…Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.
- Brenda Ueland, 1938, If You Want to Write
You can choose to be original or you can choose to take the easy road and be derivative. If this sounds like a value judgment – it is. Like many entertainment fans, I’ve grown weary of creative laziness, especially in the movie business. I’m even tired of reading about it. Certainly, I’m tired of writing about it. So for at least a single moment I hesitated before deciding it’s a subject that once again needs addressing since the subject is, by definition, not even vaguely original.
But last weekend I went to see a wonderfully original new film called The Spectacular Now at one of the scheduled weekend screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Normally these Sunday night screenings are fairly crowded yet, sadly, this one was less than half-filled. Which is too bad. Because after attending about 10 of these free movie nights this summer, which often feature the top creative people from the film in a short talk back afterwards to the top creative professionals in Hollywood (well, they must be the top- they’re the ones who vote for the Oscars, gosh darn it!), this one was by far the best.
The reason this film was so much better than anything else you will see this summer is because it is one of the few movies made by people for no other reason than passion for a script and a story. The money wasn’t particularly great, there is no chance for a franchise, a television spinoff, or even a videogame, AND the process of getting this project off the ground took five years – much of it spent with its creators seeing little hope of ever making it to that prestigious Sunday night film series.
Still, they persevered. It sort of gives you hope. And if it doesn’t, it should.
Nothing about the subject matter of this film is new. It’s a coming-of-age story about what happens when the funny, fast-talking charmer in high school wakes up after a drunk night on the lawn of the fresh-faced, smart, high school good girl who would be wrongly mistaken as unhip by TMZ. Their relationship is not an offshoot of what happens post detention in a Breakfast Club type world but it could be seen that way from the trailer. It is also not a rip-off of a great character arc on beloved television shows like Friday Night Lights or Dawson’s Creek but no doubt some people will be determined to view it that regard.
This is a movie that instead unfolds solely on its own terms and in its own unique way. The script was adapted by the writers of 500 Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, from a novel written by Tim Tharp that was nominated for the National Book Award. It is worth noting that 500 Days was an original script and the first movie produced by these writers, and the novel was the first breakout hit for the novelist, who teaches college and lives in Oklahoma. Neither of them are, as they say, veterans capable of snapping their fingers and getting magic reviews and attention for their work.
In fact, the script languished for three years despite getting excellent buzz from Hollywood. It was only when the wonderful young actress from The Descendants, Shailene Woodley, who plays the female lead, read it and asked her representatives why she couldn’t make THAT kind of film after the former picture came out, that anyone became interested again. Several directors were also attached during that time and fell out leaving it essentially rudderless. That is until its tireless producer decided to approach a young director who had just done a similarly themed smaller film that had gained some positive response from other people in the creative community but was by no means any kind of financial hit. Like everyone else before him, he read it and loved the story, though he was initially hesitant to do so when someone at his production company pitched him the story as a one-liner. Luckily, he was not yet a jaded enough director who thought he knew better than the people who worked with him and read the script anyway. And was immediately convinced. As was the producer after they met over beers and the director presented a 50-page book of how he proposed to shoot this film. (Take Note: The producer is Tom McNulty and the director is James Ponsoldt).
The Spectacular Now is not likely to go down as one of the top 10 great movies in the annals of film history but it’s a damn good one. It’s human and it connects to its audience in a deceptively simple way that is only achievable by people who are trying to connect for real. Unfortunately, that used to be more the norm in the industry than it is today.
Too often we all do creative work for the wrong reasons and once you’ve been in the business for a while you see how it happens. You need to make a living, you want to keep working, you’re building a brand, you want something (anything) to take your mind off of your lousy life, you’re accepting the best of what’s out there, you need a new kitchen, you’re bored or you simply want to feed your family. All are perfectly valid reasons but all together they don’t come close to the real reason most people get into the business – to express themselves in their own original way.
Every week the entertainment industry serves up a slew of both derivative and original offerings. Yes – EVERY week. They are not often the most promoted TV programs, or films, or live presentations, or online entertainment. But they are there. This even includes announcements of new projects or talent, and even promotions in the executive suites. If you look closely you can take your pick. There is quite a lot of good or bad, depending on whatever floats your boat.
This week had a host of choices. There was NBC’s big bold announcement that is was embarking on a huge four hour television remake of the classic film Rosemary’s Baby – one of the only films I’ve managed to show to almost every screenwriting class I’ve ever taught that gets 99% positive reaction. What is the motivation to remake a classic film that takes place in NY in the sixties and is, for the most part, really about the 60s, and reset it in…Paris? Is it about originality? Trying to build on something that could now be original because they didn’t get it right the first time? I don’t think so. I SO don’t think so.
Joke all you want about Sharknado, but the filmmakers are not laughing. The ratings numbers of this recent camp classic have grown from 1.4 to 1.9 million viewers and who knows what the third showing will be next week – or the grosses for the midnight screenings that are now set at movie theaters across the country. See, original doesn’t have to be high art. There’s nothing wrong with giving people a good time when you decide that’s what you’re doing and put your talent into doing it the best way you can. The writer of Sharknado, a man with the distinctive name of Thunder Levin, knew he wanted to make an over the top sci-fi film and did it. It doesn’t matter that’s it’s known for being campy and silly if that was its original intention all along. What isn’t admirable is just throwing something together with not an original thought in your head and hoping against hope of getting by while you’re boring us and making money in the process.
This week the Motion Picture Academy announced it had hired its first African American president – a terrific woman named Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She’s a marketing executive who started in the business in the late seventies and I had the pleasure of working with her a bit early in my career. She was smart, talented and classy – which is more than you can say for most Hollywood executives who’ve had a career as long as she has. She also had a terrific brother who was one of the first male African American executives in Hollywood. His name was Ashley Boone and he was the head of marketing at Twentieth Century and responsible for marketing Star Wars. He later went on to market Chariots of Fire to a surprising best picture Academy award. He was also, like his sister, smart, talented and classy. And, like his sister, an original because unlike a lot of his cohorts he always went about his work in a respectful yet smartly dedicated manner. You’d be surprised how rare that is still and how original it seemed when he did it back in the late 70s and early 80s.
When you go down an original road you have the ability to not be riding the derivative wave of an established trend for whatever scraps you can keep as they fall off. You have the potential to be a trend setter – helping to create something that people want to follow. That thing can be a product, an art form, or you or perhaps some combination of all three. Which is probably why you wanted to do it in the first place – if at one time you ever liked what you were doing.
Too often it’s too easy to go with the flow and not go with your gut. I’ve done it. We all have. Suggestion to not keep doing it: Go see The Spectacular Now and think about why a small movie that shouldn’t work at all seems to work on almost every level. It might then be wise for all of us to consider not how we can imitate it but what are the simple stories of our own that we want to bring to light in the world. That’s a thought not only for writers but everyone. If you don’t believe me read Brenda Ueland’s seminal book about Art, Independence and Spirit mentioned above. She offered many of the same thoughts and more almost 80 years ago. But it’s still worth reading because in addition to that it’s all done in her own original way.