Every year I take my students to see a panel of people who wrote the most acclaimed films of the previous year. This time they included the writers of:
La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, Arrival, Hell or High Water, and yes, Deadpool.
These people are all among the current nominees for this year’s Writers Guild of America awards and at the point they speak on the “Beyond Words” panel they are ending an intense series of talks, interviews and other generalized discussions about their process, their work, their careers and their futures.
But what everyone seems to really want from the possible valedictorians of their class is:
How DID you do it? How DO you do it? What can I DO to also do it? And am I FOOLING MYSELF by even thinking that I can do it?
The panel consists of writers (or writer-directors) but you can substitute the same questions for anything, really – actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors and script supervisors.
WHAT IS THE KEY?
Well, it’s exactly what you think it is. You work at it. And you do it harder and more consistently and with as much abandon as you have ever done anything in your life. In fact, more so. And chances are, you will GET THERE.
Yes, this is quite encouraging. But then — oh my. You should see the series of scared, young and old DISAPPOINTED faces in the audience.
For here is the real answer they begin to realize minutes, hours, weeks or months later if they do follow that sage advice (Note: If you prefer to stay away from harsh truths stop reading now):
You will definitely get somewhere, certainly a better place artistically. But not necessarily on a future panel that’s before you.
And I would add this nugget of information that perhaps never crosses one’s mind. Certainly it didn’t cross mine years ago.
Perhaps that (panel) is not exactly where you belong or where you would even want to be given the compromises, sacrifices and cost of the single-mindedness it takes to achieve what you think (or may even know) are your dreams. Perhaps the work you do will be honored in some different way entirely.
This is not meant to be any more discouraging or encouraging than anything those writers told the audience of movie fans, aspiring writers or curious industry-ites who had nothing better to do on a Thursday evening than look for hope, information or just plain intellectual entertainment. But I guarantee you it is also the same truth spoken by any one of those same artists, as well as many others, on that night or on any other night on any other year.
You can take away all kinds of things when people tell you to work really hard at what you do, follow some of the rules and break others, and to listen to your inner voice and then dig in deeper.
You can be encouraged and enlightened, buoyed by the brave soldiers that came before you and succeeded.
Or you can become depressed because you know you’re already doing all of that and more and haven’t gotten anywhere close to that result.
And, in some cases, you might even become frozen with fear when you run your entire life around your brain because suddenly you realize you’ve been doing all this and MORE for years (or perhaps decades) and are so much farther away from that place on that stage than you would ever care to admit to anyone out loud, most particularly yourself.
Well, that’s fine. All of it is fine. Except, it doesn’t mean anything. At all.
There are numerous X factors in life. And in show business, in particular, we all measure art and practicality and talent and then divide it by happenstance. For instance, did you know:
— Damien Chazelle, all of 32 now, wrote La La Land six years prior. At which point it sat around, landed briefly at a studio, was put in turnaround, and then sat around for many years more. Which prompted him to then write and direct Whiplash out of his anger to the system. Which in turn forged La La Land.
— Taylor Sheridan quit work as an actor on a lucrative TV show as he approached his 40th birthday to write what became Hell or High Water, but not before he ran out of money and moved him and his wife and 10 month old kid into a small one bedroom apartment on Sunset and Laurel. (Note: He voluntarily gave the location).
— Kenneth Lonergan got raked over the Hollywood coals when the movie he made in 2000, Margaret, languished in legal battles, was recut and even then barely released eleven years later. And didn’t direct another film until Manchester by the Sea. In fact, his friend Matt Damon said that that he brought him the kernel of the idea for the film to get him out of his funk just so his creative voice could be heard again.
And so on and so forth.
You and I and certainly few of the rest of us are likely reach the successes above with our own projects. For there is always a certain amount of timing, luck, talent, karma and cosmic grace (Note: Not to be confused with Karma) that comes into play with these things.
But surely if we all don’t bear down and focus in on our work, and continue to dream big – despite our experience, age, economic circumstances or emotional places we currently occupy in our lives, we will never get there.
And if we do – who knows? We could possibly surpass them.
Why does this stuff always seem so trite and cliché?
Because the very nature of clichés is that they are references and expressions of stuff we have heard time and time again that offer nothing new to our view of the world.
Which doesn’t mean they’re incorrect.
What I’ve found to be the key is exactly what WE – you and I – DO with all of this advice. Not the advice itself.
It’s the actions we take, the people we engage with and disagree with and love and scream and yell with and the art we make – based on our own reactions and experiences – that comprise the sum of our output. Which in turn shows up on the page, in the film, on the screen, in the machine and before the next doorkeeper determined to slam that door in all of our collective faces, that can and will make the difference.
I know this because I’ve seen this and lived this. Just look around you and you’ll see it too. And then look within and start working. And let the chips fall where they may.
But if this still sounds a bit too new agey, self-helpish and yes, cliché, don’t take my word for it.
This week I also went to see 84-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera do her one-woman show in Los Angeles. She recalled the time half a century ago in the 1960s when another Broadway legend, Gwen Verdon, and her then husband, director Bob Fossse, still another Broadway AND soon-to-be movie legend, asked her to star in the touring company of Sweet Charity in a role created to smashing success by Ms. Verdon herself.
Ms. Rivera confesses to at first being thrilled with the offer, which soon turned to total terror knowing she couldn’t possibly fill her predecessor’s shoes. Or even come close. Until finally, she shared with us, it occurred to her:
Chita, just bring your own shoes.
I tell that to all the kids, she added. Just bring your own shoes. And it’ll be fine.