This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
A friend of mine has just come back from his third (and final) tour of duty in Iraq. He was parked in some pretty scary spots, apparently, and tells one or two genuinely hair-raising stories. But nothing he said to me was scarier than, "Hey, Rob, now that I'm back, I'm trying to get a job in the entertainment industry. Can we have lunch?"
I mean, this guy has medals. For bravery. For heroism under fire, for amazing deeds in the face of certain death or dismemberment. He's disarmed car bombs, dodged flying grenades, comrades to safety with shrapnel whizzing past his ears.
The entertainment industry is going to kick his butt.
But he's a war hero, and a friend, and the least I owe him is a nice lunch somewhere in Hollywood.
"Let's meet at The Grill in Beverly Hills," I say, when we talk on the phone. "It's a pretty popular industry lunch spot, and who knows, if you wear your uniform, somebody may be impressed and offer you a job."
"So, it's sort of like a hotel bar in the Green Zone?" he asks.
"But a lot more dangerous," I answer.
A few days later we're sitting in a booth at The Grill. I explain that while it's true that we're sitting in a booth, in what is recognized as an excellent table in the right section, it's not because I have any real power or influence. I'm a writer. They don't give out the good tables to writers. Though there are a lot of us, and we're crucial to the smooth running of the industry, we're never really given any respect.
"Got it," he says. "You're Kurds."
"Stop doing that."
"Hey, I appreciate your concern, and I know I have a lot to learn about this business, but all I'm saying is, it's not all that different from what I've just come from. I mean, what's the most prevalent emotion people feel in Hollywood?"
"Fear," I say.
"I rest my case. So where," he continues, craning his neck around the room, "do the studio chiefs eat?"
I tell him that they don't eat, as a rule, in restaurants in Beverly Hills. The people at The Grill are mostly agents. Studio heads stick primarily to their studio lots -- it's where their power is most easily expressed, and lunching in the studio commissary, though not the best choice for a tasty lunch, is the best choice for lording it over your lunch guests. The guy who travels, I explain, is the guy in the weaker position. A studio head will always, always, make you come to him, so that he can keep you waiting in his office and stroll with you to the commissary as he greets and is greeted by his hundreds of slavish minions.
"They're just like mullahs!" he laughs. "Once, when we were on patrol in an isolated Shia community, the local mullah -- a really powerful guy, actually -- summoned us to a midnight cup of tea. So we go there, ready to be ambushed, and..."
"Well, no," I interrupt. "I don't think studio heads are like the mullahs. I think agents are like the mullahs."
He disagrees. The way he sees it, agents are in a continuous cycle of readjustment. They have to take their power temperature every day -- with each deal, with each client who defects, with each new client signed. "There was a caf- in the yellow zone we were always raiding. Real popular Ba'ath lunch spot. Just like this."
"Agents are Ba'athists?"
"Think about it: these are the guys who used to work for Saddam. And they're always fearful that what they've done in the past, or what they're planning to do in the future, is going to be revealed. Plus, they like to wear expensive suits and pretend to know all the real power players."
"And they keep screwing the Kurds."
"Now you're getting it."
I was starting to think that he may be on to something. Writers are Kurds, agents are Ba'athists, studio executives are mullahs -- it was all making sense.
"Wait," I say. "What about the actors?"
"I think," he says, slowly, "and remember, I've only been in town for a few days, but it seems to me that they're sort of like the unaffiliated religious fanatics we used to deal with."
"Well, a lot of them are Scientologists," I say, helpfully. "And pretty much all of them are into yoga."
"Right. Right. Back in Iraq, we always thought of them as the most dangerous group, because they're so impressionable and uneducated. You know, easy to turn into snipers and car bombers. They weren't terribly good at it, of course, but they were young and stupid and easily tricked. Where do actors hang out in Los Angeles?"
"Mostly at Crunch Gym," I tell him, "on the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset."
He nods. "Crunch Gym. That's their madrassa. Back in Iraq, of course, we'd just take the place out."
"Can't do that here, I'm afraid," I say, sadly.
"Just one question," I say. "If Hollywood is like Iraq, tell me how to get out of here. I mean, I've been working in this business for seventeen years, and I need to know: what's the exit strategy?"
"There's no exit strategy," he says. "You just keep your head down, your weapon clean, and your eyes open. And when the metal is flying, try not to get hit in the head. They can't really fix the head."
A few days ago, my friend called me. He had just landed a job working for the head of a huge studio.
"Congratulations!" I said. "Let me buy you lunch."
"No, no. Let me buy you lunch."
"Even better. How about the Grill?"
"Actually, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind coming here, to the studio. We can eat in the commissary."
"Sorry, got to go. I've got two Ba'athists on hold and a religious fanatic who wants a bigger trailer. And the mullah's in a nasty mood. See you at one!"
To answer your question: yes, I did drive all the way to the studio. I'm a Kurd, after all.
For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.