The Real Villains

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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.

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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?

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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.

Labor of Love

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There’s something so damn ingratiating and infectious about people who love the work that they do and excel at it.

For instance, did you ever go to a restaurant where the waiter treats you like a guest at their home and through sheer force of will and great food manages to make you feel happier than you have all day? How about a classroom where the teacher is so animated you are suddenly fascinated by a subject that you previously would have walked twelve long miles to avoid? Sometimes it’s even a film, TV show or performer putting you under such a spell that you actually forget to check your email, texts or any other form of social media messages for more than two whole hours.

Well, I’m here to tell you singer-songwriter Jason Mraz is exactly that infectious, excellent and just so damned ingratiating whenever he’s performing onstage.

The Chair's attempt at concert photography (call is the Blue period)

The Chair’s attempt at concert photography (call it the Blue period)

Don’t think I’m going all corny on you in either the messaging or the Mraz-ing. Yeah, even Mr. Mraz knows the cynical wrap about him always being Mr. Hippie Positivity and one of the first things he does in his shows is confess that he has more than his share of dark, depressing thoughts daily. But his work, as he sees it, is to take exactly what he’s feeling and make it into something artistic that maybe he, and in turn you and I, can feel good about.

Now, if that’s not a Labor Day weekend message, what is?

I had originally planned to write about the challenges of being part of a minority group this weekend, touching on the uprising of the Black community in Ferguson, MO over the police shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old boy. This would then be tied into the negative blowback Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara received from so many women (and the men who love them) across America for her willingness to flaunt her shimmying body on a 360-degree revolving platform at the Emmy awards. Which would lead into the chastisement I got from certain quarters for supporting her “subversion” of the Latina stereotype in a blog post here last week. This would all then culminate in how whether your minority is Black, Latin or gay like me (Note: I was even going to try to get the Middle East, Israel, Iraq and Isis in there) – the prejudice and marginalization are all various iterations of the same exact issue that, until recognized, will prevent us all from ever truly moving forward as a race, a culture or a planet.

Wow... that's a lot.

Wow… that’s a lot.

I’ll bet now you’re happy that 1. all we’re doing is talking about Jason Mraz and 2. I happened to see him at a two-hour plus concert in Hollywood this weekend.

Except, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Mr. Mraz is one of the few of us lucky enough to have figured out how to merge his job with his passion. It may be difficult to think of him as a worker on Labor Day because he is so wealthy, famous and talented at the relatively young age of 37. Not only is he not in the 47% along with most of the rest of us, he’s in the very elite subset of the upper, upper 1%. The .001% Or the .00001%? I haven’t seen his bank account but two Grammy awards, a 5 and a half acre organic avocado farm near San Diego, a joint ownership in the hugely successful Gratitude Cafe restaurants, one of the most enduring hit singles to ever stay on Billboard’s top 100 chart (76 weeks) and a never-ending concert tour schedule of venues all over the world indicate he’s doing more than okay. Not to mention, his goal to be #RetiredAt40 and spend most of the rest of his time farming – or at least slowing down from the star musician’s life he has carved out for himself over the last decade.

Farmlife with Mr. Mraz

Farmlife with Mr. Mraz

And yet – at essence he’s really just a worker. The fact that he’s treated as something more than that lies at our doorstep– not his. #ThinkAboutIt.

As a writer and a performer on the concert stage whose work has also been seen on television and in the movies, Mr. Mraz is at the very least a member of several or more show business labor unions. But even if he weren’t there is no denying he is an American worker and laborer – that is to say someone who contributes goods and/or services to society and whose efforts should be celebrated. Especially when it’s done exceedingly well.

So, how does one rise to the level of elite worker, which is not the same as asking – how do I become rich and famous? The latter is a byproduct of the profession one chooses to work at, one’s talents and a lot of timing and luck. (Note: And don’t let anyone else tell you any differently).

Well, since he’s obviously on my mind, let’s use Mr. Mraz as an example and have his actions tell us.

ATTITUDE

Well... which one is it?

Well… which one is it?

You’d think hard work would be the number one value here but the ability to work hard really begins with your attitude. One of the lessons students get from me when they arrive in L.A. for a semester to do internships in the entertainment industry is that the people you work with will innately know whether you enjoy working there or not. This does not mean that every working moment of your day is a joy or a pleasure or even easy. What it does mean is that somewhere inside you want to dig in and get the job done or you wouldn’t be there in the first place. And whether you’re tired or in a bad mood, once you get going a certain pride in doing what you like takes over and you get caught up in the moment of putting time into a job to the best of your abilities in the given moments you have chosen to put in that day.

Mr. Mraz has mastered this. There’s a joy in his eyes when he performs. When he screws up the lyrics or a technical element of his show doesn’t work, he laughs it off or makes fun of himself. He’s planned out his program but he’s willing to improvise and engage his fellow musicians and his audience even if it means extending the length of his show. Instead of phoning in his performance or duplicating his recordings in front of you, there’s an easiness that assures you that you are in good hands and are about to see something unique because he never does any one song in exactly the same way. In other words, he doesn’t make you feel like he’s doing you a big, fat favor by being there because he wants to be there.

There are only a handful of performers out of the many that I’ve seen live that have the ability to do this. Bruce Springsteen is one. Perhaps surprisingly, the Grateful Dead were another. Bette Midler in her early days was a third. They make you feel as if there is nowhere they’d rather be than doing their work for you when they’re doing that thing they do so well. There’s a spring in their step. And it’s infectious.

WORK ETHIC

Noted writer and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best seller, Outliers, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert in your field. Since there are about 8,765 hours in a year and most people put in approximately 2,080 hours at a full time job, this means it takes in the neighborhood of 5-10 years to become any kind of expert in your field.   Other researches have expressed these thoughts though none of them guarantee that expertise will equal financial success or worldwide recognition.

How many hours are you up to?

How many hours have you put in?

It may not be surprising then that for every album released, Mr. Mraz has an estimated 70 leftover songs. This certainly wouldn’t come as a shocker to any writer or observer of pop culture or even dedicated worker of any kind. In fact, Bruce Springsteen himself, flaunting a thick dog-eared songwriting notebook on 60 Minutes some years ago, expressed similar thoughts. The problem is that an expert worker who does what they do well is revealing their final product to you in its most polished form. And when it’s that clear and well done it’s hard to believe it could’ve taken so many other discarded efforts to get to that place.

In Mr. Mraz’s case, this is quite reassuring to me since his seemingly infinite abilities at unforced rhyming and clever world play appear so natural that one assumes they had to be tossed off in numerous fits of immediate, savant-like inspiration. #HeMustBeLackingInOtherAreas.

A LIFE

After all, you gotta share the guacamole with someone!

After all, you gotta share the guacamole with someone!

I once had the false notion that to be that good at what you do took a single-mindedness that precluded anything else in the universe. Meaning that if you were an artist you locked yourself up in a dank room where someone put a tray of gruel outside your door (or you simply found some in a filthy refrigerator) and you were let out only to eat and shower for half an hour spurts each day before being shoved back in and locked up again. A personal life? Travelling? Leisure time connection with family and friends? Are you kidding? Oh no, there’s plenty of time for that later. Maybe. Once all this important stuff is done and I have the chance.

Great workers know this is completely wrong. They might be dedicated and they likely work long hours. But most have some engagement with the world or they could never rise to the levels that they do. In order to be a master inventor or executor of any craft you have to engage with the task and the world it inhabits. And since nothing in the universe exists in a vacuum this means – yeah, you have to participate and get out from behind the locked door.

I don’t know Mr. Mraz and certainly don’t expect any kind of kickback from his manager. Nor do I think every single song or task he takes on is perfection. What I have noticed though is that he has a life. He shows video from his tour to Antarctica, his farm in Bonsall (near San Diego – and it’s not “glamorous”) and frequently appears at benefits for underprivileged youths and the environment. He’s an avid vegan and yoga enthusiast but admits to loving weed and formerly adoring Mimosas and cigarettes. Plus, he’s had lots of girlfriends and more than a few long-term relationships (Note: I had to throw this in because, well…I had to).

Hiss and boo the sixties hippie mentality all you want. But they were THE SIXTIES for a reason.

GENEROSITY

Two is better than one

Two is better than one

No, we did not cover this under the previous Life section. At this weekend’s concert Mr. Mraz spent a huge chunk of his time promoting and sharing the stage with a group of four talented female musicians called Raining Jane, who co-wrote all of the songs on his just released current CD, Yes. I highly recommend the CD. It’s clever, smart and uplifting. It will make you happy, especially in moments when you don’t want to be. You will not want to give in to it but if you keep listening you will. Really good work does this. It wins you over.

Here are some of the song titles: Love Someone, Back to the Earth and Shine. Tell me you don’t want to loathe what you perceive to be sugary and saccharine in our quite ironic world. And…how is that working for you?

I might have had similar feelings, though perhaps not quite as strong, before I took a listen and then attended the show. Not surprisingly JM and Raining Jane took seven years to finish the CD, many of whose songs are performed live on the current 35-city tour. The results of the time and care taken to put it all together show and they just might surprise you.

Of course, that’s what great work and workers do. Every time.

Once again, Mr. Mraz and company are not paying me for what I’m saying. Nor should any of you feel obligated to.

It’s all part of the job I do here.