Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We Have Just Entered The Twilight Zone...

"I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice. It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply."  -- Rod Serling

This is important to me. Up until now I have tried to keep the focus of this blog on film and filmmaking with an emphasis on story construction. And this post will not stray too far from that, but you will get a view of my politics that I have mostly left out of this blog. I may alienate some people, but I am willing to take that chance.

I believe deep in my heart that stories exist to teach us. I go into this in great detail in my second book The Golden Theme, which will be out before the month is out, if all goes smoothly.

I believe that our stories contain the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever lived.

Why do I bring this up? Because I think there is a story that we need to pay attention to right now. Like all good stories, it is timeless and so appears to be timely.

You don’t have to read many of my posts to know what a hero Rod Serling is to me. In 1955 there was a very famous lynching of a black teenager named Emmett Till. This lynching shocked the nation and Rod Serling wanted to write a television play about it.

The sponsors were so worried about the Southern response to the story that they edited Serling's script beyond recognition.

Serling wanted to tell stories that mattered. He decided to make his points in an indirect fashion and created his classic television show The Twilight Zone.

Now, if you are a regular reader of this blog you know all of this. I bring it up because of something that happened this weekend at an anti-Muslim rally in New York. This was a rally about the Islamic community center planned two blocks from Ground Zero, which has been erroneously dubbed “The Ground Zero Mosque.”

At this rally a man was harassed and accused of being a Muslim by an angry, hateful crowd.

This reminded me so much of one of the most insightful Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

I suggest that you please watch it and see if you can tell how little we have changed since Mr. Serling wrote this mini-masterpiece fifty years ago. See if you notice how little we have learned to see the humanity in our neighbor – and how quickly we turn to anger, hatred and suspicion.

It’s high time we grew up.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” – Walt Kelly in his Pogo comic strip

Patterns : the complete scripts of four famous television plays : Patterns, the Rack, Old Macdonald, Requiem for a Heavyweight

Monday, August 23, 2010

Working Hard for the Money

My step father once told me, when I was a kid, that what made someone a professional rather than an amateur was that they were paid for what they did.  He was wrong.
Many people use my step father’s explanation for what makes a professional and I find that it leads to shoddy workmanship because it takes the focus off of getting good at what we do and shifts it to getting good enough to get paid.  Or even worse just getting paid.  The craft is often thrown out the window in favor of just doing whatever it takes to get paid.
So I meet people all the time that are very interested in becoming screenwriter or filmmakers and the like, but they have almost no interest in the craft itself.  They want money, or fame or some other outward indication of success.  But the idea that they should be able to do good work and do it consistently is beyond them.
This is not to say that they don’t want to do good work.  The problem is that they assume their work is good simply by virtue of having been made by them.  The work needs to meet no other standard.
When I talk to these people about standards of quality or craft that takes years to master they shrug it off.  That takes too long.  Learning.  Mastering.  They just want the money and I make it sound like too much work.
My friend Pat Hazell talks about talking to writers starting out who are obsessed with getting an agent.  His response is always, “what do you have for them to sell?”  It’s amazing how often they have nothing. 
August Wilson once told me that people used to ask him how they could get a play on Broadway.  He would then ask them if they had a play and they would often say no.  He would then tell them to write a play and then write another play.  He told them to keep writing plays.  He told me that they would get mad at him like he had a secret he wasn’t telling them.  The truth is the secret is always hard work.
And if they have something that they know needs work.  He always tells them that their scripts must be bullet proof.
If you thought that your script (or whatever product) could be better than why do you think you should be able to sell it?
You have to learn to feel rewarded by the quality of your own work -- and not to be delusional about the quality of your work.
One trick is to study the classics and to compare your work to those.  Most people see a bad film and, “Say I could write that.”  But if you are only trying to be as good as the worst thing you have ever seen you aren’t doing yourself any favors.
Compare your work to the best work you can find.  Write as close as you can to that level.
Another great trick is to get your script, get it as good as you can, print it out, bind it and hand to someone you trust to read.  A strange thing will happen – as soon as you hand it to someone to read you become aware of everything that is wrong with the script.
Those things that were nagging you that you thought you could get away with will become very clear to you.  Fix those things.  Even before you get notes, fix those things.
Work, work, work on this stuff until it’s as good as you can get it.
If you want to sell a screenplay for one million dollars put in a million dollars worth of work.
To put it simply, one is not a professional when they get paid – one becomes a professional and then gets paid.