x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

First job of the day: Start complaining. Then write

Put a bunch of writers in a room and they will spend the majority of their time talking about how bad the work of other writers is

Remember this old maths problem from school? If it takes one student 11 minutes to solve a problem, and another student 18 minutes, how long does it take them to solve the problem together?

The answer, of course, is 45 minutes, because they spend so much time talking to each other.

It's the same in Hollywood. One of the chief ways writers out here occupy their time is by sitting around with each other talking about how awful some other writer's work is.

These kinds of sessions - what I think the Chinese during their Cultural Revolution called "speaking bitterness" - only get really fun if the writer who is being trashed is more successful than any of the writers doing the trashing.

In fact, it's a pretty ironclad formula: the more successful that writer is, the longer and more personal and meaner the conversation gets.

No one plans these things. They just erupt whenever two or more writers get together. And there's no permanent target, either. It's a free-floating anyone-goes kind of shoot-out. Whoever seems to be getting whatever the assembled group thinks is excessive praise or excessive opportunity or, especially, excessive money eventually gets it.

"Have you seen that writer's show," we'll say to each other. "It's basically just the old show from the 50s with the space alien, only this time with a pretty girl."

Or: "Did you see that movie? I mean, seriously? Did anyone here buy that last moment? There was better dialogue in those Star Wars sequels."

And: "Did you read that piece in The New York Times praising it? I guess it's all just, I don't know, working the ego of the critic, but, like, last week? Six hundred thousand people watched that show. That's like, nobody."

And: "The movie made US$50 million dollars and everyone acts like it's a hit. Did you see it? Oh, man. And I heard that guy stole his spec screenplay from his college roommate. No, really, I heard that."

But when these sessions erupt, it's never at the end of a long day of hard work. It's almost always, instead, right in the middle of something. Right in the middle of a rewriting session, or a story conference, or anytime more than one writer is in a room and work is supposed to be getting done.

If given a choice between working on an unfinished project and complaining about another writer who actually finished a project, most writers I know will always choose the latter, because what we always forget - and maybe it's what people forget in every other business, too; I don't know, I don't know any other business - is that the only way to have a really bad television show on the air, or a truly awful movie in the cinemas is, first, you have to write the script.

You have to sit and focus and finish the job and not be distracted by all of the other writers you'd like to complain about. In the middle of a busy day or a complicated rewrite, you have to forgo the perfectly natural psychological impulse to distract yourself from the task, from the uncertainty of the entertainment business, from the very real possibility of failure, by talking trash about a more prolific and focused writer who is getting paid more than you are, to do work you feel is inferior, and put your head down and finish your work.

It is, of course, a lot better to be prolific and focused and also good, but show business - and I'm pretty confident that this holds for every other business, too, now that I think about it - doesn't really require something to be actually good. Prolific and focused is enough.

For most projects in Hollywood, the key is to get it all moving, to get started, to build the sets and hire the crew. Making it good is something that can happen along the way. Or so goes the theory.

In the old days of show business - before movies and television, when everything was performed live onstage — there was something called a Sweat Act. It was a person who wasn't necessarily a terrific singer or dancer or joke teller, but who nevertheless worked really hard. Who raced around the stage. Who sang a bunch of fast-tempo numbers. Who walked onto the stage in a crisp dinner jacket and left it two hours later soaked in sweat after a bunch of dance numbers, some joke telling, a rousing finish, and shaking hands with everyone in the front row.

These performers may not have been good. But they sure were sweaty. And often - even mostly - that's enough.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl