Of Hollywood, Heroes and Heroines

Hollywood 1920s

Hollywood. Who can ever understand what motivates decision makers in their choices of scripts to pump money into? Lots of people think they’ve nailed a formula for success, most notably those who teach scriptwriting and sell their services as script editors. It’s a huge industry. They all claim they know what makes producers choose your script. They gloss over the truth that ‘producers’ come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them think they know the formula for success and they reckon the other guy doesn’t. The other guy – oh, I don’t need to finish this sentence, do I?

The script teachers and editors also rarely agree with each other. It’s confusing if you’re new at the game or don’t have a mind of your own and can’t figure out that self-styled authorities’ true skill lies in milking your insecurity.

They need you to believe your writing is full of imperfections and that you’ll never succeed without their very special advice. I entered a high profile script competition last year and didn’t make the short list but within days of being told so I got an email from a guy who’s a co-partner or something or other in the company, telling me, congratulations! You’ve won a discount on an advice session.

I called him up. He was a nice guy; I enjoyed talking to him. Then he said he could help me with my script and tighten it up so that agents and producers would be more likely to look at it. I said how do you know anybody will like the version your advice has led to? IMO, I continued, getting noticed is less about a perfect script and more about gutzpah; getting out there so people know you exist. Not backing down or giving up when you don’t win a competition or somebody says no thanks.

Or says it more rudely; it’s not unheard of for a big fish in a little pond who doesn’t like your work to tell you you’ll never make it in the industry. Pretty much everybody who’s succeeded in the world in any discipline has been fed that line some time or another. And we all know who’s the one left with the regrets.

My fella seemed to be smiling when he admitted he couldn’t guarantee that his advice would further me in any way.  Ha! The pleasures of having a mind of your own.

All of this is not to say that I don’t care about the quality of my scripts. I do. But that’s just for me. I’m under no illusion that it’ll be the primary factor in my success. So I turned down the generous offer, which amounted to R2500 for an hour. Of advice that might or might not be of any use to me. But my money would have been of a lot of use to that fella.

Some of the teachers etc. really do understand story-telling and can boast of many ‘students’ who have achieved a lot of success. But whether that success came directly and solely from their teaching or not, who can say?

Here’s the reality: Sometimes there’s a massive difference between a good script and one that will attract a producer, or between a brilliant director and one whose work will garner Academy Awards. Take Martin Scorsese. He’s widely acknowledged as the most influential filmmaker in the history of Hollywood but he’s only won one Oscar. And Boyhood, nominated for a best screenplay Oscar this year, deserves a column on its own, not all of it gushing praise.

But sometimes a quality script does attract producers – I’m thinking The King’s Speech – and awards and great directors do get Oscars for their work. Robert Zemeckis won in 1994 for Forrest Gump and beat Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). Good decision.

There’s just no predictable formula in Hollywood, because producers come in all shapes and sizes and are as subject to whim as those who determine what or who should win an award.

I reckon the best way to get the most out of everything as a screenwriter is to write as much quality as you can and enjoy yourself when doing it, then fight like the devil to find producers who’ll throw money at you, and find ways to enjoy that fight as well. Because if you write to please producers you’ve never met, based on somebody else’s opinion of what those producers want when they’ve never met them either… It’s gambling on rather long odds. And the worst part of it is how horrible the whole experience is.

Scripts are all about heroes and heroines so if you’re writing about them I figure you might as well be one yourself. Heroes and heroines do their own thing and everything they can to forge a path to success, facing fears, dealing with insecurity and with all the demons and harsh realities that are part of the landscape of not playing it safe. They don’t strive to adapt. They strive to conquer.

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The Artist’s Lamentable Way

Body and Soul video image

If you want to listen to music (me singing Billie Holiday’s Body and Soul) while you read, click the image or here; the Youtube will open in a new page. Then come back here to carry on reading.

Ever come across the idea that it’s noble to be a poor and miserable artist living in a garret, unappreciated by the world, and that artists who don’t have that experience aren’t being true to themselves? It’s seductive, like the idea that poverty is romantic and worthy of being elevated in grand masters’ paintings and that the artist or the poor wretch also finds their misery romantic.

Right. It’s romantic until you try it or find yourself there. You don’t like it and nobody likes you. There’s a great blues song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. It’s been sung by Bessie Smith, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin – each one a fantastic rendition – and a host of others, for good reason; it’s gorgeous and the words are pretty damn true.

It’s also true that many artists have experienced poverty and rejection of one sort or another and their creative response has been mighty powerful. But the notion that you have to be miserable to be a true artist is formulaic, so it can’t apply to all the artists all the time. As an African American musician Ella Fitzgerald didn’t have it easy, but she also didn’t go through the pain that Billie Holiday or Etta James did, but all three of them are brilliant. Michaelangelo never experienced Van Gogh’s depths of misery and rejection but they’re both superb artists. Ella had a different temperament to Billie and Bessie. Michaelangelo knew how to market himself whereas Van Gogh, poor soul, had no social skills at all.

Some people get less creative when they’re down and out, others get more. There just isn’t a formula for it. Like there isn’t a formula for the perfect painting, the perfect song, the perfect screenplay.

There’s a monumental industry built by self-proclaimed authorities on the subject of artistic perfection. And they all need you to believe that you can’t judge the quality or otherwise of your own work and that if you don’t do what they say (because they know how to do it) you’ll be a failure. The screenwriting industry is a great one for that.

But here’s my difficulty with it. With painting you can see if the artist hasn’t accurately represented what they’re painting. It’s called anything from Expressionism to Cubism to Abstract. I’ve seen paintings that are picture perfect and I can see that the craft is good but the art doesn’t move me, whereas a painting that’s kind of childlike and loose will touch my heart.

With music you can hear if there’s a wrong note but I’ve been at classical concerts where the solo violinist played quite a few wrong notes but oh my God their passion was supreme and I and the whole audience gave them a thunderous standing ovation. What about quality of sound or depth of interpretation? Don’t even go there. No wait a minute, let’s go there. I think Adele sings like a dream and a lot of people in the world think so too. But what about Rod Stewart? You can’t compare his gravelly voice to Adele’s but he’s divine. IMO. My Dad didn’t agree with me. But then he loved Bing Crosby. As it happens I like him too.

As for books, plays, screenplays, there’s no penultimately perfect one: there’s no single Writer God whispering into anybody’s ear. There are a gazillion Gods all jostling with each other “I’m right!” “No you’re not, I am!” I just partly read a John Grisham novel and I found the dialogue is unbearably stiff, unnatural and often just irrelevant; it doesn’t move the story along at all, so the pace positively crawls. But many will say he’s brilliant. I saw a one-man play by Tennessee Williams starring Al Pacino. The man was a few yards away from me for heaven’s sake. I yawned all the way through. I tell you, I missed my opportunity there; the audience was invited to give feedback on the acting. I had some that I thought could be really helpful; Pacino acted at the same level of intensity; if he’d broken it up he’d have been brilliant. I didn’t send my letter in. What the hell was I thinking? Forehead slap!

So here’s the thing. Quality of art and success are two totally different animals and IMO it’s best not to confuse them. Success in the world is sometimes on account of artistic integrity and the artist refusing to change to suit the world. At first they might get rejected but often the power of their work eventually speaks to the masses; not always in their lifetime, alas. Sometimes success comes to those who study a sector of ‘the market’- you know, those mindless beings who can’t think for themselves and just want to be force fed – and then give it what it thinks it wants.

If you can figure that one out, kudos to you and bingo! Dollars in the bank. Inner satisfaction? I don’t know, who am I to judge? I like dollars a lot and they give a gal a creative boost for about ten seconds then the motivation factor pales. Same thing with external ‘discipline’. The only thing that turns me on consistently and sustainably is love of what I’m doing.

To get back to success, sometimes it’s about being persistent. Sometimes it seems to just come upon you. Sometimes it’s because you know a lot of people. Sometimes somebody sees you in a bank and likes the look of your face. The next thing you know you’re starring alongside all the A-listers. Talking about Charlize Theron here. Sometimes, a la Diablo Cody, it comes to you when you’re a dancer in a nightclub and a director reads your blog and says I want you to write a script. You say nah, I’m not into that stuff. And, contrary to what everybody says (you only have one chance so don’t blow it) you don’t lose your chance, because when you change your mind and think you might as well try, you produce an Oscar winner. And you’ve never done it before, never studied screenwriting.

Formulas? Nightmare city for me. The best I can do is listen to my own standards and do my best to get better all the time, because that’s when I have more satisfaction and when I’m enjoying myself it’s infectious. And there seems to be something in putting forward a confident air. So that’s about as formulaic as I can get. I listen to Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Adele, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Janis Ian, Peggy Lee and others and I learn from them something about how they use their voices and I fiddle around with acoustic and electric guitars and piano; think about fiddling around with a real fiddle again. For screenwriting I watch movies and read screenplays and decide what works for me and what doesn’t. For novels I like American crime writers like John Sandford so that’s kind of my style too. My art has been on hold for a while but my sketching and painting is kind of sort of Impressionist I guess.

Whether or not anybody else will agree with a person’s standards or like their artistic output is in the hands of the Gods, I reckon. I’m not above praying to them, mind you. Now and then. And when they don’t respond, I’m a great fan of the Tantrum.

One thing I do know; I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and see that I never even tried to do it my way. What a damn waste that would be.