Friday, February 20, 2009

The Creative Group

We have just turned in a script to a major studio, and are about to turn in another. In the first case, the script has been received with universal joy and delight, and has been praised by everyone so far as a major accomplishment. In short, they are, as one says here these days, over the moon. That is, they are all 'very excited.' I have noted with some amusement that everyone in Hollywood appears to live in a perpetual state of excitement - agents, producers, executives, even lawyers. It is their natural condition. I, alone, seem to be immune.

Having scored this startling triumph (the script was a rewrite of another person's draft, which, in turn, was an adaptation of a best-selling book), I now await THE NOTES. Script notes are the way the trans-lunar, excited studio people have of telling you exactly how and where and how badly you screwed up, and how they, who have never written anything more dramatic than a resume or a performance review, would fix your obvious and inexplicable mistakes, and make the script a masterpiece.

Now bear in mind that I and my writing partner habitually live with a script for nearly a year, researching the material, discussing it, hammering out the structure and characters, identifying the visual and verbal motifs and underlying themes, and, most importantly, coming to a succinct understanding of what the project means. We then spend months writing, rewriting, re-rewriting and polishing the script, before we turn in what is labeled the 'first draft.' As a first draft, this product of intense labor and creativity (which has already been rewritten three or four times, so that we rarely submit anything less than a fifth draft) is perceived as being raw, unpolished, and in need of the kind of retooling that only a 'creative group' can give it, after having read it once over the weekend.

This creative group, in my experience, consists mostly of junior executives: young, recent graduates either of business school or (shudder) of film school, who have never written anything creative, and who have read little more. What is most amazing, however, is that these 'creative executives' (an oxymoron if ever there was one) usually lack even basic film culture. For most of them, a classic film is the first ‘Star Wars,’ a great director is Wes Craven, and, most galling of all, creativity consists of asking at every opportunity, 'Wouldn't it be cool if...?'

I have tried bringing ‘Hamlet’ into discussions with the 'creative group,' only to be met with squints. I have attempted, single-handedly, to educate them on the concepts of metaphor, motifs, dramatic structure, thematic underpinnings, color, texture, weight, substance, balance, poetry, and the organic nature of character. When I tell them, for example, that Tolstoy, said that, at some point, he would lose control of his characters and that they would begin to dictate the story to him, the creative group responds with indulgent bemusement, as if I had just dropped my cane and had exposed my anal cleft in my effort to pick it up.

This is so, I think, because the truly talented and insightful young creative minds never apply to studios for jobs as entry-level executives. Instead, they are out starving and creating. So what we get in the creative groups are the mid-level academic achievers, and the vagabonds of creative culture. There are exceptions, of course (I can think of only two in fifteen years, however), and these I have tried to encourage and embolden. But for the most part, when you finish a script in Hollywood, you submit it to the aesthetic instincts of such as these. And this is rather like taking your brand new concept car to a garage where the mechanics have all trained to be marketing hacks for GM.

Their bosses are, of course, former creative executives, who have been promoted, not for their perspicacity, but for their team spirit and their survival instincts. What you get in the upper echelons, then, are people possessed of good interpersonal skills and ruthlessness, who can stand the pressure and have mastered the politics of production. These people, in turn, form their own creative groups, among whose members they perceive either the next-gen threats to their jobs, or future allies in their struggle upward. Because, remember, these people see films as products to be sold, and not, essentially, as works of creativity. (I do not say 'works of art,' since I do not believe that film, as practiced at the studio level, is art. Again, there are exceptions, but I view these as statistical anomalies, as inevitable, given the output, as they are rare, given the culture.)

Now, all this being said, there are some very good people at some of the studios. By this I mean people who genuinely care about the quality of their product (and not merely its commercial chances), and who have genuine aesthetic instincts, together with respect for the creative process. But I see these people as becoming more and more rare in the mix, even as the product becomes more and more crass, manipulative, and pandering to lowest-denominator tastes. I really do believe that the people with whom I enjoy working the most, and with whom I work most often, will one day be viewed as the last generation of 'idealistic' film makers; that is, the final few who actually thought of film as a kind of art, and who approached the creative process with intelligence, humility, and sensitivity.

But this caring and these qualities of intelligence and tact are being shoved aside in the business by the gulag-gangs of the creative groups as surely as art films are being marginalized by 'Jackass' and endless adaptations of comic books. What I think I may be witnessing here is the last days of that tradition of which Hollywood claims to be most proud: the days when strong-willed, independent and visionary producers personally shepherded passion projects through the bureaucratic morass and onto the screen, despite obfuscation and the odds. Increasingly, however, as politically correct public education pummels the general culture into an anesthetized ‘huh?’ the creative group comes to represent the audience, and what is food for them is fodder for the public. The result is the rising tide of crap that makes its way into your theaters.

This is so, of course, because there is no such thing as a 'creative group.' This quaint Leninist idea ought to have been interred with the Caucescus, but the spirit of collectivist optimism still infects the left-tottering studios. You cannot create by consensus - groups cannot be creative in an artistic way; only individuals can. What is needful is not more conclaves of junior execs with upward longings, but stronger leadership that has the sense to trust those who truly are creative, and the courage to protect their vision. It makes no sense, aesthetically or economically, to pay screenwriters large sums to write scripts, only to have teams of fledgling bureaucrats tell them how they should have been written in the first place.

This collective ‘creative process’ defeats the creative instinct and cancels out inspiration and spontaneity, subjecting every script to a fabricated consensus, and reducing it to some hypothetical standard the chief value of which is not to upset the audience. And this means not to give them anything they might be uncomfortable with, anything they might actually have to think about, anything that might teach or provoke or enlighten or enrage them; in short - anything creative. Thus, the net effect of every creative group is to strip screenplays of their creativity. And this is why, in perusing the list of films in the theaters you say to yourself, more often than not, 'There's nothing out there to see.'