sink a deal that could, ultimately, raise all of our profiles? Did he really want to screw us over yet again?
Days passed before we finally got Kevin’s curt (also e-mailed) reply:
“Regarding the deal. I am not interested in working with their offer. Their proposed budget will not foster a good product.”
And so it goes. The deal was dead.
I’ve since come around to my buddy Craig’s theory of bridge burning. There are some people who will not only screw you once… they’ll screw you as many times as you let them. So to protect the “Future Me” from Kevin Scott, let’s think of this little anecdote as my smoldering match.
Burn, baby, burn.
© Aaron Ginsburg
Burning Bridges - Originally published in Script Magazine’s July/August Issue 
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
In this business, making a good first impression is crucial. When taking high-profile meetings with influential executives, it’s important to look comfortable, act confident, and definitely don’t wet your pants.
My writing partner Wade and I had a big meeting at DreamWorks and we were determined to make this one really count. It’s not every day you get chances like that. I pulled up to Gate Two of the Universal City lot—a massive, sprawling studio that is so large it has its own area code, fire department, and police force. At the gate, the portly guard took my ID and typed my name into his Minority Report-style computer.
“You know where you’re going?” the guard asked.
Not wanting to look like some wide-eyed idiot on his first trip to a studio lot, I tried to appear nonchalant as I confidently said, “Oh, yeah, definitely… of course, it’s been a while… where exactly is The DreamWorks again?”
The guard looked at me skeptically. “Take a left and you’ll see a parking area—”
Now, I had parked in that lot once before: It’s for the wannabes, those on the bottom of the totem pole. It’s a parking lot placed as far away from the important people as physically possible. But hey, it’s better than nothing.
Nodding, I interrupted, “Okay, got it, thanks.”
But the guard wasn’t finished: “Hold on, buddy. You go past that parking lot, turn right on James Stewart Ave., take that down through the sound stages about a mile until you see Amblin Drive. Take a left and go another quarter-mile. You can’t miss their gates.”
I was shocked. Apparently, for this meeting I’d be driving right up to the freaking front door.
WELCOME TO… JURASSIC PARK!
As I drove through the studio lot, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was trespassing. That, at any moment, I’d be stopped by the Universal City Police and escorted to the sketchy Universal City Jail where a Universal City Judge would sentence me to hard time in the Universal City Prison, and I’d find myself sharing a cell with other young writers, busted by the corrupt system.
Eventually, I came upon Amblin Drive. The trees began to get larger, and the foliage thicker. Soon, it didn’t feel like I was in California, let alone on a studio lot. The area became instantly rustic, a tropical jungle transplanted to the city. Down a short hill, I saw the gates and, I kid you not … they looked identical to those from Jurassic Park. Wooden and huge, this massive compound (yeah, these weren’t offices, this was a compound) was surrounded by adobe brown stone walls. A guard (was he in costume?) stood watch.
I parked nearby and walked toward the guard. He had my name on his clipboard already and, as he welcomed me, the huge gates swung open automatically behind him as if on cue. He directed me toward the enormous wooden door of the main bungalow. Huge, prehistoric trees grew at odd angles on all sides. Where was I?
Inside, I stepped into a lodge—and into a strange new reality. Forget any concept of typical offices, this was Jurassic Park and at any minute Richard Attenborough was going to hobble out of the shadows and talk to me about harnessing dinosaur DNA.
The walls were all wood, the sofas matching leather. A receptionist sat behind a rustic desk and offered me food and drinks from a large buffet: bananas, bread, chips, four-cheese omelet with home fries? I decided to try some of their own bottled water (infused with real lemon juice). It was delicious and refreshing. The best water I had ever tasted. Then, I saw Wade sitting and going over his notes. I sat down next to him, and we went over our pitch.
After a few moments, we were directed out of the reception hut and through the tropical garden (where a life-size velociraptor stood amongst the trees, eyeing me hungrily). Inside the main building, we walked to a large meeting room that was actually a mountain cabin—complete with fireplace, large plush leather chairs and sofas, an enormous wooden table, and a few original Norman Rockwell paintings, just for effect.
Before we got started, we were offered something to drink from the huge, fully stocked refrigerator. At first, I was going to say no thanks, but then I noticed another bottle of that fantastic lemon-infused super water. I couldn’t help myself and enjoyed another nice refreshing swig. It was just incredible water. Lemony fresh!
We sat with the heads of one of DreamWorks’ pods (a smaller production company that won an Oscar the year before). We’d come to pitch a television concept, and the meeting ended up being nearly an hour and a half. Not only did we pique their interest, we even pitched several other projects as well.
Things were going flawlessly. Our pitch had been received with much laughter, our banter had impressed, and we seemed to be making a great first impression. They seemed to genuinely like us and our ideas. Now, all we had to do was thank them for their time and get the hell out of there.
As the meeting started to wrap up, the vice president of development started explaining how their shingle worked with “Steven’s” main company, and all of a sudden, I realized I had to urinate so badly, I could hardly sit still. All that free lemony fresh water had run right through my system and now I was in actual physical anguish.
At first, I assumed I could make it and didn’t want to interrupt this high-power executive during her own company spiel. However, the pain quickly became so intense, I started sweating profusely. My brow became damp with lemon-infused sweat and my eyes rolled back in my head. I kept crossing and uncrossing my legs, determined to find a way to cut off the circulation to my bladder.
I was going to pee my pants. IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. I could see it now: a classy punctuation mark to my first big meeting, deep in the heart of Universal. That act of civil disobedience would definitely garner me a few years in solitary confinement at the Universal City mental institution… unless… Would they notice, I wondered, if I simply gave into the pain right here in their snazzy offices? Let it all out? I wondered if I had the bladder control to leak out just a little, a dribble to ease the internal pressure…
And the whole time, sitting comfortably across the room on the $9,000 leather couch, the VP kept blabbering on and on, as if to torture me deliberately.
“Steven this and Steven that … and Oscar this and Oscar that… ” And I was thinking, “ENOUGH ABOUT SPIELBERG, FOR GOD’S SAKE! WHERE’S THE DAMN CAN!?”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I could sense that the VP’s speech wasn’t even close to wrapping up, and we had long passed my ability to feign interest. The mind-numbing pain had become my master now. I sprung to my feet, much too suddenly to appear casual, and interrupted the VP’s speech. It was as awkward as you could imagine, punctuated by my tortured, trembling voice as I excused myself with pathetic, incomplete sentences: “Bathroom? Must… go!”
With a tight smile, the VP gave me directions, adding the foreboding warning, “Don’t go in the first door on the left, Oprah’s in there screening a movie.” Fine, fine, whatever, must… piss… now…
And I practically ran out of the room, praying that, for the sake of my career and for the poor saps who worked in these offices, I’d make it to my destination in time.
The hallways in the Jurassic compound were complex and winding and I was having no luck. The fear of angering Oprah loomed over me, and my eyes scanned every door trying to find the room I needed. When I found myself back in the courtyard, I realized I’d made a wrong turn. DAMN IT. Maybe I could just pee right there behind the oversized ficus tree? The velociraptor snarled back at me.
Dashing back indoors, I tried to correct my mistake. My entire face was dripping in sweat from the intense pressure on my bladder. I could hardly stand up straight, running through the corridors hunched over like a Neanderthal.
Just then, I eyed the bathroom! I sped up, full on running now toward my destination. Walls adored with Oscar-winning movies flashed past me in a lemon-infused blur, and inches before I reached the bathroom door… I collided with actress Jamie King. She was innocently leaving the women’s room and I slammed her against the boards like she were a defensemen protecting an errant puck. Instead of apologizing, like a human being might do, I callously pushed her aside and dove into the men’s room. This was surely not the close encounter Ms. King was expecting from her visit to DreamWorks. To this day, I’m still thankful it hadn’t been Oprah…
The men’s room door crashed open violently, and I practically leapt toward the nearest urinal. The bathroom was huge and rustic and heaven on earth. I didn’t inspect the entire room in great detail, but on passing glance, I’m relatively positive the toilets were constructed out of solid gold.
I stood at the urinal relieving myself for seven solid minutes. When I returned to the mountain cabin room, the VP was just wrapping up.
“Find it okay?” she inquired.
“No problem,” I said. At last, relieved. We chatted a few more minutes before slipping back out into the garden where the life-size head of Jaws jutted his way out of a red-brick wishing well.
“Would you like to take any water with you?” the VP asked, politely.
As I headed home, exhausted from all of the clenching, I guzzled from an ice-cold bottle of the lemon-infused water and smiled.
Yep, the best water I’d ever tasted.
© Aaron Ginsburg
Making An Impression. Originally published in Script Magazine’s September/October Issue 
TALK TO MY UNLAWYER
THE UNLAWYER: PART THREE
After months of struggling, I had finally caught a break. A television producer wanted to hire me to write for his new reality series. To ensure I got the best deal, I would need a top-notch entertainment lawyer to negotiate my contract. And I happened to know just the guy: me.
MEET THE UNLAWYER
My glass-topped desk was obscured by literally hundreds of manila folders, each grotesquely distended with overflowing paperwork. My phone was ringing off the hook. My head was splitting. How did this become my life? There had been a time when posing as an entertainment lawyer at a high-profile firm in Century City seemed like a good idea…
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’d been working at the firm as a temp, getting paid minimum wage to arrange thousands of inactive files into some sort of methodical system. One afternoon, Chase Collins, the top dog at the firm, pulled me into his office and offered me the mother of all promotions: One of his partners was going on maternity leave and, since they were short-handed, Chase wondered if I’d like to take over her clients.
I’d get her swanky office overlooking the bustling city streets, I’d get a sizable raise and begin billing by the quarter-hour— I’d get to be a lawyer! Well, almost. Chase made his ground rules clear: Insinuate all I wanted, but never explicitly claim to be a lawyer.
Within hours, I’d moved from the dusty file-storage room in the garage level to the 22nd floor, and The Unlawyer was born. The first few weeks were a pretty steep learning curve, but whenever I found myself stymied with a legal question, I’d drop by Chase’s neo-modern corner office for a little mini-law school master class. He’d review the first drafts of my contracts. He’d advise me on the best ways to handle blowhard agents and negotiating tricks to get clients the best deals. And despite the hard work and long days, I’d come home each night smiling: I was masquerading as a lawyer, and all of the hard work was totally worth the story.
A LEGAL ARGUMENT
Chase had a new assignment for me.
My paralegal Michael (a smart young man who actually did have quite a bit of, let’s say, formal education in the legal arts) notified me that Chase wanted a sit-down. I set aside the SAG actor agreement I was drafting, grabbed my yellow pad, and headed to his office. I found Chase futzing with his universal remote, trying in vain to get his new wall-mounted flat screen to display his computer desktop.
“The Unlawyer! Come in, come in.”
I took a seat on Chase’s space-aged white couch next to a hand-blown vase that looked remarkably like a vagina.
“So, how would you like to write me a little legal memorandum?”
I wasn’t sure what a legal memorandum was, but I told him I would love nothing more than to write one of those thingamabobs. Chuckling, Chase explained the firm was representing a production company that had sold a reality-television concept to a cable network. The show would follow certain civil servants on the job, and he wanted me to write a legal memo detailing why our clients needed to produce their new series strictly non-union.
“The branch of the civil service that our client’s show features demanded that all independent producers be contractually obligated to use union labor, but you and I both know that’ll be cost prohibitive. Research the union versus non-union routes for reality production, find any precedents that would be applicable to us, and cite all your sources.”
With this new charge, I headed back to my office to write a legal argument for why reality- television producers shouldn’t pay writers like me decent union wages.
I began diligently researching the thesis that higher costs tied to union regulations might prevent independent producers from being able to remain competitive in the current entertainment marketplace. For the first time since I’d donned The Unlawyer superhero costume, the job had started to lose its novelty. I didn’t want to use my newfound skills for evil. I didn’t want to prove why production companies and networks should shortchange people who make reality television simply because the unions hadn’t figured out how to protect that industry yet.
My first draft of the legal memo read like an articulate tirade by an out-of-work reality-TV writer. Tucked between comparisons of profit margins and citations about how studios sidestep the union’s reach, I’d jammed in opinions based on my own reality-television experiences.
Confident I’d proven that reality programming should absolutely be covered by the unions, I turned in my first legal memorandum to Chase.
He got back to me within the hour. My research appeared somewhat one-sided and Chase politely asked me to check my inner activist at the door and take another stab. Think of our clients: To get their show off the ground, they’d need to produce it non-union. I’d have to convince myself this was just another writing assignment.
A few days later, I managed to come to a different conclusion: “If given no choice but to produce shows under strict union rules, reality programs would not be able to compete financially with other shows of a similar nature in the industry.” I sent my revised memo to Chase. Within the hour, he was at my desk, beaming.
“Brilliant!,” he bellowed, “The Unlawyer: using words for legal effect!”
The memorandum had left me conflicted. I sat at my desk, rereading my manifesto when my cell started ringing. A blocked caller. I answered.
“Glad I got ahold of you, buddy!”
I recognized the voice immediately: It was Nicolas Stewart, the reality-television producer who’d hired Wade and me on the destined-to- fail Celebrity Look-Alike Battle. After that show was canceled, I’d tried to stay in contact with Nicolas, hoping for steady work, but he’d been off the grid.
“I sold a reality show to MTV,” Nicolas said, “and I want you and Wade on board from the start this time. Who’s your agent these days?”
We didn’t have one. No agent, no manager.
“Well, no worries,” Nicolas assured me. “You and I can just work out the details of your contract. Should be pretty straightforward.”
Then it hit me. Like a sack of bricks. I didn’t need some agent or manager to fight my battles. I already had a consummate negotiator in my corner. And what’s more, I trusted him.
“You’re gonna need to talk to my lawyer,” I blurted. And I rattled off the office number, my palms profusely sweating.
“Cool. What’s your lawyer’s name?” Nicolas asked.
“Aaron,” I said before I could even stop myself. I had just broken Chase’s cardinal rule, but it just slipped out. Would Nicolas even buy it?
“Great. I’ll give him a call. Glad to have you aboard.” Click. Nicolas was gone. I barely had time to process what I’d done when the phone on my desk started ringing. It was Michael, my paralegal.
“Hey, I have a Nicolas Stewart for you.”
“Put him through.”
The line beeped and it was showtime. I cleared my throat and spoke, “This is Aaron.”
Nicolas launched into his introduction.
He didn’t recognize my voice this time, even though he’d just been chatting with me only minutes before. He explained who he was and that he wanted to hire my clients, Aaron and Wade, for a reality show he was producing. Let the negotiations begin.
For the next 20 minutes, Nicolas and I brokered the contract. Thanks to my crash course in entertainment law with Chase Collins, I was truly ruthless. The Unlawyer would get his clients the best possible deal— no matter what. When I suggested a sizable salary bump, Nicolas squirmed. The show was going to be a non-union endeavor, he explained.
Oh, The Unlawyer knew all about the union versus non-union issues at hand and, with this knowledge and research at my fingertips, I detailed exactly how Nicolas and his production company could still pay his writers a decent wage without toppling their whole budget.
Ultimately, Nicolas and The Unlawyer compromised, and the final deal was better than any Wade and I had ever been offered up to this point in our writing careers. Nicolas said he’d have the MTV lawyers draft up the contract and get it to me to review.
I hung up, still trembling. I’d done it. I’d used my powers for good. This would be my final contract at the firm, and I intended to save some money by not billing myself for my legal work.
I headed over to Chase’s office to give my notice. The time had come for The Unlawyer to hang up his cape and his legal pad once and for all.
© Aaron Ginsburg
Talk To My Unlawyer: The Unlawyer - Part Three. Originally published in Script Magazine’s March/April Issue 
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 
My fridge contained a lonely bag of stale pita bread and an ancient jar of mustard. My cupboards were depleted of even canned goods. I was unemployed and utterly broke… until I took a job pretending to be an attorney at one of L.A.’s most prestigious law firms.
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
Unlike Michael J. Fox’s classic The Secret of My Success, I didn’t haphazardly sneak into some abandoned corner office only to find myself coincidentally mistaken for a senior partner (hilarity ensues!). As it turns out, the story of my rapid acceleration through the ranks of the legal world is quite straightforward. I started deep in the bowels of a luxurious Century City high-rise organizing storage boxes for an entertainment law firm that had once hip-pocketed me as a client.
I’d mentioned to my lawyers that I was desperately in need of work. I complained about my recent stint as a stripper at a bachelorette party (a new low, and certainly to be the subject of another one of these essays), and begged them to help me get a job. I’d meant a writing job. Maybe I should have been more specific. I’d hoped the pitiful tone of my voice would inspire them to pull the strings necessary to get my writing partner Wade and me staffed on a, you know, television show. I figured, hey, they had connections. Instead, my lawyers recognized my despairing plea as an excellent opportunity to hire a poor schmuck desperate enough to tackle their dreaded “storage-room project.”
As to be expected, I said yes.
The project was daunting. Packed in a dank storage room several floors beneath the Avenue of the Americas, 450 file-storage boxes had been stacked upon each other in teetering Jenga-like towers. For my new job, I spent hours upon hours in the dimly lit, windowless cavern meticulously culling through the paper chaos, trying madly to put the boxes in some sort of order. Being Type A (or “stubborn,” as my mom puts it), I was determined to make sense of a questionable filing system that clearly hadn’t worked. Or die trying.
After several weeks of back-breaking, sweat-inducing, dust inhaling tedium, the room finally started to look organized. The boxes were now stacked in six long rows, six boxes high, all in numerical order. Sure, the room was still cluttered, but it now resembled the storage warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—rows and rows of identical boxes encompassing everything in sight. Cross-referencing would finally be possible. I felt proud of my work. Granted, it wasn’t a writing job, but it was good, honest labor. And even more exciting news was to come: Chase Collins (the top dog at the firm) wanted to see me in his office. He had a proposition.
Chase Collins had been one of Hollywood’s notable entertainment attorneys for decades. His high-end firm repped actors you’ve definitely heard of, L.A. companies you’d absolutely recognize, and film productions you’ve most certainly seen in the multiplexes. He was tall, clean-cut, and his immaculate suits were, from what I could tell, absolutely incapable of wrinkling. He sat me down on his neo-modern super sofa and got down to business.
“Nice work on the storage room.”
“Thanks.” I joked that I had already picked up on some valuable “box moving” skills, the stuff that takes experienced box movers years to master. (“Lift with the legs, not the back!”) But Chase Collins cut me short.
“How about a promotion?” he asked through bright-white teeth.
“Lemme guess: Organize the in-office filing cabinets?”
“Bigger than that … ”
And with a sly smile, he shut the door to his office.
It turned out that one of the senior partners, Carrie, was going on maternity leave. No big deal, except the timing couldn’t be more inconvenient. The firm needed someone to “fill in” and tackle her workload. For a moment, I was certain Chase was teasing me.
“You’re bright, you’re meticulous, you’re organized as hell. I have no doubt you can do this, and do it better than any of our current paralegals.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I stammered.
“The only thing I ask is that you never say outright that you’re a lawyer. Feel free to imply it all you want. Insinuate it. Suggest it. Whatever. Just don’t say it, and we should all be fine.” Chase straightened his already perfectly straight tie. “So … whatdya say?”
I wiped my forehead, feeling a layer of sweat and gritty dust from the 10 hours I’d just spent in the underground storage room, and grinned.
The view was simply incredible.
While Carrie was off tending to her new offspring, I was soaking up the lavish life of a top-notch entertainment attorney… starting with getting comfy in her swanky office. My office. It was nicer than my apartment! It had two floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the stunning metal jungle of downtown Century City. Hundreds of agents and executives and lawyers (real lawyers) bustling about, wheeling and deal- ing in the bright Southern Californian sun. Meanwhile, up in a massive suite, positioned behind a sleek desk with a top-of-the-line computer, I began my transformation into… The Unlawyer.
The Unlawyer started by tackling simple tasks. The easiest projects I could find. Tracking down execution copies of already completed contracts, filing the backlog of faxes and e-mails, compiling detailed lists of legal terms that I realized I should probably look up. During the first week, I started to feel more and more at ease in my newfound career.
By the end of the second week, The Unlawyer had spread his legal wings and started to fly. Feeling confident with the small tasks I’d mastered, I decided to move on to the higher-profile items on Carrie’s desk. Soon, I was drafting contracts, revising 40-page agreements, incorporating gives and requests by smarmy agents, and billing each and every one by the quarter-hour. It suddenly dawned on me that 90% of life is just faking like you know what the hell you’re doing. If you can convince yourself, convincing others is a piece of cake.
Occasionally, I’d be on the phone with an agent, negotiating a client’s deal points, when I’d run into a question so specific I simply couldn’t fake knowing the answer. In those occasions, I’d casually tell the agent, “Sorry, I have another call coming in. Can you hold on for a sec?” Then I’d madly whip open the massive SAG Deals and Agreements binder on my desk and scan it for the issue at hand. Upon discovering the answer, I’d pop back on the call like nothing had ever happened.
“I’m back. And to answer your question, to use the modified low-budget SAG agreement, the total production budget is going to need to be less than $625,000.”
At the end of the third week, The Unlawyer was getting cocky, and an older gentleman in his late-60s strolled into our offices to meet me. He was a big entertainment attorney in the gigantic firm that occupied the entire 16th floor, and he made it a point to meet all the new whippersnapper attorneys working in the building. He shook my hand firmly, looked around Carrie’s posh office, and said, “Quite an office you have here.”
I smiled back, “Well, being a lawyer really pays off.”
Now, Chase had told me never to say outright that I was a lawyer, but he’d given me permission to imply it. With that green light, I found myself wanting to imply it more and more. I wanted to walk right up to the edge. The danger zone. How close could I come? When would implication become incrimination? I was determined to find out.
One morning, I strolled into the elevator and stood beside an attractive blonde. It turned out we were both going to the same floor. To make conversation, the blonde asked, “You going to the Spanish class?”
“No, I work at a law firm down the hall.”
“Oh. I used to be a lawyer once. Hard life,” she said.
“Tell me about it.”
She went on, “I switched careers and haven’t missed it since.”
“Yep, it’s always harder on Mondays, you know?” I was having fun with this. “By Friday, though, things always look pretty good.”
She looked over at me, confused by my supremely casual outfit: jeans and T-shirt.
“You’re a lawyer and you get to wear that?” I replied, “Entertainment law.”
She nodded, “Ah. Right.”
Later that same day, one of the partners of a well-known talent agency called regarding his client, an actor we’ll call Jimmy. Apparently, Jimmy had some problems with the contract for his next feature and had bitched out his agent. Consequently, his agent bitched out me—being that I was the one who drafted the contract in the first place. I listened to the agent’s complaints, took a fake phone call so I could skim the SAG binder, and returned to the agent with bad news. Jimmy’s contract wouldn’t be changing. I’d gotten it right. The agent took it in stride.
“Poor Jimmy. He’s a terrific actor, but he thinks he’s a lawyer.”
I laughed, “Yeah, I know how that is.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
The Unlawyer - Originally published in Script Magazine’s November/December Issue 
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 
When you take a meeting with Chuck Mercer there’s no question who’s in charge. His desk is larger than yours, his voice is louder than yours, his goatee is wilder than yours, and he’s been laughing at his own jokes longer than anybody else in the business. So when Wade and I sat in his office and listened to him pitch his latest pilot, we knew we’d be working for one of the heavy hitters in reality television.
He spoke with the confidence of a producer who sells bad ideas in his sleep.
“Imagine you were a nerd back in high school. You got no friends, no pussy, you’re a hopeless loser.” This was not hard for us to imagine.
“In fact, there’s this one guy, a bully, who’s always stuffing you in a trash can. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a show that let you get revenge?”
We smiled and nodded enthusiastically. We needed a job.
Chuck told us we’d be doing a hidden camera show that gives geeks the power to track down a bully, years later, and pull a prank on him. It would be Revenge of the Nerds meets Punk’d.
This was the full extent of the idea the he had sold to the network. Our job as writers would be to help develop and expand the concept, to devise a hidden camera prank for the pilot, and to write whatever dialogue was needed.
We were thrilled. Finally Wade and I would be involved in the creative process from the very beginning. We’d be creating a show from the ground up. Chuck tossed in one last detail.
“We film the pilot three weeks from today.”
We attacked the assignment with the vigor of young writers who don’t know any better. Sure, three weeks sounded like a ridiculously short amount of time to develop, write, prep, cast and shoot a pilot, but hey, what did we know?
Our first assignment was to come up with the hidden camera prank that would form the climax of the pilot. How would our Nerd get his sweet revenge? This task was especially tough because the casting process had only just begun. We had no Nerd, we didn’t know who we were “punking” or why? In short, we had no story. But there was no time to waste, so we wrote up a list of pranks anyway. Hopefully one would fit.
Chuck wasn’t too impressed with our ideas. He explained that he used to be a writer, so it took a lot to “wow” him. The only idea he sparked to was one that he had come up with himself.
“Maybe the Nerd got picked on because he drove a crappy car,” he bellowed. “So we take the Bully’s car and crush it. Give it back to him and it’s the size of a toaster. HA!” Then he added, “Write that up.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. Very visual. Now all we had to do was cast a nerd who got picked on back in high school because of the car he drove, and we’d be set.
Casting, however, was already a nightmare, and this new requirement didn’t help. The casting people put notices all over town looking for the perfect Nerd. No one answered. Turns out there aren’t that many people that want to go on TV and talk about their high school humiliations. Nerds aren’t looking for revenge, they’re looking to forget, and our show was a particularly bad way to do this.
How would we possibly cast an entire season if we couldn’t find even one guy for the pilot? Thankfully we were the writers, and casting fell into the category of Not Our Problem.
We worked the entire week before Chuck, undeterred, took our bit ideas, our script, and the casting problems to the studio for a progress report. We were convinced they would immediately pull the plug, and we’d have no job tomorrow. It was clear, even to a couple of novices, that there was no way a Revenge of the Nerds reality pilot was being filmed next week.
But when Chuck finally returned from the meeting with the studio, he was upbeat.
“It went great!” Chuck beamed. “I pitched them everything, and they were cracking up. They really love this project!” He gathered up his leather jacket and moved to the door to head home for the weekend.
“The studio had two minor notes,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “They don’t want us to use the word ‘Nerd.’ It’s too mean. And they’re not comfortable with the idea of ‘revenge’. So that’s out too.”
And then he walked out of the office.
We arrived at the studio Monday morning with no idea what to expect. As far as we could tell, the show we were being asked to write had no title, no cast, and no concept. The only thing set in stone was our shoot dates.
Nevertheless, production assistants were buzzing around and Chuck was in a great mood. To energize the troops, Chuck called a production meeting. In his boisterous, aggressive way, he exclaimed that we were going to make it work. It wouldn’t be a “Nerd” but a “Geek.” And this would be not “revenge,” but a “good-natured prank between old friends.”
Some of the staff were swayed by Chuck’s bravado, but Mike, the beleaguered production supervisor, stubbornly reminded us that we still hadn’t found the main Nerd, er… Geek. Chuck scowled, and it looked like he was considering stuffing Mike into a trash can.
“What about that kid, Zach?”
“He backed out.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Chuck barked as he grabbed his phone. “Everybody out!”
Ten minutes later, Chuck strode from his office looking quite pleased with himself.
To this day, we still have no idea what Chuck said to Zach. In retrospect, we should have been more suspicious, but we were too relieved the show had found its second wind. Not only did we have our Geek in place, but apparently Zach drove a crappy car in high school and a bully named Ben used to tease him about it. It looked like we could use the car crushing bit after all.
We had the remainder of the day to devise the rest of the prank. This was supposed to be an elaborate “sting” operation that would take up fifteen minutes of screen time. How would we realistically entrap Ben the bully? How would we get his car? And how exactly would we crush it into the size of a toaster?
“A Sherman tank!” Chuck ordered, emerging suddenly from his office. “Get on the phone and see how much that’ll cost.”
For the rest of the day, we struggled to create a hidden camera prank that we could realistically produce within the show’s budget (read: not flattening a car with an armored vehicle). By ten o’clock that night, we were still working away. Naturally, Chuck had left the office promptly at six. At eleven, dinner finally arrived— lukewarm El Pollo Loco— with no forks. Or plates. Our morale was low, and eating guacamole off a napkin with a knife wasn’t helping. It took an all-nighter but we completed a workable outline of the entire sting operation.
The next morning, we plopped down in Chuck’s office, exhausted. We couldn’t wait to share how we had found a way for the ‘not Nerd’ to get his ‘not revenge.’
“Nevermind! I got it!” Chuck proudly exclaimed before we could even begin talking. “It all came to me on the drive home last night. Listen to this…”
He pulled out an outline and went on to pitch us his own idea. One that he’d rejected a week ago when we’d pitched it to him. He was clearly unaware that he’d heard the idea before. From us. And even more oblivious that he could have saved us hours and hours of work if he’d just called the office last night and told us he was writing it himself. Deeply fatigued, we could only smile and tell Chuck what a brilliant idea it was.
By the end of the week two, cameras were set to roll, actors had been hired, permits obtained, and everything was in place. Zach, our “Geek,” stopped by the offices for a costume fitting, and we pulled him aside for a quick interview. We needed to know some of his “nerdier” qualities from high school. The first thing we noticed was that he was considerably more handsome and confident than we were expecting. When we asked him about the geekiest aspects of his teenage self, Zach looked at us blankly.
“Were you in the Chess Club? Or a Mathlete, maybe? Or did you get a 4.0?”
Zach shrugged, “I played lacrosse.”
After he was called to makeup, we picked up the high school yearbook Zach had brought to the set. We flipped to his senior picture and there he was: handsome, broad shoulders, big smile, displaying a very un-nerdy level of self-confidence.
We flipped nervously to the photo of Ben – the supposed ruthless Bully who’d made Zach’s life a living hell. He was overweight, with glasses, his skin peppered with acne, and beside his name, his interests were listed: drama club, Latin club, National Honor Society.
We looked at each other, resigned to our fate. Thanks to the unstoppable force of our bullying producer, this doomed project would end in the only way it could…
We were about to crush the wrong guy’s car.
To Be Continued…
© Aaron Ginsburg
The Bully - Part One - Originally published in Script Magazine’s May/June Issue 
So there I was, standing on the stage next to Rachael Leigh Cook before a packed, wildly appreciative audience at the Sundance Film Festival. Flashbulbs were popping. Next to Rachael, another star, Johnny Galecki, gestured to my writing partner Wade and me, “Who are those guys?” Rachael shot him a stern look, “They’re the writers.”
We wrote the film as a favor. Kevin, an up-and-coming director who was attached to direct one of our feature scripts, called one day asking for help. He had an idea for a short film and wondered if Wade and I would “take a pass” on the script.
Wade was skeptical at first, but I thought it would be a great way to demonstrate how well the three of us could work together. If we pulled off a quality short, it would only strengthen the viability of Kevin (as a first time feature director) and of us (as first time feature writers). Kevin faxed the script the very next day.
However, after a cursory glance, we realized certain things were notably missing from Kevin’s “draft.” Things like structure, plot, snappy dialogue… even basic fundamental formatting. Kevin had a nice concept and a few good sight gags, but did he have a short film here? No.
For the next week, we rewrote Kevin’s entire “script.” We added characters. We added dialogue and tone and clever punchlines. Hell, we even added a cat. Kevin was pleased, and soon cameras were rented, actors cast, and we were filming the sucker on 35mm.
About a month later, Kevin called, ecstatic: “We got into Sundance!”
It turned out, Robert Redford had even better news for us. In addition to our Golden Ticket to Park City, our little short would also be premiering in a prime slot before a feature starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Johnny Galecki. Sundance received over 3,500 shorts that year and selected only 90. From the 90, only five were chosen to screen before features. We’d lucked into one of the highest-profile spots of the entire festival.
We reveled in our good fortune, but the exciting news was eventually undermined by the ego-shattering discovery that we wouldn’t be receiving complimentary tickets to see our own film. Kevin would. Sure. He was the director. The production company that produced our film would, of course. They were producers. But we were the writers. We would have to purchase tickets just like everybody else. I’m pretty sure the second assistant grip’s sister’s boyfriend gets better treatment.
The morning the box office opened, I eagerly logged onto the official Sundance website, credit card in hand. But so did the rest of Hollywood, and within seconds the Sundance website crashed. When I finally got the home page to load, I discovered our short was SOLD OUT.
Every day. Every screening. Sold out.
We would have to try to get wait-list tickets in Park City.
GIVE ME A LITTLE CREDIT
While packing up the car for the trek to Utah, our lawyer called. She’d watched our film and was confused. “Funny short. Any clue why you’re not credited as the writers?”
My heart stopped. “What…?”
Our lawyer continued, “Yeah, the credits read, ‘Written and Directed by Kevin Lee.’ Toward the end of the crawl, I did find you guys listed under something called ‘additional writing.’”
For several seconds neither one of us spoke. Our first film was days away from premiering and we were already getting screwed. “Additional writing?” What the hell was that?
My face pulsed with anger. Either Kevin, or the company that produced the short, had removed our names without telling us. It was too late now. In less than 10 hours, we would be on our way to Sundance without tickets to a short film that we apparently didn’t write.
THE WAIT LIST
While walking down Park City’s quaint Main Street searching for the theater that would be premiering our film (without us?) later that day, Wade and I tried to remain optimistic.
“What if we stood outside wearing a big sign that reads, ‘We Wrote This Movie And We Can’t Get Tickets’?”
“Or Credit… ” he added.
Wade and I never had the intention of standing outside wearing large sandwich boards. Or at least Wade never did. Instead, we’d arrive at the theater way in advance and secure the very first place in the wait-list line. However, when we reached the Prospector Square Theatre, over 40 people were already hunkered down in front of us. We got in line.
Things went from bad to worse when Wade spotted the director of the feature that our short was attached to. The director was walking down the line trying to buy wait-list passes for his family. The showing was oversold and the director was explaining, “My family’s here, but I couldn’t get enough tickets. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s incredibly hard to get seats, even if you made the movie.”
Wade and I shot each other a look. Doesn’t sound that crazy…
A few people agreed to help the director out, but most had been waiting for hours and were willing to wait a few more. When the director reached us, he was looking rather haggard.
“Hey, guys. Can you help me out?”
Wade and I exchanged a glance, “We’d love to, but… well, we wrote the other film.”
“The short? And you’re sitting out here?” The director looked genuinely surprised. “That… sucks.”
What happened next was a blur.
We’d been waiting for six solid hours when we heard, “Anyone here need tickets?” A frumpy man had approached the wait-list line, oblivious. In one gloved hand, he was holding up TWO tickets.
“YES!” Wade screamed, ridiculously loud, and he leapt at the man. Dozens of otherswere already closing in, like rabid zombies fighting for a piece of the last uninfected brain. I shoved a 15-year-old down and hurled a wad of cash at the man. It bounced off his chest as Wade plucked the tickets from his gloved grasp. Within seconds, we were ducking under the ropes and leaving the madness of the wait-list line behind.
As we walked toward the section for ticket-holders, the wait-list line erupted into a volcano of indignant fury. “It’s not fair that he sold the tickets to people in the middle! Those guys don’t deserve those tickets!”
Ignoring the rancor, we approached the feature director, who was chatting with his family. He was happy we got in and even happier still when we handed him our wait-list passes. “We won’t be needing these. Hope your family gets in.”
“I owe you,” he said.
The theater doors opened, and the previously calm ticket-holders made a mad dash for the entrance: rowdy, careless, frenzied, embodying the spirit of a good, old-fashioned soccer riot.
We grabbed two seats right in the center. A few rows ahead, I spotted Kevin schmoozing it up. We made eye contact and Kevin grinned, showing no remorse, even giving me a “thumbs up.” I forced a smile and offered him a peace sign.
“That’s one more finger than he deserves,” Wade grumbled.
Moments later, the lights dimmed as a Sundance employee introduced the films. The theater was over its capacity, and people stood against the walls along both sides. As the man finished speaking, the crowd burst into applause and the film projector kicked on.
“Before the Q and A, I want to do something that never happens at these festivals.” The feature director was at the podium addressing the enthusiastic crowd. “This never happens, but, could the writers and director of the short that kicked this evening off come up here and join me?”
The audience broke into applause as Wade and I tentatively rose from our seats. We hadn’t asked for anything, but the director clearly wanted to pay us back for helping his family get in to see his film. His gesture would work brilliantly as sweet justice, forcing Kevin to acknowledge us, in front of this giant crowd, as the guys who, you know, actually wrote his hit short. We reached the front of the stage at the same time as Kevin.
“This is crazy… ” he muttered, his normal demeanor of confidence now undermined by something resembling shame.
“Yeah. Congratulations,” I said. Then I strode onto the stage, empowered.
Meanwhile, the director had invited the cast of his feature to join us. Rachael Leigh Cook and Johnny Galecki rose and took the stage as the Q and A began.
So, there I was, standing on the stage next to Rachael Leigh Cook before a packed, wildly appreciative audience at Sundance. We’d overcome the odds. We’d gotten tickets. We’d gotten seats. And while our names hadn’t been seen on the screen, we were now getting credit the old-fashioned way.
Next to Rachael, Johnny Galecki gestured flippantly toward Wade and me, “Who are those guys?”
Rachael shot him a stern look, “They’re the writers.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
Additional Writing - Originally published in Script Magazine’s March/April Issue 
GO WEST, JESSE JAMES
During our time in Hollywood, Wade, my writing partner, and I have had our fair share of painfully horrible business meetings. It comes with the territory. We assumed we were prepared for pretty much anything.
We had not taken into account Tom Fernet.
Tom had been given our names by a mutual acquaintance and called me up to discuss an opportunity. He explained that he had an idea for a film about the outlaw Jesse James and was looking to pay decent money to have a treatment written. He was a well-spoken man, intelligent and articulate, if not a little eccentric. His words seeped through the phone with a strong southern lilt, Virginia born and bred. Not wanting to pass up any chance to make money writing, I told Tom that Wade and I were interested.
His office was located on a trashed block in the more seedy section of Venice, tucked snugly between a bargain locksmith and what was once a small bakery (now a gutted, abandoned building). Wade and I exchanged an apprehensive glance, and then I knocked. The door opened immediately, as if Tom had been waiting for us right on the other side for hours.
He stood before us, a younger, much-less handsome Charlton Heston look-alike. Probably in his mid-fifties, his wild white hair sprouted from his scalp, refusing to obey his command. When he grinned, I saw that his teeth were crooked and brown, with several gummy gaps where entire teeth were missing.
“Come in, come in!” Tom bellowed in his warm Southern drawl.
We stepped inside Tom’s office, and I stopped dead in my tracks. Every square inch of every single wall in the entire office was completely wallpapered with photographs. Not photographs of Jesse James, as one might imagine from a Jesse James enthusiast. No, the quilt of scrappy images blanketing the room was comprised entirely of women. Mostly celebrities. Mostly in sexy positions. Floor to ceiling. Many overlapping. The sheer number of things pinned and stapled and taped recklessly to the walls instantly created a chaotic, claustrophobic overtone. The pictures were ripped from their original sources without precision, and hundreds of frayed, torn edges flapped on the walls as if the room were breathing. It was as if I were being attacked by a rabid copy of People Magazine. Tom didn’t say anything to clarify this “hobby” and instead said, proudly, “Okay, the first stop on our tour,” and pointed gingerly to a small sepia-toned photo right in front of us.
“This is Jesse James at age sixteen, which is pretty much what he looked like during the one year he lived in California. This is what I want our movie to be about. We’ll call it: Go West, Jesse James.”
I tried my best to look at the browning photo of the young Jesse James, I really did, but the picture was tacked below a huge spread of Britney Spears in a compromising position and just above a large color photo of a scantily dressed Christina Aguilera torn carelessly from the local newspaper. Also stapled to the wall in random places, I noticed a handful of Polaroids of young women, smiling and waving at the camera. I made a mental note not to touch anything…
In a desperate attempt to get the meeting started, I asked Tom what he did for a living.
“I do a lot of work in the beverage industry.” Tom explained. “In fact, I’m about to introduce a new beverage to the Southern California marketplace.”
“A new beverage?”
This was a question I knew I’d regret later and Tom was up out of his chair. “I’ll show ya.” He rummaged around a makeshift desk and returned with a plastic bottle that looked like Cherry 7-Up. He handed it to me, a proud inventor.
I had to study at the label twice to make sure I was reading it correctly. Unfortunately, I was. Tom’s new beverage was called: SUM PUSSY.
“We’re gonna market it in low-end gentlemen’s clubs. I got high hopes.”
“I can’t help but notice you’ve neglected to include a list of ingredients.” Wade commented, glancing at the back of the bottle.
Tom’s smile tightened, “It’s an energy drink.”
“Now, before we git started thinkin’ about our movie, we should discuss our business arrangement. I got a deal in place already with Douglas James, the last living descendant of the Jesse James lineage. I own fifty percent of this project, and Douglas owns fifty percent. And you guys don’t git to walk in here off the street and git fifty percent right off the bat. Although, you write the treatment and maybe even write the script, I could change the deal around. Actually, I’d be willing to give you guys fifty percent of the deal right now, and I’ll share my fifty percent with Douglas, maybe. Though, I won’t give him half, because he hasn’t done shit. Maybe ten percent for Doug, forty percent for me, and you guys could split fifty percent.”
The question in my mind at this point was fifty percent of WHAT? What in the hell was this crazy old man talking about?
Before Wade or I could even comment on the worrisome aspects of Tom’s proposed “business arrangement,” he handed us thick packet about Jesse James and began what can only be described as a college-level lecture on the infamous outlaw. After thirty minutes had passed, Tom’s seminar had not yet reached the era when Jesse James was actually in California.
“Excuse me, Tom, could we possibly skip ahead?” Wade requested.
Tom looked mildly confused by this interruption. “Uh…okay.”
Wade flipped ahead in Tom’s handout. “I’m trying to picture what exactly you want this film to be about, and I’m trying to imagine what Jesse James did in California. So I was looking ahead and I happened to find a section of your outline labeled ‘What Jesse James Did In California.’ I just wanted to ask a couple questions about this section.”
Tom nodded, “Sure.”
Wade continued, dryly, “Okay, the first bullet point under this section reads ‘He punched cows.’”
Startled by this, I leaned over and glanced at the outline in Wade’s hands. Sure enough, there it was.
“Yep.” Tom said. Clearly this bullet point needed no explanation.
“He punched cows?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know. He was a cowpuncher.”
Before I could explain that no, I wasn’t familiar with that turn of phrase, Wade interrupted again, “Okay, fine, whatever. My real question is this second bullet point here. ‘He didn’t do any outlawin’.”
“So, are we to understand that during the year in which Jesse James lived in California, he didn’t rob any banks, or—“
“Nope. He didn’t do any outlawin’ at all. He lived with his uncle, worked on cattle drive, and tried to go straight.”
“I see.” Wade said, folding the outline in half. Our man Tom had somehow ferreted out the most boring year in the short life of Jesse James, notorious American Outlaw, and now wanted to make it into a movie. Perhaps we could call it, The Year Jesse James Took Off.
“So, how does that sound? Do we have ourselves a deal?” Tom asked, sincerely.
Wade scratched his head, “So… you want to hire us to write the treatment?”
Tom’s face squinted up instantly. “Okay, so, look: there’s no money. But that’s why I’d be willing to give you fifty percent. You can own part of this deal, and we’ll all collect when it gets made.”
This revelation was our cue to rise and get the hell out of crazy town. We thanked Tom for his time, and told him we would discuss the project amongst ourselves and get back to him shortly. As we walked towards the front door, which was wallpapered with images of Kristi Yamaguchi ice skating, Winona Ryder candidly walking along a private beach, Pamela Anderson naked, and a young Reese Witherspoon from Cruel Intentions, Tom blurted out, “Have you ever heard Billy Gashade’s Ballad of Jesse James?”
“No.” I sighed.
Then Tom, inexplicably, began to sing: “Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man. He robbed the Glendale train…”
“Glendale, California?” I asked, suddenly hoping that maybe we’d finally found the one fricking thing Jesse James actually did on this coast.
“Nice meeting you, Tom.” I extended my hand.
Most of the drive back was in utter silence, punctuated by the faint smell of antifreeze burning in my engine: the foreshadowing of my radiator cracking later that evening – a fitting finale to the humiliating day.
“Wow.” I said, after a long pause.
“Yeah.” Wade replied.
“Sorry about that.” I felt responsible for dragging poor Wade through the fun house.
Wade smiled, “Well, we may not have landed a writing job today, but we did get a character for our next serial killer movie.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “And I don’t know about you, but I sure could go for Sum Pussy right now.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
Go West, Jesse James - Originally published in Script Magazine’s January/February Issue