Anthologies can be a lot of fun to put together for writers because, for once, you’re not actually writing what goes into the book! For a recent graduate seminar I took at my local university, I was tasked to come up with an anthology to pitch to both the class and potential editors, and boy, was this project both lots of fun and super difficult each step along the way.
My anthology was to be called The Dark Side of Hollywood, and it was going to include short fiction, screenplay excerpts, and more.
If you’re at all interested in how to pitch an anthology, here’s an example below that goes in great detail about my personal relationship to the theme and what pieces of writing would have been included!
The Dark Side of Hollywood Anthology
The lights! The glamour! The movie stars! The place where dreams are made of! Hollywood has been the destination for millions of wannabe actors and filmmakers for more than a hundred years. While some films and television shows are produced out of New York, the prime destination in the United States for those who want to make it in the entertainment industry is Los Angeles, California.
Everyone grows up thinking it’s a magical place — for eighteen years, I certainly did — but the truth about Hollywood is that it’s not the image you have in your mind. Many in the industry, especially those who’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, are selfish and greedy. Egos run rampant. Most movies are not made by filmmakers anymore, but by corporations. Instead of opportunities, there is one closed door after another, and while a select few make it through, others find themselves left out in the cold. Hollywood is not the place where dreams come to fruition; through the use of screenplay excerpts, novel excerpts, and short stories, my anthology proves that Hollywood is often a place where only nightmares dwell.
I moved to L.A. for film school, when I was eighteen. I attended Loyola Marymount University, where for four years I existed in a bubble atop Culver City, making short films, attending classes, and spending time visiting a huge, sprawling city that, despite its millions of people, can make you feel more isolated than anywhere else in the world. During my junior year, I took on my first real Hollywood job — well, not a job exactly, since I didn’t get paid. In most places, an internship is an unpaid opportunity for people to make connections, learn about their industry, and get ahead not by learning in a classroom but by actually doing.
Unfortunately, in Hollywood, an internship doesn’t really work that way. Between 2006 and 2008 I held four internships, and what I came to find was that the work I was doing often benefited the people who ran the company more than it ever did me. I often wrote script coverage for awful screenplays, sitting around for hours on end doing work that went unpaid but that should not have been. While I always arrived at work early and left well after my final required hour, my hard work went unnoticed, and no internship led to any job or long-lasting connections.
Three months after graduating from college, I took the best job I could find — a production assistant position on a reality show. While this was the one job I took in L.A. that paid me well for close to a year (before the show was canceled, and I was on the hunt for new employment again), it also showed me in excessive detail the egos, disrespect, and seediness in many individuals, both in and outside the industry. The star of the show would show up late for interviews, sometimes as much as three or four hours. I watched vain men and women destroy their faces and bodies on camera, all to look a little younger, and to get a little face-time on a TV show. After a year working in reality television, I needed a new start.
My final job in Los Angeles lasted two years, in which I worked for an independent feature film casting director. The experience had its highs and lows. I enjoyed reading with actors at auditions, and hearing actors scream over the phone when my boss called to tell them they had received the part. But when I think of the dark side of Hollywood, nothing comes to mind faster than the auditioning process, the part of film and television pre-production that crushes far too many souls. Thousands of actors audition every day in L.A., hoping and praying they can book a film, work with a great director, win awards, become a star. Most actors will never make it, and for the few who do, success is fleeting. One minute you can be on the front of every magazine in the world, and the next, no one will care about you. My job in casting had its perks, but after two years, it left me empty inside. It was time to move out of L.A. for good.
When I returned to Reno, I started writing fiction. My first short story was about a crazed fan who murders his favorite movie director, and my first novel was about a casting director who takes advantage of her position in order to cast not a film but the next leading man in her romantic life. Stories about dark Hollywood have always intrigued me, even when I was in high school and hadn’t discovered what the experience working in the industry would be like; therefore, assembling an anthology on this subject seemed to be the natural next stage.
The Dark Side of Hollywood features twenty works in all — three screenplay excerpts, three excerpts from blockbuster novels, two excerpts from classic novels, two excerpts from science fiction novels, two horror short stories, a mystery excerpt and short story, two excerpts about actors, two excerpts about the television industry, and two brand new, never-before published pieces of short fiction. My anthology may pull together work from various genres and sources, but my goal is that they work together to form a cohesive whole and ultimately prove to the reader that writers have no shortage of ideas about how to skewer Hollywood and all those false dreams it promises.
The anthology begins and ends with screenplay excerpts, with a third included in the very middle. Many great stories have been told over the years about dark Hollywood, but few projects have ever been able to capture the destructiveness of the industry than films the industry has produced themselves. I begin with the opening scenes of the script to Tim Burton’s marvelous 1994 comedy Ed Wood, arguably his greatest achievement. The film tells of the worst movie director to have ever lived, Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp) and the struggles he endured in the 1950s trying to get B-movies like Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space off the ground. The opening scenes of the script involve Wood premiering his latest movie, only for him the next day to be torn apart by the reviews in the local newspaper. The actors from the film surround him and ask if everyone’s career is officially dead. Ed smiles, and says, “It’s just the beginning. I promise this: if we stick together, one day I’ll make every single one of you famous.” Of course, Ed lied; none of those actors ever did become famous. This excerpt is the perfect place to start my anthology, because Ed fills his actors with such promise, only for all their dreams to be torn down as they realize the deceit in his words.
In the middle of the anthology is an excerpt from one of my favorite films ever — David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Lynch also wrote the script, and one of the most devilishly funny and disturbing scenes involves a film director (Justin Theroux) who meets a creepy cowboy at the top of a desolate hill. The cowboy proceeds to tell him that the casting of the leading lady in his next motion picture is not up to him, and that if he doesn’t do what is asked, there will be Hell to pay. This scenes shows, in a scarily exaggerated way, the pressures actors and filmmakers face every day in the industry.
I close my anthology with the final scene from my all-time favorite film, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson. To my mind, Sunset Boulevard is the only truly perfect film ever made, and no scene is more perfect than its final one, in which aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson) descends her mansion staircase and acts for the film cameras — one last time. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” she says, but as she walks toward the cameras, she becomes more and more out of focus, only for the film to dissolve to black before she can enjoy the close-up she has so desperately desired her entire career. Films don’t get much darker and funnier than Sunset Boulevard, and it’s the perfect closer.
Two excerpts from classic novels appear in the anthology, and they might be the most famous books ever written about dark Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald is most famous for writing The Great Gatsby, of course, as well as Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise, but one he wrote that is equally brilliant is his final 1940 book, The Last Tycoon, which was left uncompleted at the time of his death. The story of a young movie mogul who rises to power in Hollywood was based on famous film producer Irving Thalberg, and, like in Thalberg’s real life, there was a mix of both good times and bad. I have included in the anthology chapter four, in which the mogul fires a director on one of his pictures and swiftly moves a new up-and-coming director into his place. The former director doesn’t even get to have his say; he is removed from the movie with no questions asked. As shocking as it may seem, this practice goes on all the time in Hollywood, with not even the most famous of directors safe from interfering studio executives from taking them off the production.
The other classic excerpt comes from the 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, written by Nathanael West. Unlike The Last Tycoon, this novel focuses on multiple characters, including an actor, producer, and director (as well as a businessman named Homer Simpson) who in their own separate ways try to make names for themselves in the film industry. I have included the last chapter from the novel, which depicts a vicious riot at a movie premiere. This scene in all its madness shows that even on premiere night, many in Hollywood are just looking out for themselves and will do everything they can to get ahead.
Three excerpts from blockbuster novels are included, two of which became hugely popular movies in the 1990s and one of which was penned by one of the most famous romance authors of all time. The Player is Michael Tolkin’s satirical 1988 novel about a Hollywood executive named Griffin Mills who kills an aspiring screenwriter who he believes is conspiring to murder him. The book was a huge hit at the time, and it was adapted into an award-winning 1992 comedy directed by Robert Altman. The first chapter of the novel, which details the pompousness of narrator Griffin as he goes about a typical day at his production office, is included in the anthology.
The second excerpt from a blockbuster comes from Hollywood Wives, a sprawling 1983 novel penned by Jackie Collins that takes the reader into the lives of various backstabbing, conniving women in La-La-Land. Collins also tells of a sex-addicted film producer named Buddy, as well as the casting side of making movies, which is something I don’t come across often in fiction. This is the most sexually explicit of my twenty picks, and it shows the seediness of what many in Hollywood can be like. The chosen scene for the anthology is from chapter seven of part one, in which the main duo of wives — Elaine and Karen — enjoy a morning work-out in Beverly Hills and gossip about what all the other wives are up to, including a friend who just sold her first screenplay to a major production studio.
The third excerpt comes from what may be the most famous Hollywood novel of the last thirty years — Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty, which became the Golden Globe-winning 1995 comedy starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman. The book tells of Chili Palmer, a Florida loan shark who follows a client out to Los Angeles and becomes swept up in the movie industry. Chapter fourteen is included in the anthology, a very funny scene in which two corrupt characters who have both killed multiple people debate the merits of a good screenplay. Palmer’s dialogue pops off the page, and the absurd scenario of two killers getting swept up in the magic of movies is black comedy at its finest.
I wanted to feature different kinds of genres in my anthology, and so I have pulled from various sources examples of dark Hollywood in genre fiction. First up is science fiction, which is a natural place to look for subversive takes on the entertainment industry. My all-time favorite author Stephen King has had almost all of his books translated to the screen, but he, surprisingly, hasn’t written much about the industry itself, and instead has focused more on stories about the book industry, most famously in his ingenious dark thriller, Misery. But in his early days, King did pen a magnificent science fiction novel The Running Man, in which people compete on a televised game show competition, one in which the victor wins more dough than he ever could have imagined, and the loser dies — for real! Originally published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachmann, the book, like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, shows the scary extent that television competitions are potentially headed in the future. A chapter about a third-way through the book has been included, in which the malevolent show-runner Killian takes the protagonist Ben Richards aside to stress the importance that he play by the rules of the game, or else.
The second science fiction excerpt comes from a wildly imaginative 1990 novel Moving Pictures, written by Terry Pratchett. Set in an alternate world called Discworld, the book tells of a group of characters who turn to movie-making in a town called Holy Wood (yes, Holy Wood), including a wizard-turned-extra and a gifted dog who becomes a major star. Pratchett celebrates the absurdities of the entertainment industry in this satirical novel, especially in the pages I’ve chosen for inclusion in the anthology, which detail the insanely troubled production of Holy Wood’s latest movie.
Horror may be my favorite genre of all, and possibly my greatest find for my anthology was Hell Comes to Hollywood: An Anthology of Short Horror Fiction Set in Tinseltown Written by Hollywood Genre Professionals, edited by Eric Miller. Nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Anthology, this 2012 book features twenty brand new horror stories about Hollywood, and it’s a devilish mix of serious, goofy, and downright scary tales. The first story that I’ve greedily moved over to my own project is “The Cutting Room,” written by Jeff Seeman, creator and writer of the comic book, Dream Police. “The Cutting Room” may be the most wickedly dark and subversive entry of all in my anthology, the story of an aspiring screenwriter who one day snaps, and starts murdering not just the producer he’s pitching his latest idea to, but everyone he comes across on the studio lot.
The second story from Hell Comes to Hollywood I’ve chosen to include is another unique tale called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollywood,” written by Alan Bernhoft. Famous actors from yesteryear come to life on a mural in this story — everyone from Bette Davis to John Wayne to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy — as they comment on a real-life creature killing off innocent victims on the nearby neighborhood street. These two horror stories not only horrify and entertain the reader but give the kinds of outrageous looks into dark Hollywood only the horror genre could offer.
Of course, if I’m going to feature science fiction and horror in my anthology, I couldn’t get away with not giving the reader a couple of cool mystery stories. The first comes from a 1994 novella called Dick Contino’s Blues, written by James Ellroy, famous for such mystery novels as The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential. Dick Contino’s Blues takes one of Ellroy’s most beloved characters and puts him in a whole new adventure, where he tracks down a vicious serial killer on a film set while at the same time tries to repair his public image. I chose a scene from chapter nine, in which Dick deals with a group of egomaniacs all trying to get what they want on the local film about to go into production.
The other mystery included in the anthology is a pulp short story that comes from the Hollywood Detective magazine in January 1942. “Bullet From Nowhere,” written by Robert Leslie Bellem, takes place on a film set as well, and begins on a shooting day that seems like it will be like any other. Unfortunately, the lead actor in the film and the director start butting heads, and a gunshot goes off from an unknown location, killing the director; it’s up to Dan Turner, the lead detective in the Hollywood Detective magazine stories, to solve the mystery. Both of these mystery tales add unique angles to the dark Hollywood theme, the same way that the science fiction stories provide fantasy elements and the horror stories give a gruesome jolt of the macabre.
Up next are two tragic entries about — who else — actors. “The Cryerer,” by Jim Hanas, was published in One Story in 2002, and it tells the story of a D-list actor who wants to become a major star but can’t get anywhere in his sad career. “The Cryerer” takes place over telephone calls almost exclusively, and it isn’t until the end when the unnamed main character goes into a weeping fit, knowing his depressing life is never to get any better. Most people think of acting as a glamorous and exciting job, but for every Brad Pitt, there are a thousand actors appearing in unaired pilots and direct-to-video movies year after year, and a million actors just struggling to be picked for a bad student film. Many actors live in misery, and Hanas’ story perfectly captures the mentality these people go through.
My other entry about actors is an excerpt from the 2000 novel Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates. This books takes a fictional look at the damaged life of famed film actress Marilyn Monroe, and while it seems excessive for Oates to have made the book a door-stopper at nearly 800 pages in length, the material toward the end in which she explores Monroe’s demons are quite effective. I have included in my anthology a chapter toward the end called Divorce (Retake), in which Monroe, one year prior to her death, endures the sadness of her friend and co-actor Clark Gable passing away, as well as dealing with her divorce from playwright Arthur Miller. Oates writes in a God-like third person, almost laughing at the absurdity of this heavily flawed person. The chapter ends with Marilyn opening an envelope addressed to her that has one word block printed on a piece of toilet paper: WHORE. Success in Hollywood doesn’t last forever, and many succumb to the pressures; few actresses fell so fast and tragically than Monroe, whose last few months alive sum up the epitome of dark Hollywood.
Of course, I don’t want to make anyone assume that darkness exists only in the film industry. I would argue that it is worse in the television industry, where the competition is fiercer in 2014 than it’s ever been. Therefore, I couldn’t close out my anthology without including two subversive pieces about the television industry. The first is an excerpt from a 2010 young adult novel, Paparazzi Princess: Secrets of My Hollywood Life, which tells of a self-absorbed teenage girl who, at age fifteen, is already one of the biggest TV stars in America. I have included chapter thirteen, in which the protagonist Kaitlin Burke suffers a panic attack on the set of her show, and ends up in the hospital. Does anyone, including her own family, care about her wellbeing? Of course not. They only care about what this panic attack might mean for her career. This chapter shows how devilish people can be when it comes to maintaining one’s fame.
The other entry about the television industry included in my anthology is a 1988 short story entitled “Little Expressionless Animals,” by David Foster Wallace. This hilariously wicked satire tells of a contestant named Julie Smith on Jeopardy! who performs so well that the producers decide to keep her on the show; she ends up winning every Jeopardy! game for three years running. Later published in Wallace’s book of short stories Girl With Curious Hair, “Little Expressionless Animals” uses Alex Trebek, as well as Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, in a story that shows what these kinds of men who host game shows are like behind the scenes — and it’s not always pretty. This story is another entertaining account of how power can corrupt even the most goodhearted of people, especially when they land somewhere like Hollywood, where few are able to escape without at least a few battle scars.
Finally, my anthology features two brand new stories, never before published, written by Nicholos Vienneau and Forrest Hartman. The emotionally wrenching story by Mr. Vienneau is titled “Bye, Bye Babbage,” and it tells of a woman working in the industry who writes for the hottest show on television. She has been hard at work at making a name for herself for five long years, but things seem to be getting harder for her, not easier. When she’s ultimately fired from her current show, she spirals into a deep depression and struggles to find a way out of her misery. Vienneau’s story shows the heartache people endure every day in the entertainment industry, as well as the idiocy that goes on behind-the-scenes, and the selfishness even good people can eventually succumb to.
The concise, entertaining piece of flash fiction by Mr. Hartman is titled “The Devil and Clay Johnson,” and it tells of an aspiring actor who makes a deal with the Devil to become the most famous actor of all time. He gets his wish, and becomes hugely successful, but unfortunately, not everything ends well — not that it ever could have. In just two pages, Hartman crafts a wise Hollywood fable that uses fantasy to showcase the real-life deals actors, producers, and directors make with the Devil on a day-to-day basis.
The Dark Side of Hollywood uses various genres from different time periods, different formats, and authors of different genders, sexualities, and track records, to paint a picture of a place so often idolized yet rarely criticized. Hollywood may not be the absolute nightmarish place represented in this anthology, but it’s not always a lovely paradise where dreams are made of, either. In the end, Hollywood is a place that can make a filmmaker’s career, or give an actor a shot — but it’s also a place where many enter with high hopes, only to be chewed up and spit out, never to be heard from again. It’s a place where many go to live, but where most go to die.
Get out while you can.