LAST EXIT TO BABYLON
A HOLLYWOOD ASSISTANT SPEAKS OUT
It’s been a week since I quit my job as the head assistant at a prestigious literary agency in Beverly Hills. My job was to oversee the lives of my boss and twenty or so writer/director clients. I set meetings, sent out scripts, confirmed meetings, set lunches, made copies, read scripts, and made the Christmas list. I worked at this job for about half of a year before deciding it was not for me.
My day would begin at about four in the morning. Do my workout. Write as much of my own independent project as I could. Eat breakfast. Drive to work. During the drive, I would often have these strange nervous episodes. I’ve never had an official panic attack before, but every morning I felt closer and closer to the possibility of such an attack. I would feel sick, as though my stomach was being strangled by my small intestine.
I would park, then walk about four blocks to work (we underlings were not granted reserved parking in the building). Once in the lobby, it was my job to collect the Trades. This could prove difficult, since they would often they be scattered indiscriminately around the building.
Once in the office, I would turn on the copier immediately, and not touch it ever again. This was important. I cannot stress this enough. A used copy machine, I learned, could run anywhere from $20,000-$40,000. Thus, I was also not allowed to touch the copier, save to turn it on and make the copies. In fact, in many ways, the copier was treated better than I.
After the copier nonsense was taken care of, next I had to roll the calls over from the previous day to the current day. This may seem tedious, but ask anyone who has ever worked in a Hollywood office, and I’m sure they we’ll tell you that ninety percent of your workday is trying to get a hold of each other. Thereafter, I’d take out my notebook and run through my list of things that still needed to get done. Check on the Fallon money. Make reservations at Palms. See if Frank (our client) was able to get his phone turned on. Call Gisela.
My boss doesn’t speak to me, but I can feel his leery eyes. Anyway, we never talk. In fact, I don’t get to talk unless what I have to say is really important. The only way I can determine if what I have to say is really important is to ask him. If I am right, and it was worth his time, then he answers me. If I am wrong and it was not important, he grunts, rolls his eyes, or if it was really not important, slams his hands on the table. This is how we get through the day. I field calls, and through a series of hand motions, we communicate. It’s kind of like those sucker fish that connect themselves to whales. They are not the same species, but they need each other to exist.
I stare at a computer screen most of the day, which is unfortunate because, in the corner of the screen, there’s a clock. And then I start factoring in how many hours I have left. Two before lunch. You multiply that number by sixty and you have how many minutes. Multiply it again and you have how many seconds.
My boss snarls at me for speaking quietly, then for wasting his time with a silly question. It’s sad when you realize that a machine could do your job, and you kind of wish the scientists would hurry up and invent it so you wouldn’t have to come here anymore.
Lunch as an assistant should be the part of the day to which you look forward. It’s when you get to meet the other assistants in the other large buildings and learn how much they hate their jobs; there is nothing more frightening in this town than a happy assistant. Few exist, and those who do—usually with the names Brad, Katherine, or Jen—either are bad people, became bad people, or simply have no souls to begin with.
I get back at two and collect the calls that came in during lunch. There are three messages. One from Client X wanting to know where we were and why he didn’t have a check we’d sent. Another from Client X’s wife asking where we were and why they didn’t have their check yet. And a third from Client X asking us not to tell the wife that he was out of money.
Once I’ve collected the calls, I begin preparing my list for tomorrow and catalogue what was accomplished today: which scripts were copied, which meetings were set. My boss strolls back from lunch and tells me about a young client he just signed. “He’s my Charlie Kaufman,” he says.
The phone calls tend to die down later in the day, and I have a chance to read a bit. Nothing is more detrimental to a writer’s growth than reading the work of others. It only reinforces your worst fears. That you are a better writer than those that you represent. That “talent” is a made up word, like “dedication” and “grit.”
Finally, 6:15 rolls around and my boss is on the phone with his friend or lover or life partner. He won’t make eye contact, as he knows if he does he will see that I have my notebook in hand and one foot out the door. Still, I need to wait for his permission to leave. The phone rings. It’s a writer from Alabama. Her name is Georgia, she is a 52-year-old grandmother, just finished a screenplay about seamstresses in the 1940’s. She got our name from the WGA website (which is about as helpful as an appointment at the DMV) and wants to know to whom she should address a query letter.
“Get her off the phone!” my boss yells.
I don’t have the heart to do it. I listen as long as I can, then politely tell her that we cannot take unsolicited material. She asks how she would go about finding an agency that does. I tell her to consult the WGA website. She hangs up.
My boss tells me I can go home.