This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
A friend of mine loves to reminisce about the old days, when she first moved to Hollywood to make her way in the entertainment business.
She arrived almost totally penniless, which is often a recipe for the first act of an ABC Afterschool Special – which they don’t even make anymore, I think, these days, when it’s impossible to shock anyone, especially a teenager. But back in the day, as people who do not realize just how powerful the gears of time are put it, back in the day, an ABC Afterschool Special was what you watched when you wanted to know what happened to kids who drank too much, or ran away, or got into strange vans. These days I guess kids don’t need to watch that on TV. They see it everyday. In homeroom.
But it’s amazing how glowing her memories are of those days when she first got here. Her first job was pretty awful – I think she was some kind of videocassette messenger – and she drove around town in her lousy car, mostly to the various post-production houses in the Valley – and delivered stacks of dupes in the broiling Valley summer.
One day, in August, the cooling system of her car went down. The radiator leaked, or something. So to keep the engine from overheating, he boyfriend told her to turn up the heat in the car. Which she did. But her boyfriend forgot that her car had electric windows, which didn’t work, so she went to work in the Valley in one hundred degree plus heat, car windows sealed, and the heat on. Driving around the Valley in a stifling, suffocating, blistering Daihatsu Charade.
She fainted, she thinks, around two o’clock at a red light on Ventura and Whitsett, but the cars behind her started honking, so she came to and drove on. By four, the little nose things on her glasses had fused to her skin. By six, she pulled up in front of her apartment, opened the door, and fell asleep on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the curb.
She looks back on those days fondly. Why? Because back then, before the real career started and the marriage and the kids in school, before she started producing independent films and taking meetings and making deals at Tribeca and Sundance, back when she collapsed on a strip of grass with her glasses stuck to her nose, she felt…oddly…powerful.
The only real power a person has in Hollywood – and, let’s face it, the only real power anyone has, in any business – is the power of the alternative. The power to say no.
If you’re a writer, that means: the power to say no to all of the notes and the concerns. The power to say no when they say, can’t the two leads be secretly in love? To say no when they ask, can’t they all be more likable? To say no when they demand that all of the characters, deep down, be good at their jobs.
But it’s hard to keep saying no – I usually say yes, but quietly, in my mind, I say no – unless, you know, you maintain the power of the alternative.
Which is hard, with a mortgage and private school tuition and the American Express company’s famously inflexible system of billing and payment. So, when you’re broke, of course you feel freer.
I’ve been asking myself this lately – and I’ve been asking my friends the same thing – because, for one thing I have a birthday coming up, and this is what you think about when you’re too old to use the phrase Back in the Day, but also, because I think it’s just good hygiene, once in a while, to ask yourself this:
What would I be doing if I didn’t have to do this? Do I have to do this? Where’s my power of the alternative?
And then, you know, get back to work addressing those notes and concerns because, no one wants to drive around the Valley in a Daihatsu Charade.
That’s it for this week. Next week: we’ll try to be quiet.
Go to kcrw.com/martinishot where you can engage with other listeners and listen to past columns. For KCRW, I'm Rob Long.