Every screenwriter should be fortunate to have a career like that of Gary Goldstein.
He’s an award-winning scribe who’s written 15 produced telefilms, numerous theatrical films, has a string of episodic credits to his name, and has sold half-hour comedy pilots to NBC and Warner Bros. And he’s been paid for them all. Goldstein has also written four theatrical plays that have been produced on stages in L.A., and he’s a contributing film reviewer and feature writer and for the Los Angeles Times. Gary also consults, teaches, guests on broadcasts and podcasts, and probably is the first person any team would pick for their side, during a bar’s movie trivia night.
Goldstein has thrived in an industry not always known for kindness or consistency by being flexible and open-minded. “Be a good collaborator and don’t take things too personally,” he advises. “Be open to invention and reinvention. And try to enjoy yourself.”
Goldstein makes a great point; writers should enjoy writing, and yes, even rewriting.
As if Goldstein’s career isn’t wonderful enough already, he’s now written his first novel entitled The Last Birthday Party, and it’s getting rave reviews. Heaping praise on the book are critics and fellow authors alike, with the words of bestselling writers W. Bruce Cameron (A Dog’s Purpose) and Jane Porter (Flirting with Forty) showcased on the book’s inside cover.
I’ve known Gary for five years now, and he was easily one of the best guests I ever had on my podcast Page2Screen as well. Plus, I’m proud to call him my friend. And my friend is an inspiration to me and should be to every writer, especially those who wonder if they can cross over between film, TV, theater, or the printed page.
Indeed, the story of how Goldstein came to write his novel is a fascinating one. It’s both an entirely new medium for him, yet reminiscent of his character-driven story style, and it even riffs on his vocation as a film critic. It’s also one hell of a read and not only recommended for anyone who wants to read some good fiction, but as a mini course in how to write.
The story of The Last Birthday Party concerns L.A. film critic Jeremy Lerner who hits a trio of problems just as he turns 50. His wife leaves him after a disastrous birthday party, he loses his job as a newspaper film critic, and to add injury to insult, Jeremy suffers a torn rotator cuff which puts him in a giant sling. Did I mention too that it’s his writing hand?
There’s a lot of humor in all of this, despite Jeremy’s life coming apart. Goldstein shrewdly keeps us on Jeremy’s side no matter how much comes down around him by writing a strong, male character who’s smart, compassionate, adaptable, and has a snarky sense of humor steering his inner monologue throughout the tale. It’s a knowing blend of mid-life crisis, the Hollywood ecosystem, and the world of journalism, too. The characters are so vivid they seem real, and after I finished the book, I wanted to spend more time with the people Goldstein created. Perhaps if he writes a sequel book or Hollywood makes a movie of it, I’ll get my wish. I wouldn’t be surprised.
I spoke with Goldstein about his book and found out that he enjoyed the differences in writing a book versus a screenplay. “Some books are told from several different points of view, but this was a book that I told entirely from his [Jeremy’s] point of view. It was very different than writing a script because a script goes to everybody’s scenes individually. The main character doesn’t have to be in everything. Here, it’s all filtered through the way he experiences it. What it forced me to do is show what he’s thinking through those inner monologues.”
Goldstein wanted to write a book not only because he’s a big fan of literature, but he also saw it as a new challenge, one that hadn’t presented itself so far in his illustrious career. He read online that a novelist suggested that those who are considering writing a book to simply sit down each day and write one page. 365 days later, you’ll have a finished novel. Goldstein thought he could do that and got into it so enthusiastically that he finished in six months.
The Last Birthday Party not only explores Jeremy’s present-day string of calamities, but the story also delves deep into his past via extended flashbacks, showcasing the rise and fall of his relationship with his fiercely independent wife, Cassie. She leaves Jeremy high and dry in the book, telling him after 25 years of marriage that she’s through. Cassie states not to search for her or call her again, but despite such orders, is not typically villainous. Instead, Goldstein paints a portrait of a woman who’s outgrown her husband and lifestyle and has already moved on to a new version of herself. Over the course of the book, Jeremy will learn to do the same.
In charting the course of their relationship over many years, Goldstein was able to look at how people change in relationships and finds it the biggest hook of his book. “I’m fascinated by what brings people together and what splits those same people apart. How can you love someone so much that you want to spend the rest of your life with them … and then 25 years later, you can’t even look at the person? How does that happen?”
Goldstein himself has probably changed over all his time in Tinsel Town, but he’s still positive about the possibilities even though he’s more than used to the industry’s eccentricities. His book also touches on how maturity isn’t always rewarded in the City of Angels. That’s why the 50th birthday party of Jeremy is the inciting event in his novel. Goldstein sets up a perfect midlife crisis for his main character that not only showcases a late period growth and maturation, but also shows how the town reacts to it.
The author loved the idea of how perspective changes the way one views things as they get older. “When we’re young, everything seems so dramatic, and it is,” he opined, but the longer one lives, the more we can see “how horrible things can sometimes make everything better.” In Jeremy, he has a conduit for a man who doesn’t see things the same way he used to, be it his wife, his job, the industry, or even his own mortality.
That sounds heavy, but Goldstein mixes plenty of rich humor in with Jeremy’s serious self-examination. Jeremy starts to date a wonderful new woman named Annabelle about midway through the novel, and his frustrations with having to date anew and learn how to read women makes for some seriously hilarious chapters. The character’s experience with a chic and colorful ice cream parlor is one such example in the story that finds Jeremy musing amusingly about the sampling there, as well as the décor. Goldstein also makes plenty of hay out of the movie industry, as well as the newspaper world, too.
It’s easy to see traces of Goldstein’s screenwriting forte in the novel. The book recalls some of those splendidly comical character studies from the 1970s about male midlife crises such as Blume in Love, starring George Segal, or Starting Over, starring Burt Reynolds. When I told Goldstein that I could almost see a Segal or Richard Benjamin playing the Jeremy part, he asked me who from today’s actors might I cast. Goldstein thought maybe Jason Bateman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Goldstein’s producers are already thinking along such lines, too.
But whether it’s his new novel or screenwriting, Goldstein finds that good writing is good writing. Sure, his novel is filled with richer detailing about settings and backstory than a script generally allows, and his chapters don’t hit the specific beats of a typical two-hour screenplay either, but a lot of Goldstein’s scripting disciplines emerge from cover to cover. The characters are memorable, the prose is precise, and there are some great twists to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Goldstein also writes women incredibly well, and in The Last Birthday Party, he writes four to five of them as vividly as any female writer working today.
Don’t be surprised if Goldstein’s stellar debut novel gets turned into a miniseries. I hope it at least warrants a sequel book as I’d love to spend more time reading about his compelling characters. The Last Birthday Party is a breezy read, albeit one laced with shrewd life lessons, and it would even make a great case study for comparing the differences in writing a book narrative versus that on the screen.
As Goldstein said to me, “As an author [of a book], you have to be the camera. A script gets interpreted, but in a book, the words have to do all the work.”
*Feature Image: Gary Goldstein by Jeff York