Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chewing the fat at the Pig


Sunday February 26, 2006

Chewing the fat at the Pig
* From Oscar nominees to struggling wannabes, these writers have got a hot spot.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

WHAT a bunch of poseurs, thought Josh Olson, when he first stepped foot inside the Bourgeois Pig. The screenwriter was visiting this Hollywood cappuccino bar with a friend, and all around were "punks sitting there with laptops," Olson says. "Pretenders. Jerks."

"But Josh," said his friend, "how can you be so sure that they aren't actually writing something?" OK, Olson admitted. It was curiosity, partly, that brought him back the next morning (with his own laptop), and the next. And soon he was coming not to gauge the poseurs but because days at the Pig were eight- and 10-page days -- good stuff too -- and five years after setting up shop here, Olson received an Oscar nomination for his script, "A History of Violence."

It wasn't until a few weeks ago, after the nomination, that a scruffy-bearded Olson spotted fellow best adapted screenplay nominee Dan Futterman ("Capote") sipping coffee at a nearby table. "Josh came up to me and said, 'I know who you are!' " says Futterman, who takes his reading to the Pig. "We talked, and now, since I have a new house to decorate, I'm going to go check out his girlfriend's artwork."

Futterman won't have to look far. Olson's girlfriend, Annie Kehoe, an actress and artist, often shows her paintings at the Pig. (Olson and Kehoe met here just over a year ago.) But Olson and Futterman aren't the only of this year's best screenwriter nominees interested in Kehoe and her work. Stephen Gaghan, up for best original screenplay for "Syriana," snagged a Kehoe portrait of a newborn baby off the wall at the Pig, and intends to purchase more.

Oscar-nominated patrons aside, there are no red carpets unfurled here across floors of chipped concrete, and Olson worries each day that his favorite perch -- in a corner between the wall and the baked goods -- will be commandeered by some unknown scribe. The Pig sits on a lively, funky block of Franklin Avenue plucked from the East Village, with cafes, a newsstand, a record store, the French bistro La Poubelle; but on either side is urban sprawl that's chromosomally Los Angeles, a shattered apartment windowpane repaired with tape, a man with exhausted eyes pacing the sidewalks hawking popsicles.

"If you come here for a long time, you're here for that grittiness," says Andrew Chadsoy, who has hung out and worked at the Pig since he was 18, and now is 31 and the manager. "It's part of what gives way to creativity. If you didn't have that, the writers wouldn't be here." The Pig is a reminder that while Hollywood and the Oscars appear to be about impossibly out-of-reach starlets and super-refined notions of glamour, in Los Angeles, Hollywood is just part of town.

"Character, life, people, it's what I want to absorb, no matter who they are," says Jeremy Donner, a screenwriter with shaggy red hair who works across the table from Olson every day. "You have to be a patient listener to be a writer." There is a tangible divide here between observers and the observed: Silent writers sprawl across all available table space while noisy regulars gab at the counter or on soft purple couches; at the row of tables outside, young men with beards suck on cigarettes and argue politics.

It's people-watching at its finest, and writing is the perfect excuse for voyeurism. On a recent morning, Michael Abel sits at the counter, doodling devil horns on a picture of Dick Cheney in The Times; next, his pen makes a mockery of Condoleezza Rice.

"More than one person has gone to sit outside because of my politics, I'll admit that," says Abel, a cappuccino caterer and Pig regular for some 11 years. After passing around the augmented newspaper to halfhearted interest, Abel leaves -- but returns later to show off a freshly handmade shirt that reads, "Dick Cheney Hunting Party," replete with birdshot holes and faux blood.

"The problem with this place," says Ed Mattiuzzi, a musician seated nearby, "is that I tend to come in and procrastinate. I got here this morning at 8:30, and I'm supposed to be at work by 9, but now it's what, 10:30?" Zin Chiang nods, smiling. "Most people who get their coffee in here are friends," says the writer for a Taiwanese music magazine. "I had a snowboarding injury once, and [Abel] is really good at deep-tissue massage, and he fixed it for me."


Coincidence, you say?

EXCEPT for the seated observers, this feels like a small-town coffeehouse along the lines of, well, the cafe in Olson's "A History of Violence." And there is a regular named Joey, which is the name of Viggo Mortensen's character in the movie. And the Pig, like the cafe in "Violence," has been robbed at gunpoint.

No, no, no, says Olson. Coincidences, all. (Which makes sense; his screenplay was based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.) Even so, it's easy to wonder if bits and pieces of this joint are smattered across the silver screen, by osmosis if not by intent.

"The women here are so beautiful," observes Ben Zolno, a twentysomething documentary sound designer, working on his first screenplay. "But [writers] aren't here because we're comfortable. You'll notice that music is playing, and that most people are trying to drown it out with their own headphones. It's like being at a Buddhist temple. We fight through resistance. There is something to being alone with other people."

Being alone with other people at the Pig is more complicated than you might expect; the subculture of writers here has developed its own unspoken code of conduct. It took Donner months of sitting across from Olson, for hours a day, before they acknowledged each other. "After we were both comfortable that the other person wasn't a wanker, we started with head nodding," Donner says. Then saying "hello" and "goodbye," and at long last trading numbers.

Olson usually stakes out the table first, then Donner arrives, followed by the third and newest member of their clan, Mishna Wolff, a comedian. "The most flattering moment at this table was when Josh called me and said, 'People are trying to sit at the table, do you want your seat?' " Wolff says. "That was after I had been sitting here for six months." The trio piles laptop bags, papers and jackets onto the remaining chairs until all appear taken.

Then writing begins, in silence. Earphones in place mean: Leave me alone. One earphone in, one out: I'll listen until you finish your sentence, then zip it. For Wolff, earphones are often just unconnected props.

They buy tea and coffee, sometimes lunch, and leave when enough work's done or whim moves them. The writers are not a cash cow for the Pig, to say the least. And business has been difficult lately, says Chadsoy. He's making changes to bolster the hipster nighttime clientele, many of whom are drawn to a back lounge perfect for making out; he plans to darken the ambience, add red lights, play louder music.

"The computer crowd has inundated the coffeehouse scene," says Jeff Zardus, who works nights at the Pig, open daily until 2 a.m. "People have forgotten that this is an alternative to bars. You feel resistance to it, people asking me to turn the lights up and the music down. I think that coffeehouses have gone soft."

Soft or not, this is just the way Olson likes it. "The day I come in here, and it's sold or closed, I'll have to find a new line of work," he says. "That's terrifying."

"We really should put a plaque on your chair now," says the waitress behind the counter, Amelia B., when Olson goes to order another double Americana. "No!" Olson says. "No, please. Please, just a 'reserved' sign."

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