The classroom is large enough to hold about thirty students, one professor, and two chaperones, which works out swell because that about sums up our group. I’m attracted to the huge industrial-grade windows at the back of the room, more so for the rich Los Angeles cityscape beyond them. If you smash your face against the window and slide your eyes to the left as far as possible, as if to embody Jim Carrey on his best day, you can see almost half the city. Not saying I did this, but if you happen to meet anyone from the building across the street, maybe don’t mention that you know me.
Or do mention it. It’s not as if the suits in the building across the busy street know my name. Just my contorted, idiot face trying to see if the Uruks really are taking the hobbits to Isengard.
The room has a clean, indoor smell, though if it were my forty-story building, I would’ve stripped and replaced the carpet months ago. Correction: I would’ve sold the building and set up shop on an island in the South Pacific. But that’s neither here nor there—strike that, it’s all there and 5,501 miles from here, a classroom in a corporate-collegiate building in downtown LA.
Befitting a typical Southern California summer, the room is always about two degrees too cold. I suspect the AC in this type of building only knows two ways to perform: overcompensate, forcing you to stash a hoody in your backpack, or fail to deliver anything like a respite from the semi-arid, Mediterranean heat—not to be confused with Heat (1995), also set in LA, directed by Michael Mann and starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Val Kilmer.
I pause my internal narration to smile; leave it to a film student to draw a line from the weather to a critically acclaimed crime drama with an all-star cast and a rockin’ script. But that’s why I’m here, 2,200 miles from home. I’m here because I believe there’s a chance, with odds like one in one thousand, that I’ll one day write a movie like Heat. One in one thousand odds may be too optimistic, but I don’t care. It’s a vision worth beholding.
Hanna: I don’t know how to do anything else.
McCauley: Neither do I.
Hanna: I don’t much want to, either.
McCauley: Neither do I.
Because I opted to attend a Christian university (I’ll save the pros and cons list regarding that decision for another article), we begin each eight-hour session with one student choosing a devotion from an e-book written for aspiring screenwriters, followed by a prayer. (Yes, you read that right: an e-book devotional written for aspiring, heretofore unsuccessful screenwriters. For every market, there is a product.)
Prayerful observances conducted, we then get to the business of learning from industry pros, everyday people once upon a time like us, now kind enough to pause their bustling schedules and teach the few aspects of LA that can be taught. If time allows, we get to the nose-to-grindstone work of ideating and, God willing, writing our short film scripts.
If time does not allow, and it usually doesn’t, then we dedicate the mornings to writing. Or, at least, I do.
Our industry pro guest list comprises writers of well-known films and teleplay episodes and some producers and TV show editors. In other words, people who have accomplished what seems, from my heavenward, detached-jaw gaze on the ground floor, the impossible.
However, today’s special guest is the author of the e-book containing our daily devotions. For my part, I have enjoyed reading his custom-made devotional for aspiring writers like me, and so I look forward to meeting him in the flesh and hearing what he wants to teach us. Sure, he is not as credentialed as some of the other guests we’ve seen, but I don’t care about that—I’m engaged and eager to learn all the things.
“All right,” he says about fifteen minutes into his talk, “who has begun work on their short film?”
A reasonable question to a group of students participating in a class entitled “Writing the Short Film.” I had started mine earlier that morning after a productive development session with our course instructor. So, in a spirit of genuine sincerity, I raise my hand.
Despite being attracted to the rear window, I have chosen to sit at the front of the class. As I said, I am here to milk the last ounce of value from this experience. Three grand is a lot of money to most people, and though I have a noble dream to one day wipe my ass clean with a stack of “hundos,” that blessed day has not yet come. For now, I am but a humble, full-time grad student working a full-time job to cash-flow his low-ROI ambitions of becoming a better writer.
“Go ahead,” he says, gesturing to me. “Pitch me your logline.”
For the uninitiated, the logline is a one or two-sentence summary of the story, encapsulating the central conflict and, if possible, the most compelling character and plot elements with razor precision. As a snapshot of the film’s essence, it is one of the most complex forms of writing to perfect. A fun and helpful way to learn this craft is to create loglines for your favorite movies and see how they stack against the originals (if published).
As a renowned archeologist competes with the Nazis to uncover the Lost Ark of the Covenant, he must confront an old rival obsessed with finding the Ark and attaining the power of God.
To be clear, that’s a mediocre logline. If interested, you can find what may or may not be the original one here. In the presumed original, you can see the phrase “goes on a quest,” which probably carries more weight in the adventure genre than my use of the verb “competes.” Also, the original logline pits Doctor Jones against Hitler’s Nazis. That’s an eye-catcher, to be sure.
Mediocrity aside, now you know what a logline is. And the guest teacher is asking me to share mine. But there’s a complication. As a rule, and unless it’s one of Tolkien’s poems, I usually don’t memorize things that I can look up in less than a minute. And, as justification for this rule, I recall a vague snippet from a Sherlock Holmes adventure where Holmes tells Watson that one must not pack too much into one’s mind. I had written a logline for my short film earlier that day, but I had also buried it in a subfolder on my computer where I kept all my coursework. What can I say except that I like having organized file systems? Dumbledore transfers his heavier memories to the Pensieve—so I’m not crazy.
“I have to find it,” I say. “Give me one sec….”
And now passes an awkward five seconds of me double-clicking into a maze of my own design, with Gandalf’s remark about the dwarves and their lost passwords echoing in my subconscious.
“Time’s up!” he says. “I just got off the elevator, and the doors are closing. You gotta memorize the logline for the elevator pitch. Who has one ready?”
When he says that nonsense about getting off the elevator, my father’s fighting spirit rises.
“We’re not on a goddamn elevator,” I say.
Just kidding. I say nothing.
I have paid good money to be here, and I am not about to get expelled from this class just to enjoy an instant of blind, ecstatic Burdeshaw rage. So, I sit, silent, breathing in and out, doing all I can to reframe my awareness and return my attention to the guest speaker whose devotional e-book I’ve vowed never to rest eyes on again.
He points to the next student with a hand raised, the next, and the next. One by one, every student in the class recites his or her logline. Did some students have their loglines memorized? Probably. But here’s what I think. Unlike me, most of the other students have saved their files in some haphazard way on their desktops, allowing them to retrieve their loglines and to demonstrate to the entire class that they have, in fact, “memorized” the same. Meanwhile, I have again fallen into the archetype of the sacrificial lamb, buying time for everyone else.
When he gets to the last student, I have long since opened the Word document with my logline and synopsis. I wait for him to return to me, but he never does. He carries on with the talk, where he goes on to compare John Lennon’s “Imagine” to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A fair connection, I admit. But I’m too knotted up to care too deeply. And at the moment, I think I would like to hear John’s song again, even if it is in some vein a dreaded vision of false peace.
Twenty-something students and I’m the one who fails the elevator pitch—because, if we are to treat the metaphor with any weight, I am the only student on the damned elevator. The other students, my worthy classmates, are in the lobby, the hotel bar, or wherever the hell it is this bigshot producer lands when he steps off the elevator and, as the doors close, tells me to do better next time. Leaving me safely behind, he walks into a room full of people ready to pitch and decides to mingle with them because, well, he’s not on the elevator anymore.
So that’s that. I ride the elevator down to Tartarus and confront my rage. Somewhere in the distance, “Imagine” starts to play. I pitch my logline, now memorized, to the four corners of the underworld, and then I ride the elevator back up to greet the sunlight.
I spend the next week writing the first draft of my short film. With help from the course instructor, who knows a thing or two about writing scripts, it passes with flying colors. I return home. A year passes. I successfully defend my portfolio and graduate with an MFA in Cinema and Television. Another year passes, and I move to Sacramento for my job (and to meet new friends—which I do). Here, I spend between nine and ten hours per day at a co-work office, bio-hacking my way through SEO and a major website migration project.
During one of these “killin’-it” days, I get a call.
It’s a professor I’ve never met from my alma mater on the line with a student director looking to make a short film for his final post-graduate project. They tell me they want to make my movie. A moment of disbelief, and then I tell them to go for it. The process begins, and I spend the next month providing them with rewrites. I take all their advice, making slight changes to the script, adding details, and subtracting superfluity. This is the job I trained for, and it’s the best job in the world.
They never ask me for my logline.
A semester passes, wherein the student director gathers a cast and crew and makes my screenplay into a living, breathing short film. He executes it in a way that I know I never could, not being the diplomatic or rallying type. Of course, I have critiques on some of the performances, but that’s because I’m a snob. He sends me a copy, and I laugh out loud, with genuine joy, as I watch the credits roll. A hundred names float up the screen right after mine. A hundred names. Maybe more. All of them real people who worked on a movie that I wrote.
Six months later, the director, Nathanael, emails me the week of my thirtieth birthday to let me know that our movie won Best Screenplay at the Poe Film Festival in Richmond, VA, a city I’ve never visited. About three months later, I receive the commemorative glass award in the mail. I keep it on my bookcase and hope to God I never drop it during a move. A Raven is inscribed on the glass, an obvious homage to Poe (which is funny given that the film is a light-hearted rom-com), and below that, another inscription reads, “Best Screenplay.”
To my recurring frustration, it does not read “Best Elevator Pitch.”
I have searched it front, back, and upside down in the desperate hope of locating this single affirmation. But alas, it is nowhere to be found.