Monday, February 04, 2008

Hollywood Idol

So I'm trying something radical this week and in lieu of vanity-Googling four hours a day I've cut it back to damn near three and am using the savings to read a book. It's Marc Norman's "What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting." I know that's not much of a stretch but even in the best of times I'm a pretty self-absorbed motherfucker so you can only guess what I'm like when I've got nothing else to do but contemplate my own navel.

The book's well-written, well-researched, and just about all the other wells you could want out of something like this. It starts back in the silent era and paints a pretty good picture of the screenwriter through time. And by pretty good I mean colorful and informative but not always complimentary. To wit:

"...writers (in the 1930s) lived in a caste system of their own construct, along financial lines. At commissaries at lunchtime the $2,000-a-week writers like the Parker-Campbells sat with others at the same salary, the $500-a-weeks with their own, the junior writers--$50 a week, if they were lucky--off in a corner. These distinctions transferred to their social lives; a screenwriter approaching a house one night with a writer friend said he could not enter it and the party inside, they would not want him there, he was not making enough."

Reading this I flashed back ten years ago to a screenwriter dinner I was invited to where I was absolutely the youngest and least accomplished of the fifty screenwriters present. Everyone was nice to me but every conversation was some version of:

ME: Hi, I'm Josh Friedman (But that means nothing to you, does it?)
OTHER GUY: I'm ACADEMY AWARD WINNER (But you already knew that didn't you?)
ME: Great to meet you! (Of course I did.)
OTHER GUY: Likewise! (I've already forgotten your name. Oh Thank God there's Bass.) Excuse me, would you?

And I was left for the seventh time that evening holding a glass of white wine, a paper plate of pasta salad, and my rapidly shrinking dick.

Still, those monthly gatherings were always a thrill for me. People were generally polite and I would mostly shut up, get drunk, and fantasize about one day having a house big enough to host a gathering. Or at least a movie credit better than Shared Story on the Keanu Reeves Extravaganza Chain Reaction. At the time I thought it was going to be The Black Dahlia Directed by David Fincher. Huh.

Those were the glory days when we knew we'd been fucked on the DVD deal but no one really knew HOW fucked and if you were a tv writer you probably didn't think you'd been fucked at all. Those were the glory days when I was being paid less for a feature script than I currently am for a television pilot and yet felt wealthier than I could've ever imagined. In those days I knew a little of what I know a lot of now--it's not about making money, it's about making movies.

Because any jackass can get rich writing scripts; most of them won't, but any of them can. And a few of them do. Bad comedies and Bruckheimer action movies have kept any number of my friends in the business for quite a while and had I been a little looser with my special writing place I think Joel Silver would've bought me a beach house by now.

This is neither to suggest nor deny that writers are rich: a few are but almost all are not. I would never insult anyone and deny I've made more than most everybody else in the American work force, but for every writer I know that lives high on the hog I know twenty who buy their bacon at Costco.

Says Dorothy Parker in the Norman book: "I want nothing from Hollywood but money and anyone who tells you that he came here for anything else or tries to make beautiful words out of it lies in the teeth."

So let me lie in my teeth. While there is much pride in supporting my family there is little pride attached to the amassing of wealth. It was never wealth that I envied when I met my writing idols; it was those credits attached to their invisible name tag: Nice to meet you, CallieKhouriThelmaandLouise. How you doing ChrisMcQuarrieUsualSuspects? More wine SteveZaillianSearchingforBobbyFischerSchindler'sList? Lemme just get out of your way RobertTowneSeriouslyDon'tGetMeFuckingStarted.

There is no greater compliment a writer can pay another write than: "Damn. I wish I'd written that."

So I am at my core a star fucker and I only hope I've got my stars aligned correctly. I practically drooled on Ron Moore's shoes when I met him and it will probably not surprise you to know that impressing Matt Weiner has taken on a higher priority these days than making my father proud. (Probably easier, BTW.) Props from your peers are the crack hits on David Simon's Writer's Corner and I'm no better than Bubs when it comes to that.

And of course it's much more desirable to become friends with successful people than it is to have friends who suddenly BECOME successful.

God knows that sucks.

Because spreading out in front of Writer's Corner is Schadenfreude Circle, a bloody, bullet-strewn part of the city where lawless envy takes headshots at every homejew who dares try to pull himself up by his Final Draft bootstraps, jump straight to the A-list and get the fuck out of the Guild Minimum Ghetto.

Your friends in your writing group, people from your film school class, that ex-partner you wrote that one comedy with when you were just "experimenting" at USC Film School...They will try to drag you back down faster than Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips flipped on Mike Vick.

As you would them.

Because you can rise up my friend, just do not for a second think that it's cool to rise up above ME.

Hollywood is a fetish store for lists and labels and screenwriters are nothing if not for sale. Autistics obsess less than a D-girl does over a writer list for her empty assignment. There are good lists (A) and bad lists (black) and you don't have to be Dalton Trumbo to fall from the former and end up on some version of the latter. The lists are fluid like mercury and that shit flows up down and sideways without signalling first.

We've all been away from the game for three months now and you'd think the strike would be a chance to shirk the labels and the lists we've been yoked to and forge a more perfect writer union. No one should give a shit whose credit is what when you're all standing in the rain at Paramount and it's still dark. (Not my shift, by the way. John August's.)

And to some extent I think this is true, I've seen a mix-and-match on the strike lines which one could easily read as encouraging and I've heard a lot of sweet anecdotes about younger (read: less successful) writers picking the brains of more established (read: those who live in Malibu) writers.

And it warms my grinchy motherfucking heart.

And then my heart is flash frozen when I return home to this:



Or any version of a rumor involving A-List writers, influential members, powerful showrunners, fi-core, petitions, trade ads, chain e-mails, back-channel grumbling, etc.

And I'm a big believer in rumors because I know many of them are true and for a second I get all crazy poppins and then I remember something:

Who the fuck cares?

Why do I care what a bunch of "A-listers" think? Not that their opinion is any less valid, but why should it be more? Of course fifty rich successful writers are pissed. So are fifty poor ones, and probably a group of semi-successful fifty, and also a few subsets of any Ven diagram you want to find for me. We're not ten thousand clones...dissent is to be expected...democracy's a messy business...blah blah blah and fuck kumbayah...

But we cannot ascribe to someone a worthier opinion just because his credits are impressive. Some dude writes a couple movies that made the studios a billion dollars? Good for him. He should be commended and given a chance to do that again. Doesn't mean he knows jack shit about internet streaming just because he's got studio presidents on his speed dial. Big showrunner's got a hit show on a major network? Give him another show. Doesn't make him the go to guy on ESTs just because he hires and fires other writers.

But there are those who will argue thusly: "Those of us who actually WORK in this business should have a weighted voice here. We have the most to lose, we employ the most people, we've lost more than we'll ever make back with those fucking residuals anyway so we've made more sacrifice..."


Because when you have a strike for the middle class it's that upper class that feels left out. And they're not used to being left out. Or remembering what it was like not be who they are now--preferring to believe they were dropped fully-formed into their current position like a perfect angel made man.

Which is why its usually good to wait until you're dead to meet your gods.

Our negotiating committee is packed with A-listers and there seems to be two reasons why this happened. First, the belief (probably incorrect) that the AMPTP would be less likely to stare down our captains of industry and screw with writers they actually KNOW, and secondly (probably true), that we would feel more confident knowing that we have an all-star team working for us and not some WGA Committee lifer who may know every issue backwards and forwards but doesn't have a career we envy.

The first idea was a nice try if a little pollyanna, the second a little more cynical and thus probably more effective.

Of course, by now even the most dilettantish of the negcomm members is functioning at a higher level than all but the most wonky of us, so they've graduated from celebrity chess set to actual role playing characters with their own AI.

A few weeks ago Paul Haggis wrote an essay ostensibly debunking the "thirty A-list screenwriter cabal" theory which I found more hopeful than accurate. I know there are groups of prominent writers who are pissed about the strike. Have been since before we struck. Again, I'm not at all surprised by it and couldn't care less if there are. Like gathers like and as Britney would say about the voices in her head: it's a rainbow coalition, y'all.

At one point in his essay Haggis lists a number of writers as examples of A-list--amongst them the oh so fresh to the scene Diablo Cody, writer of Juno (this was before her Oscar nomination). I was listening as a few writers discussed the Haggis essay--mainly disagreeing with him--and a few focusing in on the inclusion of first-timer Diablo on the A-list as reason enough to discount everything Haggis said. She hadn't put in her time, her movie was overrated, she's got a fake name...could this fresh-faced little cherub from the Heartland fleshfarms truly be considered A-list after one screenplay?

Exactly the fuck yes.

Because whatever else the A-list is, it's written with disappearing ink. And all that matters at any given moment is: when they make today's list (and remember, THEY make the list, we DO NOT)...are you on it? It is nothing more than a snapshot--today's Dow Jones number--reflecting THEIR want of YOU.

Like Heidi Klum says: one week you're in, the next week you are out so verflucht schnell it'll make your pencil skirt spin.

So Diablo, (Babbling Brooke as I like to call her) is in. I may not like the way she's used the strike time as her own personal publicity pole dance (I guess old habits die hard), I won't fill out a WGA ballot for her because of it, but she's paid the one script minimum and no amount of hating the playa is gonna keep her out of the player's club.

Which is all it takes, people. One script. One feature. One pilot. One credit. No one in or out of this Guild is more than 120 pages away from the A-list.

If rumors are true (and aren't they always), we may soon have a contract to vote on. When that happens there will most likely be a) people who will absolutely approve it b) people who will absolutely NOT approve it and c) people who don't know what to think about it.

And category C is what will drive categories A and B to apoplexy. I've got ten writers in my writers' room and there are those that will stab their staff brethren in the HEART if Tuesday is healthy wrap day and not Thai food day. That's writers and God bless us every wild-eyed one.

There will be lists, petitions, appeals, threats. And I don't think I have to tell you who will be on those lists, my friends.

Your gods. Your idols.

The celebrity writer culture descending from Mt. Olympus (or a couple miles further up Laurel Canyon) to convert the unwashed masses while basking in each other's reflected glow.

Ignore them. Or better yet, get your ass into the temple and smash them into clay shards.

And if I'm lucky enough to get onto one of those lists, ignore my ass, too.