Sunday, October 29, 2006

I dream of things that might be and ask why not...

Nice Guys Finish Seventh

On July 6th, 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was asked about his cross town rivals, the NY Giants, and quoted as saying “Nice guys finish last”. But according to a New York Times sportswriter who was in the dugout that day, what he actually said was, "The Giants? Why they're the nicest guys in the world! Where are they? Seventh place?"

Next to Yogi Berra, ("This is like deja vu all over again." and "You can observe a lot by watching.") Durocher may be the most quoted man in baseball. My personal favorite – “You show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot.”

By the end of his life, even Leo, an expert at self promotion, had given up denying the misquote and made it the title of his biography. Thus a simple observation on the mid-season standings had become an adage pounced on by coaches, motivational speakers and any misfit with a mission to justify their various anti-social behaviors.

In most sports, seventh place gets you into the playoffs. And once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. Oddly enough, when you get to the seventh game of a playoff, even Vegas bookmakers will tell you, “It’s anybody’s game.”

How many NHL, NFL or NBA clubs have finished seventh and still gone on to wear championship rings? A lot. How many tennis players or boxers have been ranked seventh and bested all their opponents? Too many to mention. Even the vaunted Formula One championship has been won by drivers who got there after they eked out the single point F-1 awards for coming in seventh.

Nice guys often finish seventh because they know that the world isn't all about them. They make room for other people who have talent and dreams worth realizing too. Of course that doesn't always pay off, so they lose a few along the way. But if they stick with that game plan they often find their own dream made better -- and always much more interesting. 

The basic fact of all artistic endeavor is that nobody's sure about anything. We all fail more often than we succeed. But if we know we can fail and not get killed for it, we learn from our mistakes and get better. 

Yet this business is awash in bullies and blowhards who abuse their creative artists and refuse to acknowledge input that questions their own in the mistaken belief that a driven, no holds barred singularity of purpose leads to success.

It doesn’t.

The mediums in which we work are called collaborative for a reason. While some of us are unrivalled talents, wise beyond our years and blessed, lucky or both; none of us got here or gets any further without relying on the talent and experience of everybody else connected with the things we do.

I truly believe most films that turn out badly have people in charge without anybody who regularly challenges them or occasionally points out they're full of shit.

I'm not saying that you have to suffer fools or roll over for the test panels, that's being too nice -- and relinquishing your own talent and vision. But if you respect and appreciate someone's abilities, more often than not the feeling is mutual and the advice comes from the right place.

As in baseball, most artistic battles are one on one. Usually the best man wins. And when the pitcher doesn't fool the batter, he better pray he's got somebody behind or beside him motivated to undo the damage.

And frankly aren't those diving catches and pretty double plays half the reason baseball is worth watching?

Likewise, inspired acting choices, directorial flourishes and all the other things a free to contribute crew feels free to contribute make the most magical moments onscreen and the warmest memories later.

You can whip people into working hard and terrify them into doing what they're told or intimidate them into giving 110%. But the truth is that if they are not rewarded with respect, gratitude and the chance to further realize their own talents, they don't have any reason to be there when it counts.

Only Secret Service Agents are dumb enough to take a bullet for a guy most of the country didn't want to be in charge.

The Not-Nice-Guys will always find a way to lie to investors, cow their talent and extort network execs. Their films will always get released and their shows on the air. But getting before the public is not the final goal -- it's just the playoffs. Winning the hearts and minds of the audience is where our champions are crowned.

I remember being in an American network executive’s office when he fielded a call from a Canadian producer I’d just worked with. There was a difference of opinion over the pilot they were doing together and the exchange became heated. The exec hung up, sat in silence for a moment and said, “He yelled at me.” I told him not to feel too special, the guy yelled at everybody. He considered this for a moment and said, “I’m a network Vice President. He doesn’t yell at me.” Later that afternoon, the pilot was canceled and within weeks, all the other projects the producer had in development were quietly canceled as well.

While working on a series in Australia, the name of another producer I’d worked with came up in conversation. Not a man I had much respect for, and I was surprised that his reputation had spread that far. Turns out he had worked on a film there and his abusive nature had gotten so bad the Line Producer actually sent him on a twilight scout of a beach swarming with Salt Water Crocodiles. He left the next morning and never came back.

That directness is why Australians are truly my favorite people.

You often have to fight for what you believe in when writing or producing. And you must engage fully in that combat. If your script isn’t worth championing, it’s not worth shooting. But there’s a line. A line you won't even be aware of if you think you're the only one who's right. Our version of the Geneva Convention. It's the line you cross when you harm your integrity or your opponent’s dignity. Then you lose – always.

Believe it or not there are writer-bullies too.

When the Producer crosses the same line, the artist has to disengage and move on. Because the artist's work has been revealed as just another interchangeable piece of the abuser's personal journey. An apology or a little something extra in the envelope may soften the blow, but the blow has still been struck -- not against the artist but against the work.

Ultimately this business is about respect. To quote Durocher one last time, “I never question an umpire’s integrity – only their eyesight.”

Put simply, if the respect writers have for the blank page, the fear actors honor for the ghost they must embody, is not shared; or the simple physical labor of a grip wrapping cable in the rain isn't understood and appreciated, the work will ultimately suffer and come up short.

Realizing the full potential of everyone connected with your project, not just what you may insist they deliver, is what gets you through the playoffs and atop the podium.

Both the producers I mentioned above have been successful. But neither has ever made a film or television show that has truly touched people.  Neither owns the championship ring they so desperately covet.

The last time I saw one of them, he was getting into a bullet proof limo at LAX escorted by an armed bodyguard who doubled as his chauffeur.

Now that's finishing last.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Mission Statement

There comes a point in life when you realize you have a path, a calling, a personality that you can no longer avoid. When I was a kid, I loved cowboys in white hats, good-guys that stood for something, super heroes, anybody who did-the-right-thing.

Hard as I tried to learn to smoke, steal cars, binge drink or be in a gang, I wasn't any good at any of them. I did play in a metal band for a while, but everytime we went to buy new leathers, they picked black -- and I liked deerskin better.

I lost all my prettiest girlfriends to "bad boys" who broke their hearts or worse. I always paid my debts, treated people with respect and never went looking for a fight.

But it seemed the fight kept looking for me.

I began working professionally as an actor, wrote a film I starred in, found the writing more rewarding and soon began producing the material I wrote.

Meanwhile, the bad guys grew bigger and meaner. They played rougher than they had when I was a kid and made larger numbers of innocent people suffer for their causes and their shortcomings. They always wanted me to be a part of their club -- maybe to hide behind me -- perhaps to use my skills -- always offering the world in return for backing their cause.

And quietly implying that being decent was somehow being weak. Nice guys finish last.

I've been in film and television for more than 30 years now. And I don't confuse drama, horror or comedy that explores our darker natures to be the work of the bad guys. I chose the name of this blog for another reason.

There once was a "Legion of Decency" -- faceless minions of the Catholic church that rated entertainment of all forms and branded the consumption of some as "mortal sins". I'm not Catholic, grew up on the Devil's music, adore a film that tackles a taboo or a comedian who skewers a sacred cow. But something Pope Pius XI said in justifying the Legion of Decency has always struck a chord with me... "Everyone knows bad movies are bad for the soul."

The Pope meant that differently than the way I read it. But as we all know, Popes are infallible and he was right...Bad movies are very bad for the soul, the brain, the spirit, a first date and your bank balance.

But we have more bad movies now than we ever did, more bad TV shows, more music that doesn't speak to anyone who isn't in marketing. In the view of the Catholic church, these creations may well be the creations of demons released from hell to lower the standards. But I've worked with or for a lot of the guys who make that crap and they're not demon bad -- they're just bad.

One of my earliest heroes, Superman, formed a League of Justice that gathered together all my other super hero faves from Batman to Green Lantern to better fight the growing list of arch villains.

And so it seems I must now do the same.

I've watched the bad guys corrupt an industry that once delivered imagination, insight and inspiration into some kind of fratboy howler monkey brothel/casino wetdream, where worthless hours of programming make fortunes while offering no nutritional value in return.

I've watched artists and creative technicians abused in ways I never imagined possible just so the bad guys can make more bad stuff and those artists can maintain a precarious handhold in the world they've dedicated their lives to serving.

Oh, the good stuff is still there, and good people still do achieve their creative dreams. But they're becoming fewer in number and their work is harder to find as the bad guys increase in power and marginalize anything they can't control. In the end, most of the good stuff never finds an audience needy of the hope and satisfaction and rewards it could give.

There are a thousand sites in this blogosphere provided by creative souls in my industry who could make it so much better. I read your dreams, understand your frustrations and see you flail against forces unafraid to fight dirty, go into the corners with their elbows up, and tease the talented to death with promises you desperately want to believe but will never see kept.

You can't fight them alone. Rephrase that -- you can -- and you may well win. But your battle may also be so long and damaging that a victory in your small fight may come well after the war has been lost.

The last guy to die at the Little Big Horn probably killed a lot of Sitting Bull's Warriors. But he was still the last guy to die at the Little Big Horn.

So what I will offer you here is The Legion of Decency. The cavalry of a Western's final reel. Advice from Artists who have fought and continue to fight the good fight. Industry people who can offer insight and strategy and support for your creative battles.

And what I hope to offer the bad guys is the thing they most fear -- an adversary who isn't afraid of them.

To paraphrase one of my writing idols, "He's decent. Don't ever mistake that for weakness."