My first disastrous encounter with Hollywood

Oh, so you’re back at work, are you? And you miss being on holiday, and you think you’ve had a bad week? Well, let me tell you about a business call I had this week, and then tell me if you still feel like bellyaching.

This week I was on a skype call with two people in Los Angeles. Skype calls are wonderful inventions. Without skype calls, long-distance business would have to be done the old-fashioned way: thoughtfully, in writing, and without protracted spells of excruciating awkwardness.

I was on the line with a young hotshot director and a big-time Hollywood producer (all Hollywood producers are big time, you have to understand, and all young Hollywood directors are hotshot. It’s like the porn industry: there are no supporting actors in porn; they’re all porn stars). They wanted to discuss a project with me, get my thoughts, see if I might be interested.

Now there’s nothing that so pleases a writer as discussing a project. Projects are fun and exciting, because you get to imagine the wonderful work you will do, the worlds you’ll create and friends you’ll make, without having to actually do any of it yet. Some people think the best part of writing is having written, but those people are amateurs – the best part of writing is before it’s time to write.

Joining a group call is all about timing. You don’t want to be the last one to join, keeping the hotshot directors and big-time Hollywood producers waiting, but you also don’t want to be the first one or second one there, and have to make awkward small talk with the other early-bird while waiting for number three to arrive.

“Hello?” I said, joining the call, hoping to hear two hearty American voices singing out in welcome.

“Hi,” said the big-time Hollywood producer. “I guess we’re the first ones at the party.”

She sounded exactly the way a big-time Hollywood producer should sound: powerful, confident, ready to say the word and change your life. I suddenly realized the importance of this call. This could be it. If I take this opportunity and connect with this person you could be seeing me at the Golden Globes next year getting drunk with Benicio del Toro and playfully throwing breadrolls at Scarlett Johansen. I need to be charming, and serious, and smart. I need to be present.

“So how’s it going over there?” she said.

Look at us! We’re chitchatting! I am chitchatting with a big-time Hollywood producer!

She hadn’t turned her camera on. Apparently it’s a power move to turn off your camera in a skype call. I wondered whether I should turn mine off. Was it too late to turn it off? Was it weird to leave it on?

“Oh, pretty good,” I said. “There are a lot of summer fires here at the moment though.”

This was a surprising conversational turn. Up to that moment, I hadn’t noted in myself the slightest sign of interest in summer fires. As a phenomenon they do not appeal to me, as a topic of conversation they do not intrigue me. I should get off the topic of fires pretty swiftly.

“Yeah?” she said. If anything she was less interested in fires than I was.

“Oh yes, lots of fires,” I said. “We’ve been having lots of them. Don’t know why.”

“Ah,” she said.

I must stop talking about fires immediately.

“Didn’t you have some fires over there recently?” I asked.

“Mmm,” she said.

“Terrible thing,” I said. “Fires.”

“Huh,” she said.

Actually, I had started another observation about fires and was a good couple of sentences in – something about how wind makes fires worse – when she said the “Huh”. At first I thought she was just cutting me off from talking about fires, which would have been merciful relief, but then I realized that there was a lag on the line.

So I stopped speaking, and there was a silence, and then I said, “There seems to be a lag”, just as she started talking. So she stopped and I stopped, then there was silence so we both started again, and both stopped, then she said “You go”, but I had nothing to say except to clarify my stance on fires – in a nutshell, they’re no good, and the wind doesn’t help – and then the director came on the line.

That’s when things got bad. Turns out he’s a hotshot Russian director and has a heavy Russian accent so I couldn’t make out what he was saying. It might have helped to read his lips but there was the lag, plus he didn’t have his camera on either.

Stealthily I pressed a button and my screen went dark.

“I’m just going to let you boys talk, and I’ll listen in and learn from you,’ said the big-time producer. “I just want to say that I’m very excited about this project and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts, Daniel.”

“Darrel,” I said, through force of habit.

“What?” said the director, who had already started talking.

“My name’s Darrel, not Daniel,” I said, blushing.

“I didn’t say Daniel,” he said.

“Not you,” I said, “sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt …”

“Were you talking to me?” said the big-time producer incredulously.

“Um … no … I mean …”

“Shall we maybe talk about the project now?”

I listened in some perplexity to the hotshot director. Every now and then I caught a word I thought I recognised, like “diamonds” or “castanets” or “Eisenstein”.

Sometimes he would stop, and I would wait a bit to account for the lag, then say, “Mmm”, the way the big-time producer had done, but then I realized that I shouldn’t wait for the lag, because my waiting was just making the lag twice as long.

Eventually I knew I had to speak, so after the next long pause I launched into an enthusiastic response to what I guessed he’d been saying. I tried to sound enthusiastic about the project, and also imply that there were definitely some fresh angles I could bring to it, but I didn’t specify which angles because I still didn’t know what the project was.

But deep silence has a bad effect on a monologue. The more I spoke, the more I lost my way and doubled back on myself. I started repeating things using different words, then repeating them using the same words, then wondering aloud what I meant, then changing my mind. Every time I stopped there was that silence from outer space and I would start talking again. I just talked and talked, trying to drown the panic of not knowing what I’d said or what I was going to say next, just talking and talking because if I talk long enough we’ll all eventually die and it will be okay.

Finally I stopped, and the hotshot director said, “Sorry, I missed that last part.”

Which part? The last sentence? The whole second half? Where should I start my recap? What did I just say?!

I wanted to say, “Never mind, it wasn’t important”, but that would be giving the game away too easily.

“Do you mean what I said about time travel?” I said. “I love the time travel.”

“What time travel?” said the hotshot director. “There’s no time travel.”

I rocked back and forth and silently beat at my head with my fists. I mimed hanging myself with an invisible rope, my head lolling to one side, tongue protruding.

“You know, your camera’s on,” said the hotshot director.

I froze, mid-contortion. If I sat there without moving long enough, my tongue hanging out, maybe they’d think the connection broke and it was the screen that was frozen.

“Thank you, Daniel, this has been a great chat,” said the big-time producer. “We can’t wait to work with you some day.”

“Thang ’oo,” I said, my tongue still outside my mouth.

“Bye, Daniel, speak to you soon,” said the hotshot director, and we all pressed the red button, knowing that never again, no way, no how, not in this or any other reality, conceivable or otherwise, would we ever speak to each other again.

If there really had been such a thing as time travel, I would go back in time to that conversation, and make sure I used a real rope.

The Times, 17 January 2019