Ensconced in a red leather booth at Musso & Frank Grill, a Hollywood institution for nearly a century, producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath learn that it is the same banquette where Orson Welles once held court — and Johnny Depp and Keith Richards still do.
“Wow,” Eisendrath says, shooting Bokenkamp a sly look. “They’re really lowering the bar with us.”
They may not be household names but, thanks to the breakout success of their NBC drama The Blacklist, the pair can now command the best table in the house. Not that this unassuming duo makes a habit of it.
“Generally we just walk over from our office to the commissary,” reports Bokenkamp of the short trek across the Paramount lot, “and get turkey sandwiches.”
“We are, like most writers, slobs who never go out,” Eisendrath cracks.
So, why not splurge now? An elaborate shrimp cocktail is already on the table as the executive producers and co-showrunners pore over the menu.
The mahogany bar where William Faulkner used to mix his own mint juleps is only steps away, but with a packed afternoon schedule — including a call with studio execs to go over notes on the latest script, as well as new pages to write for reshoots — the guys forgo the restaurant’s signature martinis in favor of iced tea and Diet Coke.
As Bokenkamp places an eclectic order of French onion soup and fruit salad with one of the red-jacketed waiters, Eisendrath recalls some of his own Hollywood history. “I once had lunch with David Milch and ordered a fruit salad,” he says. “And he was so rude about it. Just relentless.”
“Why?” Bokenkamp asks, as old-school jazz plays in the background.
“He thought it was wimpy.”
After 25 years in the TV industry, Eisendrath (Alias, Felicity) is the straight-shooting veteran in this partnership, while Bokenkamp — who previously toiled as a screenwriter — is the easygoing novice.
Best known until last year for scripting female-driven thrillers like 2004’s Taking Lives (with Angelina Jolie), Bokenkamp was living in his native Kearney, Nebraska, when agents at ICM suggested he partner with Eisendrath, a fellow client, to develop his Blacklist pilot script.
“John was the insurance policy,” Bokenkamp says, “so I didn’t screw it up.”
Together, they’ve put a fresh twist on the character-driven crime drama. Eisendrath’s predilection for wisecracks helps inform the voice of Raymond “Red” Reddington, the dry-witted fugitive-turned-MVP FBI informant played by James Spader.
And Bokenkamp’s knack for what he calls the “odd and dark” helps him develop the dangerously dysfunctional criminals for rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) to contend with each week.
The guys complement each other off screen, too, as seen in the easy way they finish each other’s sentences — and good-naturedly needle each other. “I can’t think of a single disagreement we’ve had,” says Eisendrath, between bites of a Caesar salad with grilled chicken.
“The blush is not yet off the rose,” Bokenkamp shoots back.
The more difficult adjustment has been the time Bokenkamp must spend away from his wife and 2 kids, who are back in Nebraska.
While he flies home as often as possible, it’s still “super-hard,” he admits. “I felt like I could live anywhere because I’m a writer. But the one writing job where you have to be in the room with other people happens to be a TV show.
“Clearly,” he adds with a laugh, “I didn’t think it through that well.”
“Jon obviously sees me more than his family,” Eisendrath says. “But I also see him way more than my family, and my family lives down the street! We’re together morning, noon and night, so if [working together] wasn’t easy, life would be horrible.”
Suddenly, Eisendrath’s phone rings. It’s his assistant, Jesse. When he hangs up, he shares his message with Bokenkamp: “Spader has called about 50 times since we’ve been at lunch.”
“About the reshoots?”
“I don’t know, but we should probably call him on the way back.”
It’s their cue to leave Musso’s red booth behind, at least for now. As any Blacklist fan knows, it’s never a good idea to keep that other Red waiting.