Wednesday, January 7, 2009

8 Million Stories, NY Press Essay

HED: Nearing De Niro

DEK: LISA LEWIS big-screen dreams were just a seat away

That night I sat next to a man who was sitting next to Robert De Niro. I was a reader on the New York studio circuit at $60 a script, with a few hundred reports logged for New Line Cinema and Tribeca Productions, De Niro’s company. After two years covering chick lit and Harry Potter cribs, I was freed from the stacks for a screening of the boss man’s cerebral CIA drama, The Good Shepard. The near final cut was running long and they wanted feedback. I made a rushed introduction to De Niro—after all, my position didn’t warrant time with the stars, my big film contacts were the messenger guys who dropped off scripts at my shoebox apartment in the East Village.

For 12 hours a day I read. Mostly at the coffee shop, CafĂ© Pick Me Up, which I liked because emotionally needy and attractive screenwriters, having glimpsed my coverage template, would think I was important and ask for my number. At 24, this felt like the good life, but I was a peripheral part of the action—a bump up from sushi runs at Focus where I interned during school. But being at the screening was surreal. This is what I had come to New York for, what it was all about. Next to me, the man next to De Niro started snoring. He was a big guy in an Adidas tracksuit, wearing sunglasses in the dark theatre. We were two hours into a cut that was at least three and a half. I loved every minute.

When the film ended I wasn’t invited out for drinks. I whispered congrats as I squeezed passed De Niro’s producing partner. The next day an assistant would call for my opinions. Still, it was heady. Graduating high school in the Chicago suburbs with no money for college, I’d telemarketed magazine subscriptions and worked in the pornography section of the Virgin Megastore, carding teenagers and making uninformed suggestions to Japanese tourists (“Yes, Angry Anal has gotten great reviews!”), This was my Mary Tyler Moore Moment. I was going to make it after all.

Tribeca had a silence unlike other neighborhoods. Jazz filled an alley when the door of a club burst open; I caught a staccato laugh and the sound of heels on cobblestone, the squeal of a subway under the grates. The night felt like one frame of a silent film. I was all mood and ego. In the neon of a dim sum dive I plotted the story for my Midwest friends—exaggerating my influence on the editing process, lingering on De Niro’s big hand in mine. The vendors along Mott Street were dumping the spoiled fish that hadn’t sold, but I wasn’t ready to let reality in.

I was halfway home when I checked the messages on my cell. The Weinstein Company had called to say they could use me as a reader. A friend at the ad agency where I was bringing semi-colons back as a freelance proofreader was inviting me to a Broadway show. I pictured my 18-year-old self, bitterly arranging Vivid titles in order of hardcorishness and I wanted her to hear these messages. My New York life may have fit in a shoebox, but the shoes were second-hand Marc Jacobs.
The final message stopped me mid-jaywalk and was nearly drowned out by a policeman screaming at me to get out of the street. But the sound of a cop car, sirens wailing, had nothing on my mother’s voice. Irate and accusatory, it flashed me back to the hallway outside her bedroom; I was 10-years-old again.
“Your father says he’s going to starve himself to death. You need to do something!” she shrieked. “Why aren’t you picking up? Someone just stole $14,000 out of my purse! Call me back!”

I imagined a marquee with my name on it, the lights fizzling out.

Generally, I limited my drama to the silver screen, but crisis was unremarkable for my divorced and single parents. As their only child, I played confidant to my father’s troubled hero, and the audience for my mother’s one-woman show. In my own life story they frequently upstaged me. My dad was beginning a two-year bout of severe depression; soon he’d be living in a delivery van with the 400 classic movies on VHS he’d taped off the television and labeled in alphabetical order by actor. The $14,000 was my mom’s gambling money she’d put in a Ziploc bag with her makeup and left in a locker at the Harrah’s Casino spa. I might have wanted to share my triumphs, but my father had taken to crying through our conversations and my mother’s enthusiasm for her own endeavors, most recently her witty profile, often overshadowed my news.

I felt a wave of self-pity. New York, like my folks, had the ability to make me feel simultaneously very important and totally insignificant. I could believe that just by living in the city I was doing something urgent and meaningful. I saw my reflection in every window, a seductive, solipsistic filmstrip; but to anyone else I was just an extra.

The Statue of Liberty might as well have read: “Give me your actors, your writers, your neurotic children of manic-depressive and borderline parents yearning to breathe free.” In New York I’d hoped to find recognition, but in the shadow of my family, I couldn’t see myself. That night I turned off the phone, but the guilt remained. Someday I longed to sleep as soundly as the man sitting next to Robert De Niro.