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First Chapters


Alice in La La Land
by Malina Sarah Saval
I thought,' If I don’t see these people at once I’m going to go absolutely stark raving mad'.
And I did.

Part One

The trouble began when I was twenty-two. Maybe it began before that, like when a cold incubates for months before you even feel the onset of a runny nose, or when a sore festers and scabs over, becoming scratchy red and raw, but it was when I was twenty-two that I felt the trouble begin.
Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five something extraordinary and excruciating happened; I began to grow up. During these three tumultuous years I graduated college, graduated film school, had a tumultuous affair with my Screenwriting professor, tried to kill myself, had a three-week stint in a mental hospital and sold my first screenplay to a major motion picture studio.

Before I turned twenty-two, nothing much happened at all. I think it’s the same for everyone. Most people don’t even start to grow up until they start to grow old.

This is a love story, or rather, the lack of a love story, between a lonely girl and her troubled professor. This is the story of a lonely girl who saves herself from going mad. This is my story. I am the lonely girl.
I’m pretty lonely most of the time. But now that I’m in Los Angeles I seem to be getting lonelier and lonelier. There’s this huge void and nothing ever seems to fill it. The more people I meet the more producers, the more writers, the more actors, the more waiters the lonelier I become. I’m like Alice in La La Land. I’ve fallen down the rabbit’s hole into Hollywood hell.

It started on the plane ride from Boston back to Los Angeles at the end of Winter break. I was starting my second semester of film school at the University of Southern California. The Graduate Screenwriting program. The number one film school in the country. No one gets in. And they accepted me. Everybody kept telling me how smart I must be and how talented. "You’re going to be the next Steven Spielberg!" everyone squealed.
Relatives put in requests for retirement homes in Florida. Everyone from the rabbi who bat-mitzvahed me to the orthodontist who attached my braces was begging for a bit part in my first feature film. "You’re the horse we’re betting on," quipped overly confident family members. The entire world was banking on my success.
Back home they thought me a startling screenwriting sensation. My friends from high school, friends who had all taken safe and sensible jobs as accountants and lawyers and elementary school teachers, wrote me letters and placed endless calls bespeaking their envy at the glamorous life I led. What glamorous life? I wanted to reply. But I just didn’t have the heart. I was afraid of disappointing them. But most of all, I was afraid that it might be true. I was afraid that perhaps my life really had become as dull and as dark as it actually had. What had I come to California for if not to carve for myself a career in film? What had I moved three thousand miles across the country for if not to be happy?

And so I kept on pretending. And when I wrote back to those letters, returned those calls, that voice on my end of the phone was full of promise and optimism and hope. That voice recounted stories of star-studded soirees to which through charm and panache I, a mere mortal, had somehow finagled entry. That voice boasted of star spottings at groovy nightclubs on the Sunset strip, run ins with film producers who already took an active interest in my screenplay ideas. That voice was a lie. And so only I knew the truth that I was nothing but a film student flop. My teachers hated me. My classmates were a patronizing and embittered bunch of walking mid-life crises (retired doctors, bored lawyers and recent divorcees) who’d dropped out of real life to take a stab at screenwriting. They all resented me because I was only twenty-two, had yet to enter my so-called "cynical" phase of life or accumulated the emotional baggage that they all had the investments gone awry, the prescriptions, the custody battles, the hair loss.

In truth, the love of my young adult life had just dumped me for a Parisian supermodel named Chloé. I was an insomniac with bi-polar disorder (though even I didn’t know this, for it had yet to be officially diagnosed) and suffering from periodic bouts of suicidal depression. I didn’t have a friend in the world.
I felt totally and utterly alone.

And then, all at once, I suddenly started to miss everyone. My anorexic roommate from sophomore year at Cornell. The Biology professor who gave me a C-plus on the final exam. The boyfriend who dumped me for the supermodel named Chloé, the postman who delivered the New York Times every Sunday to my college dorm. I started to miss everyone like crazy. I thought, If I don’t see these people at once I’m going to go absolutely stark raving mad.
And I did.

On the plane, seated in row 25B, my life began to unravel. My skin started to itch and my face started to sweat. My lips trembled and my knees buckled beneath me. I couldn’t breathe, I wanted to jump out of my own skin, I wanted to scream to whomever it was that was holding a plastic bag over my head to 'Please let me out'!

I ran down the airplane aisle, locked myself inside the flimsy aluminium walls of the airplane lavatory and splashed cold water over my tiny heart-shaped face. Shit, I thought, I’m going crazy. The pilot will have to make an emergency landing (Where were we - over Texas?) A team of paramedics will have to drag me away in a straight jacket and lock me up in an insane asylum with all the other film school fuck-ups. I stared at my paralysed expression, at my frightened features, my tiny nose, moist pink mouth and bright, almond-shaped eyes and a horrifying realization came over me. I was turning into my mother.

I spent most of next semester slicing up my forehead with razorblades, screwing my cousin’s housemate and falling hopelessly in love with my Screenwriting professor.
Professor X was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen in my entire life. Blond hair, blue eyes, more surfer dude than academic, he walked into the room on that first day of class wearing a bowling shirt and khaki pants, carrying a beat up leather briefcase.
"You a new student?" I asked.
Professor X tossed me a glance. "I’m the teacher," he said.
He was forty-two years old. He had smooth skin, large hands, and thin, rough lips. He could have passed for twenty-eight, thirty-two at the most.
"Welcome to Screenwriting 102," he said, then flashed me a sly, warm smile.
From that moment on I knew that I was doomed.
I think he knew it too, knew I was doomed, because from the instant that he called my name off the student roster and saw that I was too tongue tied to utter a simple here! it was clear to everyone in the class that I’d fallen instantly in love.

What made it even worse was Professor X’s accent, an adorable Southern drawl courtesy of a North Carolina upbringing, smoothed over from years of living in New York. In that adorable southern drawl, Professor X told us stories about growing up in the south; stories that could rival a Pat Conroy novel. Stories about a fucked up family with a mother who’d been married seven times and a brother who’d shot his sister in the head. "I’ve had a hard life," he said to us on that first day of class. "And I’ve turned it all into writing. That’s what I want for you to do as well."

He’d written sixteen screenplays, three of which were bought, one of which was made "They turned it into a piece of crap," he lamented, but his first love, he said to us, was teaching the future screenwriters of American cinema. "There’s a lot of bad movies out there today," he said. "It’s your challenge as students to turn that trend around, to produce thought-provoking and politically conscious works of high moral value."
I will, I promised him silently. I will.
"You may not have grown up in dysfunctional households with a racist for a father and a brother who shot his sister dead, but reach into your lives, find what makes it interesting, milk it for dramatic value." He spent the majority of that first day elaborating on the traumatic events through which he had come of age. Through it all my heart bled. I wanted to hold him, to kiss him, to tell him it's going to be OK. But Professor X didn’t seem fazed one bit by all the tragedy that had beset his brood. In fact, he seemed to relish in the telling of these horror stories. He was quite a storyteller, and I supposed it was in his blood. He was Southern. He was brilliant. He was beautiful, blond and Jewish.

My eyes lit up when he told us what had happened. "When I was thirteen years old," he said, looking, if I’m not mistaken, in my direction, "my mother sat me down. ‘Son,’ she said to me, ‘you’re going to be a bar-mitzvah. I was floored. I didn’t even know what a Jew was."
Turns out, Professor X’s mother had kept her Jewish identity a secret because husband number two, Professor X’s father, hated Jews. He was actually at one time co-chair of the Durham chapter of the KKK, and was under the impression until the very day he died, of alcohol poisoning to the liver, that Professor X’s mother was a devout Christian, Baptist no less. So on the day he died, which happened to coincide perfectly with Professor X’s thirteenth birthday, his mom sat him down and told him the good news, (good news for me since my parents would have two coronaries a piece if I didn’t marry someone Jewish). At that moment it all became clear, Professor X was my destiny.
So, you see, with a wedding to plan and all, I didn’t have much of an attention span for whatever it was that Professor X was trying to teach us in class. He went on and on that first day of class about stuff like Aristotelian three-act structure and the use of repetition and variation in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and I’d be dreaming up our future kids’ names Jacob, Henry, Samantha for a girl and deciding what my wedding dress would look like. What color roses for the centerpieces? Where would we take our honeymoon?
Would we get married in Boston or in North Carolina?
Who pays for the wedding? My father? Professor X? How much does a professor make?
I practically leaped from my seat. "Huh?"
The room rang out in peals of whooping student laughter. Professor X grinned. "Alice, we’re going around the room and talking about your screenplay projects for the semester."
"Do you have a project in mind?"
I looked around the room. Dozens of students, students who up until now I had failed to notice, were glaring straight at me.
"Her only project is getting you into bed," snickered Barnard Houseman. Barnard was a New York transplant in his late forties, with yellow-tinted, Woody Allen-esque eyeglasses and clothes that looked like they were filched from the West Side Story wardrobe department. From the way in which he sneered at me, his eyes filled with venom and disgust, it was clear that he hated me. Why, I have absolutely no idea. We should have been allies, comrades, both of us Jewish, both of us from big cities back east. But from our first initial contact in Professor X’s classroom, he made it clear that he wanted nothing but to make my life miserable.
"Fuck off," I said under my breath, unsure whether expletives were appropriate in a graduate school setting. But under the circumstances it was the most eloquent response I could muster. When, from out of the corner of my eye I caught Professor X smirk, I was relieved. He admired my bravado, or so I liked to think. After all, already all I really cared about was gaining his approval.
"Barnard," Professor X said without so much as looking at him," let Alice talk." He turned to me. "Alice, do you have an idea?"
I thought for a long while. When applying to film school I’d had a treasure trove of ideas for scripts. I’d planned projects in my head of student films I would produce and screenplays that I would write. Why, as part of my film school application, I’d included a list of at least half a dozen. But now, in Professor X’s classroom, where those ideas mattered most, I had none. Perhaps it was California sun that had melted them away. For since moving to Los Angeles in late August of the previous year I hadn’t but experienced a single creative streak. I could construct papers about other filmmakers, but when it came to writing my own ideas, my fingers became stiff and my mind spun pirouettes. I began to fear that I was experiencing some sort of dementia. Thank God that the only thing that was requited of last semester’s introductory screenwriting course was that we keep a journal of every film we saw with comments and criticism. This for me was simple. I’d waste away entire afternoons on double features, free screenings at the on-campus theatre, sit through week-long cultural film festivals, anything to serve as a distraction from my inability to construct my own cinematic ideas. I’d show up to class with long-winded journalistic essays on the use of violence in Scorsese’s 'Taxi Driver' and biblical symbolism in Wim Wenders’s 'Wings of Desire'. At one point, I considered transferring into the Critical Studies program.
"I don’t," I finally confessed. "I’m falling short on ideas at the moment."
"Not a problem," Professor X said, soothingly. "We’ll come back to you."
"No," I quickly said, panicking at the notion that by moving along to some other student and veering his attention away from me, I was somehow being abandoned. Just as the boyfriend who’d dumped me for the Parisian supermodel had left me in a lurch, so was Professor X. "Yea, Alice?" said Professor X. Of course, he had no way of understanding the urgency of my situation. "Nothing. I’ll come up with something."
"I’m sure you will. It’s OK. Now, Barnard, what’s your idea?"
"My idea," said Barnard, straightening his posture and crossing his hands, "is about a self-hating Jew who murders his moyel."
Professor X forced a stiff smile. Perhaps, as maybe we all were in class, he was somewhat scared of Barnard, like he might at any moment whip out a scalpel and dig into Professor X’s pants. I wondered, if he didn’t find out he was Jewish until he was thirteen, was Professor X even circumcised? I’d only been with one Gentile before and I remember, as he stripped out of his swimming trunks during that afternoon we met on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard, the shock I experienced at the sight of his sex, all bulky and encumbered, like it was wrapped in a turtleneck ski sweater. I tilted my head just so, pondering Professor X’s package, imagining what the bulge in his khakis actually looked like.

Professor X next turned to Neville. New Canaan, Connecticut Neville, that is, son of a well-known movie actress, so well known she could reside in Connecticut, right down the street from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, claimed Neville, accepting roles for which she never had to audition. Neville was the kind of kid for whom the word dapper was invented. He never had a hair out of place, he seemed to have been born with his hairstyle. In fact, his wore him rather than the other way around. He was the kind of kid who actually wore starched white shorts and polo shirts and brought a tennis racket to class for his afternoon lessons.
"What’s your screenplay idea?" Professor X asked.
Neville stretched his arms languidly above his head and yawned. "I’m getting Johnny Depp. And Brad Pitt owes my mom a favor."
Professor X squinted (my God, he looked adorable). "O.k. But what about the script?"
Neville wrinkled his perfect little nose, without so much as a bump. " Script? What script?"
Professor X sighed and rubbed his temples. It was quickly becoming clear that the pep talk he’d delivered in turning out thought-provoking and politically-conscious material was a complete waste of time. He would need to revise the curriculum for next year. He turned next to Will Kennedy, who was your typical beatnik-slash-film student. He was dressed all in black, black sweater, black pants, black circles under his eyes. He was the veritable poster child for Prozac. "What’s your idea, Will?"
Will let out a desultory sigh. "My screenplay," he said, in a voice devoid of irony, "is about a film student who kills himself." We waited for the punch line, but there was none. Will was dead on serious.
Professor X slowly nodded. "Well," he finally said. "Write what you know."

He then turned to Vittorio DeMattia, an exchange student from Italy. Vittorio was striking, black greased-back hair, tall, dark eyes. He looked like a character in an Antonioni movie, and when he spoke it was almost as though he were singing. Vittorio flicked his hand flamboyantly up and down, like a symphony conductor. "I want to make a musical," said Vittorio. "But without music. Just camera going up and down. Up and down. Like a conductor. No dialogue. Just camera directions. Up and down. Up and down."

And so we went round and round the room just like this, each student discussing his or her idea, all the while me staring at Professor X, and once in a while him staring at me and once in a while us catching one another staring at one another and smiling out of slight embarrassment.
"So," Professor X said to me once we’d gone once around the room, maybe twice, who knows how many times. "Still no ideas about your script?"
I bit my tongue. I felt as though there were a thousand eyes on me. "Well," I said, having absolutely no idea, "maybe I’ll write a movie about ..."
"That idea sucks," snapped Barnard.
"You suck," I said.
"You swallow," said Barnard.
"Shut up," jumped in Professor X. He cleared his throat, then raised an eyebrow curiously. "Alice, do you swall..." He caught himself. Everyone stared. He cleared his throat again. "I mean, please go on."
My cheeks heated up. "Well, I don’t really have a concrete idea. But as I was saying "
"As I was saying," Barnard cut back in, "That idea sucks."
"My God, it’s even worse than my idea," said Neville. "You’ll never make a film that sells."
"Mama mia!" exclaimed Vittorio, throwing up his hands, "My God, I miss Italian cinema!"
Professor X was losing his patience. We were a lost cause this class of his. And it was only day one of the semester. He took a deep breath. "Class is over," he said. "I don’t want to see any of you until next week."
Did he mean me, too?
But no, he didn’t. On my way out the door Professor X called me over. "Don’t mind them," he said.
"Yea," I said, trying to sound as casual as I could, "they’re assholes, Professor "
"Please," he gently interrupted. "Call me by my first name."
"OK," I said. "They’re assholes..." and I said it. I said his first name. We had a bond he and I. We held a secret truth between us.
As I walked out the door, I briefly turned around, catching Professor X eyeing me from behind with professorial lust.

* End Chapter One
If you want to read more contact Malina Saval at
* serious enquiries from agents or publishers only

Previously by Malina
Or, Honeymoon for One
Malina Sarah Saval survives a week

'Love - Nothing'
Malina Sarah Saval
She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn

More First Chapters here

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