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September 23, 2013
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Photo by Kourosh Qaffari on Unsplash

I was in a particularly delicate spot. You know that place. Low batteries. On the outside looking in. It felt as if I was in a permanent state of only dreaming about a career in movies. Seriously. The odds were against me. Of the fifteen undergrads who were slogging alongside me through film school, maybe one of us would see some kind of measurable movie success. Hell, even that was optimistic thinking. Las Vegas would’ve pegged the group of us as longshots at best.

So why the hell try? Such was the kind of negative thinking that had begun to creep in under my young skull cap.

I recall a particularly depressing day when I found myself looking back at my own reflection in the mirror. And no. I’m not attempting some lousy poetic imagery. I was actually in a university washroom, throwing water in my cherubic face when I glimpsed myself and uttered, “Why me? What makes me so special?”

No answer came. Probably because self-doubt had been far closer to the real me than the pretender who mocked me from the mirror.

With that, I climbed into my two-tone, orange sherbet and turd painted Pinto and pointed it in the direction of my San Gabriel Valley apartment. It was far from school, but walking distance to my night job slinging pizza and pitchers of beer.

Yet that particular night, I was so sick of myself that I called in sick and, instead, chose to salve my wounded ego with a movie.

The picture was Prince of the City, Sydney Lumet’s most recent New York adventure. Clocking at nearly three hours, the movie is a claustrophobic epic about a corrupt NYPD detective who decides to clean himself up by turning state’s evidence against his cop brethren. It’s a gritty, true tale of family versus friends, honor versus betrayal. I was gripped from frame one, emotionally hooked to the characters, and in the end, gobsmacked at what I’d just witnessed. Perfection, I thought. Everything a great movie should be. Everything I wanted in a movie. Everything I wanted to be as a moviemaker.

Only I hadn’t made it. Sydney Lumet had. And this was after he’d already directed the seminal likes of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. Clearly, this man possessed true greatness. A state of cinematic understanding that I, in my moment of self-doubt, imagined was beyond my grasp.

So why even try?

Here I was. A young filmmaker on the come. In a prestigious college program. Dreaming of a career I couldn’t possibly achieve. What the hell was I thinking? What kind of moron invests in certain failure?

The blithely ignorant twenty-one-year-old kind.

On the way back home, I stopped by the corner supermarket and dropped some cash for a fifth of disposable scotch. I climbed the steps to my apartment, dribbled four fingers of the liquor over two cubes of ice, then climbed horizontal into my humble rack. My only company was the television which, at that late hour (and without cable) sported only late night chat shows and reruns of Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek. Between sips of that cheap, blended whiskey, I landed on a one-on-one interview with non other than Sydney Lumet. The timing made sense. Prince of the City had just opened and the Oscar-winning director was making the usual publicity stops in support of his picture.

Yet Lumet’s appearance on my TV vexed me. As if the nationally televised talk show was specifically designed and time-slotted to mock my dubious talents. I can’t say why I didn’t shut it off and just drink myself to sleep.

“I’ve seen your latest,” said the interviewer. “It’s a great movie.”

“It’s a good movie, thank you,” said the director. With that, I believe I cursed his false humility.

“Seriously,” said the interviewer. “It is a great movie.”

“I appreciate that,” said Lumet. “And God only knows after thirty movies I’m finally starting to feel as if I’m getting it right.”

Getting it right?

I practically kicked the TV off the chair it was propped upon. Did he actually say that he thought he was finally getting it right? How arrogant can the SOB act? I’d just watched his newest masterpiece unspool and yes, it was well beyond have gotten it right. I’d been vexed and mocked but I wouldn’t be made a fool of by swallowing the New York director’s publicity-driven false modesty.

Then came the great one’s following salvo.

“But isn’t that just it?” added the director. “All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving…”

It was as if a tuning fork inside me had been struck with a sledgehammer. My bone marrow harmonized with the director’s simple words. Wasn’t that exactly how, as an artist, I usually felt? That I was merely making short, forward steps? Improving one micrometer at a time? Not close to fast enough for wunderkind status, but with a decided and measurable progress.

One moment I was cursing Sydney Lumet. The next, he was reaching through my TV screen and offering me a helping hand up. My pit of despair receded beneath me. And that lousy scotch I was slurping tasted, well, plain lousy.

It’s been more than thirty years since that night. Yet it feels like ten minutes ago. Maybe that’s because I’d chosen to stencil the man’s life-saving words in mental tattoo ink. And I’ve tried to subconsciously etch their meaning onto every single page I’ve ever written. I check myself daily, asking the simple question of “am I improving?”

Sydney Lumet has long since passed away, leaving a legacy of pictures that I couldn’t eclipse in my dreams. But his words have made me brave enough to fly at my own heights and take pride in the work I do. I am forever grateful.

Thank you, Sydney.

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  1. dkFrizzell says:

    Inspiring. Thank you, Doug.

  2. Jack Calvert says:

    That was as unexpectedly moving as an episode of “Breaking Bad,” except without the guns and the meth, and nobody dies. It’s a moving reminder that even the big dogs have had their dark nights of the soul, and also of the value of what some call coincidence, but what I like to think of as synchronicities or signposts (i.e., Sydney Lumet’s interview). Beautifully written, Doug, and an inspiration to those of us who are still finding our way.

  3. Hasraf 'HaZ' Dulull says:

    so inspiring! thank you Doug.

  4. DCR says:

    There is a simple answer you hinted at — why *not* you/me/us? The movie business needs writers, plenty of junque is already being made, so *why not us*? None of us is any worse than The Next Guy, with few exceptions. With indeterminate timing, blind luck and a modicum of talent, it could just as easily be us. *Just* as easily.

    Why not us indeed.

  5. Joshua James says:

    Great post, Doug…

  6. clive says:

    Glad you’ve perked up. Interesting to know of your fifteen alumni. Somerset Maughn- who was a qualified doctor as well- said ‘ it wasn’t enough that i should succeed it was also necessary that my friends should fail”. That’s a bit harsh for me, and ignores things like a happy marriage, or making the most of what you’ve got.
    To be creative you probably need to be mostly ebulient, to hit big ideas a run at a tampoline helps, and to get this bounce there are down times.

    You mentioned (peviously) a book by william goldman- screentrade- well it isnt on knidle.Nor is the sequel, but i read some sample pages where he said after butch and some other other academy nominated films his phone didn’t ring for nine years.

  7. Laureen Kuhl says:

    Thanks for throwing out a life-line to the rest of us. It was a kind act and I, for one, appreciate it.

  8. Dutch Doscher says:

    When I was 16, I went to my first movie set shooting in my town.

    There I watched, wide eyed, blood pumping. My parents were away and it was my first night alone in a house without eye’s watching me. I wasn’t throwing a party I was watching a man was standing alone.

    About a mile of road was lit up and there was this man standing in the middle of it. He was watching a truck chase a car. He was right in the collision course. I was standing right next to him. He looked at me and smiled.

    When I looked back down the road, the car and truck had stopped about 100 yards from us.

    Me: Hi
    Him: Hi
    Me: So what do you do?
    Him: I tell a few people what to do.
    Me: What other movies have you worked on?
    Him: A few good ones, A few not so good. I gotta go do this…

    And he walked away.

    Two years later, in my university text book was his picture..
    I gasped.. It was Sidney Lumet.

  9. wonder says:

    Beautifully said. A journey of 50 “first breaks.” A marathon of discovery and improvement. A lifestyle, not a milestone.

  10. Phyllis K Twombly says:

    Movies. Now saving future filmmakers. Is there anything they can’t do? It’s my hope that the short clips I make and the screenplays I write will entertain and inspire. Plus they’re so much fun to create. Perhaps the writers who make it have allowed the stories to enfold them. Maybe that’s why…you.

  11. fbluhm says:

    Excellent piece, Doug. In writing it, I think you’ve done a great service and, at the same time, provided some much-needed incentive to all those who are still pursuing their dreams of working in the film industry… or any other business, for that matter. Think I’ll rent a Sydney Lumet movie tonight. Fred

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Love that Fred. Rent some Sydney. Just stay away from his musicals and comedies.

  12. Lisa Kothari says:

    Love that you found a “big gun” speak to his own process of creative improvement at just the right moment – serendipity rules! Learn from you each week – thanks, Doug!

  13. John Thomas says:

    Thanks for a great kick in the stop-feeling-sorry-for-yourself department, Doug!

    Perhaps more in the movie business than most others, it really is true that the only people who fail to succeed are the ones who stop trying.

    I once saw an interview with Peter Vidmar (1984 Olympic gold medal gymnast), who told a story of how, when he was young, he trained with many other kids who were way more talented than he was. He said the thing that got him to the Olympics, and a gold medal, was simply that of all the kids he trained with, he’s the only one that kept at it. Day after day, year after year, step by step.

    Almost every successful person I’ve met has a similar story. I think even if talent does end up getting us somewhere, only persistence or bone-headed stubbornness – continuously taking that 1 extra step in the face of challenges – can keep us there.

    And wouldn’t you know it, I’m officially certified in the bone-headed stubbornness department – so things are looking up!

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Appreciate you sharing, John. And you are so right. Work almost always trumps talent.

  14. paul says:

    This week’s blog is especially relatable.

    But Doug, how does a writer go about making that transition to directing? Terry Rossio mentioned that if he had to do it all over again, he would try to direct.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Pretty simple, Paul. You write something others think is marketable and hold out to direct. Either that or find a star willing to bet on you or a financier.

      • paul says:

        Thanks. That part of the process seems so mysterious to me. I am not sure how the directors for 47 Ronin and Oblivion did it….those are huge budgets!

        If a writer takes a meeting with a prospective manager or agent who is thinking of signing the writer, should the writer bring up the fact that he has directing ambitions? Maybe, a manager might prefer a working writer who cranks out several scripts that make money rather than work several years on a directing project that might not pan out.

        By the way, your blog has slowly become the entertainment blog I go to first–so entertaining and informative.

        • Doug Richardson says:

          Paul. Best to be upfront about your ambitions otherwise how can the manager or agent best rep you?

          • paul says:

            That’s sound advice. I guess I just always felt like the writer worked for the manager/agent rather than the other way around. They give you notes much the same way a producer does.

  15. Fred Lemon says:

    A little late to the party, but yet another thought-provoking and affirming piece. I love these weekly blogs, Doug, but I’m disturbed by the possibility that your experience of one example of a rough blend has tainted your view of all blended whiskies! Next time you feel compelled to grace the UK, allow me to treat you to some Black Bottle, for example!

  16. Sean Jackson says:

    This was just what I needed. Thanks.

  17. […] Before I tell you who said that let’s all read that together outloud: “All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….”  Sidney Lumet As quoted in blog post by Doug Richardson […]