A splash of humor, a dash of cynicism, and a twist of skepticism

james poyner

james poyner
Summit, New Jersey,
May 14
A former journalist and stock analyst, I now do custom cabinetry and photography. I also occasionally vent verbally, a throwback to days in the newsroom.


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JULY 6, 2009 5:48PM

L.A. Story

Rate: 7 Flag

I’ve waited six months to write this post, the one about my firstborn son leaving the nest for the West Coast to seek his fame and fortune in Movieland. I was waiting for the happy ending, if not the one where he effusively thanks his parents for all their support in his Oscar acceptance speech, at least the one in which he finally finds employment gainful enough to pay his rent and buy enough food that his mother doesn’t feel compelled to send him CARE packages a la those days when he was at summer camp.


That moment arrived Saturday when I was driving the grocery cart between the deli section and the soft-drink aisle of the Stop ‘N Shop. My cellphone rang as I was reaching for a package of “lite” English muffins that seem to me to weigh just as much as the regular ones. I recognized his number as I flipped open the phone.


This just in from our L.A. bureau...


“Hey, Noel, what’s up,” I said, already nervous because he wasn’t suppose to hear about a job he’d been chasing for a month as the personal assistant to a movie director until Sunday at the earliest.


“Dad,” he said in that glum monotone I’d come to recognize over the years as a precursor to getting bad news, sometimes reeeaaaalllllly  bad news. I stopped the cart, not wanting to risk slamming it in anger into a perfect pyramid stack of Diet Coke 12-packs (on sale at two for $5). “Well, they filled the position.”


I could see the sag in his shoulders and the dejection in his eyes from 3,200 miles away. I felt the same gut punch. I exhaled slowly, wanting to throw up a little in my mouth. “Aw, man, that’s rough,” I commiserated.




I missed a beat as the ever-slowing synapses in my aging brain tissue processed the signals from my auditory nerve, cross referenced them with previous moments of utter fatherly pride, then sent the “go” signal to my vocal cords.


“You little ASSHOLE!” I shouted, causing the nearby mother of two to nearly drop the two pounds of pastrami she had taken from the guy behind the deli counter as she turned and shot me a look of alarm. “That’s GREAT!”


I still nearly drove the cart into the Diet Coke display before abandoning it to go to a more secluded niche by the packages of “fresh” pastas and sauces to find out more details.


After Six Months and 200 Resumes Emailed, Noel Gets a Nibble


Receiving 600 replies to an online ad for the job, the director’s current assistant, leaving for greener pastures in a couple of weeks, had culled the list to 15 candidates before responding to Noel’s initial email with a reply that requested Noel answer a long list of essay questions, contained in an attachment, about his likes and dislikes concerning movies. Noel had forwarded the list of questions to us. They read like the final exam to a film-appreciation course. “Man,” I told my wife, Anne, “you’d better know something about movies to answer these!”


Fortunately, one of Noel’s strengths long before heading to Syracuse University to major in film production is his encyclopedic knowledge of movies. He will kick your ass on any question in “Trivial Pursuit” pertaining to just about any movie post 1950. He would amaze us routinely by pointing out as end credits rolled in a theater that a "nobody" cast member had also been in three obscure indie films in the past 10 years. He could rattle off the entire filmography of numerous directors, famous and not so famous. He and a buddy had founded a festival for student films at Summit High School that continues eight years later.


Not only did he have to take the “exam” but he was asked to read a script and give “coverage” on it, basically review it and point out its strengths and weaknesses. He turned around the assignment in less than 24 hours and waited almost a week to receive yet another email setting up a 30-minute interview with the current assistant. He called me after that interview and said, “I killed, Dad. I know I did. He said they’d let me know about the next step in a couple of days.”


Don't Call Us, We'll Call You?


Having gone through interviews in recent years on Wall Street in which the dicks promise to call back with the next round’s logistics then never respond to my calls or emails again, I told Noel not to get too excited just yet. After all, I could imagine few industries flakier than the movie business. While I believed Noel’s assessment of how it had gone in the first interview—friends always have commented to us how charming and focused he comes off—I just didn’t want to see him crushed if the guy never contacted him again.


But two days later he had an interview time set up with the director at his home, which, it turns out, is only five minutes from the West Hollywood apartment Noel shares with his high-school chum, Jake, who also seeks employment in the business as a script reader or production assistant. Jake, too, has struggled to find a job, only recently landing a part-time position as a caddy at the swank Bel-Air Country Club, whose website warns that “shirts must be tucked in at all times… and hats must be worn brim forward,” motherfucker!


Noel already had known something about the director’s work before this process had started but did more research online. He cleverly had ascertained that the script he was asked to review was, in all probability, one authored by the director. So, while being direct and to the point in his review, Noel was careful not to write anything particularly negative about the script.


It's a Small World After All


He also had figured out that an actress friend of ours living in Summit had been a supporting character in one of the director’s early romantic comedies. Anne didn’t need to be asked to call the actress for the scoop on this director. Was he a tyrannical asshole on the set, who, like Alfred Hitchcock, considered actors “cattle?” Was he an erratic “free spirit” who showed up on the set with traces of cocaine under his nostrils? Was he a schizophrenic, chummy one day and a Hyde the next? Did he wear a beret and monocle and slap a riding crop on the side of his riding boots while shouting "Action!" through a megaphone? According to our friend, the answers were no, no, no, and no.


“He’s a genuinely nice guy,” our friend told Anne, “very considerate and low key. I had a great time doing that movie with him.”


The actress dutifully fired off an email to the director extolling Noel’s virtues, something that undoubtedly helped him stay in the running for the job. Turns out another one of Noel’s high-school classmates who went to L.A. and recently landed a film-editing job knows the director’s girlfriend. He passed on to the girlfriend that his buddy was shooting for a job with her beau. Word has it, she, too, dropped Noel’s name. As our playwright friend and former television writer Hal Corley has told us, L.A. runs on relationships—who knows whom where and when.


I was busy framing a wall and putting in new floor joists in a bathroom renovation for a carpenter friend of mine when Noel called me after the interview with the director.


His New Best Friend, the Director


“Dad, I killed this interview, too,” he said breathlessly not five minutes after leaving the house. “The director said he was blown away by my answers to those questions and said I was a natural at script coverage. He was a really nice guy, too, very laid back. I felt like we’d known each other for years.”


“So what’s the next step?” I asked, reserved but relieved Noel thought he was still viable.


“Well, the assistant said afterwards that I’d been selected for training,” he replied.


“So that means you got the job?”


“Not exactly. I think it means that there are still a couple of other candidates in the running,” Noel explained. “I asked if I had the job, but the assistant said that only the director would say who he’s hiring.”


Is This Another Scam?


Now I was a little suspicious, especially after Noel and Jake had signed on with some reality-television producer for unpaid internships as something constructive to do between job searches only to find out a couple of weeks later that the guy was bringing in truckloads of “interns” as free labor with no intention of offering anyone a job. This “training” thing sounded like the same thing.


“Noel, let it rest for a day, then email the assistant and press for a little more clarification on whether this is paid training or when a hiring decision would be made,” I advised.


(Noel was running up his one credit card for rent and would be broke and in debt in a matter of a month or two. He couldn’t afford to waste time being exploited after finding part-time work as a bouncer at a bar/restaurant only to be laid off two months later because California’s crappy economy, with a May unemployment rate of a staggering 11.2%, apparently has crushed the habit of eating out. He and Jake saw an ad for a single waiter’s job. More than 200 were lined up at the restaurant to interview when they got there. Later, Noel made it to a second-round interview…for a busboy job. And he didn’t get it—perhaps as much because of his $140,000 Syracuse degree as despite it. He told me then that he had rejiggered a version of his resume to eliminate his college degree just in case another juicy busboy position came along. He's worked a little for a gang of musicians who move furniture between gigs, okay money but hardly predictable.)


What Does a Director's Assistant Do?


A couple of days later, though, he got an email from the assistant with an attachment called “The Manifesto.” This document described the job in more detail and the director’s philosophy toward the position. While not being on call 24/7, the assistant would be responsible for taking care of any task that might distract the self-professed workaholic director from his mission of directing a production. This includes finding “fun things for me to do,” knowing when to buy gifts for friends and family for holidays and birthdays, and making sure that any workmen in the director’s house don’t make off with the family silver.


Some of this stuff bugged me. As busy as I was at the height of my analytical career, conference calling at all hours, traveling to eight countries in five days, dealing with hundreds of phone calls a week, I never once asked my secretary to buy my wife an anniversary gift or pick up my dry cleaning. But, hey, some folks are different. Hollywood is Hollywood. I’m starting to watch “Entourage” to get more clued in about the environment in which my son is trying to survive. Still, as I told Noel on the phone after reading the document, I had visions of Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada” or Scarlett Johannson in “The Nanny Diaries.” If this guy isn’t a decent human being, Noel could find himself in a miserable position, doing nothing but menial tasks that will do little to advance him toward his goal of one day directing his own script.


But perhaps no more miserable than being broke, admitting defeat, and having to fly home to get a roof over his head until another career path can be found.


The Final Grilling


Along with The Manifesto came the setup for yet another interview, this time with the director and his producer for Friday, July 3. Hmmm, this was a different twist from the training scenario. Noel called his mom that afternoon to say he thought it went well and that they would let him know by Sunday, yesterday, about the job.


However, the news came a day early on Independence Day, his Independence Day, we hope. Sunday he went to the director’s house for a barbecue. His mom warned him to avoid drinking because he would be closely observed by the director and his other staff members as an early test to see how he would fit in. Getting a little too “happy” would be a disaster. Advice taken, he called his mom late last night and said, “I made a great impression. I’m so gonna kill this job.”


So you’re probably wondering who the director is who will write my son his first fulltime paycheck. As The Manifesto stated, Noel will be signing a confidentiality agreement, which means it’s best that I don’t mention his name. But I can tell you it’s not Alfred Hitchcock…or Steven Spielberg. Neither is it Martin Scorsese or Ron Howard. There, that should narrow it down a bit.


Car Shop 'Til He Drops


Now the challenge is to find quickly a set of wheels for Noel, the finest that $4,000 max will buy. The Internet's Cars.com is a godsend. While the job is potentially a good launching point, the pay isn’t enough to change radically his steady diet of Ramen noodles, canned tuna, and the occasional burger, not after paying his half of the $1,800 monthly rent and the expense of a car. The only good thing about his poverty is that he tells me he’s more or less given up his occasional smoking to avoid the expense. Noel has relied on Jake and his Explorer for the past six months, but a car of his own is critical in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. He will discover that the cost of operating a car, the hours lost in traffic, and the road rage that L.A. is known for will make him long for the East Coast’s train and subway systems.


But cars can have their advantages.


When Jake and Noel arrived in L.A. in mid January, driving down the palm-tree-lined boulevards in 70-degree weather, taking in the sights for the first time, they stopped at a traffic light. Noel, sitting in the front passenger seat, looked down to the sports car idling next to them. Behind the wheel was actress Mila Kunis, the stunningly beautiful Ukrainian who played the obnoxious but hilarious Jackie on “That ‘70s Show” and, more recently, had a major role in the terrific feature, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”


“Dad,” he recalled on the phone that night, “I smiled right at her, and she looked up and smiled right back! God, I love this town!”


Angelinos, brace yourselves. Noel Poyner has arrived.



Me and the Director's Assistant after graduating Syracuse, May 2008.

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I love a happy ending. Can you get him to read one of my scripts? On another
Hijacked again. On another note (she continues), did you find any religious action figures in your "light" English muffins? ;)
I'm sure Noel will be happy to do "coverage" on your script. Unfortunately, my English muffins were strictly secular this time.
Feels sooo good when they have a job, especially in a field related to their degree. It surely is a lot harder for this generation of college grads than it was for mine to find some kind of work. Keep holding your breath that his job continues - I have been doing this for a year, and it seems to be working...She has a year's lease to sign at the end of this month, and needs to invest in a $900 season's snowboarding pass, also, while it is still cheap (!). You have to be young to have faith like that. Actually, I remember moving to Aspen after college with $20 in my pocket, no job, no contacts, nowhere to live, and no car. But I found two jobs the first day, and a reasonable place to live within a week. That took faith in myself too...or probably foolishness...
Susan: Needless to say, the test now will be succeeding at the job for at least a year. We're not concerned on that front; Noel is pretty passionate and driven. We're more hopeful that his boss does, in fact, turn out to be a good guy. If he's not, Noel will still learn something about the environs. Thanks for dropping by.
Congratulations. He's in a hugely competitive field, and maybe this will be the big break. Make sure he reads your post. There's no joy like the joy of knowing that your father is proud of you.
hollywood.. a tough row to hoe. reminds me of a friend who spent probably close to 1 decade and seemingly made only 5 figures writing scripts-- over the whole period.. !?!?

Noel was too busy last night to read the post as his training went past 10 p.m. I hope he has time to read it today--and shop for a car. Thanks for the read.
vzn: no doubt about it, trying to strike Hollywood gold is as difficult as panning for the real thing. Noel has three things on his side, though: youth, a lack of major obligations, and a passion that keeps him from dwelling too much on the prospects of failure. Thanks for dropping by.
Hope it doesn't turn out like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets an intern. So many people in entertainment get their start this way (David Geffen in the mailroom, etc.) it must work. Congratulations.
Congrats! I found this to be a very uplifting account as, very soon, my own son will be headed to Hollywood to study acting. Fortunately for him, I have family out there already so he has a small safety net.

Con: Well, at the very least Noel may get a "Director's Assistant Diary" screenplay out of it all; but we hope he does this well for 12-18 months and discovers what his next step is.

Bill S.: I have to say it took a lot of guts for Noel to just go out there with a buddy on a wing and prayer. Trust me, there's still gonna be a lot of prayer involved, particularly over the first few months of the job. My wife, as the local high-school theater teacher, has sent several students to acting schools, including one last year to Juilliard. Acting is a great calling but one just as daunting as what Noel is pursuing. Best of luck to your son.