Sage Advice

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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.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

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:

THE ANSWER.

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?

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

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.

Maybe not in your future... and that's OK!

Maybe not in your future… and that’s OK!

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.

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

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.

everyone's path is a little bit different

everyone’s path is a little bit different

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.

Mr. Chazelle... or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

Mr. Chazelle… or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

— 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.

Sometimes timing is everything

Sometimes timing is everything

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.

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

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.

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

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.

The Film of 2016

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More than half the country’s voters (by 2.8 million and counting) are bemoaning the year 2016 and can’t wait for it to come to an end. Certainly, I am one of them. I mean, not only did a lunatic become president-elect but Florence Henderson died. One wonders – how much worse can it get???

OH C'MON! #effthisyear

OH C’MON! #effthisyear

And yet, this year did offer one very significant piece of filmic art. A work that provides a road map for our futures and could possibly inspire generations to come.

It is the most important film of the year.

And just might be the most significant motion picture of the next four years.

A movie that thinkers and dreamers will return to time and again as we forage our way through the hell of our futures —

6z33f0

Wait a minute…

This is not to say it is the best film of the year. I will leave that for others to determine. It is not even to say that it will be in your top 10. Perhaps you don’t like musicals. Maybe you hate L.A. Or perhaps (and maybe) you have no patience for the dreamers among us. Certainly, that attitude is popular these days. Lord knows what it will be in two, three or twelve months from now.

oh hey 2017!

oh hey 2017!

Still, there is a timely importance to La La Land whether it’s to your taste or not. Whether you love it, hate it, or if it wins any Oscars or Razzies at all.

La La Land offers a road map on how to proceed. It shows us methods to cope. And it eventually delivers a desirable if not bittersweet future which, given the current circumstances of our real lives, is a terribly tempting reality for which to strive for in the next 48 months. And awfully clever for a fantasy film.

No, I am not overstating this. And note: there will be no spoilers here.

You can trust the chair #kisskiss

You can trust the chair #kisskiss

Granted, as a show biz aspirant who arrived in Hollywood decades ago with my own version of stars in my eyes, perhaps I’m a bit partial. But I don’t think so. What’s the old adage – “everyone has two businesses, their business and show business?”

You don’t think that’s true? Go back to your hometown anywhere in the U.S. and, despite how they voted, see what happens when you tell them you work in film or television.

#lifegoals

#lifegoals

The plot isn’t much. A guy and a gal in their twenties each trying to make a big dream in their lives come true in a world that keeps saying:

No, not on my watch. What you want is impossible and you don’t have the karma or smarts or talent to bring off what you choose to do.

Being young and in their twenties – and yes, looking like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (Note: Remember this is a metaphor & okay maybe he’s in his thirties but who cares), they keep fighting. And failing. And failing yet again. Then they figure out other ways to get their dreams that seem like they’ll work but sadly, do not.

Along the way they find each other and that’s nice.

But something still doesn’t feel quite right. They are not living up to who they are and what they believe deep down in their souls. And if you can’t do that, well, it’ll only be a matter of time before everything else in your life and world will turn to shit. (Okay, I’m inserting my own philosophies here but that’s their general point. Or, well, at least mine here).

Bonus points: You do still get to look like this #hellloooryan

Bonus points: You do still get to look like this #hellloooryan

In any event, what these dreamers believe in more than anything is that acting on their core beliefs – nee using their true talents – will not only benefit them but in some small way can bring some relief to other people’s lives. If only just for a few random moments. And what this story proposes to us is that when one of them (or us) gives up, the other one forces them to go on. And when the other one of them (or us) gives up, the other one of…Well, you get the picture.

More than the power of positive thinking it’s the mutual power of faith and hope in each other that is really what La La Land is about.   Of what can be achieved when you fulfill what you know is right, and how you can be helped along on this road even when you begin to doubt yourself.   Okay, I’m beginning to have déjà vu right about now re:the whole faith and hope thing, but even still, that doesn’t mean this way of thinking is wrong.

We're with you girl

We’re with you girl

Survival means imagining against all odds and acting on it.

Dreaming the big (or small) dream and doing something about it.

Proceeding when others say no and call you names and threaten to do a lot worse to you.

And then do a lot worse. And A LOT more than that.

In order to counteract what’s coming we ALL need INSPIRATION from everywhere. What popular culture can do is produce art that INSPIRES us to fight. Or to continue the fight. Or simply just be and act on WHO WE ARE continuously and to maximum effect.

... EVERYBODY NOW!

… EVERYBODY NOW!

Naysayers can make you cry, infuriate you, and make you want to beat the crap out of them or yourself. But only you can decide when THEY win. THEY don’t get to marginalize you – only you can do that to you. If this sounds a little precious – well, maybe. So is the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, The Constitution and The Gettysburg Address when you read them. And we all should read them, again or for the first time, sometime.  And then perhaps get a copy of the text of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and critique that for purple prose. But not before we take in the true meaning behind those words.

One of the screenwriting books I use for teaching says a good movie is like “a seamless dream.” Well, that’s about as great a description as I’ve ever heard.   And makes it even important to remember that without dreams we wouldn’t have innovation. Or innovators – aka – the people who change things.

Now i just have to work on waking up in full hair and make up #cinderellawho

Now i just have to work on waking up in full hair and make up #cinderellawho

Not everyone can inspire or change stuff on a massive scale. But any number of us working together to support each other’s dreams and/or innovation – yes, it just may take a village – can do so. And if you doubt that, right about now you might want to remember that Steve Jobs’ estranged father was a Syrian refugee.

There are real life heroes and movie heroes. None of them are flawless and none of them do it alone.

See you in the trenches. And in our dreams.

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.