Monday, February 13, 2006

In the Company of Friends

My wife and I had dinner with some friends the other night and before I'd even managed to massacre my second basket of free bread the subject of my blog came up. This happens quite frequently--mainly because I tend to bring it up. This particular time it was my friend:

FRIEND: So, Josh. Read your blog today.
ME: Thanks for taking the time.
FRIEND: These people, these studio executives. The ones that make the decisions to hire you...Do you think they like it when you call them shitbags?
ME: Is that what I did?
FRIEND: Quite clearly.
ME: I didn't think it was that clear.
FRIEND: You call them shitbags. I used to be one of those shitbags.
ME: And I call myself shit. It's an analogy.
FRIEND: Do you hate your career so much that you just want it to go away?
ME: I love my career.
FRIEND: Well you are a dumb motherfucker.
ME: Is that cheese bread?

At this point the conversation took a hard right-hand turn as Michael Caine walked past me and sat down at the same table as Anjelica Huston. I tried to hear what they were talking about but it soon occurred to me that the chances they'd read my blog were quite slim. So I returned to my food.

My friend continued to berate me for my suicidal tendencies and (because he used to be one) argue that most zookeepers aren't smart enough to distinguish between a metaphor and actual monkey shit flung at their face. In fact, for most of the monkey population (or in my friend's case, monkey sympathizers), it's an easy answer to impugn the intelligence of the people on the other side of the cage. We've all got authority issues, and it feels good to look down on people for their giant key rings and their high powered hoses and their striking similarity to Nazi guards.

It feels really good.

But it's...wrong.

Hollywood zookeepers are among our country's most educated, intelligent, and qualified work force. They are high achievers, highly motivated, very focused, and, by and large, very well dressed and pretty. (Especially the boys. The boys are very pretty.)

In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say there are far more bad screenwriters than there are bad executives. There are some seriously American Idol Audition Episode-quality screenwriters whose only qualifications for being considered a screenwriter is the mastery of Final Draft and the ability to thread the brad through the hole without tearing the paper.

That said, I'll also say this: while the number of horrible screenwriters outdistances the number of horrible executives, the number of outstanding writers also exceeds the number of outstanding executives. It's extremely difficult to be a great screenwriter (or so they tell me). But it's damn near impossible to be a great executive. The system doesn't allow for it. Human nature doesn't allow for it.

Because to be a great executive you have to be able to do...nothing. You have to have the security, the sensitivity, the balls, really, to read a script and say to your boss: "You know what? It's pretty fucking good the way it is."

And who the hell's gonna do that? First off, most scripts aren't pretty fucking good the way they are. Most scripts fucking suck. Most screenwriters suck. Most movie ideas suck. Most of the reasons a particular movie is getting made suck. So executives are conditioned to think EVERY script has a pretty good dash of suck. It's a good bet to make. It's like betting with the house.

Even the best scripts have a hint of suck in them. A scene pushed too far, an extra character beat, an internal moment which could be dramatized...Whatever it is...The trick for development folks is to recognize those few sucky things in a good script and then...ignore them. Just...let them go. Get a director. Get an actor. Get the fuck going with what it is that you and only you can do better than anybody else: pick up the fucking phone and get people excited to make a movie.

Because if you think your job is to make a bad script good, or a good script great, or God forbid, a great script perfect, you are a fucking idiot. These are quixotic quests, rarely achieved. And never achieved without the consent of the writer. (You can lead a monkey to water, but you can't make him amp up the stakes for the protagonist.)

It's not your fault. I don't blame you. You're not "trying to justify your job." This is your job. You're not "creatively frustrated." Or if you are, you sure as shit aren't as creatively frustrated as I am. In fact, I'd argue that the more "creatively frustrated" an executive is, the better he probably is at his job.

Because (and I'm paraphrasing David Mamet) unless you're an artist, unless you've written drama, unless you've been HUMBLED by the process of MAKING IT ALL WORK you will still maintain the arrogance drilled into you from birth and solidified by your graduation from Yale that YOU KNOW THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION.

And most likely you do not.

Recently there's been an extremely painful and fascinating exchange over at the Artful Writer site. The subject is mostly the vanity credit and we can thank Craig Mazin, Josh Olson, et al. for their passion on the topic. I won't weigh in here--I can't imagine having anything to add--but I am interested in a particular C-storyline discussed: namely, whether or not Craig Mazin's friendly relationship with the executives he works with: a) colors his view re the writer's place in the industry, and b) if true, does it make him more "studio sympathetic" and less "writer-friendly" and c) if true, as Craig is our WGAw board member and has drank the Kool-Aid, aren't the rest of us sincerely fucked?

And the answer to all of it is: I don't have a fucking clue.

But there are two types of writers in Hollywood and I'm not here to guess who's one and who's the other. To put it simply there are those who fall in love with the johns and those who don't. The ones who don't are the ones who embrace the idea of the Infinite Monkey. They are catankerous, perennially defensive and passively antagonistic to their employers. They're fat and ugly and unshaven and if they've succeeded in the industry it's usually in spite of themselves.

They're usually miserable.

Then there are the screenwriters we rarely talk about: They're at every premiere and at every birthday party at the Chateau Marmont. Their Treos are packed with the home phone numbers of producers and their kids have weekend playdates with the kids of the newest VP. They shun the spirit of the sweatpants and at Hollywood's Ellis Island they are the first to shorten their name and remove the consecutive consonants. They're slim and pretty and shop at Fred Segal and are almost always more successful than the other Monkeys.

They're usually miserable.

Because at the core is an inherent tension for writers in Hollywood that is rarely true in other businesses. If you're a writer in Hollywood almost ANYBODY can be your employer. ANYBODY. That kid you pushed out of the way to get the last German pretzel at the farmer's market? His movie just sold at Sundance for $6 million. That really cool guy you "accidentally" showered with in college and never called again? His boss just put him in charge of hiring a writer for that one book you've always wanted to adapt.

Anyone can hire you. Anyone can fire you. Anyone can give you notes. And will. Whether you love them, hate them, fear them, embrace them. It doesn't matter. Eventually the power dynamic rears its ugly head. Despite my love of the free sushi lunch, I make it a point to pay my own way when I'm socializing with my zookeeper friends. It's humiliating to have a friend expense your tequila at the bar when all you've talked about is your kids' poop. Even Julia Roberts had her limits in Pretty Woman. (Actually, I don't think she did have her limits. But I can't really remember the movie that well. Was she a whore or a princess?)

Some years ago a friend of mine brought me in for a job. It was a big opportunity--pretty much a greenlit movie with a major international action star fully committed. We always talk about the movie pitch. Well, this was a movie CATCH. All I had to do was meet the star, hear the movie he wanted to make, and nod my head. The job was mine. That was it.

My friend takes me to this enormous house International Star is renting in Beverly Hills. It's completely void of any furniture save a kitchen table and some chairs. Beyond that I saw the biggest living room I've ever seen in my life. In the center of it was a very large metal pole that had little to do with stripping and everything to do with the high-level acrobatic training done by the International Star and his very acrobatic entourage. At least that's what they told me.

I was introduced to the International Star, who, for reasons soon to be obvious, I will refer to as International Star. After some small talk, I settled in to hear the movie. What happened next was forty-five of the most entertaining and annoying minutes I have ever spent in the film business. International Star stood across from me and proceeded to act the movie out, giving me examples of action scenes, stunts, sight gags, etc. He never stopped moving for the better part of an hour.

And here's what he kept saying the entire time:

INTERNATIONAL STAR: So...we have a bar scene first. Maybe...a bar fight? Six men against me...I'll balance on a chair like this...take out all my funny International Star thing...maybe drink their drinks...then we have some story bullshit...After that...I rescue this girl from...the whorehouse? Maybe bandits...I'll do my funny International Star with this chair here...Then some story bullshit...and I find this other girl tied up...there's a chair gag...then some story bullshit...

Here's the conversation I have in the car with my friend afterwards.

FRIEND:'re in, right? It's fucking awesome, right?
ME: You've gotta be kidding me.
ME: Story bullshit? STORY BULLSHIT? My part in all this is...story bullshit?
FRIEND: Oh don't be so senstiive. That's just International Star. He'
ME: He refers to my job as bullshit.
FRIEND: Which is exactly why I need you. You'll make it better than bullshit.
ME: No way. Not doing it.
ME: I don't, actually.
FRIEND: I already told him you would.
ME: What!
FRIEND: I told him you'd do it. I told him you were perfect. He'll take it as a personal affront.
ME: I don't care.
FRIEND: I stuck my neck out for you. You can't fuck me like this.
ME: I'm afraid I am fucking you like this.

And so I did.

Two weeks later I got this phone call from my friend:

FRIEND: So. I just wanted to give you an update on the International Star thing.
ME: Look, I'm sorry if I made you look bad--
FRIEND: Don't worry. I fixed it. We hired someone else.
ME: Good. That's great. How did you--?
FRIEND: I told him that I had second thoughts about you. That after thinking about it I decided you weren't a good enough writer for the project.
ME: Wow. You're fucking good.
FRIEND: Aren't I?

By the way, I always told my friend I'd give him the heads up if I decided to blog about this. It's the least a friend can do for a friend.

Heads up.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


So my wife recently introduced biodegradable dog poop bags to our household and I can't say it doesn't vex me just a little bit. First, it's called "The Business Bag," and while I understand where the name comes from I can't say I like it. I've always taught the dog that pooping falls under the rubric of "play" and not "work"--so this whole "business" thing seems to be sending the wrong message. I'd secretly been hoping that the dog was going to take the lead in potty-training my son, but if she's going to take all the fun out of it for him I may have to do it myself.

Secondly, and correct me if I'm wrong because my personal expertise is in differentiating mouse shit from rat shit, it's my understanding that dog poop is, by its very nature, biodegradable. I'm sort of vamping here, but after spending six hours this morning on GoogleEarth I was unable to find a single mountain over 1000 feet high made completely of petrified dog crap.

So nature intended dog poop to sit out on the lawn unattended. But man would have none of it. Fair enough. It's our job to fuck with the natural order of things until the world cooks like one big poached egg. I've stepped in enough dog poop (real and metaphorical) to appreciate the need for some sort of poop isolation system. So here's where we're at now: the biodegradable chihuahua poops out her biodegradable poop and I'm supposed to pick it up with the biodegradable bag. I guess I'm willing to accept the chain of command up to this point--but here's my question:

Shouldn't it be perfectly acceptable for me to LEAVE THE BAG ON THE LAWN? Wouldn't that most closely approximate what nature intended while also giving my neighbor what he fairly has come to expect--namely, not to track my dog's poop onto the floormats of his Lexus 470? Granted, the bag probably won't dissolve in his lifetime, but that's a bit selfish and shortsighted, isn't it? Surely harboring a few hundred biodegradable "Business Bags" on your lawn for a few years is preferable to the intellectual dishonesty required to throw a biodegradable material containing another biodegradable material into a non-biodegradable plastic trash can until it's picked up by an enormous garbage truck burning our last drips of fossil fuel in order to dump it on someone else's (only sometimes metaphorical) lawn.

And yet that is exactly what I'm required to do. And frankly, little pisses me off more than when I'm required to overcomplicate an idea which, in its original form, is almost perfect. Of course, the reverse is equally upsetting. Namely, to be required to simplify and perfect an idea, which, in its original and best form, is both complicated and imperfect.

Which is why Hollywood is the greatest purveyor and consumer of biodegradable poop bags in the civilized world. No other community is so determined to take a good idea, be it simple or complex, wrap it in earnest intentions and, in doing so, completely suffocate whatever was special and strange about that idea in the first place.

Hollywood is truly terrified of its own poop and they have created an entire class of people (the development executive) who function as biodegradable poop bags. Now obviously in this metaphor the screenwriter and/or his script is the poop. And I'm okay with that. The monkey is a dirty animal, nothing like a cat or even my very anal-retentive dog. So I embrace the very poopiness of what I do and who I am. I didn't make myself this thing. I was just a writer looking for a way to do what I love to do and not starve doing it.

I didn't grow up loving movies, I grew up loving books. I didn't grow up making little 8mm films starring my brother and the local apple dumpling gang in my neighborhood. I grew up writing stories and practicing my alphabet and handing out self-published pamphlets to my babysitters so they could get to know me better. I got a video camera in high school and my friend and I tried making claymation shorts. You wanna know what? They sucked.

So I've always felt screenwriters should be writers first and screenwriters second. It's an important distinction because writers respect their own voices and speak them for a purpose. Writers think words are important, not simply as ideas, or expositional tools, but as powerful totems to be carefully protected and shared.

Most screenwriters, on the other hand, especially screenwriters who never really wrote until they were screenwriters, use words as tools to service the film story they (and others) are trying to tell. And it's the "and others" part which is problematic. Because the script development process strips the writer of his specialness--the power structure requires him to accept the premise that anybody is qualified to have a good idea. Some think this creates an atmosphere which reinforces the (bad) idea that "anyone can be a writer." Nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, it creates a (worse) dynamic where NOBODY is a writer. Not the development executive. Not the producer. And once he's ceded his artistic authority, not the writer.

And here's why it really matters:

Last year I wrote and sold a spec screenplay called "Orphan's Dawn" to Fox. It was the first spec feature I had sold since "Dead Drop" (aka The Keanu Reeves MegaHit Chain Reaction). For those of you who read this blog regularly you'll recall the joy I had selling "Dead Drop" while simultaneously being dumped by a completely insane actress. Ten years later, having pretty much recovered from that excess amount of joy, I wrote another one. The script is a very dense and complicated science fiction story set in a very dense and complicated non-Earth future world. I like to believe that it is a very detailed and well-realized vision of a very particular future. Nothing was left to the imagination. It was also the first in a trilogy.

I sent the script out and it was met with resounding...curiosity. Unlike ten years ago when I sold the script in six hours, the spec market had changed significantly and studios are much more circumspect about spending high six figures for material which doesn't end in the word "Hazzard."

So I took meetings. And conference calls. And more meetings. I talked about the other two movies. And whether or not there were aliens. And what they might look like. People were earnestly interested in my "vision" for the film. I was encouraged.

But then I had this conversation. AND THEN I HAD IT MORE THAN ONCE.

STUDIO EXECUTIVE: So. Josh. Really interesting script.
ME: Thanks.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Very detailed and well-realized vision of a very particular future. Nothing is left to the imagination.
ME: Thanks.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: So what's the source material?
ME: Huh?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: What's it based on? Is it a book? A comic book? Who wrote it?
ME: Who WROTE it?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Yeah. Who's the author?
ME: I am.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: You wrote what? A novel?
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Really? Wow. Because it feels like it's based on something.
ME: It's not.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Huh. Strange. And what did you say the aliens looked like again?

Not one conversation like this. Not two. At least three. Sure, I guess I could feel good that people thought the world was so detailed and imaginative that I COULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN IT MYSELF. But the reality was that three different studio executives could not imagine I COULD ACTUALLY WRITE.

Which probably says less about who they are and more about what I've allowed myself to become.