in La La Land
by Malina Sarah Saval
thought,' If I dont see these people at once Im going to go
absolutely stark raving mad'.
And I did.
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
Before I turned twenty-two, nothing much happened at all. I think its
the same for everyone. Most people dont 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.
Im pretty lonely most of the time. But now that Im in Los
Angeles I seem to be getting lonelier and lonelier. Theres 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. Im like Alice in La La Land. Ive fallen
down the rabbits 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. "Youre
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. "Youre
the horse were 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 didnt 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) whod 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
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 didnt know this, for it had yet to be officially
diagnosed) and suffering from periodic bouts of suicidal depression. I
didnt 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 dont see these people at once Im 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 couldnt 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, Im 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 cousins housemate and falling hopelessly in love with
my Screenwriting professor.
Professor X was the most beautiful man Id 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. "Im 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,
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
Id fallen instantly in love.
What made it even worse was Professor Xs 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 whod
been married seven times and a brother whod shot his sister in the
head. "Ive had a hard life," he said to us on that first
day of class. "And Ive turned it all into writing. Thats
what I want for you to do as well."
Hed 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. "Theres a lot of bad movies out there today,"
he said. "Its 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 didnt 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 Im not mistaken, in my direction,
"my mother sat me down. Son, she said to me, youre
going to be a bar-mitzvah. I was floored. I didnt even know what
a Jew was."
Turns out, Professor Xs mother had kept her Jewish identity a secret
because husband number two, Professor Xs 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 Xs mother was a devout Christian, Baptist
no less. So on the day he died, which happened to coincide perfectly with
Professor Xs 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 Renoirs Grand Illusion and Id 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
I practically leaped from my seat. "Huh?"
The room rang out in peals of whooping student laughter. Professor X grinned.
"Alice, were 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 Xs 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 Id had
a treasure trove of ideas for scripts. Id 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, Id included a list of
at least half a dozen. But now, in Professor Xs 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 hadnt 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 semesters introductory
screenwriting course was that we keep a journal of every film we saw with
comments and criticism. This for me was simple. Id 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. Id
show up to class with long-winded journalistic essays on the use of violence
in Scorseses 'Taxi Driver' and biblical symbolism in Wim Wenderss
'Wings of Desire'. At one point, I considered transferring into the Critical
"I dont," I finally confessed. "Im falling
short on ideas at the moment."
"Not a problem," Professor X said, soothingly. "Well
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 whod 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. Ill come
up with something."
"Im sure you will. Its OK. Now, Barnard, whats
"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 Xs pants. I wondered, if he didnt
find out he was Jewish until he was thirteen, was Professor X even circumcised?
Id 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
Marthas 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 Xs 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.
"Whats your screenplay idea?" Professor X asked.
Neville stretched his arms languidly above his head and yawned. "Im
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 hed 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. "Whats 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 wed 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 Ill write a movie
"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
My cheeks heated up. "Well, I dont really have a concrete idea.
But as I was saying "
"As I was saying," Barnard cut back in, "That idea sucks."
"My God, its even worse than my idea," said Neville. "Youll
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 dont want to see any of you until
Did he mean me, too?
But no, he didnt. On my way out the door Professor X called me over.
"Dont mind them," he said.
"Yea," I said, trying to sound as casual as I could, "theyre
assholes, Professor "
"Please," he gently interrupted. "Call me by my first name."
"OK," I said. "Theyre assholes..." and I said
it. I said his first name. We had a bond he and I. We held a secret truth
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
Sarah Saval survives
She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn
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