Don’t Be Precious
Frequently, young filmmakers want to sit down and have coffee with me to chat about the business and gain any insight I have. While I’m nowhere near where I want to be in this industry and do not consider myself Yoda, I can at least share some of my war stories and experience. Ten years ago, I wanted nothing more than to spend a few minutes with a seasoned professional and find out how they did it… so I always have a soft spot for these connections (and I am a sucker for free lattes). I also do various panels and Q & A’s, and they inevitably filter down to one question from a young, unproven, unrepresented writer:
“Will you read one of my scripts?”
Unless we are old friends, the answer is usually no. This is not because I am a jerk, but because it rarely leads to a comfortable situation. If the script is GOOD, I now have some kind of responsibility to give specific notes and forward it on to an agent if I know one. I also run the risk of reading something similar to material I am working on myself, which puts me at risk legally. And if it is BAD, well… that’s when I find out how much this person wants to be in the business. If a less-than-good writer can take some major criticism (and I try to be gentle), they are stepping into a long road of notes and criticism for the rest of their life. That’s what all writers have to accept. If that writer has grown up with loving people around them telling them that everything they do is fantastic, then they will not like or accept what I have to say. This makes the ending of our brief mentorship very awkward and painful. They walk away thinking I am some kind of tyrant and I walk away never wanting to return their calls or help them anymore.
But the lesson remains, so heed it well: DON’T BE PRECIOUS. Your work always needs work. Mine does, yours does. As a matter of fact, if you are a good writer at all, you should look forward to rewriting. If you are a good writer at all, you rarely look at your work as “finished” or “perfect.” If you tell me your script is “amazing” and that “I’ll love it,” I already know we’ve got problems.
I wanted to talk this out a little because I have one of these dust-ups at least once a year. That’s my penance to pay for being open to new writers, I guess. But this applies to any art form. Two of my biggest moments of friction were with artists from other disciplines.
One promising high schooler sent me a link to his page of THIRTY SHORT FILMS, each of them shot by him in an afternoon. They all showed promise, but were also very crappy. When your kung-fu fighters are squaring off in a public park and haven’t even bothered to put on costumes, take a moment. Go prep. Spend time. I challenged this filmmaker to try a new tactic: Make ONE film, take six months to do it and make it the best thing he’s ever put on screen. Use crew and costumes and even effects. I proposed that if he put everything he had into ONE GOOD THING, he would be surprised how far it would take him as a calling card. He didn’t like that. It was easier to slap something together in an hour and post a caption with the clip that read, “I did this with no time and no money, imagine what I can do with more!”
I don’t want to imagine. And neither does a producer or investor. Show them — not only how you truly execute, but how you can follow through on a long-term project while being responsible with resources. But this young filmmaker was too precious with what he did and how he did it. We ended our long, long, long email exchange with an “agree to disagree” stance, since I just didn’t understand the fast-and-furious nature of his work. Good luck, my friend. Let’s see who does.
My other case study was a painter who wanted to get into concept art for feature films — so badly that he contacted me and offered to do some work for free. I had a big pitch coming up so I thought, “Why not?” The guy’s gallery was very good. But after one roughed-out pass on a piece, I asked if he could move a character to the foreground and add some other details to the landscape. I cited some other works for comparison. He did not like that. In a long email exchange, this painter reminded me that he has put on gallery shows — gallery shows! — of his work. He said that he should not have to take art notes from me, that he needs to show me what he can do apart from my meddling. We parted ways. Not used to notes? Good luck spending ONE MINUTE in this business, I told him.
The final case study is such an entertaining train wreck, it prompted this whole blog. Recently a producer got swept up in an email exchange with an unproven writer who was so entitled and full of himself, his responses border on mentally imbalanced. It is also a great example of how to NEVER get work in this town, no matter how talented you are. You can read the train wreck HERE. (Thanks Chris Jones.)
When you enter this business at even the lowest level, you may have to offer free work or demos or spec scripts. But apart from the art you are showing someone, you are also putting yourself on display. Can you take notes? Can you be directed to make changes and be open to collaboration, even if it goes against your original idea? Can you see your art as ever-changing? Or are you precious? Is it “perfect” the way it is?
I have to continually remind myself of this. Even when I’ve spent a lot of time on something, a new perspective will come along. I cannot be precious. I have to be willing to break the thing apart again, shake it up, even add a cute sidekick, for pete’s sake! Being a “genius” and actually getting something made are two very different things. The second takes a willingness to manage people, expectations and resources. And if someone else is paying for it, then show them you are listening to them. You don’t have to take every note or chase every trend… but lose the preciousness.