The Big Break: Being Strung Along
The summer was nearing its end, fall was nearby, but the kitchen was still hotter than we’d ever experienced throughout the previous few months. I was just completing my final level at the French Culinary Institute, working the Saucier station in the kitchen of ‘L’ecole,’ sweating under my chef whites. burning my hands on the hot pots and pans, slicing the tips of my fingers with my blade, and rushing to get each dish out on time before having my ear chewed off by one of my angry instructors. After each service came to an end, there was a sense of relief that I’d never experienced before in my life. Even as a high school football player, I don’t remember anything being as grueling. I removed my apron and hat and made my way upstairs to the locker room with the rest of my colleagues, both coming off of our rush, talking about how we did, and drained from being on our feet all night. There was little more than a drink and a cigarette that could help ease the pain.
I checked my voicemail while getting changed and was surprised to hear the voice of a producer, who I had met with earlier in the month, asking me to come back to his offices as he had an idea for a television series to pitch to me. I was caught off guard as I hadn’t heard back from him in a while, and figured I must have fumbled my words during our introductory meeting and blown the whole thing. I was trying to balance culinary school with my main career as a filmmaker and figured this may have been the big break I was hoping for. “No more Hi8!” I thought to myself, “No more cooking! Fuck you, chef! I’ve finally made it!”
The small yet highly established independent network (who will remain nameless for privacy reasons) had approached me earlier in the month after coming across some of my work and was interested in finding new “fresh talent” to begin directing some of their many lined-up projects. I was skeptical at first, as I have never once worked on a project over the scale of a single camera and a few actors at at time, and couldn’t figure what they wanted from me. I nervously entered their offices the first time, after going through the seemingly endless routine of having to talk to their receptionists, agents, producers, secretaries, and anyone else short of their own grandmothers to try and lock down a date and time to meet. I should’ve known at the time, after waiting in the tiny waiting room for nearly an hour and then having my meeting pushed up another hour, that things were most likely not going to work out. But hell, I’m young, naive, and kind of enjoyed the whole process in a weird way. It made me feel more important just to be sitting in those plush leather seats, reading old issues of People magazine from their coffee table to help waste the time. When in fact, it felt more like a doctor’s visit than anything else. Since I’ve been broke for years, the only reasonable thing I had to wear to this meeting was a plain white T-shirt and ripped jeans. Needless to say, I felt out of place.
Upon meeting the president of the production company as well as the executive producer, I was immediately charmed by their kindness and eagerness to work with me. They didn’t even seem to mind that I appeared homeless, hungover and starving! They asked me what type of project I may be interested in, as if I had my pick, which I simply responded, “Oh, I dunno. Anything I guess.” I watched their faces cringe. Maybe not the answer they were seeking.
For a 27-year-old struggling artist, who has been making no-budget films for over ten years, and living off of the change in his pocket, I was just ready to get on board, get paid, and start working in the, cough cough, “mainstream” world. So I was shocked when they shrugged off their grimaces, which were the result of my naivete, and handed me a 300-page screenplay for a new series they had been developing for a few years in the spirit of Freaks and Geeks.
“Read this and let us know what you think. We’d like to get started soon.”
I rushed out of the office, shaking their hands with my sweaty palms and charged down the hallway excitedly while carrying the 10-pound screenplay under my arm. How the hell did I pull that off?, I asked myself while riding the elevator down to the main lobby with a huge smile wrapped around my face. As soon as I got out onto the street, I began flipping through the pages and basically completed reading the entire series by the time I came home. “This really is it,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to be directing a series!” Just then, a bird shit on my head. Just my luck!
I immediately called my mom, announcing the good news to which she may or may not have begun crying tears of joy. I’d been the black sheep of the family, aimlessly drifting and wandering the country from years working on my films, barely scraping by, and putting myself at risk more times than I can count on two hands. So it must have been a huge relief for her to hear that I was finally going to be secure. Next stop, the Red Carpet!
After countless emails with the producers, letting them know that I had read and actually sincerely enjoyed the screenplay, they told me that I should begin budgeting and planning out the project thoroughly. But wasn’t I just going to be directing? Either way, this I did, even with math not being my strong point, I struggled a bit. However, so excited by the project, I pushed on, and even began scouting locations. With a detailed outline of budgeting ideas, locations, and even character-development treatments, I sent the paperwork out to the producers and hopped a train to my mother’s house for Christmas.
The holidays passed and yet, no word back from them. Had I been too overzealous? Too eager? Had I scared them away with my intensity? I began taking two Ambiens a night rather than just one during this period, just to ease my mind and sleep, without waking up every two hours wondering where I had gone wrong. I spent every waking moment wracking my mind, trying to figure out what happened. I’d blown my only chance.
Finally, the day came. I received a call from the producers explaining that they received my paperwork, yet they were unsure if this project would be able to get the green light due to the amount of work it would take. At their request, I reevaluated my budget once again and sent them a new version. “Perfect!” they said, “Come back and meet with us to talk about where we begin.” Now we’re rolling.
However during the meeting, it became apparent to me that we would not be moving forward with the project. The producers seemed depressed by the entire situation and even rolled their eyes whenever the title of the project came up, as if it had been a strain on their lives. I couldn’t figure out the point of having me do all the work as well as come in for another sit down meeting if they were just going to drop it. I had gotten the royal runaround. It stung because I actually truly enjoyed the sound of the project.
“We’ll call you when something else comes up, Court.”
Those words. Those Goddamn, Fucking Words! I cringe whenever I hear those words, even more so than when an angry French chef begins screaming curses at me in the kitchen. Nothing is worse than those words. I tried to hold back my emotions, forced a smile, and walked out of the office in disbelief. Three months of work and negotiating down the drain.
Time came and went. My bank account was drained and school had left me in a fragile emotional state. After graduating, I was so fed up with life in the kitchen, I made a vow to myself that I would never, not in a million years, end up back on the line ever again. I kept myself busy with other projects, short films, and working on other people’s films, which was a learning process in itself. Got myself to Sundance to see what all the hype was about and waited eagerly for “that call.” Still in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but feel like a loser, QC reject who must have fucked up one way or another for the producers to just kick me out on my ass.
One day, hungover, broke and depressed to the point of being possibly suicidal, I contacted them, out of desperation, asking if anything had come up. Anything, I beg of thee! I had to swallow my pride if I was going to survive.
“Well, actually, Court, yes, something has come our way that we think would be perfect for you.”
“Really?” I sat up from the bed in shock. The empty whiskey bottle crashed to the floor.
“Why don’t you come on in tomorrow and we can talk more about it. We think you’ll like it a lot.”
I was so overjoyed I decided to drink away my hangover down at the pub and pass out at the bar. The next morning as I cleaned myself up, shaved, suit and tie (well, not really) and got ready for the interview, I received an email:
“Sorry Courtney, but we are going to have to push our meeting up a week.”
The next week, I received another email:
“Hey Courtney, Hope all is well! We are going to have to reschedule. Sorry.”
A few days later, another:
“Hey Courtney, would you be able to meet with us next week? We can fit you in in the afternoon.”
Yes! Please! Anything!
I wasted my time until then down the pub once again, and shooting my own films. My DVD was about to be released worldwide, so I was hoping to bank off of a nice royalty check to keep my head above water. Wishful thinking.
When the day came, I entered their offices ready to sign the contract then and there. No more fooling around. I was ready to pull a Joan Crawford if things didn’t go my way — but then again, who was I fooling? I’m one of the most passive, nervous, introverted, and non-controntational humans in New York City. If I ask for ketchup and get mustard, I deal. Either way, upon entering I noticed a bunch of the producers look at each other in shock that I had arrived. They acted like I was there with a vendetta and ready to ambush the entire studio.
“Courtney…uh, what’re you doing here?”
“I have a meeting scheduled.”
After a few moments of confusion, they took a look in their books and let out a breath of relief. There was my name in bold print. No ambush today, boys!
“No hard feelings, I hope, Courtney. We’ve been busy with other things.”
“No, not at all,” I said, in my truest, genuine manner. Hell, if they had another project lined up for me, why should there be any hard feelings?
When the time came for me to hear the project, I nearly jumped out of my chair in excitement. It was exactly the right project for me. It had everything I wanted in it and was to be shot in a manner which I am very familiar with anyways. Low budget, documentary style, gritty, and fast paced.
“So, where’s the contract?” I wondered.
I was so anxious to begin, I left the offices without even thinking twice that my autograph was not asked for.
They sent me a follow-up email that night, expressing how nice it was to meet with me again and asking if my schedule was ready to be booked for shoots, to which I eagerly agreed. During the course of a week, most of my summer and fall was booked with shoots. I even had to consider jumping ship on my brother’s bachelor party in Vegas. Damn! At one point, I even went along with the producers and shot B-roll for the series, just to get a handle on what they were looking for. I had found it. The dream job. I couldn’t believe it.
“So, about that contract…”
A few days later, I was contacted by one of the producers asking me what I was thinking in regards to compensation, in which I undersold myself completely. After all, I didn’t want to scare them away! And by undersold, I mean that I would most likely still be a starving artist, but figured it’d be the best way to get my foot in the door. After my response was sent out, there were two days of nothing. No emails, no calls, nothing. I became a bit worried because there were two shoots coming up later that week and without hearing back from them, wasn’t sure what the protocol was going to be.
I got up the next morning and went for my morning walk around my neighborhood. I was filled with hope and overjoyed by the opportunity that had just landed on my lap. For a no-budget filmmaker to be handed a network series project was really rare and I couldn’t help but think of myself as the luckiest man in the world. I’d never have to work in a kitchen again! My confidence was boosted and the normal slouch in my walk was gone.
As my confidence continued to raise as I thought about my big break into the industry, an email arrived on my phone from the producers a few moments later which, with one quick swoop, crushed it back down to the ground. It did not explain too much other than:
“Courtney, we absolutely love your creative vision. You have such amazing talent and drive! However, we will not be needing you for this specific project. However, we will contact you when something else comes up.”
I nearly smashed my phone on the ground and threw my coffee at the homeless guy sleeping against the wall next to me. Did they really hang me out to dry once again? Even after I already shot footage for them? Even after I planned out my entire schedule around their schedule? Even after I cancelled trips, plans and everything else just to work wholeheartedly on this project for them?
I was at the end of my rope and went as far as to contact a lawyer who unfortunately notified me that because there wasn’t a contract signed, my case would most likely be thrown out. I was just chewed up and spit out like a bad piece of meat. I contacted them again, asking them whether it was due to creative differences or possibly my rate (and that I would even meet them in the middle if my suggestion was too high) and have yet to receive any response.
So there you have it, kids. Never for a second believe anything a studio, network or production company tells you, because most likely you are just another clown for them to make a fool out of for their own pleasure. I guess after all this, bankrupt, hungry, and tired, it’s back to the kitchen for me. I’d already been on the chopping block twice, so how grueling could being on the line be at this point? Looks like Hollywood is just going to have to wait for me a bit longer!
In the end, I don’t blame anyone nor is there really even any hard feelings, though still disappointed. It is simply just another reason why to just keep doing it yourself…