If politicians were more like screenwriters there would not be a power outage in Washington, D.C. They’d make it work.. and the government would be up and running – and running well.
Okay, no one has ever argued that screenwriters have, or even know about, any real power in Hollywood. In fact, public lore is that the antithesis is true. There’s a very old misogynist or racist joke where you can fill in the blank with the nasty reference of your choice:
Did you hear about the (ethnicity/race/creed) actress? She f—d the screenwriter.
I am not proud of repeating this. And certainly nowadays you could change the word actress to actor, thereby making it slightly less misogynist with the same result. But like most writers, there is a method to what is clearly the madness of my premise here.
The power of being a screenwriter, or any kind of writer, has to do with smarts and intellect. That is not to say every writer is smart. Certainly not every screenwriter is. I mean, have you ever seen Pearl Harbor? Or Transformers 2?
Still, smart is relative. Those writers got paid a lot of money for that work, more than you or I probably make in a year. And it should also be noted that neither you or I saw the original writer’s drafts of either – they could have been brilliant.
The point is that after decades of doing different things in the business, including before screenwriting, and even some additional things after, I can safely say that the writer is ALWAYS among the smartest people in the room. This does not mean the wisest, the richest, the most successful, the most enviable OR, most importantly, the most beautiful. In fact, seldom do any of those apply. But smart, most definitely. If you don’t think so – try putting an array of approximately 300 words on 110-120 pages that make people want to invest millions of dollars and then get back to me.
smart adjective \ˈsmärt\
: very good at learning or thinking about things
: showing intelligence or good judgment
Smart does not necessarily equate with power, which is a shame since if that were the case you’d have a lot more good movies to go to this weekend. But even the most egocentric studio/corporation (is there any difference?) head will turn to writers when they have to make a speech. As do most, if not all, politicians.
At a recent WGA panel, Kevin Bleyer, a writer for The Daily Show and The Simpsons, admitted upon questioning that he’s written some of Pres. Obama’s best speeches in the last several years. Imagine then, what he or a roomful of any working (or used to be working) screenwriters could do about ending the government shutdown in Washington D.C. I mean, who better than a writer to create something from nothing?
I don’t mean to say that as a writer I alone would have the smarts to figure this all out. But I would bet money that a very small room of writers could. Because there are certain lessons we’ve had to learn over the years in order to survive. These lessons are awful, difficult, gut wrenching and soul crushing. But, in the end, they, along with our jobs, are what make us the go-to problems solvers when it comes to creating a final product that, on some basic level, FUNCTIONS.
I will now share some of those lessons (eleven to be exact). Hopefully somebody in Washington DC, – and preferably more than one body – is reading. And listening.
IF YOU DON’T MEET YOUR DEADLINE – YOU’RE FIRED!
It’s pretty simple. You contract with someone or something to do a project over a specific amount of time. Then you do the work, you hand it in and you get paid. (Note: Studios try to drag out their payments to you well beyond those deadlines but that’s why you have attorneys – who can be smart but mostly are cleverly manipulative).
Deadlines can be extended but only to a point if you plan to get the result you want. As a writer that result is seeing your work become a reality – in other words made or ENACTED. The sad truth you know is that when you hand your work in it will already take forever – meaning longer than a week or a day – for anyone to read it and much, much longer than that for the group (or groups) to reach a decision on whether to make (nee enact) it.
That’s why you always get it done. You’re smart enough to know that your work is the engine and how persistent you and your team can be in pushing your work along is what powers it. So you ALWAYS work to a specific time frame not only to speed up the process but to forever have the reputation as THE person who knows how to get the job done.
IF YOU DON’T DO THE WORK YOU ARE REPLACED
You can’t decide NOT TO WORK. Well, you can but then you won’t get anywhere. And that is not an acceptable outcome to a working writer.
Doing the work is quite different from going on strike when you don’t like the result of the work, the rules or the people you work for and with. That is separate than the work. That is about your rights and the future and is equally important. But you never confuse it with your work and the job you were hired (meaning are being paid money) for or choose to do.
You don’t want to compromise. Who does? But you know that if you don’t give even a little in the end you get nothing. And when you get nothing you don’t get paid. And you don’t get any attention – at least the positive kind. Not that that’s the be all or end all but still…
You also don’t get to feel fulfilled. When you started as a writer you thought you’d feel fulfilled by not changing anything one iota to anyone else’s specifications. But then you learned the hard way that not everyone is an idiot with stupid ideas. Only most people.
YOU DON’T ALIENATE YOUR AUDIENCE
If you look down, talk down, or lie to your audience they will hate you. Especially when you are exposed – which is inevitable. You learned long ago that even though you publicly say you couldn’t give a crap about what people think, deep down you really do want to be loved – or at least liked – or at least understood. It’s part of the reason you entered this crazy business despite what you offer publicly.
You also, very occasionally, want to change the world or you would’ve done something easier like raising elephants or making artisnal mustard in Brooklyn. You cannot change the world if your actions cause your audience to not like you. Yes, this assumes you want to change the world for the better. But if writers wanted to be a dictator over millions they would’ve entered a profession that gave them some power – not one where they spread their smarts worldwide. (Note: This might be an area where a politician’s motives differ but let’s throw caution to the wind and give them the benefit of the doubt).
If you have a vision and are so absolutely stubborn about it to the point of zero compromise you might create exactly what you think you want but it will not be as good as it could be. It pains you, in particular to admit this because, as we’ve established, you are the smartest person in the room. The sad irony, though, is that this also makes you smart enough to realize that — YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING!
Therefore, you deal with and listen to people you can’t stand and might not respect because you know that stupid old adage of even a broken clock is right twice a day wouldn’t have been in the vernacular for centuries if it didn’t hold a grain of truth. You also secretly know that some of your best ideas came from someone else via suggestion or inspiration – as did their ideas – and the ideas of those before them. Any writer who has even been given notes or endured reaction to a script realizes this and is very aware that if someone makes a suggestion that sounds good, even in passing, and it inspires enough to be used, it is not stealing – it is homage. And employing that particular strategy will, in the long run, be to your benefit.
YOU DON’T RENEG ON OR CHANGE A DEAL
The above is the purview of production companies and studios who are rich and powerful and often monolithic. Meaning they are big and quite forceful and can outspend you by gazillions if you choose to fight on their terms. They also have a lot more manpower to use against you if you decide to go to war in this way. You are intelligent enough to know that you don’t possess any of their weaponry and that even if you did it would not get you the outcome you desire because you are only one person. If anything, playing the game their way will hand the other side the win.
So you strategize and look for weaknesses of theirs that are exploitable on the given playing field. Chief among them is the fact that they are inflexible and tend to resemble a single block of stone with about as much intellect as the latter. You are lithe – quicksilver and creative. You don’t need to cheat. You can work with the tools available and figure out practical solutions because it’s a requirement of your job. You are also well aware that deep down you would really rather take the high road because, unlike those bigger entities, you have to look yourself in the mirror at the beginning and end of each day. You also know that the better you are at recognizing humanity the better you’ll be at doing your job. (Note: The mirror part assumes you brush your teeth and moisturize – both of which you should do).
YOU DON’T COMPLAIN
You know how hard you work but you also know you’re not a coal miner. You get paid to sit in a room and be funny or heartfelt. It’s not brain surgery. Besides, these days no one likes to see people who make more than a livable wage bitch and moan about anything.
It might seem counterintuitive to read about writers who don’t bellyache. So let’s get real about the complaining part. You still might fall back into bad behavior and whine but as a working professional you learned long ago that this will not get you anywhere and will, in fact, hurt you. Especially if you do it publicly or in an obnoxious manner. Or within earshot of anyone you hope to continue to work with. Or for.
NO ONE wants to hear about how difficult it is to sit in a room where you have food, water, air-conditioning, a computer and access to the web. (Note: For politicians, add staff). In the scheme of what one is forced to deal with in life, this is not looked at as extremely taxing or even particularly challenging. It’s what every single human being in the world does at least several times a day – and often without air-conditioning. So – SHUT UP! At least publicly. And especially on open mikes. (Note: Yes Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell – we’re talking to you).
GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORTABLE CRIB
If you hang out with only the same old people who think the same old things you will have nothing interesting to write about. Worse – you will be even less interesting. This goes triple for politicians.
There also comes a point where every writer runs out of things they can prostitute from their own, insular life. You are required to get out in the world if for no other reason than you need more material. You also realize that if you spend too much time alone in your thoughts you will become crazy. The latter is a big minefield of the profession and not one that is easily circumvented since you are being paid, or perhaps just spiritually rewarded (see: young writers), for being a thinker.
It is inevitable that at a writer must travel – physically and/or emotionally – to places he or she does not want to be and with people he or she does not want to be with. And to observe, learn and occasionally admit their ideas about this place, state of mind or persons was wrong. This should be a requirement of everyone’s professional life. Especially politicians.
LIMIT PUBLIC SPEAKING
If you’re often right and smart enough to know you are, you resist constantly shoving it in people’s faces. Everyone wants to feel right sometimes and no one wants to be proven wrong all the time – especially by you. Therefore, you speak out publicly when you need to but you limit your exposure accordingly. And – you listen. As Oprah once wisely stated, the biggest thing she learned doing her television show is that everyone wants to be heard. That means everyone – not just you. No one likes a wiseacre. Or at least someone who keeps reminding us they are.
YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE A PRICE
Unless you are starving, you will not work or be bought for ANY price because you are aware of the consequences since you once did that when you were younger and it took you double the amount of years to get over the slimy lies and horrible feelings of self-loathing over the whole thing. If neither of the above happens right now you can still be assured that if you give in to temptation one day those golden handcuffs will eventually wrap around you to claim what’s left of your soul. Only then it will be too late to realize that you can indeed be trapped inside of a box of your very own design, condemned to a loop of Michael Bay movies – or whatever else passes as your own personal hellish equivalent.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS – GO BACK TO YOUR IDEALS
Only you know the reason you got into this game and if you’re like everyone else on earth – which YOU ARE – it probably has to do with the best and younger you. For those with no soul, this will not work. But I am willing to wager that on the whole, even among politicians, there is more of the former than the latter. Take it from someone who teaches young people and is around young people all the time. And who writes
So… did you get all that, Washington? If not, I’m sure eventually Aaron Sorkin will explain it.