Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Get Rich Quick! Become a Hollywood Screenwriter!

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” -- Thomas Edison

I was once asked to show a short film of mine and speak about filmmaking at a community college. At the time my film (a short film called “White Face”) had been running on HBO. After a few standard questions like, “What was the budget?” and “How long did it take to make?” came a question that floored me. A young man raised his hand and asked, “How do I get my film on HBO?” For me, the assumption behind that question verged on an insult.

Why? Because it devalues my craft. Filmmaking has become the get-rich-quick scheme of our times. The problem with get-rich-quick schemes is that they promise great success with minimum effort. One of the things I dig about my friends who draw is that they are aware that it takes time and effort to get good.

Once, at a Comicon in San Diego, a bunch of artists I knew were looking at someone’s portfolio, their mouths agape. They “oohed” and “ahhed” for a while, then someone asked how old the artist was. The answer came back that he was 45 or so and with that they all relaxed and nodded. They were relieved because they understood he had put his time in.

Imagine a person who has never picked up a paintbrush deciding that they want to be an artist. Upon completing their first painting, they call the Louvre and other museums and ask the curators if they would be interested purchasing and displaying their masterpiece. Sounds silly, right? Yet people have no problem believing that they should sell their first screenplay or have their first film distributed.

I have the utmost respect for the people I know who draw because they understand that talent is nothing if not backed up by skill -- and skill takes time and effort to acquire. What bothers me about some younger people wanting to break into films is their sense of entitlement.

They don’t seem to care about the craft of filmmaking -- only the fame and/or money. They know nothing about the history of the craft the wish to enter and have never seen the films of John Ford, John Houston, Frank Capra, David Lean, Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. These legends have things to teach, but few bother to listen. They just want to know who they can call, what the next step is to becoming famous.

I once had an aspiring filmmaker tell me that she was on a quest to find out how to involve an audience. She said that there must be some key to keeping an audience interested in your film. I told her to read Hitchcock interviews because he was probably the most articulate filmmaker in history when it came to engaging audiences. She scoffed at that, saying she didn’t like Hitchcock and so didn’t think he would have anything to teach her.

I know quite a few people who have done well in the movie business, but they all had a minimum of ten years of hard work under their belts before anyone bothered to pay attention to them. These people were not no-talent hacks -- they are now show-biz VIPs. But I knew them when no one of consequence would return their calls, or come see them perform or read their screenplays. But they just kept doing what they did and acquired skills.

Jerry Seinfeld (not that he’s a friend of mine, but we have met a few times) tells a story about how he was looking out a window one morning and saw construction workers on their way to work and thought to himself if those guys can get up in the morning and go to work he should be able do the same with his work. So, he began getting up early in the morning and sitting down for a couple of hours to write jokes. Bill Cosby does the same thing. As far as I know they both do it to this day. Johnny Carson was so used to getting up, reading the paper and writing jokes that he even did it after he retired.

If you are unwilling to see filmmaking/screenwriting as a craft you must hone, you will fall behind your competitors who are willing to work a little harder. If you are unwilling to study the work of those who came before you, you will fall behind your competitors who are willing to learn. Most of all, if you think that this business is a way to get rich quick, you are in for a world of heartbreak.

I once heard Steve Martin give a young comic this advice: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Good advice, but it takes work to be that good. If you are unwilling to do that work, find a craft that you are willing to work at and do that.

All I have ever wanted in my life is to be good at what I do and be paid to do it. While I was making my film “White Face,” HBO could not have been farther from my mind. I was only trying to make a good film. Having the film run on HBO did not bring me fame or fortune; it was just one brick on the road to wherever I end up in this business. Meanwhile, I am working on getting better.

So my advice to the young man who wants a film on HBO? Make a film good enough to be on HBO and they will call you. Even if they don’t, you will have something you can be proud of. And for that, you can also be proud of yourself.