A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER
MY LIFE IS A LOT LIKE MY HOUSE
The ground shook as I left my house and walked down the driveway to my car. I was headed to LAX and then Paramus, New Jersey, to visit my parents, and the Earth, with its jolt and roll, was reminding me that tectonic activity was underfoot at all hours of the day and night and would be waiting for me when I returned.
I didn’t need reminding. There is no solid ground in LA. The place is always shifting. That’s why it’s plausible to build houses like the one I own, a 1,700-square-foot California ranch that hangs ridiculously over the edge of a steep Coldwater Canyon cliff. A sliver of my house is constructed on level land. The rest is suspended in mid air, supported by thin wooden beams supposedly cemented to the craggy ravine wall one hundred feet below my bedroom. My neighbors’ homes are similarly situated. We live in our houses without care because we know it wouldn’t matter if they were built in the flatlands of Northridge; the ground moves, and no one is secure. And since no one is secure, anything goes, which is the first singular truth of LA: It’s all good.
My life was a lot like my house. The day before everything changed, I was twenty-two, living in Hackensack, and had written a screenplay that an agent at William Morris thought had commercial potential. The agent’s name was Mike Lerner.
He said, “Mark Manilow, Mike Lerner. William Morris. I read your script. Your life is going to change, babe. Get on a plane right now. Take the red eye. You have to be here in the morning. Make it a one-way ticket.”
My script was called Full Force. It was the story of two hardcore army sergeants in Vietnam who use their platoons to wage a war within a war, fighting each other and the Viet Cong at the same time. It was violent and action-packed with crisp dialogue and deeply drawn, emotional characters that you care about and root for. I wish. At the time, I didn’t know character arc from Noah’s Ark. It was violent, anyway.
“What about my job?” I said. I had been working for a commercial real estate developer in Fort Lee, leasing corporate office space, which is even less fulfilling than it sounds. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer, so I could barely hear his reply. He was at his desk in Beverly Hills but sounded so distant he could have been calling from outer space (though many people equate the two).
“My opinion? You’re never going back. I’m ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure I’m going to sell your script tomorrow. Mid-six figures against one point two. It’s a gold mine. See you in the morning. I’ll have your contracts ready. Here’s Jason. He’ll set it all up.”
He passed me to his assistant, Jason, and I quit my job and took the red eye, but I never met Mike Lerner. He and Jason were fired ten minutes after they got off the phone with me. My script vanished with them. No one at William Morris had ever heard of it.
I had no idea where I was, where I was going, or how I was going to get there. I had no return ticket, no job, and nowhere to stay. I had no car, no friends, no bank, no credit, and no agent. I was planning on using some of the one point two to help me settle in, but that train left the station along with Mike Lerner.
LA is the easiest place to get lost in—physically, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. Luckily, it’s also the easiest place to be lost in. The sun is shining, the women are gorgeous, and the camera is rolling. I’d find another Mike Lerner. I was a screenwriter now with a hot script in my hands. How many of me could there be?
Plenty, it turned out. One of the peculiar facts of Los Angeles is that if you stop ten people on the street and ask them how their script is coming along, nine of them have an answer. It’s in turnaround, I’m stuck in the second act, it’s in pre-production, my agent loves it, my agent hates it, my agent was fired ten minutes after he said he’d sign me, and so on. This is the second singular truth of LA: Everyone knows two things, their job and how to write a movie—meaning how to write your movie.
For the next twelve years, I parked cars, washed cars, gassed cars, sold cars, tended bar, flipped burgers, stocked groceries, checked groceries, drove a cab, drove a tow truck, drove a school bus, tutored, temped, waited tables, moved furniture, and dug ditches (which, in its way, is just like writing movies).
Throughout it all, I studied my craft (screenwriting gurus grow in LA like corn in Kansas) and wrote scripts—dramas, comedies, dramedies, romantic comedies, sophomoric comedies, teen comedies, family comedies, action, adventure, action-adventure, thrillers, sci-fi, and westerns. I acquired an agent (several agents), wrote a few television movies for money, pitched my stories to studio, cable, and network executives, and stumbled forward through the smog.
At the start of my thirteenth year in LA, I was at the farmers’ market on Fairfax writing a coming-of-age movie about a North Carolina boy who accidentally invents an anti-gravity gel. All kinds of crazy hijinks ensue and the boy, his parents, his siblings, the mayor, the barber, the barber’s talking dog, and the traveling salesman with the heart of gold learn important life lessons. I was drowning in the second act when I heard her laughing, which, in retrospect, was the beginning of the beginning of the end.