The Star Treatment

roll out the ole’ carpet

Here’s what Girls creator-star Lena Dunham said when asked if she worried that the lead character she plays on her semi-autobiographical HBO series would be sympathetic enough to grab an audience.

“I don’t always like myself, or all the people on TV,” admitted Dunham. “Also, why can’t 25-year-old women make miserable mistakes like Larry David?”

What was most memorable about Ms. Dunham’s response was not only that it was unrehearsed and honest (you spend enough years in show business and you can tell when celebs are blowing smoke up your keester) but the reaction she got from the her fellow Sublime Primetime panelists of 2012 Emmy nominated writers (almost all male) on stage at the WGA Theatre with her. They LOVED her for it.  So much so that they broke out into spontaneous applause, along with the rest of the audience, in one of the few exchanges of the entire evening of speakers that anyone will probably ever remember.

One of these is not like the others…

That was a far cry from the previous awkwardness of these middle-aged guys when the nervous moderator among them finally had to ask her a question. At almost half their ages and, well, a lot more stylish, it felt like they didn’t know…uh… what the heck to make of her (personally I loved the black and white polka dot dress, pixie haircut and arm tattoo that read “STAUNCH” in honor of Little Edie from “Grey Gardens” fame but hey, I am a gay man).  Plus, they looked afraid, very afraid – as if she were the future and, clearly, they would have no part in it, at least not in a starring role.

Perhaps this is nonsense and I’m reading into it.  But…I don’t think so.    Yet Ms. Dunham was not the only one in the group that made everybody a little uneasy that night.  There was also Matthew Weiner, creator-writer of Mad Men, the series that put AMC on the map and won him six of his nine Emmy Awards, including the Television Academy’s statuettes for best drama series four years running, that is until this past week.

Okay, maybe nervous is not quite the word for what they felt towards Mr. Weiner.  It could have been equal amounts of respect, awe, fear and, well, maybe even a little jealousy.  Yet whatever it was quickly began to dissipate when he made some of his own confessions about the cultural phenomenon he created.  When pressed to analyze the success ofashow that doesn’t seem to have a particular genre and, therefore, no strong marketing demographic, Mr. Weiner didn’t appear to have an answer until the panel and audience’s uncomfortable silences gave him a long moment to think of one.

“I think its commercial uniqueness,” he said of Mad Men,  “is that it doesn’t have a formula.  More than any other show I’ve ever worked on, people’s (the writer’s) life experiences wind up on the show unaltered.”

Shameless excuse for another picture of Jon Hamm

And that proved to be another seemingly unrehearsed answer that actually felt real, especially if one considers Mad Men was indeed turned down by every commercial and cable network several times for just that kind of uncategorical reason before it finally found a home at the then fledgling AMC network five years after Mr. Weiner had written it as a spec pilot (and admittedly right before he was convinced it would forever wind up in his drawer as the lovely writing sample it had functioned as up until then).  Also, like Ms Dunham’s response, Mr. Weiner’s answer was particularly memorable for that evening because the idea of writing a successful TV series NOT in a specific genre or WITHOUT a certain demographic seemed almost counterintuitive to what everyone on the panel and in that room of would-be writers had been hearing about TV for years from studio executives, market research studies and more than a few professors (though, hopefully, not this one).

Still, rather than the spontaneous applause given Ms. Dunham, Mr. Weiner’s answer was met with a long, immeasurable dose of awkward silence where, much like an episode of Mad Men, everyone had to stop and think.  This was probably the second most memorable response of the evening and might have even given Mr. Weiner a bit more of the already ample cultural gravitas he enjoyed prior to the time the evening began.

So — Why spend this long on Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner?


Simply as an illustration of how easy it is for two clear WINNERS of one evening to become two clear LOSERS of another (And in the same week!).  Yes, I’m talking about the Emmy Awards.  Because when both Mad Men and Girls failed to win a single trophy on 2012 Emmy that night, and that’s exactly how both Lena Dunham and Matt Weiner were categorized by the media and, perhaps, by more than one or two of us. THE big losers of the night.  The people who went home empty-handed.  The race-horses who were bested.  Who were no longer thoroughbreds.  At least by the latest (American?) standards.  Yes, that’s how quickly the tide, or perhaps in this case, worm, or perhaps even more apt – stomach – can turn these days.

Do these look like losers to you?

I had the great mis fortune…uh…honor (?) of being in the audience at this year’s Emmy Awards and witnessing the Dunham-Weiner downfall.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s certainly fun if you’ve never been or if, like me, you spent your entire childhood preparing for the next award show and reserved the prime spot in front of your family’s television months in advance.  Plus, who doesn’t like something nice and shiny (assume you too are winning or will win one, because this is part of the fantasy, let’s face it) that you can use to prove to yourself and anyone else who asks in perpetuity that you’re truly wonderful?

Except after the time I spent with both Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner several evenings before I couldn’t help but feel, well, — sort of sick to my stomach through parts of the Emmy evening and for days after.  This feeling began to painfully increase when I went to the Governor’s Ball and found myself seated beside not one but two tables of the cast and creators of the BBC’s much-lauded Downton Abbey.  Both of those tables also had Emmys between them – though the show did chalk up one supporting actress win for the unstoppable Maggie Smith  (who was not in attendance and whose award was, somehow, nowhere to be seen). Still, because it’s DAME Maggie Smith, THE Maggie Smith, a venerable acting institution, that didn’t seem to really count as a true Abbey win.   And it certainly didn’t stop a group of many of us naysayers from saying and even believing that technically, on Emmy night, those stuffy period Brits, for all intents and purposes, really had been shut out (that’s double goose egg again if you were keeping count) and that we Americans had emerged as victorious over the dominant British crown as we had almost two and a half centuries before.

We’ll let Shirley speak for us in Season 3. USA! USA!

But back to Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner.  As if the lack of awards for them weren’t already enough to make them the cultural losers of the night, there was even more indignation yet to endure.  Spotted in a Prada dress on the red carpet, Ms. Dunham was lauded in many tabloids in the next day days for also being the fashion LOSER of the evening (they didn’t see the cute black and white polka dot dress on the panel I saw!) while Mr. Weiner was reported on as being THE morose and drinking loser of the fall 2012 awards season, along with the rest of the cast and crew of Mad Men.  This happened when more than one media outlet reported Weiner and company were spotted licking their woundsat an undisclosed restaurant or hotel location far away from the confines of the festive (AND VERY RED!) Governor’s Ball.

Red with envy?

Note:  Truth to be told, I actually saw Mr. Weiner and his wife hurrying out and walking against the crowd from the Governor’s Ball just as the rest of us poor schnook audience members were being ushered in.  He didn’t look happy but neither did he look suicidal.  He simply seemed like a guy who had enough and wanted to leave before he got trapped among another crowd full of people who would demand a suitable reaction, or perhaps even a pithy response, to one of their inane questions when clearly there was none.

Considering all of the above, I offer this observation both for you and for myself.  It is very worth noting, especially if you’re any kind of creative person – whether active, aspiring, studying or retired – that today’s designer outfit IS tomorrow’s thrift store reject –which will inevitably come back into style the day after that as retro chic — until it’s worn out its welcome and lands in the trash bin once more, only to be recycled again if yet someone else decides its hip and cool and groovy.

On the other hand, there ARE classics that never go out of style.  Ms. Dunham and Mr. Weiner are two of those.  And there are a lot more if you go looking for them (look in the mirror and you might even find one).  They’re not always the latest thing, but that doesn’t take away from their style, workmanship or lasting appeal to the right audience.  Nothing and no one tempts anyone on every day of the week.  Except sex , pizza, a nice glass of wine and maybe Angelina Jolie. Though I’ll bet at least two, or perhaps even three of those, have their naysayers.

Fighting off the Dark Side

How I spent this week

This week at an event at the Writer’s Guild a very successful writer sat on a panel and, when the subject of “Brokeback Mountain” came up, he attributed a good part of the film’s crossover success with not so much the quality of the film but the fact that the straight audiences were more comfortable with a gay romance ending in tragedy – the implication being this was not something he wanted to see onscreen.

“Oh, really,” I thought, resisting the urge to reach for a large sock with manure I keep hidden for occasions like these. Then I sort of answered back from my seat that his comment was “ridiculous” when a friend nearby piped in he agreed with said panelist.  Feeling as if I were now surrounded by pod people in my own community and realizing I was not on the panel and therefore couldn’t get on my soapbox the way I would among friends, family or in my own classroom (or blog), I quieted down and let the panelists fight it out.

How you can take a film as fine as “Brokeback Mountain” and complain about it, especially if you’re a gay writer and are among gay writers as he was, is beyond me but hey – it’s a free country so far – knock yourself out.

American Splendor

The point is not whether you can or you should but that it’s a matter of opinion, of taste – of what you want to see.  He’s entitled to not want to see one of the finest gay films ever made, just as I’m entitled not to want to see silly, stupid but award-nominated foolish films about gay people like “I love You, Phillip Morris” or dumb ones like “Eating Out with Naked Boys Who Cant Put More than Two Sentences Together” (Note: I’ve combined several titles).  Taste comes in all shapes and sizes, which is the good and the bad news.  If you have good taste like mine there are likely people who will share it.  If you have bad taste like that panelist and the friend who agreed with him, well, you have an even better chance people will share it.  I can say that since both fit much better into the commercial universe than I do.  But that’s the subject of another blog.

a recent photo of myself

For me, being a writing teacher and mentor is a bit like taking on the persona of Jiminy Cricket if he had the benefit of humanity and the Internet.  Meaning – I try to be a bit of a ubiquitous conscience to my students and their work, urging them on in the direction that they (not I) truly want to go in while understanding both their issues and the real world writers must operate in.  Oh sure, there’s structure, drama, storytelling and all that.  But at some point most young writers “get it” and really just need someone to keep them on the path they’ve chosen for that particular story.  At the point they are, it’s highly likely they can become derailed at one cross comment from any would-be panelist or one discouraging word from someone like myself who is in a position of authority and perhaps secretly enjoys abusing their power (which I don’t – I reserve that only for the blog).

What is seldom in question (for them) is what story to tell.  That’s pretty easy.  Most writers have an idea of what they want to say or they wouldn’t be writers to begin with.  This is not to be confused with the notion that most writers have the courage to sit down and actually write the idea that they want to write.  That is something else entirely and part of the reason that I do what I do.

I want to be the Jiminy Cricket for all the potential “Brokeback Mountain” writers out there.  To urge people to tell the story they really want to tell – be it tragic, politically incorrect, totally “uncommercial” by Hollywood standards or, on the flipside, hopelessly commercial and potentially very sale-able.

Where a lot of writers and artists in general go wrong is looking for the secret formula, the magic answer of how to fit in via subject matter, execution of craft or style of dedication.  It took me decades to learn that it really doesn’t matter if you write in the morning, evening, afternoon or all day, just as long as you do it.  It is irrelevant whether your idea is “big and commercial” or “small and indie,” just as long as you have one and are actually working on honing it.  And the road taken by five others of your friends and colleagues could very well say nothing about the path that you want to or even should be taking unless they inspire you or at least challenge you to do better.

Script Potion #9

What counts the most – the utmost – is choosing your subject AND your path and how you will walk it down your own road.  I can’t imagine Ang Lee, Focus Features, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal imagined the tragic end of the “Brokeback” screenplay they were about to make would make it universally palatable and cause it to gain worldwide boxoffice attention and reviews any more than I can imagine that decades ago fiction writer E. Annie Prouix decided to write the short story it would be based on because she only felt comfortable with a gay story of tragic proportions.  (In actuality, it came out of some real life guys she observed or heard about at the time). The story and the film came out of passion, and an idea and a resonant character as all really good films do.  The critiques and sociological observations and/or rejections of it come out of the kind of analysis that can only be done on a panel of those of us in the entertainment industry.

Writers, or artists of any kind for that matter, need only take note of what moves them.  And know that it could be more than likely that what moves you might not move anyone else.  But, more likely than not, if it does move you, the chances exponentially increase that your telling of this story will move or entertain others.  Because you’ll be bringing that much more of yourself and your passion to it.  That’s the way this art stuff works.

Yes, you need to have craft.  And certainly, you want an audience.  And without a doubt, there are small tricks of the trade you can employ to attract audiences, readers and/or fans.  But what is paramount, even universal (to name two studios), is what you’re bringing personally to the subject matter – not what you think or anticipate or fear or hope other people will bring to it.  To be blunt, who gives a shit what anyone else thinks???  I mean, if you start there you become merely a people pleaser, and not even a particularly good one because it’s been my experience that when asked most people don’t really even know what they want.

Once when I was getting notes from a producer and felt very confused a more experienced writer friend of mine took pity on me and heard my endless story of details and notes and contradictions on this particular project.  Finally, after a lot of venting on my part, she looked at me and said, “don’t you realize that if you even do two of the notes they’ve given you they’ll be thrilled?  You have to understand that if you were to take all of their notes and do them, they would hate what you came up with.  Part of your job is to take what they’re telling you, the moment or moments that are not there for them right now, and give it to them in the form that makes sense to you.”

The pen definitely is mightier

This writer is sooooo smart.  And so real.  And guess what?  She was passing on words of wisdom to me that she had gotten from a writer from the generation before her.  And that guy was not only super smart, but he had an Oscar.  Actually, he has two.  Not that Oscars are the arbiters of anything but, well, it does give one some kind of cultural gravitas, as I can personally testify to since my mere attendance at the ceremonies this year got me a lot more attention and/or readers about it than I probably deserve.  But that’s contemporary life in a nutshell, the subject of still yet another upcoming blog, I suppose.

In any event, I am now officially passing this advice on to anyone listening to people on the news, or others in authority and/or peers on an industry panel with whom they disagree.  Feel free to disagree but don’t assume the other person is necessarily right about what they’re saying if in your heart of hearts you vehemently disagree with them.  It is your right (and actually, obligation) as an artist to fully disagree in the execution of your art to perhaps prove them wrong.

That’s what I plan to do with Gay Writer Panelist who claims  “I Don’t Happen to Like or Relate to Stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain” cause they’re, well, so retro.”  Oh really?  Well, wait until you see the next idea I’m working on.  I can’t wait to piss you off some more.  Because at the very least I know, at the same time, I’ll be more than pleasing myself.  And that’s the only real hope I have of reaching beyond your grasp and to others who feel, or have yet to feel, exactly as I do.  And, as an artist, that reach, and the achievement of it, is no small thing.

In fact, it’s another reason why we do what we do.


Mirror, Mirror

It ain't fair.

I’m not proud of what I’m about to write.

Two producers and one director I know and personally don’t like or respect at all, have scored a lot of attention and success recently.  The producers on TV and the director in a big way on film.  Both are for projects incredibly superficial, pat and pretty much a cop-out from any real meaning other than a kind of glossy perfunctory look at people and the world.  They (the projects) are both quite slick and professional looking but lack soul.  And worse yet – each in their own way masquerades as something meaningful, entertaining and, at the very least, clever and/or heartfelt.

If I let it, I can’t tell you at times how much this angers me.  And if I’m truthful I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am to admit it.

Certainly, I don’t think about it much of the time.  And even when I do, I don’t usually feel the raging anger.  Often, I just sort of laugh it off and realize, as the old saying goes, that even a broken clock is right twice a day.  But every once in a while the anger bubbles to the surface in situations like these.  Occasionally I even fantasize about telling them the truth about who/what they and their project really are in front of a room full of smart knowing people – shaming them into submission that they are indeed mediocre and, at the very least, should try harder.  Either that or arrange it so they’re sent away to the Peace Corp or a Middle East veteran’s hospital for a year, (okay, maybe two), so they can see what real life is and either bring it back to their work or at least experience a hardship more pressing than what they will wear to their next screening or who they will try to bed at their next industry gathering.  Yes, all three are that type.

Simple jealousy?  I used to think so.  But not really when you get below the surface.

Green is not a good color on me

Whenever I get in this state of mind I have to question – why go there with them or this project now and why do I care at this particular moment in time?  The answer is simple and it has little to do with them and everything to do with me.

When I do get to thinking this way, one thing has become more than apparent – I am not doing enough of my own work.  Or, I am frustrated with something about my work.  Or perhaps even some other element of my own life.  Otherwise – why would I care about these people, who I not only don’t like but, truly, have no interest in.  It’s irrelevant how they’re doing, or what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.  And it’s not as if they’re taking the place of one of my projects in the creative world.  Contrary to popular belief, there are not a finite number of spots available on the merry-go-round of success or the choo-choo train that is money (or even the snowmobile or ski lift of happiness).

When will it be my turn?

Now mind you, this doesn’t mean what I am saying about their work, or even them, isn’t true.  (Trust me, it is  – the chair doesn’t lie). It means, it isn’t my business and, really, who am I to sit in judgment.  It means that when something about someone else’s success really bothers you and makes you want to throw your own version of a chair against the wall or through the window, you’d do best to look in the mirror and really see what’s bothering you.  And usually it can be summed up in those three letters – Y – O  – U.

Sure the system is rigged and crappy things get made.  Sure, talent doesn’t always rise to the top despite the old adage that gets handed down to generations in the biz again and again.  As Stephen Sondheim so cleverly once wrote in Merrily We Roll Along, one of his most commercially unsuccessful shows now being revived for the umpteenth time in NY and one that is considered by Sondheimites as one of his best scores, in (So) Now You Know:

“…You’re right, nothing’s fair

And it’s all a plot,

…But you better look at what you’ve got…”

(He also has such great lines as, “Put your dimple down, now you know…”, but I digress).

In any event –-

Sondheim puts it so much more wittily and sarcastically than I could.  Funny how that doesn’t make me jealous at all – not even envious.   How can you be jealous of genius?  He’s the gold standard in the theatre.

the incomparable...

Last night (Thursday the 16th) I took my students, as I do each year, to hear a panel of WGA and Oscar nominated writers speak about their craft.  Writers like Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zallian, John Logan, Will Resier and Annie Mumalo wrote movies this year as disparate as Moneyball, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, 50-50 and Bridesmaids.  They’re all fine efforts.  Plus,  though I don’t know the writers personally, they all seem to be fine people willing to spend two hours sharing their crafts with an audience of many other aspiring writers who they themselves were several short decades ago.  It was inspiring, illuminating and not at all jealousy making – for me at least, because it didn’t push any of my jealousy buttons.

But, as we’ve noted, (haven’t WE?), we all have our own.

I might personally lose my way when people get plaudits I feel they don’t deserve.  You might go off track because you feel stuck.  Or afraid.  Or insecure in your talent.  Or tired of fighting the good fight.  Or marginalized because of your race, religion, sexual orientation or belief system.  Or because of   _____.  Or_________.  Or for a hundred other reasons.

The solution, the only thing to do is to look in the mirror and know it’s not about them.  It’s only about you.  And to then do something positive.  Like – work through it.  Though getting drunk, overeating, or imbibing something more exotic might provide temporary relief, it will surely give you a headache in the morning and won’t provide any type of real fix.  But doing something positive for yourself, like working, and then working some more, will.  Because, in the end, the issue, and the work, is really all about you.  Not about them.  Much as you (or I) try and make it be.

In closing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom Mr. Sorkin offered in his closing remarks Thursday night, once he realized there was no time for an audience of aspiring writers to ask questions but saw they still longed to do so.

let's walk and talk

“Get to the end.  You learn a lot by just finishing.  And then you’ll start again.  Rid yourself of what you’re not happy with.  And hang lanterns on what you are.”

He’s so wise.  I should hate him.  Or, at least, be jealous.  But I don’t.  And — I’m not.