Get ready to be angry. Hurt. Crushed at the thought. It’s time for a little reality check. Wait. Little? Okay. This is a big one. But important as hell if you ever want to make it as a writer-director-creative-whatever in the Land Called Showbiz. I’m about to advocate something very difficult. A discipline, I might add, that will make some cringe and others think, “Oh that’s easy. I can do that.” To which I’ll reply, “Yeah. You say that now. But just wait.”
I’m about to suggest that you make a habit of abandoning your children. Not all. Nor even most. Just some. And most likely they’ll be unfinished or not yet fully formed. Yet nascent enough to be given a name, contain a heartbeat, and a vessel into which you’ve invested your soul and affection.
You remember the bestselling book and Oscar-winning movie Sophie’s Choice? Yeah. Kind of like that. Only it has happened to you, is happening to you, or will happen to you.
I was having lunch with an age-old friend. He was all jacked up because one of his long gestating indie projects had just found a sugar daddy. A producer he’d worked with long ago had resurfaced with an eye out for a certain kind of material. A friendship was rekindled. Meetings over coffees and lunch were had. Kismet. The two halves were coming together to make a majestic and collaborative whole. My friend dusted off the work, began making adjustments, updates, and material changes to satisfy the producer’s input and needs—including, if it didn’t seem too indulgent, creating a small part in the project for the producer’s actress wife.
Of course, my good friend would do his best to come through with favor. After all, the producer was bringing the money and it wasn’t as if his spouse was some third or fourth wife without talent. She had starred in her own TV series back in the nineties and had five seasons, in fact, of network chops on her resume. My friend was glad to make room for her cameo.
Now, before you get too far ahead of me, just hang back because this isn’t just another here’s where Doug describes how somebody got screwed or I see this coming from a mile away. Be patient. Read on. There’s a creative point I’m making.
The producer’s wife, who’d originally been mentioned for that cameo, had gone from just visiting to being fully included in all creative meetings. She was making suggestions. Her small role in the indie was expanding, as well her influence on the overall writing and tone.
“What am I gonna do?” he finally complained. “It’s obvious he wants her to star and practically co-direct.”
“There’s nothing to do,” I suggested. “Nothing left but to walk away.”
“Walk away?” He was wondering if he had heard me right.
“Walk. Away,” I repeated calmly.
“But I’m already wayyyyy in,” he expanded. “And this is my baby. Some of my best work. And at my age I’m not gonna get that many more chances.”
“Yeah. And he’s been hustling you from the start.”
“Naw, I don’t think it’s that bad,” my pal defended.
“That bad?” I asked. “You’re already saying ‘bad’ and you’re barely out of the gate.”
“We’re just not seeing the same movie,” my pal explained. “I wanna know how to convince him to go back to seeing it my way. The way I envisioned.”
“He’s married to this actress?” I confirmed.
“And when was her last gig?”
“I dunno. A while ago.”
“And you think he ever intended to make the thing your way?”
“Sure. That’s how it all started.”
“What’s he got into it so far?” I asked. “Like skin. Money. Time. What?”
“Just the meetings. A lot of meetings.”
“Talk,” I refined.
“I guess. Yeah.”
“And you? What you got into it?”
“A lot of work. Drafts. And even more since…”
“Since he came on board?” I confirmed the sad truth. “You know he has a legal right to everything you’ve done with him so far? And not just that, if you think for a minute he ever intended for this to be anything less than a vehicle for his wife and her considerable ambition, you are deluding yourself.”
“…You really think?”
“Sorry, pal. I know. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the game. Get the artist so pregnant on his own creation that he would never ever consider aborting it, no matter how adulterated or compromised it becomes. It’s our nature. As artists we create. And once we create we will lay down our lives—as well our much of our best intentions and inclinations—to will the fetus to life.”
“You know for sure?”
“Been there. Done that. Way to many times,” I confessed.
“So…?” he asked.
“So you gotta let it go.”
“All of it?”
“Whatever has come of it since you allowed the bastard on board… Or you can just bend over and take it from both him and his wife until you birth something you don’t recognize and would be embarrassed to put your name on.”
“Shit,” he eventually wheezed. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Our lunch petered on. I impressed upon my friend not be hard on himself. He merely suffered from that myopia that comes over all of us who invent. And thus, the point of this post. There are awful decisions when one endeavors into the collaborative world. This may be one of, if not, the hardest of all. Knowing when to walk away even if it means abandoning your investment, your creation, your inventive DNA, your baby. It’s never easy, always painful, but completely necessary in order to keep those who prey on artists from suborning the process and, for their own greedy or narcissistic motives, hijacking another’s good work to serve their sole-serving bottom line.
The hard part? Knowing it’s happening when it’s happening. But that’s another post. So unless you have a pal like me who’s unafraid to call how he sees it, then it’s a game of live, learn, abandon, and start over. In my case, I’ve learned it from the cornucopia of errors I’ve committed due to my own stupidity, ignorance, and lack of experience, most of which by now I’ve blogged about.
Remember. As an artist you create. Not once. Not twice. But all the time. And to leave a masterpiece or two behind is the price of doing an artist’s business.
Great advice… Knowing when to walk away or not get engaged to start with is most likely a skill as important as being able to finish! Thanks for the story, yet again Doug!
Love it…love how you called it…
That’s the rub. It’s always exciting to have someone enjoy your work. But you need to stay objective, very hard to do.
BTW, you can make a bundle with books about screenwriting… 😉
It sounds like your friend was making unpaid revisions on a script that hadn’t actually been optioned or purchased. Am I reading that correctly? If so, why would the producer have a legal right to the writer’s work? Was there a contract of some kind? I am genuinely curious because I’ve been in a somewhat similar situation. Thanks!
Ouch. Aieee! even.
Having just abandoned a baby of my own, actually more like a teenager, this was very reassuring to read! Thanks as always for the wisdom.