x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When the fauns are dithering, it's time for raging psycho-boss

No one wants to be a psychopath but a little scary-mean attitude can really push things along.

The entertainment business is famous for its difficult bosses, to put it as mildly as possible. There are screamers and throwers and silent treatment types - all kinds and shapes of cruelty. If you go to the right restaurants around town and get a seat close to a group of young-looking people in suits, you can hear some pretty alarming stories about their bosses. The business, it sometimes seems, is run by demanding and irrational psychopaths assisted by terrified fauns.

It's hard, though, when you reach a certain age, not to instinctively side with the psychopaths.

I was having lunch with a friend of mine not too long ago, and we were talking about the problems he's having with a show he's producing. The rewrites seemed to be taking days - weeks even - despite the large staff of talented writers, despite the hours and hours of work and late nights, despite all of the regular things you usually think of as useful - concentration, meals, talent, bathroom breaks - the output wasn't all that great and took way too much time.

My friend has an MBA - always an alarming sign in an entertainment industry executive - so he did what MBAs do when they're faced with what they call a "product management process" problem. He tried to collect some data. So he spent a couple of days in the writers room, trying to figure out what the bottleneck was, watching the creative process unfold, trying to figure out ways to improve the system of writing and rewriting television scripts.

"How did it go?" I asked him.

"I wanted to kill myself," he told me. "We'd sit there and someone would pitch a good line and then everyone would pitch versions of that line, and when the assistant typed it into the computer and it showed up on the big screen at the front of the room, we'd spend half an hour talking about commas and periods and small word changes. By the time that was over the line wasn't funny anymore and we were all exhausted and irritated with each other. Is that how it's supposed to be?" he asked.

That sounded to me like he was asking for my advice, which ordinarily is something I'd charge for - I mean, we've all got a rice bowl to fill, right? - but in this case, because he was paying for lunch, I made a small and one-time exception.

I didn't go to business school and I don't have an MBA, and those two facts alone make me more qualified, I think, to solve a "product management process" problem. But I didn't tell him that. Instead, I asked him three questions.

I asked him how morale was on the writing staff, and he said it was pretty good. I asked him if in the rewrites, the whole staff pitched in and spoke up. He said they did. And then I asked him if anyone could derail a pitch or a line or a scene. I asked if, say, when they seemed to have a head of steam going, someone on the staff - anyone, a young staff writer, a newly-minted producer, the head showrunner - could point out a problem or a reservation and get the group to scratch the line and start over. He said, "Yeah. That happened a lot when I was in the room."

And then I said that I think I've found the problem. What was happening, I told him, was the problem of the psychopath and the faun. No one wants to be a psychopath - we all like to think we're smart and rational and decent - but when you've got a script to rewrite and a production to keep on schedule, a little scary-mean-psycho-boss attitude can really push the thing along. Otherwise, the fauns just dither.

These days, the generation that grew up with bike helmets and $400 baby strollers and pass-fail classes at expensive universities is working for itself - it's faun against faun - and they're not emotionally equipped to get things done. No one wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to bark at the young writer in the room who keeps pitching problems - "Isn't C scene a little, I don't know, kinda draggy?" or "Does that line really inform the character?" - to shut up and pitch a joke, that there's really only one rule of being in the writers room: you can pitch a joke, or you can pitch a solution to a problem, but you cannot pitch a problem.

"So, what?" my friend asked, "I should tell the showrunner to be meaner?"

"Yes," I said. "Tell him that only the psychopaths get home in time for dinner."

I really need to be charging more for this advice.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood