I had fun giving a screenwriting seminar at the Boulder International Film Festival recently. It’s always fun to talk about story, and structure, and how they go together, with other people who are thinking about that too. There was this one moment, though, where the whole room kind of froze, like in a movie, come to think of it, ‘time stood still’, when someone in the back complained, “But what about when it’s time to stop having fun and actually sell the screenplay?”
I looked at him blankly. Who knows for how long. Then time started up again, and I said flatly, “It’s never time to stop having fun.”
Now I did wonder later if I had answered that one correctly. I mean, I could have gone off into a riff about the usual ways to try to sell your work, rather than pointing out (as I did) that the system is so rigged it’s like winning the lottery to sell anything if you’re outside of the system, let alone unknown and outside the system. And that the single best solution is to join together with talented people you know and make the script yourself. But my answer had been absolutely spontaneous. From my heart, actually. Because if there is one thing I have learned in my fifty odd years here, it’s that if you’re not having fun, you might as well pack up and go back to your home planet. Because that is the only real reward there is. All other rewards spring from that.
The whole exchange made me giggle later. For some reason, it reminded me of something I’d forgotten long ago. Years and years ago, when I was a struggling screenwriter starting out in Los Angeles, my fellow strugglers and I had a joke. You could ask a producer, any producer, a money guy, what kind of stories they wanted, what kind of stories would sell, and what they would answer, always, was “GOOD stories.” But the joke was they would never tell you what ‘GOOD’ was.
Then I became a producer (long story, but yes, indeed I did). And wearing that costume, one day, on the set of a Mexican film financed by an American company where my Dear Husband was working as an actor, I found myself sitting next to one of those money guys. One of those guys who would never ever tell me, the bohemian untrustworthy artist, what the secret was of getting ahead as a screenwriter. He was young, and expensively and casually well dressed, and smug as hell, and because I was an ‘American producer’, the Cornell Business School educated (he told me that immediately) self-contented stuffed suit from the parent company decided I was likely to be one of the few civilized folk around. He was Mexican born, but it was clear he didn’t think too much of the smarts of his homeland. Unlike those of an American producer. He assumed my husband, being an Anglo actor, would be similarly in the know.
This gripped me with excitement. For the first time, I was undercover with one of these guys. He would tell me the secret to why they always would say, so evasively, “GOOD stories.” So I cautiously began.
What kind of material was his parent company looking for?
“Oh, you know–GOOD stories.”
I could feel Alex tensing up, halfway between hilarity and rage, next to me. I clamped a warning hand down on his knee.
“Oh yeah, I know…that’s what we always say. But what do you guys mean by ‘good’?”
He laughed. I held my breath. Here it comes, I thought.
“Well,” he said confidingly. “You know. Nothing ironic. The public won’t go for that, too complicated. Simple stuff. Nothing downer.”
Oh yes, I nodded sagely. Of course.
He expanded under the attention.
“Well,” he continued. “For example. We had a choice between bringing two different musicals to tour Mexico–’Les Mis’ or ‘The Lion King’. It was a no brainer, of course. ‘The Lion King’, hands down. ‘Les Mis’ has got all that downer social content.”
At that, Alex began to leap out of his chair. I clamped down harder with my hand.
“Oh yes,” I said nodding again. “Good choice.”
Then, thankfully, someone called the money guy to the other side of the set, and he got up, waving a friendly goodbye as he went.
The two of us waved back.
“It’s the end,” Alex said through his teeth as he smiled a wide, fake smile. “It’s the end of the fucking world.”
But of course it wasn’t, you know. And Alex knew it wasn’t. We had a good laugh about it over a drink after the shoot. Because, like all artists, we have our own secret, which we’ll willingly share with whoever wants it. Any artist knows the world–our world, the human world–will only keep going as long as there are people operating out of joy to power it. What else is all of this but a dance? And if you start treating a dance like some kind of profit making goal machine, it stops being a dance immediately, and becomes something else entirely–something grim, something deadening, something ultimately dead. And while I know someday I’ll definitely be dead, I’ll be damned if I’ll be grim and deadening along the way. I’ll be damned if I’ll leave death behind me for others. I’ll be damned if I’ll ever stop having fun.