How not to let your ego get in the way of a good idea
For the last few days, I’ve been reading Creativity, Inc. The book is about how Pixar works, how they maintain a culture of creativity whilst still fulfilling all their corporate ambitions, and it’s written by Ed Catmull; the guy who started the company and runs it to this day. I highly recommend it (not running Pixar, the book, although running Pixar would also be cool) but this isn’t a book review…
One of the central features of the book, and of Pixar itself, is the “Brainstrust”; a collection of the company’s leading directors, writers and story experts who gather to view work-in-progress and to offer advice, steers etc. Every director working at Pixar, from top to bottom, has to submit their work to the brainstrust. This ought to be nerve-wracking, like standing in front of the class while the teacher marks your homework but the directors all seem to welcome it and find the experience incredibly valuable. Why? Because Catmull learned a lesson from countless unproductive, adversarial notes sessions with studio execs and he introduced a concept that makes the Pixar system work: the Brainstrust has no authority. Let’s look at that one more time: THE BRAINSTRUST HAS NO AUTHORITY. You don’t have to take their notes, you don’t have to pay any attention to a word they say.
Except now you will because they have no authority, they’re just there to help you make your movie better.
I remember screening my first movie for the American exec from the company who’d funded the thing. I was really nervous, my head filled with stories of iconoclastic directors battling unimaginative studios for control of their masterpieces. The screening finished and sure enough the guy had some notes. He was worried about a particular character, I think, in a particular scene and he wasn’t sure it “played”. Predictably, I dug my heels in. I even got pretty shouty as we debated his notes. Eventually, believing I sounded like Sam fucking Peckinpah, I issued my ultimatum: “If you want this changed, you’re going to have to ORDER me to change it.”
He frowned, looked at me like he was suddenly concerned for my mental health, and said, “Dude, it’s your movie. You’re free to do whatever you want and we’ll release it. That’s the deal. I’m just asking you to consider something.”
“Right then… Sorry… What was it you wanted me to look at?” It turned out the guy had some good points to make and, because I didn’t HAVE to follow them, I gave them proper consideration. His notes made the story clearer and so the editor and I sat down and implemented them. They made the film better. The fucking thing bombed anyway, of course. Sorry if you were hoping for a happy ending.
These situations are pretty unusual in screenwriting. Far more often than not, we walk into a room to be given notes by producers and execs who do have authority, who can insist on changes we may not agree with. This can make for an adversarial situation, one in which the writer is on the defensive before the meeting even starts, where even useful notes can be read as “interference” from non-creatives.
William Goldman famously used to enter these meetings, sit down and ready his pad and pen; putting the execs on the defensive, pressuring them to “come up with something smart”. To the beleaguered screenwriter, this may seem like a brilliant plan. It is, in fact, a massive dick-move. I don’t care if you wrote All the President’s Men, you just started a fight you have no chance of winning because these people pay your rent. They might be intimidated (they probably won’t) but they’re certainly going to think twice before employing you again.
The Goldman manoeuvre assumes that status can be taken. It can’t. Actors know this; status cannot be taken, it can only be given. You can’t go on stage and “act like the king”; the other actors have to behave deferentially to you, they have to give you status. Most execs aren’t going to give the writer status in a meeting. More likely, the writer will give the execs status, and often the wrong kind…
I’m reminded of an exec who once confided to me that she sometimes walks into edit suites where she knows full well that she’s the “enemy” before she even enters the room. She said that the level of hostility to her notes, before she’s even given them, is such that she becomes defensive and authoritarian; delivering her notes as straight-up orders that can’t be questioned or discussed because “if they’re casting me as the bad guy, I’ll be the fucking bad guy”.
So how do we deal? I believe it is possible to turn almost any writing meeting into a version of Pixar’s brainstrust, you just have to change the dynamic of the room. First off, as writers, we have to change our attitudes; we probably ARE too close to the script — the chances are we only finished the draft a few days before this meeting. This script ISN’T the best it can be and we may not be the best people to see that or have the best fixes for the problems. This isn’t a defence of execs. Someone said recently on Twitter that writers were unfair on execs, that they had “never met a stupid one”. Oh really? Allow me to arrange some introductions. Of course there are bad execs, just as there are bad writers (or bad accountants, builders, dentists etc.) Hopefully you have smart execs, there are plenty of them about. But even a bad exec has a perspective on your work that might be useful (even accidentally) and you’re not going to benefit from that if you close down.
We may not be able to completely banish the idea of executive authority, because these people can fire you if you are uncooperative, but we can adopt the attitude going into that room that you are not working FOR the execs, you’re working WITH them (if they could write the fucking thing, they would have done — they do need you). Try to remember that everyone wants this script to be better (and it can always be better) and everyone wants this meeting to go well because they’ve invested in you and they genuinely want this all to work out. So level the playing field; be pleasant, be open, be happy to talk about anything. The exec may propose some fixes that sound dreadful. Don’t just shut down, try to identify the problem the exec is attempting to solve. The fix may not be great but the problem could be genuine. Nine times out of ten “This needs explaining to the audience” is a shit fix but it’s a fix to the problem of “I didn’t understand this” and that’s always a problem worth addressing. Rather than just take the note and offer the standard grumpy nod in response to it (it amazes me sometimes how many writers are afraid of dialogue), try digging into the problem; encourage the exec to open up and talk through their thinking. I can almost guarantee that you’ll change the tone of the meeting this way. Once you’ve acknowledged the existence of the problem and demonstrated your understanding of it and your willingness to address it, you’re going to find that the exec abandons their solution and instead trusts you to come up with whatever you think the best fix is for the next draft. You’ll also find that you’re suddenly no longer faced with a bad note, but with a potential improvement to your script.
Dodge the solution and get to the problem. Then it’s up to you to solve it the best way you can. Everyone goes away happy, the script gets better and you work again because the execs actually felt good about the meeting because they weren’t treated as the Philistine enemy for once.
Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, talked recently in an interview about how his career had been floundering and how Tom Cruise took him aside and told him that his (McQuarrie’s) problem was that he bore grudges against execs who had long since forgotten the cause of the grudge and that he was seen as too defensive in meetings. McQuarrie tried out Cruise’s suggestion of entering meetings with the attitude of “how can I help you make the show you want to make?” This, apparently, changed things around for him almost instantly.
The crucial thing here is engagement. With my director’s hat on (I actually have a hat) I’ve sat in meetings with writers who were obstinate and unwilling to entertain a single suggestion about their script. Those are bad writers with bad scripts that stay bad. But I’ve also witnessed writers who would change anything you asked them to without question. They were also bad writers with bad scripts but their scripts actually got worse draft-on-draft because they were doing everyone’s fixes without ever understanding the underlying problems. (Again, I’m reminded of an exec a long time ago who told the composer that the music needed to be “louder but kind of quiet” — never take the fix until you understand the problem). There needs to be cut and thrust; it needs to be a conversation, neither a battle nor an immediate surrender.
Can you always change the dynamic of the writer-exec conversation? No. There are some execs who aren’t open to a conversation of any kind, either because they’re just total fuckheads or because they have some ulterior agenda (often because they’re delivering notes from higher-up and are scared of their boss, who is an uber-fuckhead who won’t talk directly to the writer). I’ve been in this situation a few times and the only advice I can give is to walk away. No good can come of this. Suffer through to a delivery point, ie. get paid for your work to date, then bail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll get better, it won’t. And don’t think quitting will damage your career; becoming bitter, miserable and, inevitably, defensive will do far more harm.
Pick your battles. Fight your corner when you need to but don’t presume that someone is your enemy just because they have a salary and an office. And don’t presume, even if they are the enemy, that you can’t learn from them. Give no shit, take no shit. You’re here to tell stories and it’s supposed to be fun.