Because You Make Things

[info]illix writes:

If the work is so chaotic, how do people handle it? I can think of a few other crazy high-stress environments off the top of my head — trauma wards and high-stakes politics leap immediately to mind — but all those places have some sort of reward in proportion to the sacrifice they require: doctors get to save lives; politicians either get power or the knowledge that they’ve made a change in the world, depending on the type. Here at MIT we know better than most that you can’t ask for that sort of effort without proportionate reward; otherwise you get burnout and all sorts of very nasty psychological effects upon which I could wax lyrical for quite some time.

So this begs the question: what do TV folk get out of it? What is there in writing, acting, directing, scripting, lighting, teching that makes people get up before dawn and go to bed after dusk and work a crunch schedule day after day after day? What, in short, keeps you going?

I’ve heard the pace of TV production compared with the beginning of The Jetsons — “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” — and I’ve wondered myself what keeps people coming back. Sometimes I think it’s like joining a group of WWII bomb-disposal experts. That job had a high fatality rate, yet nobody ever asked to be transferred — once they were in they were hooked on camaraderie and adrenaline. I’ve known people who picked up their marbles, left LA, moved to some other part of the country… they always end up back in Vegas with a handle in their hand.

That’s all true, but cynical. What else is true? Well, you could just as easily ask, why get a dog? Why have a child? You’re letting yourself in for untold grief and effort, but the highs are so high, you know you’d be poorer if you let the lows scare you off.

And there are plenty of highs. Interestingly, I was relating one of them to a friend recently, and she said, “I see why you like this job.” Sit in front of the monitors during a scene you were worried about being too soft, and watch and listen as the lines get more and more pointed, more deep, more subtle, till they’re thrown like rocks at the other actor, and each time it happens you can see the director get happy as a kid all over again. And so do you. Or as a DP I know once said, “If this were a Western, we’d be shooting our guns into the air.”

I’ve wanted to write for television since I was in high school. (Which made it a Johnny-come-lately compared to novels, which I’ve wanted to write since the fourth grade.) I was talking with an actor today about the consolations of our respective professions, and said, “The truth is, deep down inside, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t want to be a writer. I know it would be a boring world if they did, but I really don’t see why they wouldn’t want to.”

When I was looking for my first few industry jobs, I met with scores of network and studio executives. “I came out here to work in television,” I’d say, and the executive in question would often reply, “Oh, how refreshing! Everyone I talk with came here to work in film.” Film is splendid, but how can you not love television? Film is short story! Television is novel! Television is the long, leisurely Victorian novel, with a chapter of biting suspense followed by one of black despair followed by one of effervescent farce; where “The Trouble With Tribbles” co-exists with “City On the Edge of Forever.” Where three years into a series you can pull one of your heroes aside onto a road not taken and hear things from him you’ve never heard before. Television, for the love of god! Does not the blood run more quickly with the very word?

In my last post I spoke of the enormous time and budget pressure of television. That’s true, but every form of entertainment has its own way of going wrong. The danger in film comes from the very thing TV lacks: time. Time for several billion people to give conflicting notes. Time to hire and fire a dozen writers, and see the script re-written forty times. Time to squeeze everything non-generic out of the product. Time to create beautifully produced and gorgeously filmed crap.

Television has everything stacked against it everywhere you turn, but this is still an art form. I say that unapologetically. I do sometimes run into people in the industry who say, “Oh, it’s just television.” Remove that “just,” my good sir, or I will be forced to meet you with pistols at dawn.

So we accept it’s art, at least potentially. Where does art come from? Among other places, art comes from surplus. Surplus of ideas, surplus of faith in what you’re doing, surplus of whatever that thing is that makes you long to create something. It does not come from lack. A writer I knew once said that she couldn’t write when she was suffering, or even when she was waiting to suffer (i.e., when pregnant) — “This makes sense to me; you don’t kick over the hive and then ask the bees to make honey.”

The need for ideas everyone understands. But you also have to believe in what you’re doing; I’ve heard it called “confidence,” but that word would only mislead you. I learned this many years ago, long before I came to Hollywood, when I told a friend who wanted to read an early draft of City of Diamond, “Okay, but if you don’t like it, you’re going to have to lie to me, because right now, as I’m watching my career go down the toilet, I can’t handle any more.” (Best not to be coy about your requirements, I decided long ago; don’t expect people to read your mind.)

Of course once a creation — a book, a story, a song — is out there, people will knock it as they will; that’s the price of free discourse, and nobody wants to live in a society where we can’t talk honestly. It still hurts; I know actors who refuse to read reviews because they know the pain and general mental screwed-upness that result will make it too difficult for them to function. Writers, directors, artists — it doesn’t matter how famous they are, celebrity doesn’t make someone unreal; they’re still human beings, and they feel the slams just as a fan would if everybody in their fandom decided to trash the story they wrote. But that’s a pain that’s part of entering the arena, and the most significant aspect of it is that it happens after. After the book is written, after the episode appears, after the film opens. (Plays are an exception to this, and all the more reason for actors with the entire run of a play ahead of them to stay away from reviews.)

But while you’re writing or acting or directing you need to have faith in yourself. You need to think of those people who share your passion for whatever the subject matter is. You need to still have that flame of enthusiasm burning. This is why a wise executive producer will give a particular assignment to the writer who most longs to do it — they’ll simply do a better job. Once, an exec producer talked about giving me notes “when you’ve finished the first two acts.” This was a man who loved five out of the six scripts I wrote for him, and hated the sixth with a deep and passionate hatred. And as it happened, that was the script just before this one. I thought, Hmm, is that a good idea? If he hates those two acts it will demoralize me, and I’ll do a lousy job on the next two. All I did was hesitate for a second, thinking about it, and at once he said, “Or would you prefer me to wait till you’re through?” Because we both understood the phenomenon at work here.

I said, “You can have the first two acts as soon as I’m done, but if you hate them, I’m going to have to trust you to lie to me.” He nodded as though that were an eminently reasonable attitude; and since he was also an actor, he felt capable of living up to my trust. Note here that nothing said my script wouldn’t be ripped apart the moment it was turned in, and probably with very little tact, since there simply isn’t time for bruised egos. The point, as it always is in television, is simply to ensure you can keep moving forward. Do what you’re here to do. Sapping someone’s confidence, chipping away at that surplus of faith that keeps you going — it’s just a bad idea, and this is a medium that cannot afford the time to be impractical.

Of the principal things necessary to create something you’re proud of, money is the least important, and time, within reason, comes next. Not that they’re not high on the list, but it’s the ideas and the faith and the urge to create that are indispensable; that’s where you can’t afford any less than a surplus. And everyone wants to offer their best.

I once wrote a Smallville episode called “Hourglass,” in which we, for the first time in the series, hint at Lex Luthor’s destiny. Talking with a woman who can see the future, he says, “I don’t want to be good.” There’s a perfectly timed pause as we wonder, wait, is Lex heading for the dark side already? Isn’t it way too early for that? And he finishes, “I want to be great.” That was an aspect of Lex’s character I found incredibly easy to write, because, of course. Of course you want to accomplish the very best you’re capable of, and because you can’t be sure where that bar is, you have to aim high every time you shoot. Sometimes when I’m sitting with someone, jointly writing, they’ll put in a line and I’ll hesitate. “Doris hates my line,” they’ll tell another writer passing by. I’ll say no, I don’t hate it: “It’s okay. It’s just — we’re better than okay.” Now and then I’ve dealt with people who don’t want to change anything on a show; if an episode worked once, let’s do it again, this time with a false mustache! I want to grab them by the lapels and say, “Don’t you understand that the greatest risk you can take is to take no risk at all?” That way you’re certain to bore the audience.

People are far more likely to want to get the hell out of Hollywood, not when they’re overworked, but when they feel thwarted from doing their best. Clear away the smoke of the PR statements and the contract disputes, and this town is full of people asking to give till it hurts. If you don’t challenge them, that’s when they start to get restless. There may be those here and there who just want to pull down a paycheck and have a nice house and say they know a few celebrities, but I rarely meet them. Of course, I have no interest in meeting them, so that may have something to do with it, but still. I’ve seen a wardrobe man in terrible distress because he let an actor wear the wrong shirt. I’ve seen a writer slam his fist into a filing cabinet because a great scene was being cut for political reasons. I’ve seen DPs labor to get just the exact shade of light on someone’s face. I once heard a couple of crew members talking, after a shot went wrong three times and the actor kept going, unruffled, into the next take: “How do you think actors feel when the camera keeps screwing up?” “They probably feel the same way when the shoe’s on the other foot, don’tcha think?” Because everybody here feels the responsibility.

Sit on set at 2:00 am and watch an actor, sleep-deprived and stressed, as he or she is imagining the unspoken pressure of an entire crew of people just waiting for them to pull off this scene so they can break and get some rest. Everyone’s drained. Nobody has any reserves left. If there’s ever a time for “good enough,” you’ve reached it. Then see that actor reach inside like a marathon runner on the last mile, doing whatever they have to do to convince themselves that that inner surplus exists, and out of it they suddenly deliver perfection. It’s an amazing moment.

Here’s a bit I’m going to snip from a post I made a couple of years ago:


A man who was delivering furniture to my house this Sunday said, “Tell me, when you people go to work — ” and by “you people,” he meant to include all media entertainment in the universe, for he had an expressive hand-wave — “is it like us delivering furniture? Or is it really more exciting?”

I said, truthfully, “It’s more exciting.”

“Because you meet people.”

“Because you make things,” I said.

“So it’s like building custom cabinetry,” he said.

“Yes! It’s very like that.”


I’ll stick with that answer. “Because you make things.” Of course, when it comes to what you make, television writing is often about loss. Because even at the best of times, you have this ideal in your head, and what comes back to you on the dailies? Seventy percent, fifty percent… sometimes, to your horror and everybody else’s, twenty percent. (There’s usually some huge miscommunication involved in the last — that’s the danger when some shows shoot out of town. That doesn’t help you, though; the episode’s shot. Nobody gets a do-over.) But then there are the times all that excellence collaborates to surprise you — I don’t mean by doing something well, because that’s what we all expect and hope we’ll all do for each other — I mean surprise you by adding something unexpected, even transcendent; as though you’d picked up a cup you thought held a spoonful of chocolate mixed with hot water and got melted Godiva instead. Dear god, you think. I never meant it to be quite that way. It’s beautiful! Or as a director I know said recently, “Cut! Print the hell out of that.”

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