What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation: Take Any Writing Job (And Two Rulebook Casefiles)

 Gillian Flynn doesn’t have an MFA. From a profile in Elle:
  • Knowing she wanted to be a writer but too practical—self-effacing, as well—to apply to an MFA program, the de rigueur move for an East or West Coaster with similar preoccupations, she applied to journalism school instead. Claiming novelist as your ambition sounded, in her words, "Mmm, yeah, a little…lofty." She thought she'd become a crime reporter, combine her love of words with her love of sex and death. Only, as it turned out, she had, of all things, a squeamish side, which effectively put the kibosh on a career covering the mean streets. So after graduating from Northwestern, she moved to New York and took a job with Entertainment Weekly. At EW she could be up to her eyeballs in kiss kiss bang bang, but kiss kiss bang bang at a remove, safely confined to the screen, dissipating once the credits rolled and the lights came up. She stayed on staff for 10 years, writing about movies and TV.
If you imagine yourself as a great novelist, then writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly (not even the New Yorker!) might seem like too much of a comedown, but for Flynn, it was the apprenticeship she needed. What’s a huge part of writing reviews? Coining unique adjectives and similes! You don’t want to say, “I liked it because it was good.” You want to say what it was like.

Every writing job gets you writing, and the more manipulation of words you do, the more facility you’ll have.  If you must get a graduate degree, do what Flynn did and get a journalism degree.  Unlike MFAs, journalists learn to write on deadline, listen to real speech, and crystalize it into just the most interesting bits.

This leads us to two Rulebook Casefiles: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself and Tap Into Real Life National Pain.

Of course, the problem with the advice I’m giving you is that these jobs are now much fewer and farther between than they used to be. But of course that change is a big part of this novel. Flynn has gifted her backstory to her character Nick, and by doing so, she’s tapped into a real source of national pain: the death of a huge sector of the economy due to the rise of the online space, culminating in a total wipeout with the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I learned a lot about writing by writing reviews but I was part of the problem: I gave away my reviews for free on this blog. I would have loved to have made the jump to writing paid reviews, but nobody was hiring because the magazines were failing because they couldn’t compete with free content like mine!

Flynn knew her pain was real, and widely shared, and that she could bestow it upon her character to make him real, and more meaningful. Giving your own life away is the greatest gift you can give your characters (And then, once you gift them your real past, you craft a present that is more interesting than your actual present. You don’t want to get too realistic.)

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation: Only Scumbags Make You Think All Your Dreams Are Coming True

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses were reserved for women, but he was emotionally and physically abusive to both men and women. In the Washington Post article, “Law and Order” vet Warren Leight says, “He’s very seductive at the start. You think he understands you and your destiny is about to change.” Soon Leight is complaining to Weinstein of his mistreatment, so Weinstein replies, “Right now this feels like getting f---ed up the ass without Vaseline, but in 10 years, it’s going to seem like the best sex of your life.”

This reminds me of two of my old posts: In this one, I warned that if they talk about doing a lot of projects together, they’re probably about to screw you. They want something from you, and they don’t want to pay you that much to get it, and they want to be able to treat you like shit the whole time. The best way to do that is to make you think that you’ll be messing up a great thing if you rock the boat.  An honest producer will say, “Let’s see how this one goes.”

It also reminds me of this post, in which I talk about how California hasn’t changed since the days of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Once again you have an industry that wants to drive down the wages and bargaining power of its workers, so it tells the rest of the country how wonderful it would be to work there. When people flock there, however, they’re met with armed guards at the border, forcing them to beg to get in. The industry gets what it wants: A desperate workforce that will put up with any kind of treatment without saying a word.

Weinstein got away with it for a long time, and others are still getting away with it. I think the best solution is a transformation of the guilds: The abused actresses should have been able to rely on SAG to back them up, and writers should feel that they can rely on the WGA. Predatory producers need to be heeled.

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation (aka How to Get Ahead): The Archive

This is another one that’s somewhat painful to archive. I wrote this when I was a cocky 30-something in the first blush of career success. There’s a lot of stuff here that I’m no longer sure I really believe, now that I'm a more grizzled 40-something. Nevertheless a lot of this is pretty good, so I’ll let you pick through it and evaluate it with your own bullshit-meter.

Rulebook Casefile: Jennifer Kent vs. the Naysayers

For the upcoming pieces on The Babadook, I’ll be relying heavily on the great interviews that Jennifer Kent has done to promote this movie, because she talks about herself and her art more perceptively and more honestly than just about any of the other writer/directors whose work we’ve looked at.

It’s interesting to look at her statements about the development of the movie, because they exemplify one of the dangers I singled out in two posts a long time ago. On the one hand she talks a lot about protecting and purifying her individual vision:
  • Of producer Kristina Ceyton: “She’s really protected this film. It’s been able to stay pure from the get-go because of her.”
  • Of mentor Lars Von Trier: “The biggest thing I learned from him was courage. He’s stubborn, and he does what he wants. I needed to see those things up close.”
  • Of her script development lab: “They are an extraordinary bunch of people because they really wanted to find out what your vision was first, and then they helped you develop the film and got on board script advisors that were suited to the vision that you had, and that for me has given this a strong base.”
  • About the ending: “We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending.”
This sort of talk is catnip to both fans and potential creators. Fans love it because it convinces them that they’re not watching some work-shopped product, but rather an unadulterated vision that flowed right from God’s brain into their eyes. Aspiring creators love this talk even more because it feeds our suspicion that we don’t need notes after all: Don’t adulterate our vision, man!

But rather than get seduced, it’s always important to keep your head on your shoulders. Wait just a second, what’s that other thing she mentioned in passing in one of those interviews?
  • I had been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out-there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially. So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate.
So she did listen to the naysayers, up until a point. At what point do you say, “Okay, this is it, all of these notes have been great, but at this point I have to declare it done and start defending what I have”? Kent picked just the right moment. She let herself be talked out of all of those too-out-there scripts and found something instead that was contained and intimate, but then, once she was fairly certain that she had finally nailed it, she started digging in her heels and fighting for her vision.

The problem of course is that most aspiring writers start fighting too soon. We fight to defend the “purity” of those too-out-there ideas, because we think that that’s what writers do. We pay attention to those first four quotes from Kent, and skip right over that last one. Knowing when to take your stand is one of the hardest calls in life.

Best of 2013 #1, Part 1: The Most Remarkable Thing About American Hustle

There hasn’t been a lot of love for this movie in the comments, so I suspect that I’ll get some blowback on this one, but what can I say, I loved it! At the end of the week, we’ll get to what I loved about the finished movie, but first let’s devote most of this week to the most remarkable thing about this movie: how much better it was that the repugnant spec script that it was based on.

In my “How to Give a Note” series, I mentioned that Hollywood went absolutely crazy for a certain type of script for a while, marked by the following qualities:
  • Omnipresent misanthropy.
  • Squishy, bizarre violence.
  • Fanatical levels of profanity, in both word and deed, preferably including an unproducible title (in this case “American Bullshit”) which makes the script-reader feel like an outlaw just for recommending it.
  • Most importantly, it doesn’t once ask the reader to care. The characters are all strutting roosters who cockfight each other until one comes out on top.
It’s not hard to figure out why these scripts became so popular, when you consider the economics of the script-reading profession. It’s one thing to ask somebody to care when they’re sitting in a darkened theatre, with heartfelt performances, sumptuous cinematography and sweeping music, but when the poor script-readers are quickly flipping through a pile of paper, then the last thing they want to read is some ham-handed attempt to suck into moments of vulnerability, or earnestness, or, worst of all, poignancy, sitting there naked on the page, unenhanced by any of those things.

Readers would be embarrassed to have to tell their bosses, “You should buy this because it touched something inside me.” Instead, they want to say, “Finally, boss, we got a script without any of those old clichés!” They want wall-to-wall “Holy Crap!” moments. They want “too-cool-for-school”.

So “American Bullshit” hit the market, and made the Black List (an annual list of which scripts the readers liked the most in the previous year), and sold for big bucks, and started to attract some attention from stars…but then something amazing happened. David O. Russell, one of our very-best writer-directors, got hold of it, saw some slight merit buried deep beneath all that attitude, and totally rewrote it from the ground up, reconceiving every scene and writing entirely new dialogue. The result was American Hustle, which became, against all odds, the best movie of a very good year.

So now we arrive at the great irony: For all the reasons I listed above, I don’t think Russell’s American Hustle screenplay would have ever sold as a spec script. The only way to get movies like this into the pipeline is to start with the script-reader-friendly version, then bring in a writer-director with enough talent, vision and clout to transform it into something heartfelt and meaningful.

“American Bullshit” exemplifies the current screenplay market: showing why these scripts are so bad and also why they sell, so I think it might be interesting to take a closer look at it for the next three days, until we finally arrive at American Hustle and how it turned this lump of lead into gold…

Storyteller’s Rulebook #190: Limit Yourself

PIXAR had a problem. They had pioneered the idea of computer animation and made some very appealing short films featuring a jumping desk lamp, so they were eager to move into features ...but their technology seemed to have huge limitations.  

There was a reason that they had been anthropomorphizing lamps: they just couldn’t get the hang of creating hair or warm-looking skin, which seemed to mean that they would never be able to feature human characters.

They parleyed their short Tin Toy into a first feature called Toy Story. While that was in production, they sat down for a now-legendary lunch in where they tried to figure out the future of the company: they couldn’t make movies about toys forever, but how many movies they could make about heroes without hair or warm skin?

In addition to more Toy movies, they wound up brainstorming a list of five more ideas, all of which eventually got made:
  • Ants: A Bug’s Life 
  • Monsters: Monsters Inc. (They didn’t know at the time that by the time they got to this movie, they would finally master hair, and be eager to show it off) 
  • Fish: Finding Nemo 
  • Cars: Cars 
  • Robots: WALL-E
Once they had their list, they realized that had a really hard job ahead of them. The problem was that all of these potential heroes would be hard for audiences to identify with…in large part because they lacked hair and warm skin!

So was it worth doing? Was there any point in making movies about such unlikely subjects? Yes, but they’d have to make up for the inherent liabilities with extra assets: they would have to create heroes that were extra-lovable, extra-compelling, extra-human.

Faced with such a daunting task, they had to admit something that no one else in town was willing to say out loud: the Hollywood way of crafting stories was broken.

In the heyday of the studio system, as historian Thomas Schatz famously described in his book “The Genius of the System”, the studios managed to closely manage their artists in a way that unleashed creativity instead of stifling it. During the system’s peak, from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s, they somehow created something unprecedented and never again replicated: quality and quality control at the same time.

PIXAR realized that, if they were going to create five very expensive movies about five different types of hard-to-like creatures, they were going to have bring back that studio spirit. This meant that they had to bring back the idea of the “story department”. Egos had to go out the window, replaced with rigorous group critiques. Everything was constantly second-guessed by their “braintrust” and whole movies were sometimes sent back to the digital-drawing-board.

The results, as you probably know, were stunning. They were creating characters that were so lovable, even people who disliked computer animation were flocking to the theater every year. More than any other studio name in town, “PIXAR” came to mean quality.

And then a funny thing happened: they ran out of limitations. Now that they can tell any type of story, the PIXAR name has started diminish in the public’s eyes. They aren’t bending over backwards to make us fall in love anymore, because they seem to feel like their new human characters should be inherently likable.

But no character is inherently likeable. Even if you’re making a live-action movie, your character are just cold constructs until you hook them up to a lightning bolt and jolt them to life. Every character starts off as a bug, a fish, a car, a robot… they only have as much life as you give them. I wish that every studio would take PIXAR’s lead and bring back story departments, but unfortunately, it seems PIXAR is joining their competitors instead of beating them.

Meanwhile, if you don’t run a studio, what lesson can be learned from this? Limit yourself. Put yourself in a box and try to figure out how to do great work inside of it. Can you write a great thriller set entirely in two apartments, like Bound? Can you make people cheer for a love affair between a teenage boy and an eighty-year-old woman, like Harold and Maude? Can you make an entire super-hero movie out of found footage, like Chronicle? Can you write a silent movie, like The Artist?

Hold your own feet over the fire. Create a situation where you find yourself saying “This will only work if I do everything right.” Because guess what? That’s always true.

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation, Addendum: Don’t Blow It

To paraphrase Rick’s description of Renault in Casablanca, filmmaking is like any other job, only moreso.  Did you choose this job because you don’t want to have a boss?  Well I have bad news for you, you won’t have one boss, you’ll have dozens, and many of them will be ten times as arrogant, exploitative and contemptuous as the worst boss you’ve ever had.

Above all else, beware of this: Hollywood producers, agents, stars, directors, etc., are some of the most thin-skinnedpeople in the world.  On those lucky occasions that one of them offers you an opportunity, it’s ridiculously easy to blow it.  They have a lot of unspoken rules, and it’s not hard to break one, which will be the last you ever hear from them. The sense of entitlement these people have is overwhelming.

Remember, these people are constantly pestered by job-hopefuls who have memorized everything about them and are desperateto be part of their world.  On one level they find these people really annoying and try to avoid them, but on the other hand, they also come to take them for granted…they have unconsciously concluded that there must be a good reason why all these people are obsessed with them.

Inevitably, they internalize the assumption that everybodyout there on the street knows everything about them, including their tastes and preferences, their contact info, where they hang out, etc, which helps explain why power-people are so bizarrely uncommunicative.  It takes a Herculean effort to get them to confirm the day, date, time, place andaddress of a meet-up.  If they mention the name of a restaurant to meet, you’re just supposed to know where that is, and if there’s more than one location, you’re supposed to be able to guess which one they prefer.  If you don’t, you’ll have to badger their assistant to get that information, and the assistant will be even more contemptuous.  They know everything about their boss, so why don’t you??

And by the way, the super-hip places they want to meet invariably have no street signs whatsoever—restaurants without signs, private clubs without signs, even hotels without signs.  They don’t even notice that these elite places are designed to be completely invisible from the street and it would never occur them that this might not be the best place to meet someone for the first time.  You’ve been there before, right?  Everybody goes there.

Most of all, these people assume that everybodywill be agog when hearing their voice on the phone.  They’ve gotten so used to hushed awe that anything else seems downright contemptuous.  The last three people they spoke to were in awe of them, so who the hell are you to act differently?

The trick is to always be deferential, but never dazzled.  Profoundly respect their power and their peculiarities, but don’t surrender your self-respect. Yes, you should be grateful these power-people are giving you some of their genuinely valuable time, but keep looking for the opportunity to quietly prove you’re good enough to be there.  The trick is to prove your excellence in a way that doesn’t even remotely smell like insolence.

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation, Addendum: You Sometime Have to Work on Projects You Hate (And it Might Be “Your” Project)

In the comments on this post, we debated about whether it ever makes sense to work on projects you hate.  Ultimately, I would say that my answer is a sad yes, in some bad situations.

No, you probably should knock yourself out trying to get hired for an opening writing assignment you hate, for several reasons:
  • It’ll be hard to crack the story if you don’t have a healthy respect for it.
  • You’ll be unlikely to get the job because they’ll detect your lack of enthusiasm.
  • You don’t want to be miserable while you’re writing it, because you’ll get bogged down over and over.
But you do have to at least be able to write projects you hate.  Why?  Because of this very unfortunate fact: in the years between the sale and the finished movie, every script you sell will at some point become a project you hate, even if only for a while.

Simon Kinberg has seemingly spent his whole career living the dream.  He sold his film school thesis screenplay Mr. and Mrs. Smith to Hollywood, then made millions rewriting other people’s projects while his own script attracted every big name in town.  (For a long time, it was supposed to star Will Smith and Nicole Kidman!)

Even moreimpressive, by the time the finished movie came out, he was still the onlylisted screenwriter, which is almost unheard of.  Now, in point of fact, he had been fired several times, and other writers had re-written it a dozen different ways, but each time the studio changed their minds and reverted back to his latest version.

As hard as that was to take, it was even worse when he didn’tget fired, because each new director demanded he re-write his script to fit their vision, even when he wildly disagreed with their take.

One of the most acclaimed directors in town decided that the story should be a metaphor for domestic violence, and the spies should keep sending each other to the emergency room where they could make mirthless jokes about how the other ran into a doorknob.  It turned Kinberg’s stomach to write these scenes, but he did it anyway, because, by this point, he knew that this director would inevitably pass and he would soon be working for someone else, and he just wanted to stay attached until that happened.  In the end, he was glad he did.

This is a job.  Like any other job, you do better work when you believe in what you do, but you can’t demand the right to be gung ho about every assignment every day.  Sometimes, you just have to keep your head down, do it their way, and trust that, somehow, everything will work out alright.

(...But whatever you do, don’t say, “Okay then, I’ll write it in a way that shows them how bad their idea is.”  Inevitably, one of two things will happen:
  • They’ll instantly detect that you tanked it, then fire and bad-mouth you.
  • Or, even worse, they’ll love your purposely-bad version, and you’ll be stuck with it.
Instead, you really have to try your best to make their bad idea work.  Ironically, if they can tell that you really tried, they’ll be far more like to admit that their version just doesn't work.)

Storyteller’s Rulebook #187: Own It (But Don’t Let It Own You)

We finally got around to watching Whale Rider the other day, which was great, and one thought I had while watching it was how much the New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro and novelist Witi Ihimaera owned the material.  They were telling their land’s story, one that no outsider had.  The emotions were universal, but, to a non-Maori audience, all of the details were wonderfully exotic and unique.  There is real power in that authenticity.

I made a fundamental mistake when pitching my Alan Turing script around town.  They would all ask me how I found this story and I gave the wrong answer: “I randomly ran across it in a book, liked it, read a bunch more books, and decided to write it.”  They would look a little uncomfortable and ask me what my connection to the material was, and I would blithely blabber, “Funny you should ask: absolutely none!  He’s a gay British mathematician, and I’m not any of those things!”  I didn’t realize that I was killing my sale.

Instead, when you’re pitching, you need to play up your authenticity, establish your connection to the material.   Even if you don’t “own” any source material involved, you have to own it.  Be necessary.  Prove that you’re the one writer who is perfect for this material.  Assure them that, if they had been the one to have this idea, and they could have hired any writer in the world to write it, you’re the writer they would have hired. 

After all, as soon as they buy it from you, it is their idea, in every sense of the word, and you’re their employee.  You don’t want them to suddenly wonder, “Why did I hire this guy?”

But be aware that there’s a tipping point at which your connection to the material stops being an asset and starts being a liability.  It’s one thing to say, “I’m the perfect guy to write this, because I’m a gay British mathematician myself” (in fact, Turing’s most in-depth biographer was all three), but the fear is that you’ll then say, “And I’m gonna tell the real story, instead of all that phony Hollywood crap!”  Suddenly, all of the enthusiasm will drain out of producers’ faces. 

You have to own it without letting it own you.  You have to have a deep reservoir of unique real-world knowledge, but then you have use it or discard it as necessary in the service of a great story.  

Look at “The Americans”: creator Joe Weisberg sold that show based on his own experience as a CIA officer, and indeed the show offers many real-world aspects of spy work that you rarely see onscreen, such as the recruiting and handling of long-term assets, but it also exaggerates and re-writes the facts at will. The detailsare authentic, but the story is pure fiction. 
In this excellent AV Club interview, Weisberg makes it clear that the spy stuff was always restricted to being a metaphor for the family stuff, and never the other way around.  He uses all of his spy knowledge, but he doesn’t let it take over the show. In the end, he’s not even writing about spies, he’s just using his authentic tradecraft knowledge as a source of unique details to enrich a universal story of family strife. 

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation, Two Final Caveats

Caveat #1: If They Talk About Doing a Lot of Projects Together, They’re Probably About to Screw You

Here’s one I had to figure out  through bad experiences.  When you first start getting work, you’re probably going to be working for the bottom-feeders.  At first you’re going to say to yourself, “Gee, I’m so lucky to get this job!  Why on earth did they take a chance on a hayseed like me?”  Then you find out the answer…

All producers hate paying writers, but the bottom-feeders really hate it.  They hire beginners for two reasons: so that they can offer rock-bottom rates, and so that they can get out of actually paying those rates.  This can range from asking for extra free drafts to flat out refusing to pay you the money you’re owed.

How can you avoid these situations?  You can’t, altogether, but you can look out for some warning signs, and here’s the biggest one: they start talking about all the projects that you two are going to do together.

To a beginner, this sounds great!  “Wow, I’ve just lined up my next five jobs, before I’ve even finished my first one!  I have employment for life!  We’re going to be the next Schrader and Scorsese!  The next Kaufman and Jonze!”

But a veteran would never fall for it, because they would know that most projects end sadly: either the project dies, or the writer gets replaced, or both…and that’s fine.  That’s the nature of the business, especially at that level.  So no, you’re not going to make a bunch of projects together, because this project is almost certainly going to disappoint both of you in the end.

So why do they tell you that?  Because they’re already figuring out how they’re going to screw you over, and they’re trying to keep your eye off the ball.  When they say, “We’re going to make a lot of projects together,” the implied corollary is, “So don’t blow it by demanding your money for this one.”  If they try to sell you that line, just politely respond with, “Let’s wait to see how this one turns out.” Then watch your wallet.

Caveat #2: Beware of Buyer’s Remorse:

When you sign with a representative, or when you get hired to write a script, you’re over the moon: “They like me!  They really like me!  All that suffering, all those years of hard work have finally paid off.  Now the pressure’s off! Now they finally trust me”

But of course this isn’t true.  First of all, the pressure has just ratcheted way up: Before you were unemployed, but now you’ve got a boss.  And even though you’re not being well paid yet, you’re now taking up the time of people who could be meeting with millionaires instead, so you have to act like you’re in that class.

But it’s worse than that.  Your reps may have liked you before they signed you, or that studio may have liked your script and/or pitch before they bought it, but as soon as you signed on the dotted line, they regretted it.  Everybody loves the thrill of the hunt.  They saw that someone else desired you, and they felt that their attractiveness was threatened, so they pounced upon you with a better offer, and they bagged you: success!

But now they’re stuck with you, and they can’t remember why they wanted you in the first place.  In the harsh light of day, you’re just not as attractive as you were at closing time.

The only solution is to re-sell yourself.  Show them something they haven’t seen before. Everything you brought to the table before you signed on the dotted line is going to seem old and dead to them now.  Hit them with some new ideas. Re-invigorate their interest before they decide to shelve you in favor of their next conquest.

Okay, folks, enough negativity!  This is gonna be the year of Matt!  Happy helpful hints resume tomorrow!