A: Yes, and I went about it politely but firmly.
Firing representation isn’t a pleasant thing. For starters, writers generally aren’t good at managing employees because, generally, we don’t have any.
Our representives are, in fact, our employees, but they do an excellent job of making us feel like we’re the ones who ought to be grateful to be working with them.
When it’s time to fire an agent, here’s my recommendation. They’ll never be happy if you terminate them in this way, but they won’t exactly be able to trash you either.
First, think long and hard about the specifics of your dissatisfaction.
Second, request a lunch meeting with your rep, and explain why you feel dissatisfied. Lay out the problems as you perceive them, and ask for solutions. This is not the “you’re fired” meeting. This meeting is exactly what it seems–a warning shot across the bow.
It’s extremely important to do this. Sometimes agents need a reality check in order to change their course of service to their client. Given that writers can be sort of passive-aggressive about this stuff, it’s not fair to just let all of your gripes explode out in a sudden firing.
This meeting should be businesslike, and it should end optimistically.
Now you wait.
If three to six months pass and you are still dissatisifed, it’s time to drop the axe.
I recommend doing it on the phone. I don’t say this because it’s the cowardly move. It’s not. I say this because agents are extremely well-trained in the art of not letting clients fire them. Don’t kid yourselves…the stories of meetings that began with clients saying “you’re fired” and ended with “okay, you’re still my agent” are legend at the big firms, and they have many ways of breaking you.
Early on in my career, my manager (who is still my manager) left the firm he was with to go to another management company. I chose to follow him. Before I could leave, one of the owners of the firm asked to talk to me about it in person.
I agreed. Seemed fair.
He started off by saying, “Look, your guy brought you into my firm, and so I understand why you want to leave with him. I would love for you to stay. I’m not going to pressure you or badmouth your guy or badmouth the company he’s going to, and I would certainly never threaten you in any way. I just want to talk.”
He then proceeded to do every single thing he said he wouldn’t.
You owe the rep that you’re firing some courtesy, but you don’t have to paint a target on yourself either. Call the rep up and say simply and cleanly, “I’m leaving the agency.”
The headline is out of the way. By leading with this, you do one of two things:
There will be some shocked silence that you ought to fill dispassionately. Refer back to your prior meeting, explain that your grievances weren’t particularly well-addressed, and state that you’ve decided to make a change. Explain that your decision is final (they will find this insulting and will attempt to make you feel like you owe them a chance to win you back, but that’s just a Jedi mind trick), thank them for the excellent work they’ve done for you in the past, and then get off the phone as fast as you can.
In the days to come, various guilt-trips and insinuations will probably filter back to you. Ignore them. It’s all smoke and mirrors. An executive might even call you to say, “Are you nuts?”, and you’ll ignore that too. An executive who knows you well enough to call doesn’t really care who your agent is. They’ve already judged your writing for themselves.
I want to end by saying that I know I sometimes come off as a bit of a hard-ass against reps, when, in fact, I don’t think I am. Many of them are very smart and very effective at their job.
What concerns me is that there is often an imbalance of psychological power between writers and their agents, and that’s because agents are professional manipulators and writers aren’t.
We have more power than we’ve been led to believe. Don’t be afraid to use it.
It’s your career.
Invent it, see it,
adapt to it…We begin shooting this coming week with two shoot days in L.A, so I flew back home this evening. The filmmaking community is usually responsibile for every first class seat on the Vancouver-LA runs, so it’s always interesting to see who I’ll wind up sitting next to.
This evening, it happened to be an extremely successful writer-producer-director. We started talking about screenwriting, directing and our work methods, and he mentioned something that dovetailed beautifully with an experience I had just two days before.
On that two days before, I walked the set we’ll be using for our second week of shooting. Walking the set is a wonderful thing. As screenwriters, we invent a reality, but our reality is made hyperreality by the convenience of our own minds. Just as in dreams, people move fluidly through our imaginations, spaces conform and rearrange in edits and glimmers, and dimensions change according to our creative whim.
Sooner or later, though, someone is going to have to draw up blueprints that very much constrain the spaces we’ve imagined. For those of you brave enough to have read my little essay on Nietzsche, you’ll recognize this blueprinting as part of the Apollonian requirement of art.
In other words, Dionysius gets you the green light but Apollo hammers some wood together so you have a place to shoot.
When a screenwriter has a chance to walk the set, all sorts of wonderful things start to click into place. Finally, you’re in the real world and out of your head. You invented the reality, now you’re seeing the reality…and what follows is the need to adapt to the reality. Walking around in the space gives you all sorts of ideas, and also sends you scurrying back to the laptop to trim unnecessary dialogue or imagine extra stage direction. You are forced to work to camera angles. You are required to eliminate pointless motion through space. You are asked to connect two people who may or may not be near each other or in view.
It’s fantastic. Once you walk the set, you can finally begin to tell the story best.
So…back to my flight buddy.
He’s a writer and a director, and as a director, he goes on location scouts. Once he finds a location that he really likes, he asks to just sit there at the location while he writes.
Pretty smart. His suggestion to me (and one I now rapidly hand off to you) is to try, whenever possible, to write in places. If you’re doing a scene in a mall, take your laptop to the mall and use your actual presence in the space to direct your storytelling. If you’re doing a scene in a bedroom, trudge into the bedroom. If you’re doing a scene between two people on a date, plotz down on a bench on the 3rd Street Promenade and write as you take in the social buzz.
We can’t get sounds, smells and sights on to a piece of paper, but it’s our job to get as close as possible. If you don’t have a set to walk…go find one.
Ed. Note: I’ve been working for a while on revamping the official Writers Guild of America, west website. Here’s an article I wrote for our Member News bulletin. The new website will be up by the end of the month, and I’ll alert you guys once it launches. In the meantime, if you go to the WGA site now, you can see how backwards it currently is.
I’m not wearing pants right now.
That’s one of the benefits of working in the Information Age. As writers, we’re creatures of windowless rooms. The internet allows us to indulge our essential drives to learn and create without coming in contact with other people or violating our primary directive: never move when you can sit perfectly still.
Unfortunately, our Guild’s presence on the web has been a liability. The site was originally designed in 1996 and received little updating since. When it comes to technology, nine years might as well be nine hundred years. Our site was poorly organized, annoying to navigate, used frame-based technology that predated the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and perhaps worst of all…it was ugly.
One of the first actions I took as a new Board member was to create a committee responsible for revamping our web site. Sure, I wanted a website that was competent, but my purpose was a bit deeper than that.
When I ran for the Board, my primary motivation was to improve the relationship between our members and their union. The root of the alienation is understandable. Writers are busy. We have families and friends and careers. It’s easy to allow the Guild to fade into the background, but when a residual check goes missing or a credit arbitration looms or a payment is late, I want to know my Guild will be there for me…without leaving my room.
Or putting on my pants.
In the years to come, the WGAw website will increasingly become the face of our union. It needs to be our clearinghouse for information, our calendar, our early-warning system, our library. Our website should inspire us to learn about the developments that govern our industry, shape our negotiations and impact our earnings. It needs to provide a pathway to our staff, and an opportunity to give feedback, ask questions or simply rant.
By rebuilding the website, we’ve created the foundation for all of that. Our new site is attractive, clean, easy-to-use, and adaptable. We have the ability to create moving-image libraries, poll our membership, and put a face on our staff and the leadership. If there’s a wall between the rank-and-file and the HQ, consider this website a big rock thrown through the barrier.
I’m proud of the work we did. In less than one year, we accomplished our goal. While much of it involved reworking site-maps and navbars and menu trees and databases and streaming video and content management systems, it’s the human experience that is essential. My hope is that our new, world-class website will bring members closer to their Guild and closer to each other.
Take your pants off, people. The new wga.org is here.
The other, much
CraigI’m going to say something that I hope makes the slower writers among us feel very, very guilty. In the past 8 weeks, I have written three…count ‘em, THREE…drafts of my next movie. My brain feels a bit pudding-like right now. That’s probably why it’s been a few days since the last post, and while I normally have all sorts of wonderful things to say about the job and the business, my attention factor is really low right now.
As such, I’m going to do a more traditional blog-style update of what the hell is going on right now in my life, as way of explanation. After this brief update, I’ll get back to the screenwriting stuff. I swear.
The handsome dude you see up and to the left is Craig Bierko, a terrific actor who received fantastic reviews as Max Baer in Cinderella Man. Not only is he a great guy, but he’s the lead in Scary 4. I couldn’t be happier.
My son recently turned four, and my daughter is now 9 months old. My boy is still hovering around the 97th percentile for height and weight, and the girl is at the 90th percentile, so my dreams of having Brobdingnagian children who would physically crush anyone who dared threaten dear Poppa is apparently coming true.
The prepping of the movie is in full swing. I write pages, sit with David and go through casting, talk with the production designers about the sets that are coming up, the requirements of what must be built or not, the story implications of shooting certain scenes on location or on stage, and on and on and on.
And then there’s the notes. Now that we’re two weeks out, I can’t really do draft revisions anymore. I have to go scene by scene, depending on what’s coming up first. The 1st AD and I decided that the third draft should be the “white” or shooting draft. From here out, it’s revised pages and asterisks all the way.
Meanwhile, John August has a post up on his blog about gay marriage. I’d like to think that if I were gay, I’d comport myself like John–outly, matter-of-factly and with confidence in my identity as something beyond mere sexuality. John and his partner want to get married, but there’s that little issue of politics and law. The ensuing comments are almost entirely in favor of gay marriage, but I must admit that I’m still on the fence about the whole thing. Normally I’ve very sure about everything, so this is an uncomfortable feeling. In my comment on his post, I wrote:
I guess my stance is this: smart, faithful, reasonable, stable people should be allowed to get married, and it should be extremely difficult for these folks to get unmarried. The rest of the riffraff, be they gay, straight, bi, lesbian, polyamorous, etc., should keep getting drunk and screwing each other in bars. I know, I know…hardly realistic. Just like my long-held belief that only smart people should vote. But please, riffraff, if you’re not willing to stop getting married in Vegas drivethroughs to waitresses you just met or some geezer with cash, at least stop having kids, wouldja?
In other non-sexuality news, the WGA election will soon come to a close. This year’s campaign was a rather tough one, and I hope that the blood on the floor gets mopped up quickly and everyone gets back to business. I’m looking forward to working with a new Board, mostly because I get easily bored staring at the same people. Besides, I think the odds are good that, at the very least, my more-talented-than-I friends like Phil Alden Robinson and Scott Frank will join me in the room, although I very much want all of you eligible voters to cast your ballots for the candidates running on the Common Sense slate.
Last but not least, for those of you following the saga of The Crimson Ape at Josh Friedman’s blog, I think you ought to know that I spoke to the Ape himself today, and he said the following:
“You know how people tell a story about an incident that happened a long time ago involving two other people, and if you ask the other two people about the story they’ll each give you a slightly different version, or maybe a very different version? Well, this isn’t that way. The way Josh told the story?
Happened exactly like that. Exactly.
Back to work for me. Up next, I think I’m going to talk a little bit about something that’s been bugging me lately. WGA credit arbiters are supposed to determine who gets credit for “story” and who gets credit for “screenplay”, but I’ve come to believe that most arbiters don’t know the difference between the two, and that our system is routinely (and wrongly) denying “screenplay by” credit to writers because they haven’t fulfilled the requirements for “story by” credit.
Pie? Read on…A: It depends if the information is needed…or wanted.
Providing characters with a backstory is one of the most common requests we get from executives and producers. The rationale is easy to understand. In order for a character to behave credibly, the audience must feel that the behavior is properly motivated. One way of establishing motivation is to give the character a history that provides an insight into why they are the way they are.
The problem is that this can lead to some horrendous and annoying cliches.
When I’m thinking about my characters, I ask myself if the audience really needs to understand how they became the way they became, or if the audience might merely want to know.
Wanting ain’t good enough. Just because the audience wants something doesn’t mean you should give it to them. It’s a bit like rationing out candy for your kids. Unsatisifed wanting is part of the fun of going to the movies. Anyone who saw Bill Murray whisper into Scarlett Johansson’s ear at the end of Lost In Translation probably wants to know what he said, but it’s best that we’re left filling in the blanks ourselves.
This isn’t a new literary technique. Nietzsche, for instance, prefigured that moment by more than a hundred years when he wrote this passage in Thus Spake Zarathustra.
–Thou thinkest thereon, O Zarathustra, I know it–of soon leaving me!”–
“Yea,” answered I, hesitatingly, “but thou knowest it also”–And I said something into her ear, in amongst her confused, yellow, foolish tresses.
“Thou KNOWEST that, O Zarathustra? That knoweth no one–”
What did he say into her ear, amongst her confused, yellow, foolish tresses? You’ll have to think about that after reading the book, now, won’t you? Ted Elliott told me about a great term that Gore Verbinksi has called “pie talk”. The idea is that after the movie is over, you want at least a few threads dangling, a few questions remaining…for the moviegoers to discuss and debate over pie.
One of the greatest pie talk characters ever is Thelma Dickerson from Callie Khouri’s screenplay Thelma & Louise. Louise refuses to travel through Texas, even when that refusal puts her and Louise at great risk.
Why? Oh, sure, there are some obvious answers we can imagine, but the movie refrains from backstorying us to death with some awful speech about what happened That Terrible Day Way Back When.
This doesn’t mean you should never do backstory. Sometimes, it really helps. For instance, when I was adapting Mary Chase’s play Harvey, I noticed that practically no one had a backstory.
Did Elwood Dowd, the odd drunk who claims to see an invisible rabbit, need a backstory? Did we need some insight into his past to explain how it was that he went from a pillar of the business world to an odd, Zen degenerate?
I decided that we did not. The audience would identify with the Christ-like qualities of Elwood without knowing what happened to him. In fact, I went one step further. I created a sequence that wasn’t in the play, in which the doctor treating Elwood thought (as would the audience) that there was a terrible thing that happened to him. The doctor takes Elwood to a theme park, a place where Elwood indicates something awful occurred when he was a child.
What the doctor learns in that scene is that, in fact, nothing that bad happened at all. There is no neat explanation for why Elwood is the way he is. There is only a pie talk explanation. He has become Christ-like…as can we all.
I did say, though, that I engaged in a little backstorying. In my adaptation, there’s a nurse that the doctor is falling in love with. She’s extremely reluctant, and I felt like the audience needed to know why. Otherwise, it felt as if her behavior would be simply there out of screenwriting convenience, i.e. a pointless obstacle to love.
I decided that she had been left at the altar. I had a secondary character reveal that information to avoid the awful “I was left at the altar!!!” speech.
Boy, that was a looooong answer, huh? Sorry. I guess it boils down to this: give ‘em what they need, but be careful about indulging them with what they want. Some things must be spelled out.
The rest should be whispered into confused, yellow, foolish tresses.
Is my career in here?A: Remind yourself of Mazin’s Law of Representation.
“Hip-pocketing” is one of the more wretched maneuvers that talent agencies employ in lieu of having the actual balls to represent someone. By hip-pocketing you, you’re not really a client, they’re not really an agent, but if they happen to remember to send your script to someone and you get a job, then suddenly you are their client and they are your agent.
What a great deal. For them.
Often times hip-pocketed writers must rely on agents’ assistants to send their work out. This arrangement frequently results in your scripts ending up prioritized somewhere between “get lunch” and “screw that chick in the mailroom”.
If you’re hip-pocketed and you think you’re getting okay service, it’s fine. The agency may need some assurance that you’re worth their time. I’m not a fan of it, but I understand.
If you’re hip-pocketed and you’re getting bad service, you should have a frank chat with the agent (not the assistant…the agent). If that gets you nowhere, then you absolutely must move on and find yourself someone…anyone…who is willing to believe in you and represent you properly.