Short Essay by Jon Johnstone
The dying cat was my idea. So was the creepy old guy in the library. I was especially proud of that one. An elderly Romanian man had a part to play in this Hollywood movie because I said so. But I wasn’t on set the day they shot his scene, and he never knew who I was. He never saw me and he never heard my name.
I was hired to fix the script five weeks before production was to start in Bucharest. It was a mess, the script, but they werenʼt moving that start date. And I should say that the mess wasn’t the credited writerʼs fault. He was a hired gun too, and it was a hopeless idea to begin with, and there were too many cooks. There always are.
The Studio Boss took a disconcerting shine to me. I never saw him, and he never saw me. He was a manic voice on the phone, a voice that shot a bolt of terror up many a spine, a voice that turned blood cold. But so far not mine. He had me call him at his motherʼs house on Passover. She sounded like a nice old lady. He picked up the phone and told me he talked to Stephen King about me. He promised me the job of writing the Studioʼs next big horror movie. He said heʼd make me a star, and this man had made stars out of writers before. He asked me how much I was getting paid for this job, and when I told him, he declared that he was giving me a $25,000 bonus. I called my parents: “You might not have to worry so much anymore.” I deserved this. I was good at my job, and it was finally being recognized.
At the Bucharest Hilton, the director and the actors and I sat around a table and read through the script. At some point I made a joke at which everyone laughed (at least thatʼs my memory of it). In Los Angeles, I was not on level ground with these people. But being shipped off to a foreign country together, I was finding, has a way of flattening things out.
In a car on the way to the set one morning, the Starlet thanked me for putting a head on her characterʼs shoulders. She was worried about this movie. I wanted to tell her she should be worried. I wanted to say what everyone knew, which was that the movie was going to be terrible, an embarrassment, and there was nothing any of us could do about it now. But I kept my mouth shut. One day, I told myself, weʼll talk about this and weʼll laugh.
The original script had called for a cat to leap out at her in the dark at a critical moment. Offended by the cliche and convinced it would get a laugh if it got anything, I instead had our girl hear something and open a closet door and find the cat crying and writhing on the floor, mangy and starving and near death (this actually made some sense in context). I didnʼt think anyone would go for it, after all the ideas Iʼd had that were shot down. But this one survived. Iʼm pretty sure that cat was the best work the effects guys did on the project, and I bet they would agree. That cat was a horrible sight.
Iʼd been in Bucharest for two weeks when the Actor told me he was in the process of scoring some drugs. He was working on it, he said. I told him I wanted in. He mightʼve high-fived me. This was all turning out better than I could have ever imagined.
Tragically, I never got to do those drugs. The next day a sheepish producer told me I was getting sent home. I pulled my hat low, said goodbye to no one, and vanished into the Bucharest night. The adventure was over. There was no reason why. When I saw the Actor at the premier, he said: “We were all like, ʻWhere did he go!?ʼ” The Starlet gave me a hug. She was still worried. She neednʼt have been, though the movie is indeed terrible. Her career has done just fine.
I was a ghost on this film, lurking in the shadows on the edges of the set. I didnʼt really exist. I am unknown to the credited writer, unknown to the audience in the theater, unknown to IMDb. But the dying cat was my idea.
Jon Johnstone is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Before that he was a baggage handler at LAX, and before that he was a private investigator in the San Fernando Valley. He came to the West from the Northeast.