Film critic Pauline Kael famously wrote that “Hollywood is the one place in the world where you can die of encouragement.” She’s right. The town blows more smoke up more asses than a flaming BP rig.
But we who work in the business clutch at that smoke, count on it, inhale it as deeply into our lungs as we can, just to keep us going, even as we choke on it.
In this racket, hope is a very fragile, very thin high wire, and it is razor sharp.
This blog is not meant to be an inside-baseball meditation on show biz. Even though I happen to be a screenwriter, I think anybody who has ever put something personal of themselves into something as impersonal and unforgiving as the market place, whether you’re a writer, chef, clothing designer, musician, candle maker or anything else, understands that high wire.
You’ve made a choice, an insane choice to invite complete strangers to judge the smatterings of your heart.
For the 99 times out of a hundred that a door is shut in your face, hope is the big toe that you jut forward, letting it get bashed and bruised, in a hair raising attempt to keep the door from shutting completely.
What’s the alternative? Total darkness?
I’ve been fortunate – I’ve had that door open for me here and there – and it feels great – hope realized. But it’s not the norm. Bruised toes are the norm, and that’s what I want to write about.
Hope is so delicate and fickle I have to play mind games with it.
Whenever I send out a script, whether it’s to my manager or inner circle of friends, I tell myself, “Aw, it’s not that good anyway.” or “I don’t really care what they think” or “I’m on to the next thing anyway.” It’s complete and total bullshit, of course, just a transparent defense mechanism. It’s like distancing yourself from a lover you know will be moving to Timbuktu in a month, in the hope of dulling the pain you know is heading inexorably your way.
And the closer you get to your goal, the more pointed and dangerous hope becomes. Maybe you make it over a few hurdles. Maybe a big actor or director likes your script. Your agent tells you, “Ben Stiller is circling the script,” and you wonder, what the fuck does that mean?#@! And of course it means exactly what you might think it means. Like a hawk, the actor or director glides in circles over its prey – your smatterings – deciding whether it wants to take a risk and dive and grab it, or whether in the end, eh, it’s not worth the effort.
You fight valiantly not to get your hopes up high, but it’s, well, hopeless. You can’t help yourself. You day dream of the big sale, the green light for production, the witty and self-effacing Academy Award acceptance speech with which you will captivate the world.
And then the plug gets pulled.
And you grieve for a day or three. In your mind, you comb over every word in the script, you relive every development meeting you were in, every note and how you chose to interpret it, to try and figure out what went wrong. But in the end, the plain truth is that it’s out of your hands. Once you hand over that piece of yourself, all you can do is hope.
But the grief does ebb, and maybe an old idea, or a little nugget in the newspaper, or a friend’s encouragement, picks you up again. You feel that familiar tingle in your belly and your heartbeat quickens. Yes, this is it. This is the idea, this is the character, that will blow them away. And it will be amazing – personal, heartfelt, yet somehow commercially appealing. Time to start redrafting that acceptance speech.
And sometimes, when you’ve run out of your last reserves of hope, and the tank is as dry as a bone, fate intercedes, as if to say, “Okay, okay, Alfredo, we’ve had our laugh. We watched you squirm and it was kicks. But okay – here.”
I once met a hot young director who happened to like a script I wrote. We worked on it together a bit, then took it out to the town in hopes of a big studio buying and making it. It didn’t happen. Of course my defense mechanisms kicked in right away and I told myself any number of things, from “Can’t blame ‘em – who wants to see a cancer comedy anyway?” to “Man, in the heroic 1970’s, this script would’ve been made like that.” And on and on with the mind games.
I moved on…(eventually).
About a year later I got a call from the director. We had stayed in touch, batting around different ideas, developing a rapport, and, in the meantime, he had landed a big studio movie. I was working on my next spec. The director was calling to ask if my passport was in order, and within a week I was on a plane out of the country to work on his movie. That director was our own Offender Justin Lin.
I hadn’t hoped for this. It just fell into my lap. It’s like all the energy I squandered praying that first script would be sold ricocheted through the universe, careened off a few asteroids, and ended up coming back home and bearing unexpected fruit. Of course, in reality, I know this was simply a case of someone really believing in me and taking a chance, but isn’t there some rule of energy out there? It’s neither created nor destroyed, just transformed?
So what’s the takeaway here? As elusive and fragile as it is, hope sustains. Hope renews our faith in ourselves. Hope energizes. There are few things more exhausting and painful than dashed hopes, but without them, life would be greyer, grimmer. Without hope, without that little delusion that maybe somehow fortune will reward you for your efforts, you’d never even attempt to open that door. This much I know: when I’m in a hopeful mood, the sun is brighter, the world more vivid. And that, fleeting as it is, and painful as it may become, is worth stepping out of the darkness for.