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 Crowning Achievement

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The major strength of Netflix’s acclaimed series The Crown is that finally and once and for all an outsider (Note: Me) understands the pros and cons behind the idea of a King or Queen.

That is not to say that one (Note: Me) likes or accepts the idea of a hierarchy of humanity – i.e. a whole country required to bow and curtsy to another citizen wearing a crown – but at least the tradition and the people wearing the hardware are both clear and recognizable as something approaching human.

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

Heavy is the head, they say #werkitgurl

I’m not much for bowing down to idols – true, false or otherwise – but in one brief scene in its season one 10-episode arc, The Crown is succinct on this one heretofore elusive point:

The monarchy represents something Divine that can serve as a sort of model for what mankind can aspire to. (Note: One assumes that includes lowly females).

So despite the fact that the actual monarch, be it female or male, is indeed human, once he/she is anointed with oil by a leading British religious figure, he/she also all at once (and forever) becomes Divine He/She and therefore worthy of genuflection and ring kissing by everyone in It’s orbit.

Or so the thought processes go.

Not to mention, and to its further credit, this fine series also shows that a Queen (The British kind, that is) doesn’t necessarily want or is even qualified to be a Deity and that more than a few in the inner circle have their own worries that this vast spectacle is indeed nothing more than their own high-priced version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  

... which most certainly includes The Crown's Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

… which most certainly includes The Crown’s Miss Shade, Princess Margaret

Moreover, it ultimately and finally posits (and this is the what really brings it all home), that despite all of the doubts and handwringing about it, the vast majority of its SUBJECTS are indeed on some level TRUE BELIEVERS in it all and will actually VOLUNTARILY indulge en masse in the tradition of genuflection to this Chosen Human Deity.

This thus reinforces the point of the monarchy to whatever doubting royals there may be and, judging by the continued fascination with them across the globe, proves an even larger point about societies in general:

The PEOPLE indeed do WANT and NEED a HIGHER IDEAL in which to BELIEVE IN and strive towards.

We Americans, of course, have no such thing as a national royalty and if we did it certainly wouldn’t be in Washington, D.C. – at least at the moment.   Except, of course, for one thing —

THE OSCARS.

Behold... our golden god!

Behold… our golden god!

Yes, I know this is a long way to go for an analogy and moan and groan at HOLLYWOOD all you like – led by PRETEND POTUS DJT (aka The Non-Deity who lost the Popular vote by 2.86 million). But let’s be honest:

The vast majority of the TV watchers here and worldwide WILL tune in to the television coronation of Oscar. And even if they don’t and/or claim not to – see what happens when the BIGGEST MOVIE STAR IN THE WORLD walks into a room, a bar, a party, a restaurant or a hardware store in your neighborhood in your presence.   You will see the closest thing approaching GENUFLECTION you will EVER, EVER WITNESS IN YOUR LIFETIME ON AMERICAN SOIL.

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

Bow down to our undisputed QUEEN

(Note: If this hasn’t happened to you yet or you think it never will take my word for it. I have witnessed it in more than several cities big and small across the country over several decades in my lifetime and it is ALWAYS the same unmistakably American version of a mass CURTSY and BOW).

(Note 2: And please don’t write in and say what about The Pope? America is a secular country (so far) and He (It?) doesn’t count).

This is not a defense of the Oscars because that would be a defense of an indefensible DEITY. It is just an effort on the part of a lover of this year’s favorite for best picture, La La Land, to get the movie fans and pop culture lovers and prognosticators worldwide to calm the f-k down and, as the young people say (right?), get out of my grill.

I say believe the hype

I say believe the hype

Those of us who adore this movie for its reinforcement of hope and belief in the creative dream and Hollywood-ized version of love and romance, are not the intellectual equivalent of “Make America Great Again” as one essayist whose name I won’t mention recently pondered. Nor do we have crappy taste in films or suffer from too much white privilege (though which White person among us White people doesn’t?). In fact, we simply were transported by something we’ve never quite seen before on the Big Screen and want to sing its praises and share it with you.

Which brings me to another chief complaint about the movie – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not… Hugh Jackman and Barbra Streisand? Beyonce and Jay-Z?   Adele and Sam Smith? (You sooo don’t want that even though you think you do). Jennifer Hudson and Pharrell?

... or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller. #HermoinegetsWhiplash

… or original casting choices Emma Watson and Miles Teller #HermoinegetsWhiplash

Listen up. It’s not always about the notes you can hit and how well you can sing – especially in a movie musical where performance is everything. It’s about telling the story, the emotion, the passion, the joy and the sadness.   And consider that after five decades of concert tours, Bob Dylan still can’t sing a lick. No, honestly. Can he really “sing” – as you crave? Yet he’s captivating. As are many singer-songwriter-actors. Rappers don’t sing the way Sinatra did. Which is fine. Aretha Franklin is still the Queen of Soul and the late Karen Carpenter will always have perfect pitch. That’s a whole other subject and has nothing to do with carrying the story of a movie with your performance in a slightly imperfect yet surreal world.

Which brings us to what looks to be the three-way race for best picture between La La Land, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.

Ready to place your bets?

Ready to place your bets?

They’re all wonderful films in their own way and yeah, perhaps you don’t agree that La La Land has the inside shot at being this year’s DEITY. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the story and its filmic luster for many or change the fact that in the system you are choosing to participate in there can only be one QUEEN. (Note: Ahem).

So instead take a broader cosmic view of the whole process. Think of them each as planets. La La Land is Earth, Hidden Figures is Saturn and Moonlight is Pluto.

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Although gravity works a little bit differently in La La Land

Pluto is the furthest away from mass reality and therefore probably won’t win. Hidden Figures is certainly the most enjoyable to look at and understand from an en masse point of view.   But La La Land is not only surreal and visually interesting – it has managed to capture something else in the minds of many – a kind of magic that feels like home to the majority. It doesn’t mean we’re right and you’re wrong. That we worship The Deity and you are heathens.

NOR, does it mean the reverse.

We’re talking movies and planets – each floating in their own solar systems. I mean, can you compare Uranus with Venus? Or would you be too embarrassed to even try? Well, if you wouldn’t be, you should be.

Crown or not, in the end we’re all the King and Queen of our Own Existence and the stars of our Own Movies.

The point is not to be swayed by someone else’s version of royalty. And to never genuflect

To anyone.

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.