Wednesday, September 08, 2010

That's Not What I Mentored


Will Dixon and I had similar reactions to Episode 7 of this "Mad Men" season, "The Suitcase", wondering if Matthew Weiner was writing not about the 1960's and Advertising but about his own relationship with the show's writing staff.

Certainly the parallels between Sterling Cooper Draper Price and your average television production office are all there. The mix of creativity and commerce, the clash of egos and artistic differences, the collaboration and the very long nights.

The sex and drinking too, but from my experience they're pretty much the norm in any work place.

If we're correct in our assessment and Art ultimately imitates Life, then it seems likely the Season will end with Peggy eclipsing Don, perhaps sharing his next Cleo and departing in the manner Weiner split with his personal assistant turned writer turned Emmy winner Kater Gordon.

I don't know anything about the personal dealings between those two or whether Weiner pulled Gordon into the epicenter of his show out of some level of physical or platonic attraction or simply because he recognized her talent and abilities.

But it got me wondering about the whole nature of Mentorship in our business and what each side of those relationships actually provides the other.

I used to think that young writers sought out the more experienced to get an assessment of their craft from one who's been successful at doing what they want to do. "Read my script. Tell me what isn't working. Show me how to make it better."

And I think most mature writers faced with those requests and knowing they were once in the same position try to respond appropriately. "The inciting incident is weak. Don't fall in love with your dialogue. etc."

But looking back at my own times on both sides of the equation, I realize that each is really after what's mostly unsaid in those story conferences but more often shared in the drinks and anecdotes that usually follow.

Like Don and Peggy in "The Suitcase", we all need reassurance that the work matters and that the sacrifices we've made in our personal lives will ultimately be rewarded. Writers young and old share the same passion for good writing yet are aware that just because something is good doesn't mean it gets made.

I think the young writer I once was had more interest in the inside scoop on how Producers went about screwing you than what was not working in the second act. I knew sticking to craft would fix the script. What I really needed to know was how to make sure the vision survived to execution.

And those characterized as Mentors also know a writer with talent will eventually figure out his script issues and our only contribution comes in shortening the process and lessening the pain by drawing lots of red ink stars and circles on the page he or she most needs to look at.

At some level we know that it's our anecdotes and insights born of experience that are more important. And bleeding off the pitfalls, blindsides and encounters with certifiable buffoons that have checkered our own careers is also helping us maintain the belief that good writing and the best idea ultimately do win in the end.

We know the young writer will likely never encounter the exact brands of imbecility and malice that have occasionally beset us, because imbecility and malice have a way of evolving at studios, networks and government agencies like bacteria mutate to overcome penicillin.

So we try to teach them to be true to themselves, loyal to their material and as honest in both work and Life as they can possibly be. If you do all of that you can at least depart any eventual train wreck intact enough to carry on.

But we also know the most helpful wisdom we can instill is that it's all a fucking crapshoot so don't take it personal and we really don't know why we were successful and others more talented weren't beyond maybe being able to sense one of those predators in the underbrush before he pounced.

Like hoary old cavemen we try to teach the young the moves they never thought the wily Mammoth had in him.

tab hunter

Somebody once asked Tab Hunter how he'd managed to elevate himself above the crowd of pretty boy actors who populated Hollywood in the 1950's and become a major movie star. He attributed his success not to hard work, luck or talent but to the mentorship of an agent who taught him how to dress.

The agent called Tab one day with very specific instructions on what to wear to an upcoming audition, insisting the actor put on a white T-shirt, pressed chinos, penny loafers and two pairs of athletic sox.

After the audition, Tab called the agent and said his reading had gone well enough to get him a call back but wearing those two pairs of socks had pinched his feet and made it hard to walk.

"You idiot!", the agent snapped, "You wear one pair, roll up the other one and stuff it down the front of your pants!"

Tab followed the advice on the call back, got the part and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

No matter how much you might think your talent got you where you get, more often than not it's just what keeps you there once you've arrived.

So, whatever happens between Peggy and Don or wherever she goes from here, I know she's going to be okay. Because she's got a Mentor who's teaching her what she really needs to know.


Sugith Varughese said...

Insightful and satisfying as always Jim. Your posts are like well-aged single malt. A bit challenging going down, but that's what's good about them.

jimhenshaw said...

Hey thanks Sugith,

Kind words from someone who has mentored so many good writers are much appreciated.

Not being a single malt guy, I'll defer to your assessment in that department and just promise not to ever water anything down.

DMc said...

Wow. Talk about going down.

heh heh.

The sock thing got me.

John McFetridge said...

The trick seems to be understanding how to stay true to yourself and be loyal to the material and realizing that it's a crapshoot and not to take it personally.

rick mcginnis said...

Jim, where did you find that Tab Hunter (& friend) photo? It's just ... jeez. Whoa.

jimhenshaw said...


Believe it or not, it's a prduction still from "Calling All Girls".

Anonymous said...

rick mcginnis "Jim, where did you find that Tab Hunter (& friend) photo?"

said 'friend' of Tab Hunter is Roddy McDowell of Planet of the Apes' Galen fame no less like Hunter another semi-closeted Hollywood Gay actor

Anonymous said...

ps concerning pic of Hunter & McDowell note the hidden code in the image of Hunter with erect sausage an' McDowell holding a chocolate cream cake