Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Not Unless Somebody Dies, You’re Not!

On one of my first trips to LA, I went to a basketball game where Jack Nicholson was sitting courtside. At some point, one of the Lakers, whose name neither I nor probably any member of his posse can now remember, botched a play and got yanked off the floor.

But he didn’t want to leave, arguing with the coach and anyone else who would listen that he should be allowed to keep playing. Jack had finally had enough and piped up. “Sit down. You’re not going in. Not unless somebody dies, you’re not”.

It might’ve been the same trip where somebody explained to me how Hollywood worked. He compared it to a goldfield where every claim had been staked. If you wanted to participate in the goldrush, you either sought out an untapped vein on your own, made yourself invaluable to one of the outfits –- or –- waited for somebody to die.

Luckily, it’s much easier to die in show business than real life. You can be taken out for not panning as much ore as your studio expected or passing off a nugget of Fool’s Gold as the real thing.

And you can be chased off by those eager to replace you who malign you or convince others you can’t swing a pick like you used to do.

It doesn’t matter whether or not their opinion is true. Hollywood’s a town where the word of the herd echoes loudest.

It’s a place where you can condemn a restaurant for being opposed to gay marriage in one breath and ruin a leading man’s box office appeal by insinuating he’s one of those icky Gay guys in the next.

The herd mentality operates to a single purpose, to bring somebody down so that there is room for somebody new.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched what I think is a new wrinkle in this phenomena fueled by social media.

Often those who tweet and post on Facebook aren’t trying to communicate as much as they’re attempting to draw attention to themselves. We live in an age where obscurity is the new poverty.

(And don’t assume that those of us who blog operate on a somewhat higher plane –- because we don’t)

This has allowed the herd to not only target en mass but in the process imply who the soon to die’s replacement should be. And that would be one of those leading the attack. For if they found the weakness first, surely any honor awarded for the kill should fall to them.

But for this process to succeed, you can’t target just anybody. You have to go after the most highly visible victim. And that strategy has come into play in a very pronounced fashion among screenwriters.

For while, God knows, there are hundreds in our profession who churn out predictable, by-the-numbers scripts on a daily basis, their fellow scribes mostly leave them alone and aim their venom at those we all agree (or at least once agreed) are the best of us.

Look at what we have already done to such writers as David Mamet, David Milch and most recently Aaron Sorkin. Three guys who could (and repeatedly do) write circles around virtually everybody else who calls him/herself a screenwriter.

Mamet was the first and perhaps the easiest to target. He went out of his way to tell the herd he wasn’t one of them any more –- or perhaps worse -- never really had been.

His 2008 Village Voice essay “Why I am No Longer A Brain Dead Liberal” severed that connection in one swift cut. Not long after, he published “The Secret Knowledge”, a book that bludgeoned the values of the herd, then raped its corpse, pissed on it and left it out in the Sun.

Suddenly, all those who had bulk emailed Mamet’s brilliant, utterly essential and true “MEMO TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT” to all and sundry as proof of where they stood on the cultural battleground, began snarking that the kid from Chicago just didn’t have it anymore.

According to our particular chattering classes, his new plays didn’t have the edge and bite now that it was known the sharp tongue and teeth belonged not to “one of us” but a Capitalist (never mind that the rest of us still copyright our scripts to make sure we get fully paid).

One critic even pointed out that he’d only been nominated for an Oscar twice (for “Wag the Dog” and “The Verdict”) and those were both ---- adaptations…

In other words, Dave couldn’t even get into the Kodak theatre on his own merits, so how had anyone ever assumed he was any better than those dimwit actor wannabees who won statuettes for writing “Rocky” and “Good Will Hunting”!

"People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want." — David Mamet


Next into the Screenwriters public pillory was David Milch.

There was a time, somewhere between his final season of “NYPD Blue” and the first of “Deadwood” that David Milch was anointed “Television’s First Artistic Genius”.

And then everybody started knocking him for being “a control freak”.

He took the blame for the sudden end of “Deadwood” for declining to reduce the final season to less than half the originally planned episodes and then haggled over completing the saga in a couple of two hour movies when the truncated season plug was pulled.

Now he was an out of control control freak making life miserable for all the rest of us writers well known to be far more eager to embrace capricious network notes and decisions.

Then he was branded as even more difficult by not making “John From Cincinnati” more accessible. And by the time we got to “Luck” he had also become insensitive to the on set deaths of several horses and supposedly threatened co-producer Michael Mann with a baseball bat.

Never mind that the end products in all three of those series were powerful pieces of drama and mostly better than anything else simultaneously broadcast.

Never mind that Milch and Mann went public to explain their personal decision to cancel “Luck”, describe their working relationship and suggest that maybe Nick Nolte wasn’t the most reliable source when it came to stories about Louisville Sluggers.

Screenwriters more than anyone still picked Milch apart and demanded he be sent to the PETA woodshed before being banished from the lucrative slopes of the goldfield to write religious tracts since that subject seemed to matter so much to him.

“Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you've got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man... and give some back.” — David Milch

And now, for the last few weeks, it’s been Aaron Sorkin’s turn in the barrel. And this one has been a pile on of epic proportions.

Despite the fact that “The Newsroom” is designed as a Hollywood liberal polemic where the bad guys are everybody most screenwriters hate and the heroic characters are imbued with traits and passions writers love; writers have been the most vocal in trashing it.

Sorkin’s multiple seasons of brilliance on “Sports Night” and “The West Wing”, his seminal play “A Few Good Men” and films like “Charlie Wilson’s War”, “Moneyball” and “The Social Network” have been dismissed by the general consensus that “The Newsroom” sucks.

As a guy who shares more of David Mamet’s values than those of the herd, this should give me some joy. But it doesn’t. Because in my opinion “The Newsroom” is about the best written show on television right now and more than on a par with “Breaking Bad”.

Yet I’ve seen writer after writer insist that Sorkin has “lost it” or doesn’t have the feel for television anymore after spending a couple of years writing movies. Some even say that Steve Zaillian had more to do with the final version of “Moneyball” than Sorkin.

(Enjoy the moment, Steve. It’ll be your turn on the spit when they’re done with your co-writer) 

When someone takes an opposing view to the trashing, I’ve seen writers counter with “Oh, yeah. Well, he’s certainly lost the ability to write female characters”.

As one further opined, “Every woman on ‘The Newsroom’ is dysfunctional”.


More dysfunctional than the women on “Girls”? “Sex and The City”? “Entourage”? “Kalifornication”? “Nurse Jackie”? “Weeds”? “Big Love”?

More dysfunctional even than the women of “The Sopranos”?

Let’s face it. There have been a lot of fascinatingly dysfunctional female characters on television of late. And male ones too. How exactly are any of Sorkin’s creations that much worse? And why is he being fingered as the major offender?

Is it his supposed arrogance or intelligence? His youtubed “Sorkinisms”? The way he continually falls back on the same 26 letters of the alphabet for every damned thing he does?

No. It’s because Aaron Sorkin has a lock on a very lucrative section of the goldfield right now. And a lot of writers know that they’re not getting a shot at that turf unless he dies.

"I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, 'You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, Giftless. I'm not your agent and I'm not your mommy: I'm a white piece of paper. You wanna dance with me?' and I really, really don't. I'll go peaceable-like." — Aaron Sorkin


You see. It would be really easy for a smart and talented writer to go after one of the lesser lights banging out pages for some lame procedural or same-joke-over-and-over sitcom. We all know those shows are staffed by people barely more talented than their peers.

Heck, there are series where the showrunner writes everything while the much vaunted “room” mostly gives notes and does research. How come nobody wants to knock them out of the box so they can get the chance to show what they can do?

Because that’s not the point.

Replace any of those guys and you’re just another nobody on a forgettable show. No, you have to make it clear you’re somebody who deserves consideration for the MOTHERLODE.

The show nothing in your resume or work ethic indicates you can handle.

The one that will give you some of Mamet, Milch or Sorkin’s respect.

The job that means you don’t have to go prospecting for your own El Dorado.

Please understand that I have no problem with somebody not liking a show or a particular writer’s style for any reason. I take no issue with you publishing your criticisms.

But when I don’t like a show, I stop watching it and move on. And when the whining attacks continue week after week after fucking week, you know it’s really about something else.

At the moment, David Mamet is completing a script about Phil Spector. David Milch is embarking on a William Faulkner project for HBO. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” has been renewed for a second season and he’s also writing a couple of movies.

They’re not going anywhere. And neither are most of those slagging them.

Not unless somebody dies, they’re not.


Joe Clark said...

Oh, come, now. One does not “copyright” a script as though that were some kind of opt-in mechanism. And the whole point is to get paid.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

Well said (although I have never liked Sorkin's style from the beginning but that is simply a personal taste thing) obviously he's still at the top of his game.

Chuck Lazer said...

Thank you, Jim. Nice work. Just for the record, I love "Newsworld". And don't we all keep plowing our own particular fields until we get it right (never)?

Anonymous said...

Just read this, perhaps more relevant to production than writing, but then again, "Grant Naylor" is primarily a writer:

"Fundamentally, a Red Dwarf script is a battle plan for making a TV show, and as Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked "No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy". In Red Dwarf's case the enemy is what's possible, given a tight budget, a short production period, and the physical laws of the natural universe.

The enemy is a prop that doesn't work. A guest star who can't say the word "soup". Another who can't say the word "phenomenon". Writing the stage direction "Beach in Paradise", and finding yourself on a wet winter day in Rhyll. The enemy is reality, and reality is, unfortunately, everywhere.

—Grant Naylor, Red Dwarf: The Least Worst Scripts