My First Break

by Leila Basen

Your Couch is No Longer Valid

I was 21, a couple of weeks out of York University’s film school, and I already had my first writing contract on a CBC sitcom. I turned in my first draft, then waited anxiously.

Finally, the call. The producer wanted a meeting! A special meeting. A one-on-one, face-to-face at his private office in a condo on Bay Street, far from the studio at the CBC–somewhere where we couldn’t be disturbed.

Clutching my first draft, I knocked on the door, eager and ready to take notes. And that’s when I noticed the office looked an awful lot like a studio apartment. For one thing, there wasn’t an actual desk. And the couch where the producer was sitting was a pull-out couch, and it didn’t look like the mattress was the only thing he planned on pulling out.

That was the first time it happened. But definitely not the last. I’m not talking about getting hit on, or even about getting fired–which I did. I’m talking about having a meeting with a producer who hadn’t even bothered to read my script.

Back in the bad old tax shelter days, before sexual harassment had even been invented and when every dentist was an investor and every Hollywood has-been starred in a Canadian film, I arrived on the scene with too many dreams and too little clue.

I soon found myself on the couch in another producer’s office. This one was in Montreal. Robert Lantos was sitting on the other side of his desk, talking on the phone. He wasn’t paying attention during the job interview, so when he hired me to be his executive assistant, he missed the part where I said I didn’t take dictation and I couldn’t touch type. Those were just details–after all, my goal was to be a rich and famous screenwriter and now I was working for a big-time producer. So what if the only thing I was writing were lunch orders? At least I had my platform shoe in the door.

Actually, it was more like a portal into a parallel universe, where coked-out actresses ran naked down the corridors of the Ritz-Carlton and glamorous parties were thrown on yachts in Cannes. Dinners, drinks, pink champagne.

The light of disco balls was blinding. I had lost sight of my goal. So I started waking up at 5:00 a.m. and writing: short stories, a couple of magazine articles and eventually, when Robert realized I was serious about the writing thing, coverage on scripts that came into the office.

And then it arrived, in brown paper wrapping. My big break.

It was a book called Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary–a thriller about a prominent financier who must fight to save his crumbling empire and his rapidly fading manhood. It was all a big metaphor for a guy’s problem with his penis. A pre-Viagra tale of sexual obsession from the POV of an aging businessman who can’t get it up–or, when he gets it up, can’t keep it up.

If the book was totally sexist, the first draft screenplay written by an American writer was even more misogynist, and I said as much to Robert. “So,” he said, after I finished my little feminist rant. “Do you want to do the rewrite?”

What, are you kidding? Me, a 23-year-old girl from Forest Hill Village writing about impotent millionaires in Paris? Of course, I’d need to do some hands-on research. But talk about a perfect match of writer to material! Where do I sign?

In fact, I never signed anything, because there never was a script contract. Robert continued to pay me my executive assistant salary of $350 a week. I sat in my usual desk in a room with the other four secretaries. But instead of writing lunch orders, I was writing what was to become the biggest-budget Canadian film of that time. Directed by George Kaczender, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid starred Richard Harris, George Peppard, Jeanne Moreau and Jennifer Dale.

In lieu of money, I got an IBM Selectric II, a free trip to Paris, where some of the film was shot, and tons of experience screenwriter-wise. I learned how to sit in silence in a read-through, even when your dialogue was being massacred. I learned what it means when a director says no one cares what you think because “you’re only the writer.” And I learned that when Richard Harris wanted a line change there was no point arguing with him because he was going to change it on set anyway.

But the most important thing I learned was that a feature film credit, no matter how sketchy, could be parlayed into another script and another; and thus began my career as a writer.

Before I knew it I was back in Toronto at the CBC, sitting in a producer’s office–the same producer who lured me to his apartment, only to fire me when I asked about the furnishings. Now I was listening to him tell some other impressionable young thing how I was a famous Canadian writer and that he was the one who had given me my first big break.

 


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