Monday, November 06, 2006

Whale of a Story.

This isn’t the big topic I’m trying to wrestle to the ground, but it is something which I was reminded of today, and I thought you might find it diverting. Also, I need to see a finished blog at this point, to remind myself I know how to do that.

As I have mentioned before, I spent about two years and nearly all my good will being a talent agent. The agency I worked for was small, but prestigious; we had a few clients who win awards and critical acclaim, and quite a few clients whose face makes you stop and think, “Wasn’t he in my sister-in-law’s wedding?”

Our agency broke down the work not by client but by medium; theoretically, I handled every client, including the Academy-award winners, for my corner of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, by the time I became an agent all the good corners were covered. Two agents covered big studio pictures and two agents covered television. What’s left? I’ll tell you what’s left; independent pictures.

Upon being hired I imagined a life of bringing exactly the right actor to the attention of a young and passionate filmmaker who would give us all a reason to go to the Sundance Film Festival the next year. In reality, my projects fell into three categories; Horrible but Financed, Wonderful and Will Never Get Financed, Horrible and To Be Shot in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgaria; at least once a month I would be reading a script about half-naked teenagers being terrorized by a cheap-looking giant red ant in a small Midwestern town which was going to look suspiciously like Sofia, Bulgaria. This movie inevitably starred someone like Morgan Fairchild, on whom they had spent their lavish cast salary. That was the other pleasure of my movies; if I was very lucky, they actually paid Screen Actor’s Guild minimum wage. Most of the time the original casting sheet would say “Salary deferred”, which meant we all were supposed to buy into the collective hallucination that a 16mm movie about a struggling writer/director in Los Angeles (played by the writer/director) and his devoted, incredibly hot, frequently naked girlfriend (to be picked after extensive auditions) was going to be picked up for distribution and then, hoo BOY, wouldn’t the money roll in!

Such was my life. Most clients passed on nearly all the scripts I covered, and I couldn’t say as I blamed them. I was just grateful I didn’t work on commission.

And then there was Dick. His name isn’t really Dick, but we’re going to call him that because I was Ishmael, and he was my great white whale. He is a terrific actor who seemed to take some profound pleasure in rarely actually acting.

This man passed on every single project I had going, even the ones which didn’t make me want to leave the script at the bottom of a lye pit. I didn’t take it too personally, because he passed on nearly every television interview as well, and even a few high-budget studio pictures. He felt strongly about only doing acting work which meant something to him and, damnit, he had created a life where he could do that. Other clients, after being out of work for a few months, would start calling, first casually and then more frantically, reminding their agents of their houses, their mortgages, their children, their ex-wives; they might have standards, but they also had the moral flexibility to do a guest-starring role on “Full House”.

Not Dick; he had broad shoulders, a full head of hair, and no outstanding debts or dependants. Casting directors would call, asking for him; I would call him to come read the script. Days later, he would come drifting by and pick up the script. Weeks later, after avoiding calls from me asking what he thought of the script, he would leave a voice-mail passing on auditioning. He would then compound my aggravation by calling the receptionist to say he would be unavailable for three weeks, as he was off to star in and haul props for a friend’s independent movie, to be shot in the desert where there was no cell-phone contact.

The whale would evade me again.

Finally, FINALLY, I got a script worth something. True, it was an independent and had no studio attached to release it, but there were actual actors signed to star in it (Many of my films starred Dolph Lundgren or, more depressingly, someone described as “The next Dolph Lundgren”). The script was funny, the director wasn’t the son-in-law of the financier and, most exciting of all, they were paying more than the union minimum wage!

I think I developed a nosebleed from excitement.

Among other parts, there was a role for Dick. I submitted his picture, and received no response which isn’t surprising, considering as how the casting director probably got 500 pictures for that one part, and there were probably forty roles to fill. I started working the phone; I whined, pleaded, flirted, begged and cajoled with anyone who picked up the phone at the casting director’s office. I think I might have propositioned the cleaning crew. But something in my cringing and whining tone worked, because I got him an interview. I threw myself into the boat and headed out to the high seas to try for Moby Dick again.

I managed to find him, get him to call me back, pick up the script and read it within a week, which was some sort of land-speed record. The good luck continued; he would read for the part! I had the whale in my sight! He read and the director fell in love with him for the part; the casting director called me within an hour to offer the role, with a salary which would actually pay for more than Ritz crackers, Tang, and a quick call home to wherever his broad-shouldered kinfolk lived.

My fingers shook when I called him. Barely able to conceal my glee, I told him he booked the job, that the money was not bad, and that he would be starting to work in two weeks.

“Yeah,” he said absentmindedly, “I forgot to tell you. I promised my friend Ace I would help him make his movie. I’m going to be in Riverside, on and off, for the next month.”

Wave goodbye to the nice whale, Ishmael.

No, he wouldn’t bail on helping his friend; that wouldn’t be honorable. Besides, it was a really cool script about speed-dealing bikers who spoke in blank verse. Half the characters in the movie would be sock puppets.

I got the phone number of the producer of his Ace’s movie, a person I suspect was also Ace’s mother. She gave me Dick’s shooting schedule (Contingent, of course, on the sock puppets being ready); I then went to the production manager of what I had come to think of as the real move and got every single day Dick would be working. They overlapped by two days. I went back and forth between the two people, trying desperately to get one to change their schedule.

It took the better part of one day, but I finally had the sock puppet producer offering to let him shoot from twelve to three a.m., and the real movie Production Manager saying he wouldn’t call Dick in to work any earlier than six hours later. It was horrible, but Dick was young enough to handle a long day in the name of art and a union gig.

I called Dick in laughing relief and a certain amount of pride and walked him through the schedule. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t him drawling, “Yeah, but if Ace needs me to help, I’m going to have to stay.”

HELP? Help WHAT? Put the other actors back in the sock drawer? I got off the phone quickly and slammed into another agent’s office for advice and counsel.

This agent, call her Medusa, had been doing this forever, and if you could catch her in a good mood, she was personable and seasoned. The other 363 days of the year, she was a wolverine with a toothache, and the scads of pot she smoked to take the edge off had made her forgetful and a touch paranoid. She also thought I used big words to make her feel stupid. I was taking my life in my hands entering her lair, but I really had no idea how to handle this vexing cetacean. I did, however, plan not to use the words “Vexing cetacean” in front of her, because there was every possibility she would stuff me in a filing cabinet.

She was talking to her dealer and motioned me to leave. I waited and bounced from foot to foot. When I made it clear I wasn’t going, she hung up and glowered at me.


After that warm welcome, I explained my problem. I think I even took out a piece of paper to show the simple brilliance of the schedule I had gotten two strangers to devise for Dick. I then finished up with his maddening reply. Medusa looked at me tiredly, which was the best possible reaction I excited in her.

“Quinn, you can’t want it more than they do.”

I stopped bouncing and twitching and froze. Her brain might have had the same chemical makeup as the air over a Phish concert, but this was the most insightful thing I had ever heard someone say. As if entranced, I walked back to my office, called the producer of the real movie and told him there were shoot dates Dick had in place that were either going to have to be worked around, or we would have to pass on the part. Somehow, they managed. Dick shot both movies.

The sock-puppet movie was never seen again. Unfortunately, neither was the real movie. A decade later, I occasionally see Dick in a movie, doing a wonderful job. I silently toast whatever fisherman caught him.

But the only things I have taken away from that period of my life are a pair of flannel pants and what Medusa said. I look at everyone dear to me, and I am desperate to fix them. Desperate. Someone starts complaining about how their pants don’t fit, or how their doctor is after them to bring down their cholesterol, or about how useless their boyfriend is, and I leap into the fray. Here’s a diet! Here’s a map of all the hikes in Los Angeles! Here’s a way to start the conversation with the useless boyfriend which will lead to him moving out and on to the futon of a friend! I’m lousy at my own problems, but other people’s problems? Whee!

And the other person says, “Yeah…” in the die-away voice which means, “I like talking about it, but I don’t dislike this situation enough to actually do something”.

Sometimes I will forget what Medusa said, and I will try to nag and pester the person into improvement, which just annoys everyone involved. And then, out of the blue, I will hear her smoke-throttled voice saying, “You can’t want it more than they do”, and I will stop mid-harangue and say something like, “If you ever want help, let me know”.

I’ve modified the credo a bit over the years. If the outcome something which affects you and the other person, you can want it as much as they do. You can even want it more, but only briefly. If two people are in something together, they each have to pull their own weight. But if it isn’t your goal, you cannot take on the responsibility for achieving the outcome.

It’s a simple and gloriously freeing idea, and I have an elusive white whale to thank for it.


Blogger Jan said...


6:44 AM  
Anonymous rebecca said...

Thank you, Quinn, this came at just the right time.

11:50 AM  
Blogger ElleBee said...


12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh.My.Gosh. I so needed to hear that. I, too, go way overboard trying to help or solve the problems of others. I need to step back and let them handle it. Thank you for freeing me from thinking that I have to be the "great fixer of all things"

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very fun read and i must admit a little close to home, i too am the fixer with the rolodex for every problem. thanks for the words of wisdom passed down through the guise of a crazy never know!

7:26 PM  
Blogger Savtadotty said...

That agent was very wise...choose your battles so you don't fight alone!

8:09 AM  
Blogger Mel said...

You are a very wise woman. Please let me be your apprentice. I will fetch anything you need and I will dispose of your flannel pants in a way that will leave you guilt-free.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous ChicagoJen said...

Wow. Great entry. What a great payoff at the end. A fun, visceral read and then "hey look: a moral."

I could use some more advice, actually. I know "you can't want it more than them" but I still find myself trying every now and again and being disappointed...

11:01 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Profound words to live by - thanks.

8:56 PM  
Anonymous Bangkok Expat Mama said...

I just read in the Bangkok Post that 37 pilot whales just died after getting standed on the New Zealand coast. Apparently volunteers managed to save 40 of the whale's compadres, at least. The news story made me think of the whale that Quinn is wrestling with right now.

This post was a great object lesson, a fresh take on the "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" theme.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

loved this post.
i used to work at a talent agency- mid level sized firm....some HUGE names, some recognizable ones, and some up and comer kids.
anyways, this sounds very typical and i can totally related....
anyways, check out my site...i'm just getting's no, it's not R rated or's actually just for fun...

again, sweet post.
i love your writing.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Robot Dean Martin said...

Great blog. Living in Hollywood, and just in general, this was great for me to hear.

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really really love this. I ALWAYS seem to want it more than they do. I will give that up now...and it's about time too!

Great advice! Super post!

7:38 AM  

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