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"What if…"

In Fiction on June 22, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Ben had walked into the offices of Engelman, Volger & Watson that morning with―dare say―a pinch of optimism. Yes, he was two months behind on rent for his studio apartment. Yes, he had been on a strict diet of instant ramen noodles for the last week. And yes, luxury was not in his foreseeable future. But he had finished his screenplay, revising it until his fingers could type no more, and it was his best work yet. It was salable. Even his toughest beta readers had agreed. So when Ben Trotter got a call to come in for a meeting, he allowed himself a glimpse of something that he had warded off with a vengeance ever since he moved to Los Angeles: hope.

Well, hope’s a four-letter word and it’s a bitch.

“But you’re my agent. You sell scripts. That’s what you do,” Ben said.

“How long have I been in this business?” Marty Engelman asked, seated comfortably behind his impractically wide custom-made desk. The Carpathian Elm surface was devoid of any papers, writing implements, or anything else that would identify it as a working man’s desk. He waited. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.


“Seventeen, Ben. Seventeen years I’ve been in this business. And you know how many excellent scripts I’ve read?”

This was not exactly how Ben expected this meeting to go. Usually when someone calls you in―someone like Marty Engelman calls you in―it’s because there’s good news. He’d written enough screenplays to know that an unsold screenplay deserved nothing more than a phone call, if that, and usually from the secretary. In fact, that was the extent of his film industry experience thus far. Marty adjusted himself in his seat and leaned forward, placing his hands on the desk, and interlaced his fingers. He was expecting an answer, apparently. Ben sighed. “I don’t know. Two?”

“Twenty-sev―wait. Two? Goddamn Ben, don’t be such a pessimist. Twenty-seven. That’s how many excellent scripts I’ve seen. You know how many of those I was able to sell?”

“Maybe ten, elev―”

“You’ve got to stop interrupting me,” Marty said, then smiled. He reclined his considerable girth back in the seat. “What was I saying? Oh, right. Three. I’ve sold three of those. And that’s because people don’t want excellent scripts. Have you seen the top grossers the last few years? The paper those screenplays were written on was worth more than the talent behind the writing. The people, they don’t care about nuance or character development or smart plots. They want excitement. They want huge goddamn explosions that’ll shake the speakers off the walls. And you know how I know that?”


“Because I’m good at my job. It’s why I’ve survived for so long in this cutthroat business. It’s why I can afford this office and it’s the reason that you’ll probably never find a better one. Unless you go meet a studio head. But that’s neither here or there.”

It was true. The office was luxurious. If the glass walls could talk, they would regale Ben with the unrealized dreams of innumerable suffering writers. Still, his seat was just as comfortable as the one on the more powerful side of the desk. That was one thing that could be said about Marty Engelman: the man was no penny pincher. Ben would bring this chair home and sleep on it if he could. It made his Murphy bed feel like a rusty trampoline.

Ben thought long and hard before saying what he was about to say because he was sure he didn’t want to hear the answer, no matter how good Marty claimed to be at his job. “The script. What was wrong with it?”

Marty clucked his tongue. “It wasn’t bad. The Chemical Sisters is a good title and―”

The Alchemist’s Daughter,” corrected Ben.

“Oh…right. Well, that’s a good title, too, maybe. Are you sure? I could’ve sworn―nevermind. That’s not the point. The title’s fine, okay? But the story. I mean, I really can’t sell that. There’s no hook. How do I market it to someone? What’s the genre?”

“It’s a drama, I suppose. A historical drama.”

“See? Right there. How do I sell that? Granted, the writing is fine. Good, even. Hell, the quality is probably the best I’ve seen in months. But that means jack shit. I’m going to give you the straight dope here. Can I be honest? It’s not good. No one, no one, would watch this movie. It’ll show in a few art house theaters and then go into DVD purgatory, if it even gets that far. Maybe if you can get a has-been actor trying to make a comeback, and if by some stroke of luck the bastard still has his acting chops and knocks the performance out of the park, you’ll get a few awards. But it won’t do that much for the bottom line unless it’s an Oscar. And who are we kidding here? That’s grasping at straws. You know what sells nowadays? Blood. Death. Car chases through crowded malls.”

Faced with what some might call a soul-crushing indictment of his choice of profession, Ben waded in with a meek, “Well, there is the one murder…”

Marty raised an eyebrow. “Really? I don’t remember that. Is there blood? How gory is it?”

“I mean, it’s alluded to. It’s off-camera. The watchmaker, Geoffrey, he gets killed on his way to meet Charlotte with news of her father.”

“Off-camera? You might as well have no murder at all. You never bury the lead, Ben.”

“The plot is really more centered around Charlotte’s sense of betrayal when he doesn’t show. I mean, I guess I could change things around―”

“Hm…” Marty held up a finger. “What if, your guy…” He snapped his fingers. “What’s his name?”

“Geoffrey. The watchmaker.”

“Right, him. What if”―he held his hands up, palms outward, then spread them away from one another as if unveiling an invisible banner―”he’s a ninja?”

“A ninja…”

“Yes.” Marty’s eyes grew large and his smile widened. “I think we’re on to something here, Ben.”

“A ninja watchmaker?”

“No, scratch the watchmaking. Or…no, we can keep that. That’ll be his side job, something he does in his spare time. It’ll make him appear more human and grounded when he’s not killing people.”

“But Geoffrey doesn’t kill anyone. And the script takes place in New York in 1908. I just don’t see how―”

“Be flexible. You have to learn to roll with the punches in this business, Ben.” Marty stood up and began to pace the room, circling Ben like a shark that smelled blood in the water. “Yes, a ninja. Ninjas are the next big thing, I tell you.”

“But in New York?”

“We’ll change it to China. Or is it Japan? Which one has the ninjas?”

“…I think Japan.”

“Japan it is then. It adds mystery, the whole Far East thing. And you know, we can make it feudal Japan. Then it’s still a historical drama. Well, historical, anyway.”


“No, forget that. We can’t do a period piece. That’ll cost too much. No studio is going to want to make that. We’ll have to make it modern, contemporary. A ninja prowling in Tokyo in the shadows of skyscrapers. You still have the mystery, too. What’s more mysterious than ninjas?” He stopped his pacing and looked at Ben. “Do you need to write this down?”

Ben hesitated before answering, “No. I’ve got it.”

“So you can make that edit? Tokyo. Modern day. Ninjas?”

“Sure. I guess.” Definitely not going as he’d expected. “And what about Charlotte?”


“The alchemist’s daughter. The story is about her and I don’t really know where that stands now that the watchmaker is a ninja and they’re in Japan. I guess I could do a little research.”

“Right, right, right. Well, maybe she’s a…I don’t know…well damn, you’re the screenwriter. I’m sure you could figure it out.”

“I guess I have a starting point.” If he wanted to maintain his sanity, he would need to leave. Ben began to get up.

“A birthday party.” Marty’s eyes shone.

“Excuse me?”

“You had Geoffrey murdered. Well, we can’t have that. He’s the star. So you’re going to need a whole bunch of other set pieces. So, what if…you had a birthday party?”

“I don’t think I follow.” Ben sat back down. The meeting was clearly not over, much to his dissatisfaction.

It didn’t seem that Marty had heard him. He circled the room at an even faster pace, which was impressive considering the weight he had to carry. He mumbled to himself, his eyes lighting up every few seconds. He changed patterns, zigzagging, bouncing off the walls like an excited hamster, a loose ball in a pinball machine. For Ben, it was altogether quite dizzying and headache-inducing.

Finally, he slowed to a walk, approached Ben and placed his hands on the armrests of the chair. To say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement. Marty’s shirt was drenched in sweat and his face was much too close to Ben’s own. A few stray hairs escaped from his carefully arranged combover and hung down in damp strands.

“A birthday party, to begin with,” Marty said. He rose up off the armrests, and leaned with his back to his desk. “Imagine this: a birthday party at one of those Chuck E. Cheese type places. A cyborg busts in, and your guy has no choice but to go ninja on his ass.”

“Right. I’m sorry. Are we still in Japan? And did you say cyborg?”

Marty waved dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. People love robots. Now, I think the ninja should be black.”

“I think that’s generally all they wear. The whole outfit is black. Standard, really.”

“Not clothes. Not black as in the color black. I meant―”

Ben realized what he meant, unfortunately, and though he had no issue with a black man training in the ninja arts, it seemed, well, a little too hokey for film. “In Japan? Would there really be a black ninja in Japan of all places? You’d think the Japanese ninjas would be putting him out of business, seeing as how they invented the whole ninjitsu thing.” He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.

“Why not? It’s perfect. Black and clad in black. It’s the ultimate camouflage. Gotta keep the diversity critics happy. Think Denzel.”

“He’s kind of old, isn’t he? Are you sure the character shouldn’t be Japanese, or at least Asian?”

“Fine. Will Smith. One of the Wayans brothers. Whoever. We’re only talking about the big picture here. And fair point about Asians. Sprinkle in a few of them here and there. Give him a sidekick. He can throw chopsticks instead of shurikens. Hey, what if…”

Ben closed his eyes and sighed. He had never wanted so badly to return to his shoebox of an apartment.

If Marty wasn’t so hyped up, he might have noticed. Instead, he said, “What if he had guns? Dual Berettas, like Chow Yun Fat in those John Woo movies.”

“You want the doves too?” Ben said, trying to keep the derision out of his voice.

“Huh?” Marty said, either not seeing the reference or simply not paying attention.

“Nevermind. Gun-wielding ninja, check.”

“Back to the cyborgs. You remember the cyborg?”

“How could I forget?”

“Good,” Marty said. “Because it ties in with the love interest.”

“Let me guess. She’s a cyborg.”

Marty looked long and hard at Ben. “That has got to be the dumbest idea I’ve heard all year. It’s ludicrous. Why would a ninja fall in love with a robot? That makes no sense.”

“I’m sorry. I have no idea what I was thinking,” Ben deadpanned. Black ninjas packing heat in Tokyo was fine, but steamy ninja-on-cyborg action was taboo. Was everyone in this town bat-shit crazy?

Waving away the apology as if it was in no way sarcastic, Marty said, “At the birthday party, he meets a girl. Think Natalie Portman or Jessica Alba. And get this, he’s going to find out that she’s the scientist who designed the cyborgs.”

“I don’t really―”

“I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. Why would a smoking hot filly like that ever become a scientist and why would our guy ever fall for someone who designed the evil cyborgs?”

“That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Ben wondered if he had enough money for a one-way flight back to Fairbanks.

Marty pointed at him. “Smart. Very smart. Here’s the kicker. She never knew she was designing the cyborgs. Her company had tricked her, saying that it was a computer program for a government missile defense contract. Instead, they’re out to take over the world with their cyborg army.”



Ben sighed. “Yeah, sure. That’s it.”

“You gotta think like a populist these days, Ben.” He tapped the side of his head. “Maximize appeal. You need a female presence to draw in the women. The character needs to be hot enough to pull in the guys, but smart and independent enough so you don’t turn off the chicks. Not too hot, though. The women might feel threatened by that. It’s a delicate balance.”

“So, no Charlotte?”


“The alchemist’s daughter. From my script?”

“No. Are you still on about that? Time to cut bait and move on, Ben.”

“It seems you’ve got this all pretty well thought out. You have a title as well?”

“No…wait. Check this out.” Marty crossed his arms and beamed. “Ninja Storm: Raining Cyborgs.

Ben began to laugh, but when he saw that Marty wasn’t joining in, he covered his mouth and masked it with a series of coughs. He swallowed. “You’re serious?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“So will there be, you know,” Ben said, clearing his throat, “cyborgs falling out of the sky?”

“Sure, why not? I’ll leave the specifics to you. I’m telling you, I’m feeling very excited about this project.”

“I can see that.”

“What if…”

“Oh God…” Hell, Ben thought. This was his own personal hell. He had offended the movie gods in some way and this was his penance.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” He should’ve taken those meditation classes when he had the chance. They would’ve come in handy now.

“What if he had a pet skunk?”

“A skunk.”

“Oh yeah. Skunks are basically black and so are ninjas. It’s the ideal pet. And people have pet skunks. I’ve seen it on Youtube. You’ll have to work out the dialogue though.”


“Well, it’d be pretty weird if it was a one-sided conversation, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m sorry. Are you saying the pet skunk is supposed to talk?”

“Yeah. Haven’t you seen Garfield? The Chipmunks? Talking animals in live action films is hot right now.”

“I’m not sure what a skunk would say,” Ben offered. A weak response, but how do you respond to a request for skunk dialogue?

“Go to a zoo. Write it off as a work expense. It’ll be tax deductible. And make it funny.”


“Funny ha-ha, not funny strange. Funny means people come back for second showings, which production companies like, which means I’ll get a better price for it.”


“And violent. Don’t scrimp on the blood. You give me that and I can sell it. Everything we talked about. That’s the sort of thing that puts butts in seats.”

“You’re the expert. I believe you.” Ben, in fact, found it hard to believe a movie audience would enjoy this sort of thing. On the other hand, he had no problem believing Marty Engelman had the persuasive talents to convince people to purchase a script for this sort of thing.

Marty rounded his desk one final time, then rested one sweaty palm on its surface, the meeting having clearly exhausted him. He sat, and took a deep heaving breath before speaking again. He smiled. “I tell everybody that Ben Trotter is my best guy. I lie my ass off all the time, but I can see now that I was right about you.” He furrowed his brow. “What’s wrong?”

“So, let me just get all of this straight. Instead of The Alchemist’s Daughter, which is the script I gave you, which was a historical drama, that even you said was well written; instead of that, you want a ninja-slash-cyborg romantic comedy. You want a ninja instead of the watchmaker, or a ninja that is also a watchmaker. You want it to be set in Japan, but definitely not feudal Japan. You want a pet skunk that speaks. You want killer cyborgs that threaten Earth’s existence, that may or may not fall from the sky. You want a smart and hot, but not too hot, intrepid female scientist who works for the evil corporation that built the aforementioned cyborgs. Oh, and of course, buckets upon buckets of blood. You want all of that instead of what I gave you, which bears no semblance to what we’ve just discussed.”

“Yes. And maybe, you know, more than one ninja. You can never have too many. Whatever. You’ll figure it out.”

“More ninjas…”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

Ben felt the intensity of Marty’s scrutiny, and considered the paltry sum of five hundred dollars remaining in his checking account. He considered spending endless days slinging coffee for minimum wage. He considered eviction and ramen noodles. He considered how long he had been in the City of Angels without selling so much as a haiku on a paper napkin. He considered the dreaded phone call home he’d have to make and the I-Told-You-Sos that would come with it.

He considered all of this, felt the corners of his mouth rise in a plasticized smile, and said, “No problem. I can make that work.”

Matt Mok lives in New Hampshire, but spent his formative years in Queens, New York. He is a freelance goblin bounty hunter who spends his spare time free-climbing bell towers, running with wolf packs, and fabricating fantastic lies about himself. He also writes when inspiration strikes, and on rarer occasions is even published.