I didn’t consciously intend for this blog to be “about” midlife - it just so happened that that phenomenal Brene Brown quote was the jolt I needed to launch this blog.
But because quite a few of you responded so strongly to that quote, and because the majority of you, like me, are 45-ish-year-olds trying to figure out how to play the back nine, I hope you will find it interesting if I continue to use this blog from time to time to look back on the decisions that got me here.
If you don’t, you’ll be happy to know that this very internet contains an almost unlimited supply of pornography.
Last week, my good friend Cebra Graves chimed in with a typically-insightful comment about how difficult it is to navigate the chasm between creating “good” work vs creating “commercial” work. Is it more important to please yourself with your work? Or to please others?
There’s an easy answer to that question: the one that’s posted on the wall of your dentist’s office.
But I’m not sure that it’s the right one.
Cebra’s comment brought me back to a critical moment in my life when I was standing at a crossroads both literal (in Park Slope, on the corner of 7th and 7th) and figurative: I was about to start writing my first-ever Hollywood assignment. This was the spring of 2003. I was 32.
I had arrived at this crossroads only a few months after the breakthrough I described a few blog posts ago, when, out of sheer necessity, I dictated the screenplay for Green Street Hooligans into a tape recorder while walking around Prospect Park with my infant son in a baby backpack. (Here is that post if you haven’t read it.)
Thanks to that screenplay, my life had been swiftly transformed. In a very real sense, my dream had come true. I had signed with an agent, flown to Hollywood, and gone on my first round of Hollywood meetings with producers and development executives. It was thrilling: intoxicating. I had broken through.
But critically, I am talking about two different breakthroughs here.
a creative breakthrough, in which the out-loud dictation process of a screenplay led to the creation of a piece of work that at long last “spoke to people”; that moved under its own power; that worked.
a professional breakthrough, in which I was suddenly represented; employable in Hollywood; able to pitch projects to the studios, and get paid.
Obviously 1) and 2) are related. But they are not the same.
Back to the crossroads. As I stood on the corner of 7th and 7th, I could see two distinct paths stretching out in front of me.
The first path was the screenplay I wanted to write next, creatively. This path was the outgrowth of Breakthrough #1 - my next step as an artist. After finishing Hooligans, I felt for the first time in my life like I knew what i was doing as a writer. I knew the story my heart and guts wanted to write next. It was a screenplay called Scarsdale. It was teed up in my mind. It was ready to go.
But: the second path was the screenplay i was being hired to write next. Thanks to Hooligans, I had just landed my first-ever Hollywood Screenwriting Job. It was a page-one rewrite of a Bruce Willis ghost story - sort of a wannabe followup to The Sixth Sense.
Getting hired to rewrite this script was a huge moment for me. I was hired by MGM - a faltering studio in this day and age, perhaps, but the studio that made The Wizard of Oz, for God’s sake. The job got me into the Writers’ Guild - which secured health insurance for my family. And I was paid $26,000 - WGA minimum for a rewrite, but, from my perspective, the biggest check I had ever seen.
As I stood on the corner of 7th and 7th, looking out at these two paths in front of me, I made my decision: OK. I guess I’m putting aside Scarsdale for the moment and rewriting this ghost story for Bruce Willis.
Fast-forward to eight years later, 2011. I am more or less out of Hollywood. After living and working there for several years, writing multiple assignments for the studios, my phone has stopped ringing. And I have stopped writing.
In other words, my attempt to navigate the chasm between “commercial” and “good” writing essentially killed not only my Hollywood prospects, but my own, personal desire to create new, original work - a daily habit I had maintained for 17 years.
How did this happen?
In most stories about Hollywood, the artist is portrayed as the hero. Hollywood is the villain: the corrupting force that seduces and perverts the artist.
But this was not my experience. My experience - which I think was far from unique in Hollywood - was more complex. The name of this blog post is How Hollywood And I Broke Into Each Other. I do believe Hollywood is more of a Rorschach test than a corrupting force. It amplifies the sins and virtues you bring with you.
The executive who supervised my Bruce Willis rewrite was far from a cigar-chomping bean-counter. Her name was Marjorie Shik. She was as smart and thoughtful a person as I’ve met in Hollywood. She was, in short, a filmmaker. She didn’t push my choices towards “commercial,” and away from “good.” She wanted “good” as much as I did. Maybe even more so.
I think the real chasm people struggle with in Hollywood isn’t between “commercial” and “good.” I think it’s between what do I want vs what will other people want.
It’s easy to say that sticking to the first path is the path to success. That’s the path that gets lionized in the media. That’s path I myself believed in - the Tarantino “lone genius” creation myth that had seduced me, almost as powerfully as Tarantino's films themselves. I wanted very badly to be an artist who won by believing in himself.
But as I look back at the choices I’ve made, I wish I’d followed the second path more closely. I wish I’d cared more about what other people wanted. I didn’t trust the people around me - the Marjorie Shiks and other executives who hired me. I think they could sense that - just as any of us can sense the arrogant rookie in our workplace.
On my way into Hollywood I idolized filmmakers who embodied Path 1: the Tarantinos and Kubricks and Coen Brothers. The "visionaries."
But on my way out of Hollywood - a slower, stranger process that one isn’t even aware of while it’s happening - I came to a greater understanding of (and a greater respect for) the filmmakers who took Path 2: artists who ask themselves every day, almost on a molecular level - what will other people want? During their formative years, these artists put their work on the chopping block in front of a trusted mentor (or team of mentors), willing to throw it all away if the mentor/s disapproved. This list of Path 2 filmmakers includes tons of artists whom we all think of as uncompromising visionaries:
•Billy Wilder had a sign in his office ‘What Would Lubitsch Do?”
•Tina Fey had countless sketches tossed in the trash by Lorne Michaels.
•Wes Anderson was mentored through Bottle Rocket by James L. Brooks.
•Judd Apatow honed his voice in Garry Shandling’s writers room.
•Martin Scorsese was crucially admonished by John Cassavetes, at a key moment when Scorsese was completing his first assignment, a hacky Roger Corman film called Boxcar Bertha. Cassavetes pointed Scorsese back to his earlier work - to Scorsese’s no-budget NYU student film - and told him, that way lies glory. Scorsese’s next film would be Mean Streets.
I think it’s far too easy to say that the people who hold tightly to their own beliefs, who never swerve from their original north star, are the Ones Who Succeed. It’s the sexier story, for sure. But there are so many other artists who find their voices - who strengthen their voices, and strengthen their confidence to defend their voices - by making precisely the opposite choice. They put themselves in the hands of people they trust, and ask, what does this person want? How can I make this person happy? What can I learn by putting my own ego and choices aside?
I think I stumbled out of Hollywood because I chose Path 2 without truly believing in it. I signed up for a process that I considered myself above. And so unconsciously, I rebelled, wriggling my way out of Hollywood over the course of eight years or so, narrowing my path instead of widening it.
Today, I don’t look back at Hollywood and shake my fist at it, cursing it for getting the better of me. I look back with two different thoughts.
My first thought is regret. I was in there. So many apply, so few are admitted - and I was one of them! But I was too impatient and immature to play the game. And so I rejected it. I stalked off in a huff.
There is no getting around the regret I feel. I own it now. And that’s OK.
My second thought is a bit less self-critical. When I’m being a little less hard on myself, and I think about why I don’t work in Hollywood anymore, sometimes I take a wider view, at this new, digital world that has sprouted up around us, bridging the gaps between us. This is a world in which all storytellers are directly in touch with their audiences: a world that needs no middlemen, no gatekeepers: no Hollywood.
Guided by my best and worst impulses, I think I have sought out this world. I have paid the price for not subjugating myself to a Hollywood mentorship. But I think I do want to be mentored now. I think I want to be mentored by you: the readers of this blog. For reasons both arrogant and altriustic, I think that this is the arrangement I have been looking for.
So I would really love your feedback, as this little garden grows. Whether it’s about THERE, I SAID IT or these other, more personal postings, or the way-too-small font size - I would really love to hear from you.
Especially as I get back to telling stories again. Because I have a few more stories to tell, and I think I’m going to tell them here.
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