FlashBack Productions occupies a large house in a residential neighborhood, just north of Sunset Boulevard where Hollywood meets Beverly Hills and the rent begins to escalate. I walked up the stone-lined path to the front door, through a yard deep in shadows amidst a tangled variety of tropical trees, the yard accented with splashes of yellow and pink and red flowers. If it hadn’t been for the hum of traffic on Sunset, I might have thought I was in the Brazilian jungle. Back in Ohio, they might have been shoveling snow.
“Hi. You must be Cooper. I’m Heather.” The receptionist spoke with a warm, husky timbre. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Herbal tea?” Pause. “Coffee?”
“Juice sounds fine. Thanks.”
“Guava? Papaya? Pomegranate?” Pause. “Orange?”
She headed down the hall. “I’ll tell Kevin you’re here.”
I sank down into a long, plush sofa set against a large, bubbling aquarium in the wall. I knew Kevin McDaniels, the head of FlashBack, only from several phone conversations. His enthusiasm about the project was contagious. I hoped he was as likable in person. And I hoped he liked me. I was the outsider from the Midwest with the credentials he had been looking for.
Kevin had said he was looking for a “nontraditional” viewpoint, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. This was an incredibly significant opportunity for me: a writing assignment in Hollywood with the potential to establish myself on my favorite subject, Charlie Chaplin. my all-time favorite, close to obsession status.
Heather brought my juice over. Orange. I expected her to take me into Kevin’s office. I was wrong. Two minutes later, Kevin walked up. From his voice on the phone, I had pictured short, chunky and bald. He was over six feet tall with the smooth, powerful lines of a natural athlete, topped off with a head full of pure white hair. The hair just didn’t match up, an anomaly that looked like a bad make-up job. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, about ten years older than me.
“Cooper. Hi. Kevin McDaniels.” He extended his hand, which I both shook and used as a rope to pull myself out of the couch. He backed up his grip with a wide, contagious smile. I liked him immediately and relaxed. “Come on back. How was your flight?”
“Smooth. The way I like them.”
We entered his office, a spacious room that looked out onto the back yard and the pool, some orange trees, and a golden retriever stretched out by the sliding glass doors. A living, breathing real estate brochure.
We sat in director’s chairs on opposite sides of a low, teak coffee table. He cut to the chase. “Why should I hire you, Cooper?”
A fair question, but one I hadn’t expected as a starting point. “Because you want to give highly talented writers from mid-America a chance to participate in the dynamics of Hollywood.” Sometimes I speak before thinking.
He laughed. “Of course.” He shifted forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, staring intently at me. “Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re here. Let me explain. You made the short list, but I pretty well had it narrowed down to another writer. Then I got this in the mail.”
He handed me a single sheet of folded paper, undated, no letterhead, with a short, handwritten message. “Mr. McDaniels, it has come to my attention that you are embarking upon an important new series dedicated to early Hollywood personalities, including Sir Charles Chaplin. Forgive my impetuousness, but I would suggest you consider a young man named Cooper Thiery of Columbus, Ohio, as one of your creative resources. Through my duties here at Oxford University, I have become aware of his insight into the subject and believe it would be in your interest to, at the minimum, contact him. Please excuse the abruptness of this intrusion and lack of follow-through on my part, but I shall be on sabbatical for the next six months. Best of luck on your project.” The signature read “Ian Picking, Professor of Cultural Heritage, Oxford University.”
The handwriting matched that in the Robinson book.
I handed the letter back to Kevin, held my hand as steady as possible, and said nothing.
“I called Oxford,” he said. “Picking is indeed on sabbatical. Out of touch for another four months.”
Kevin continued filling in the background on our meeting, but my mind was working over the similarity in handwriting, the appearance of the book at the hotel and the Oxford letter. I just wanted Kevin to say I had the job, so I could start to work and not deal with the puzzle.
“Any thoughts about that?”
He was waiting for my answer, and I hadn’t even heard the question.
“About where you might start. Are you with me, Cooper?”
I apologized for my drifting, then recalled some of the comments from the book. Maybe that would take the interview in the right direction. “Two areas,” I said. “First, Chaplin’s relationship with Edna Purviance. I think there’s more there than has been uncovered so far.” In a paragraph about her and Charlie, her name had been circled with the comment, “Half the story.” It could be accurate. “The other area is what he did with some of his films, where he stored them, especially one that theoretically no longer exists. Chaplin didn’t destroy much of his work, even if he didn’t like it. It’s worth a look.” I stopped. Other areas seemed workable, according to the notes in the Robinson book, but I didn’t want to start a laundry list of possibilities. Less is more, as someone once said. An architect, maybe.
Kevin moved into an overview of the project, much of which we had discussed on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Then he stood up and the meeting was over. A four hour flight, each way, for a half hour meeting.
Back in Columbus, a message was waiting on my answering machine. Also, a new e-mail was sitting in my inbox. They both said the same thing. “Good news. You start on Monday. Welcome to the dynamics of Hollywood.” I treated myself to a couple of double-cut pork chops for dinner and four draft Guinness's at a neighborhood hangout. I would have gone dancing if I liked to dance.