INT. A MULTI-TIERED CLASSROOM – CENTRAL COAST WRITER’S CONFERENCE – SAN LUIS OBISPO – DAY
Here’s the scene. I was standing before a classroom theater full of faces staring back at me. Age-wise, they were mostly peers, each having signed up for my lecture-slash-workshop quasi-cleverly titled Swimming With Sharks. It was about navigating a career in Hollywood. I’d already described for them a few of the crazy pitfalls I’d encountered over my years of living and surviving in showbiz. (Many of which are chronicled here in my weekly blog.) I’d referred to some of these unseen obstacles as land mines, armed and lying in wait to metaphorically maim a working word jockey. Yet there I stood before them all, for all intents and purposes in one piece. Alive. Breathing. And the only road map to my scarred soul in the possession of my beloved War Department and maybe a shrink or two.
What I was trying to tell them all was that it was going to be okay. That stepping on land mines was part of the journey and if they were lucky enough to be successful, part of the never-ending learning experience.
Then came a thought. Which led to words that tumbled over my tongue with a measure of grinning delight. It went something like this:
“Another thing,” I impressed to the gathering. “And though you’re gonna really hate what I’m going to say, but it’s important that you hear it. And not just that you hear it. But I want this for you because, if it happens, it means you’ve become a success in the biz.”
I noted the eyeballs skinned in my direction were either slightly widened with anticipation or below the furrowed brows of deserved skepticism. Nonetheless, I unleashed my loving wish.
“I want for each and every one of you to get ripped off,” I said with a bit too much relish. “Stolen from. Your ideas, your scenes. If you’re in the game, inside the candy store, it’s gonna happen. Period. End of story.”
The point I was making – or wanted to make – was that every pro gets stolen from. From David Koepp to Scott Frank to silly me. It’s part of the game. And in a bizarre but true way, it can mean that you’ve finally made it.
I’m not sure if it was my exhilarated demeanor or the muddled message itself, but my captive audience appeared as if I’d slapped them all in the face with a giant wet rag. In unison. The shared sting of truth embracing each and every innocent soul.
And yeah. I felt a little dirty afterward. After all, peers or not, I realized that I might’ve swiped what little might be left of their precious cinematic innocence. For a moment there I wondered what might’ve been worse. What I’d let fall out of my mouth? Or if I’d flashed them the seminal scene from The Human Centipede.
Note to the reader: By typing even the title of the aforementioned film, I by no means recommend seeing it or even checking out a description via Wikipedia. It was just a descriptor to elucidate the horrors and nightmares I might’ve unleashed on the lovely folks who’d signed up for my class. What you discover of your own volition is of your own making.
“Remember a little while ago,” I continued to the gathering, nodding as a reminder. “Recall how I described Hollywood as a place populated by a lotta good people as well a significant number of bad people? Those Spawn of Satan are there, pretending to like you, be good to you, telling everything you want to hear in order to use and abuse you.”
To that, I was surprised to hear a few guffaws from the room. The theft of their precious work might’ve been a hard pill for them to swallow. But the concept of evil people creeping about, ready and waiting to violate some innocent, was somehow way more palatable.
Well, look at the world we live in. Evil… And yes, I believe it to be real; live Biblical evil is everywhere. On our streets, our cities, neighborhoods, local and national and worldwide news, not to mention a resident habitué of most of our beloved fiction.
Yet when faced with the prospective theft of our intellectual property we cringe a bit more deeply. As if we’d been required to imagine a Holy desecration or harm to one of our own children. This is because, as many of you already know, our written work is very much like progeny. We conceive it, create it, and birth it. The concept that during any point in that process we might have all or part of our baby stolen is too unimaginable to put words to.
So then imagine dubious ol’ me, madly gesturing before a class full of eager wordsmiths, not just impressing upon them, but wishing for them to experience such a foul besmirching. I mean, just describing it here makes me feel like an asshole.
And maybe I am. In my opinion, whoever first coined the overused saying “the truth hurts” should receive a royalty for each and every utterance.
I know for a livable fact it is through pain that we sometimes learn our most salient lessons. Either we experience it personally or we’re lucky enough to witness another’s. I’ve bared many of my ugly errors, stumbles, and injuries in these weekly pages for both your amusement and education. I pray that some have been taken to heart. I sure know each and every moment is engraved on mine.
As for my not-so-wide-eyed class? Did I really wish evil upon them? No. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then maybe in some way, outright theft validates one’s labors, albeit not in the way any of us wishes for. I still hope they step on a metaphorical land mine or two or three, get back up, grow back a limb, and carry on with the knowledge that for all those lows that come with showbiz success, there’s an equal number of non-chemical-induced highs that can make it quite worth the effort.
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