Serling, Lear & Goldman

 

No, this is not a law firm.  As far as I know.

These are the names of three show business icons better known as Rod Serling, Norman Lear and William Goldman.

It’s not a good idea to trot out words like icon or legend too often.   You sound like a syndicated talk show host whose sole purpose in life is to overpraise someone more famous in the hopes that it’ll do you some good.

Think Mike Pence whenever he’s in the presence of the Electoral College POTUS.  (Note: And how could you not?)

Let’s hope that’s all he is #Mueller?

Still, there are some cases where the word icon feels exactly right, especially if we are to believe the dictionary definition:

Icon: A representative symbol of something.  Synonym,  idol, paragon, hero. 

Certainly Mr. Serling, Mr. Lear and Mr. Goldman are all of the above and more to most everyone in the writing trade, the entertainment industry and by extension, through the reach of their life’s work, the world.

Hyperbole?  I think not.

Thank you Stefon

In the last several days I was reminded of the gargantuan achievements of these three writers, all born within 10 years of each other, for completely different reasons.

William Goldman, who died this week at the age of 87, was for years the most respected and highest paid screenwriter in the business.  Consider the movies from over 40 years, beginning with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then on to All The President’s Men, Marathon Man and The Stepford Wives and then back around to The Princess Bride, Chaplin and Misery and you might begin to get some idea.  If not, you can throw in tons of uncredited rewrites on things like A Few Good Men and Good Will Hunting and perhaps it will get clearer.

The Real Deal

It was William Goldman who introduced the infamous phrase follow the money into the lexicon of political writing via his Oscar-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men.  Peruse his other scripts and you will no doubt find many others.

Just ask Wallace Shawn  #asyouwish

Though none of them will even come close to his three-word perfect summation of the movie business:  Nobody knows anything.

For those not directly involved in the industry, here’s a full sentence of his  elaborating on that thought:  Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.

That and a lot more were written by Mr. Goldman in his 1983 seminal book on navigating Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade.  But more than anything else, those three perfect words – NOBODY. KNOWS. ANYTHING. gave hope, courage and permission to a generation of people starting out in the business, myself included, to soldier on and persevere.

Cheers to you Mr. Goldman

His screenwriting work was brilliant, and he wrote a bunch of fine novels (on some holiday vacation read his first, Boys and Girls Together).  But his ability to so bluntly tell the truth about what he experienced and observed extended far beyond fiction or the movies.  He gave so many of us who had our noses pressed up against the glass the belief that the people we thought we had to impress didn’t have all the answers – we did.  All we had to do was to tell the truth through our work and we had as good of a shot at making it as he did.

Rod Serling and Norman Lear might not seem a natural combination at first mention but when you give it some thought it’s exactly right.  They were born within two years of each other in the 1920s and though Mr. Lear, now 96 and still active, has lived twice as long (Note: Mr. Serling died prematurely at the age of 50,) each writer changed the face of television by being fearless in their own very specific ways.

.. and both have a signature look

By his early thirties, Rod Serling was already an accomplished playwright and Emmy award-winning writer devoted to telling meaningful stories that touched on social issues.  Still, he was known in the biz as a bit of an upstart who had grown weary of battling corporate sponsors and executives too timid to support the kind of tales he wanted to tell.

That was when he got the idea to write in the more commercially appealing science fiction genre, grounding his characters in a way so relatable it would enable him the ability to tackle such timely themes as war, racism, class, politics and censorship.

Like you’d ever forget these faces

One can hardly imagine when The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959 that even he could foresee the enduring legacy of that groundbreaking anthology series.  Not only does it still run all over the world more than half a century later, it has been reinvented as a feature film, in numerous television spin-offs and remakes, as well as homaged in the music world.

Most recently, Jordon Peele was announced as the host of a new CBS reboot of The Twilight Zone set to air in 2019.

But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that those three wordsTHE. TWILIGHT. ZONE. – are now embedded as a permanent part of language and pop culture as we know it (Note/Nee: Being an American these days is like living  in The Twilight Zone) that will forever be associated with its writer and onscreen narrator.

It was in that spirit this past week that Ithaca College presented Norman Lear with its annual Rod Serling Award for advancing social justice through popular media.   (Note: Serling taught at the college in the 1970s and his archives are housed there).  As a professor and Chair (Note: Ahem) at the school’s L.A. program, I got to be part of that evening and had a front row seat to Mr. Lear’s sharp as ever comic timing and humility as he got up to the podium at L.A.’s Paley Center to accept.

The man himself, pictured here with Ithaca College’s Park School Dean Diane Gayeski, and One Day at Time colleague Mike Royce

Anyone who has watched television comedy in the last fifty years has likely seen one of Mr. Lear’s shows and the majority of we baby boomers came of age on them.

To watch a first-run episode of All in the Family in the actual era it came of age was to see for the first time in half-hour prime time TV an unvarnished version of ourselves and our extended families in all of our inglorious prejudices, ignorances and, ultimately, humanity.  No one had ever used THOSE WORDS before on the Big Three networks despite the fact that they used them and we heard them every day of our lives.  Heck, no one had ever even heard a toilet flush on TV before the series did it in 1971!

Archie is not that impressed

Mr. Lear also gave us the first upwardly mobile Black family (The Jeffersons), the first TV comedy episode to ever deal with abortion (Maude) and the first divorced prime time mom of the era (One Day At A Time).  (Note: The latter also recently rebooted on Netflix). The fact is if we don’t see an immediate connection between the subjects tackled by the fictional law partners, Serling and Lear, it is merely due to our own shortcomings, not theirs

Among the unplanned comic gems during Mr. Lear’s acceptance speech at the Paley was the moment when his iPhone began to audibly ring.  He stopped mid-speech, instantly reached into his pocket and saw it was a family member, began a conversation with her, and, without missing a beat, put it on speakerphone so the rest of us NOT at the podium could hear.  Most actors, not to mention us non-96 year old pros and non-pros, couldn’t rehearse this and get it right (especially the speaker part) never much less be funny in our ad-libs to a faceless voice.

More skillful, however, was what came next. After he said of his TV work: I didn’t do it alone  he went on to reassure his many admirers that he really is only a person who gets up in the morning, eats, goes to the bathroom and then goes to sleep at night – just like they do.

Don’t mind me.. getting emotional over here

Then suddenly he, and then the room, fell dead silent as he contemplated this for a few VERY long moments.   As we all got concerned something was wrong, he finally looked down, then right back out at us, and said:

You know, everything in life led me to this moment.  Isn’t that something?

At which point he let some more time go by, evoking more silence once again, until he reiterated:  And to this one.

Then once more again, echoing:

And that one.  Everything you have done before has brought YOU right here…..Think about it.

One couldn’t help but wonder if what he was really telling us was that taking in the moment, really feeling it, and then sharing those feelings with others, was not only the key to his art but the secret to life.

Of course whether that’s true or not is in the eye of the beholder. Since, let’s face it, nobody knows anything.

“Those Were The Days” –  Theme from All in the Family

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Real Villains

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 11.02.28 AM

There are (at least) 129 people dead and 352 injured in Paris – the latest mass murder victims from the latest international terrorist attack.

These things don’t just “happen.” There are reasons other than they’re crazy and we’re not.

This week I was talking to my screenwriting students about writing real villains (the nicer word is antagonists but let’s face it, villain gets the point across far more effectively). I told them one of the keys is that until you understand why your villain is doing what he’s doing you only have an IDEA of a villain.

What my students – and all of us – need to understand is that in drama and in real life a villain truly believes in his or her heart of hearts that what they are doing is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT based on their life experiences and where they are in the world at that moment they take action.

60939401178288562_OMosUDKn_c

Villains believe their actions are justified. Their actions are a means to their END – which they are convinced, rightly or wrongly, they deserve and/or are correct in executing. Their end can be twisted, offensive, or cray cray to you and I and the rest of the world based on all objective logic. But until you really get how they think and WHY they think it, you will not be able to create or evoke – nee write – them or their situation convincingly.

It’s upsetting to fail at your task as a writer, but the cost of not doing your due diligence in real life battles is a lot more consequential. It means you will NEVER be able to defeat your perceived villain. Certainly not in any permanent or enduring way. Writers hand in bad scripts or abandon projects altogether with only a career price to pay. When your opposition and you are flesh and blood the battle lasts a lot longer and has a far greater effect than a few bad hours of entertainment. It means your villain – nee enemy – can go on for years, decades, or perhaps generations – wreaking havoc.

What a way to live. Or not live.

Is it faith or life (or both) that sustains you?

Is it faith or life (or both) that sustains you?

I tend to see the fundamentalists of any religion as somewhat villainous and that is a prejudice of mine about both religion and doctrinaire thinking. It’s a reason why a play I started years ago about a fundamentalist, anti-gay American town and how it ostracized and eventually murdered a mouthy gay young adult never quite worked. I just couldn’t figure out how to make the people of the town three-dimensional enough to allow the audience to understand and believe their actions. I was too invested in my own bias to think through it clearly no matter how much I tried or how liberal I thought I was being. I got as far as “they were raised that way, they were true believers and they were small-minded” but none of it seemed enough to justify what I clearly felt was, plain and simply, a town of sick, heinous people who were clearly less than something human. So eventually, I dropped the project.

That was six years ago. Perhaps one day a light bulb will go off and I’ll figure it out.   Or not. Either way the world – and myself – will survive.

We have no such luxury with perceived “real life” villains who threaten our very existence.   Yes, I’m talking about the TERRORISTS. Are their reasons really any different than that of ANY convincing movie, theatre of television villain? You’d better believe they are. They are analogous only to our best, most well thought out villains. Certainly, their actions are. And their cost is a lot more than boredom, offensiveness or the price of a $15 ticket to watch in real time.

These are not the moustache-twirlers of pop culture past

These are not the moustache-twirlers of pop culture past

I teach and mentor Ithaca College students in a satellite L.A. school where they spend a semester interning in the entertainment industry as well as taking classes. But our home campus was all over the news this week for mass student protests over perceived racist incidents and inaction to it from our president. This followed similar demonstrations at the University of Missouri, Yale and other schools across the country.

After reading and watching a myriad of stories via the New York Times, CNN and MSNBC, as well as scouring numerous posts on Facebook (Note: Where we trended in the #1 spot – is that to be celebrated?) and on Twitter, I was amazed. Once you got past the first few paragraphs or sound bytes of news, so many of the comments of our so-called informed adult observers dubbed our students and school with words like “whiners,” “babies,” “sick people,” “socialists,” “jail” and “die.” Yeah, I guess that about summarizes it.

Wait... huh?

Wait… huh?

The utter sheer dismissal from so many corners – both liberal and conservative and everywhere in between – was quite shocking to me.   In a non-segregated world there was bound to be a “browning” of America and all this vocal minority (eventual majority?) of young people are saying is that the white power structure needs to slightly alter their way of thinking and reacting to situations they used to categorize merely as misstatements and hard knocks and accept them for what they are – intolerable and offensive.

Of course, the counter argument is statements like – grow up, crybaby, or you’ll never survive in the real world. Well, guess what – as a young gay guy I gained nothing from the numerous times I was called faggot in school or the handful of moments when several teachers made fun of me for a perceived effeminate gesture. In fact, it was just the opposite – years of therapy at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. If we can provide our young generation a few tools and strategies to deal with these inevitable taunts early on and, yes, in a safer space in college, why WOULDN’T we do it?

151111134220-ithaca-college-students-protest-university-president-dnt-00001323-exlarge-169

Amen

Of course, this means listening and understanding their arguments – the arguments of people who are different and with whom we feel we have little in common – even if we don’t agree with them. When the University Of Missouri president finally stepped down from his post several weeks ago in an effort to heal his college community, the Republican Apprentice (Note: Oh, you know who I mean) quickly branded him as part of a group of weak, ineffective people in positions of power at college communities across the country. I should have been the chancellor of that university, he bloviated. Believe me, there would have been no resignations.

But like most trigger happy, lazy thinkers, the ole R.A. did neglect to tell you this one salient fact. There actually was a Trump University from 2004-2010 that is now defunct and being sued for $40 million by the NY Attorney General who has filed charges that this school was operating as an illegal, unlicensed for-profit university that DEFRAUDED its students and bilked them each out of tens of thousands of dollars worth of broken promises and meager results.

I suppose I digress. But only a little.

See, our American Oracle of Healing – Oprah Winfrey – said some time ago that one of her big takeaways from her career as a talk show host and media mogul billionairess is that EVERYONE wants to be heard. When individuals believe they are not being listened to, shunned or even perennially ignored is when the trouble starts. And festers. And becomes something much larger than what it started out. And increases exponentially as time goes by and the status quo continues. Then, at some moment, as writer Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently stated in his international bestseller, there is The Tipping Point and things begin to change – for the good or bad – whether we all like it or not.

One spark is all it takes

One spark is all it takes

No one is defending or justifying terrorism or mass murder. But the world is not a John Wayne movie where a few six guns and some moxie can do the trick. Besides, those movies didn’t have fully developed villains, anyway. You can’t get away with that anymore. Even the new, somewhat disappointing James Bond film Spectre gave Christoph Waltz’s character a personal backstory, which is ultimately how James Bond defeats him (Note: Oh, please, it is NOT a spoiler. Did you think Bond died???).

So as painful as this will be, it might help as the dust settles in the weeks and months to come for us all to try to begin to understand the backstory of this latest band of villains – nee terrorists – in an effort to, if nothing else, stop future attacks. And secure our future – or even – A future.

To this end: I give my students a list of 25-30 questions to ask themselves about their fictional villains. They include: where they came from; where did they grow up; what’s in their room at home; what is their typical day like – meaning what do they do; their relationship with their family; their biggest hurt; what is sacred to them and why; their favorite food and color; unforgettable character; moment they fell in love; job; possession of resonance; sexual proclivities; and age.

Maybe even the name of their pet

Maybe even the name of their pet

I tell my students to answer in depth, superficially and go on tangents. Much of the information they won’t use but if they answer all the questions with thought and feeling they will begin to get an understanding of who that person is and how some of the above, which the audience/world might never even see, informs their decisions. The result will then be a closer to flesh and blood character whose actions will seem perfectly believable given their specific set of circumstances. And if they, the writer, understands the villain, then they can in turn figure out how the hero of their story will figure out how to defeat them at their own game and return the world to stasis– or even better.

Yeah, this is writer stuff and not as adrenaline inducing as rushing into a shootout.  But it works far more effectively in the end and is A LOT less bloody for all parties concerned. Unless blood is what we’re really looking for.

Endings and Beginnings

The one and only?

“When one door closes another opens.”  It’s taken me all of my life and then some (I’m counting the future) to accept the adage.  How does one take a disappointing or not hoped for outcome and not only accept it but actually revel in it because its very existence might be opening up a great opportunity yet to come?

On that note, how can you let go of a longtime dream, whether you’ve achieved it or not achieved it and make room for another (Remember — either outcome means you do have to go on).  How do you believe that CHANGE IS GOOD, or can be good –-because experience tells us that it is, or can be, if we make it so.

This is all essential in show business and in life (Side Note: Never, EVER, confuse the two).   I’ll resist saying anything about the latter because, well, I’m not that wise and certainly not old enough to philosophize.  But I do know something about surviving in show business because, well, I’m friends with a lot of people who have and, let’s face it, here I am still performing in our little/big/medium-sized three-ring circus (the size depends on your current standing in the biz).

The death of Amy Winehouse this week prompted all this reflection.  I was a rabid fan of the brilliant and troubled young singer and her demise felt to me like a door closing on one of the few contemporary musicians whose work I listen and relate to with any regularity.  There have been so many intelligent tributes, tweets, comments on this (and some not so smart) that I won’t go on about it.  You can read Russell Brand‘s or two writers at Salon (here and here) for some of my favorites.  There’s even a NY times article where iconoclastic (or at least he was) director John Waters talks about her style.

But best of all there’s the music. Listen to the “Back to Black” album and if for some reason it’s not your thing, it is likely you won’t deny the one-of-a-kindness of Winehouse’s talent.  Perhaps more interesting and less known was her pared down jazz/soul cover of the vintage Carole King song, “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow.” Watch it here. 

Why am I writing about this?  Because while part of Winehouse’s talent was just a grand gift from – not sure where, you decide – it was not just the inheritance of the “brilliant gene” that fostered her creativity.  She worked at it from a young age.  She grew up obsessed with Frank Sinatra, girl bands, played with her musician Dad and others for years on end as a kid on several instruments.  She listened incessantly to Billie Holiday, white British soul singer Mari Wilson, and American girl group icon Ronnie Spector for hundreds of hours on end.  Spector, a member of rock royalty whose classic “A Christmas Gift For You” album you hear in every mall across America in the holiday season (and yeah, she was married to THAT guy), knew Winehouse was inspired by her but the feeling was mutual.  So much so that at a concert six months ago, she sang a cover song of Winehouse’s signature song, “Back to Black.”  (Watch it here) while a shy Winehouse hid behind a man in the corner.  But Spector still spotted Winehouse’s signature beehive hairdo, the same hairdo she herself sported in the 60s.

The truism here is that like all great art, artists are not accidental and Amy Winehouse wasn’t.  It was a combination of study and hard work on the shoulders of those who came before her — Holiday, Spector, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, the Shirelles and every girl group of the sixties, Aretha Franklin, Carole King (I was surprised but shouldn’t have been that a Carole King song, “So Far Away,” was noted by her father as one of her favorite songs at her funeral), and Lauryn Hill (the latter apparently being someone she listened to incessantly).  That her demise into the “27 club” even happened is awful and represents an ending of sorts.  Yet as final as her death is as an end to her new music, we can be sure her creative history marks the beginning of someone else – perhaps in a few years – in 10 years – or maybe a generation later.  That person will listen to Winehouse incessantly, be influenced by her and the handful of brilliant artists of all kinds before her, and create something just as raw, fresh and frankly, amazing, as she did.  But in a different way.  And we can also be sure that person would not have existed without Winehouse ending specifically when she did.   That sucks, and we wish it didn’t happen but it did and that’s the way of the creative world.  Work is sparked by nuance, by obsession, by circumstances, by innocence and by tragedy – of all kinds. *

 *For those who say we pay too much attention to Winehouse’s death in comparison to the massacre last weekend in Norway, I say – “uh, since when do tragedies have to compete in the “best” category, like Oscars,  and why does attention to one negate the other.  And I point you to this refutation in one of the two prior Salon posts.

It should also be noted the ENDING of Winehouse’s music will somewhere spark the BEGINNING of someone else’s voice not only in music but in film, print, television and/or yes, perhaps the internet.  It’s part of the elusive cycle of art in this new world we live in.  No one does it alone, really.  Nor could they  (And who would want to?).  We don’t live in isolated caves anymore, no matter how much the reflection of our current events on cable news makes it seem.

If you want to create new work it helps to have a “gift.”  But more people than you might realize have the “gift.”  Ask anyone over 40 you know who is an actor, writer, musician or director to recite some of the more talented friends with sparks of brilliance much brighter than their own who were never heard from and I guarantee you will soon get a list a mile long.  The legacy of Amy Winehouse, aside from her music and her brilliance, was that she worked at it her whole life.  So much so that it will in turn give life to much more wonderful art than we can ever know.  Endings and beginnings, indeed.

***

On a more personal basis – today marks another exciting beginning of sorts for someone very special to the chair and to this blog.   My colleague Holly Van Buren, who fills in for my lack of tech savvy and is the best blog editor any guy (or gal) could ever have, is leaving Ithaca College Los Angeles and relocating to our home campus in Ithaca , NY where she will be teaching freshman film, among other life lessons. (Lucky them – and that’s not me being sarcastic!).

Holly’s exit from our offices is an ending – and is sad for us – but is such an exciting beginning for her that we can’t be sad unless we were the most selfish, egocentric, only obsessed with our own needs people in the entire world.  And I, for one, stopped being that last week because I didn’t want to make Holly feel any worse for abandoning/leaving me and the blog, (okay, not to mention the rest of the office) to our own devices.  She’s not, of course, because that’s not her way.  She’ll be editing it and posting cool videos for us from Ithaca.  It might not be different for you but it’s different for me.  She was the one who encouraged me to do this in the first place and laughs at my jokes, compliments my observations and tells me when I make absolutely no sense at all or am being as clear in print as a smoggy Los Angeles day (which happens more often than I like in my first draft).

Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Holly.  But our loss here, is Ithaca College’s gain.  Endings and beginnings.  Again.

Stay tuned for more.

Dream Team