This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
"I'm sorry," I say into the phone. "I think one of us is going through a bad cell or something. I thought I heard you say that you'd like the main character to be older."
I chuckle good-naturedly, and hope that my little joke will ease the tension of the telephone call. I'm on the phone with a television network, you see, getting notes on a script.
In Hollywood, writers don't get paid to write. They get paid to get notes. Writers -- real writers, anyway -- would probably write for free. But to get a writer to sit quietly and listen to someone say something like, um, can we inform the characters a bit better earlier in the piece? or I'm just wondering about the hero's journey here, you really have to cough up some heavy coin.
But I've been doing this a long time, and I've learned that a little joke up front eases the tension and sends the message that while I am a writer, I am not insane, and will not respond to every note with shrieks and insults. Hollywood, despite its reputation as an amoral shark tank filled with sociopaths and cutthroats, is a get-along kind of place. Confrontations, when they happen (and they happen rarely) occur mostly in snippy letters sent between lawyers -- you know the type: "Dear Bill: It puzzles me that you have yet to respond to my letter of last month, when, as you know, my client was asked to remove himself from the studio without fair notice or cause. Perhaps your client, the studio, is still vainly attempting to wiggle out of its legal obligations to buy out my client's contract as well as maintain the lease on his BMW 645i, but as I know you will have to agree, the ---morals clause' of the existing employment contract specifically excludes statutory rape... "
The point is, out here we like to be nice. So I make a little joke on the phone -- "I thought I heard you say that you'd like the main character to be older" -- because, I mean, how hilarious is that? A network executive asking for a character to be older?
According to market research, at a certain age -- they peg it, I think, at 35 -- a person just suddenly knows who he is. What he likes to eat. Which beer he prefers to drink. What car he wants to drive, which paste he wants to brush his teeth with, and how he wants his underarms to smell. So after about 35, the average American consumer is unreachable. No matter how much money a company spends trying to convince him to smell spicier or sexier, he's unlikely to change.
But the 18 to 34 crowd, apparently, are disloyal brand sluts. They hop and whore around the place, trying this new beer or that new car or body sprays and tooth whiteners -- they can be bought, in other words. And that makes them desirable.
Yet all around me I see childish, bouncy forty year-olds getting tattoos and iPod Nanos and $600 blue jeans. I see 40 year-old men with interesting, boyish haircuts wearing flip-flop sandals sliding down the beach path on their skateboards. Women in their early forties -- and I'm being generous here -- are texting each other during the Wilco concert at the Greek Theater and downloading ringtones. What up?, I say to myself, as the kids say.
Back to my phone call:
"No, you heard us right. We really need you to make the main character older."
"But," I say, still not getting it, "the script we're talking about -- the script you bought -- is about young people in their twenties working at their first jobs.""Can't it be about older people in their forties working at their last jobs?"
"Um... I did that show for you. Five years ago. And you cancelled it because it skewed too old."
"We remember. Ironic how things change, huh?"
"Look," they said, "we know this is weird. But we've just been crunching the numbers, and advertisers really want to capture the 35 to 50 demographic. Apparently, older people are now experimenting more with brands and fashion and personal appearance. Forty is thirty with money."
Make everyone older, I say to myself, as I trace a finger along the discreet tattoo on my left calf. Old is the new young. Weird turn of events.
So I put away my skateboard, loaded a new playlist onto the iPod Nano, and got down to work. It's refreshing to finally be acting my age.