Thursday, December 14, 2006

Battling Bullies (or Your Worst Work Day Everrr...)

Talking TV trash talk here...your worst day ever whilst working on a television series (or movie if that's your thang).


Here's a few of my doozies....

One. A series about ten years ago. It was a strange hybrid of sci-fi paranormal drama and the supposed reality of an organization that investigated this spooky stuff. It's a long convoluted story how I got involved, but a series of fortunate, or unfortunate, events found me sitting in the room and being asked to help lead the charge of a show that had cleared 98% of the US syndicated marketplace, but didn't really know what it was yet.

We had several sit-downs in Los Angeles, followed by several more back in Toronto. But I was starting to get antsy. We had to figure out the series, but we also had a start date in a couple months. Decisions needed to be made. But it wasn't that simple. You had two camps. One consisting of the network and studio/company that wanted one kind of show (more of a mystery drama). And another camp consisting of the creators and star and 'real' organization that had provided the inspiration for the series. And for some bizarre reason, I became the guy that both sides felt they could talk to and try to sway the series in one direction or the other.

There was so much crazy talk. I mean, I barely knew what I was doing but I knew it was a bad thing that no one could agree. And a worse thing that the one thing everyone was agreeing on was the size and scale and scope of the visual effects desired...yet there was no way we could afford them all.

At some point, I was standing outside having a smoke with the Line Producer and one of the two exec producers from the second camp. I must have had my fill of bullshit for that day so I started to make a case for taking the show more in the direction the network and studio/company wanted because, after all, they were paying for it. A certain executive producer got in my face so fast. He insisted it couldn't change course. It was sold this way and that's the way it must remain. "Yeah but..." I start to say. His face got very red, veins were popping out everywhere...and he got this wild look in his eyes as he moved up inches from me and shrieked: "Do not fuck this up!! This is my retirement fund we're talking about here!!! And. You. Will. Not. Fuck. It. UPPPP!"

Um...yeah.

Of course I was just the middle man, and had no vested interest in how it did or the backend of any profits - other than keeping a gig. But I walked away from that little scene with that sick feeling of knowing I was caught between two opposing sides that weren't going to bend, and my next ten months was going to be absolute hell. I was right.

Two. I was on a big show in Vancouver. And I was there apprehensively. The writing room was made up of big hitters from 'Quincy', 'Northern Exposure', 'Quantum Leap', 'Lois And Clark', 'Tales From The Crypt', 'Star Trek Next Generation', and little ol' me. It was my own undoing I'm sure, but I spent most of my time on that gig never really feeling like I belonged or even deserved to even be there, and I let that get to me.

Anyway this show had a notorious screamer exec...the stories were legendary. But I'd yet to have any real contact with him, until I turned in the first draft of my first script. I remember being paged to get down to the head writers office..immediately. Walk in, and all I can hear is someone yelling through a speaker phone. It's this exec calling from LA. Head writer was a super nice soft-spoken man who was trying to placate and cajole, but he was fighting a losing battle. It was announced I was in the room and screamer exec just went off.

Screamer Exec: "What were you thinking? This story begins in a homeless shelter and the priest running it is a bitter, discouraged man. Are you out of you fuckin' mind? I got so pissed off I threw the script across the room by page 8!"

I stammer, look desperately at faces of other writers sitting in room, but most were staring at the floor. You see, I'd played the priest as a happy, enthusiastic caregiver in my initial pitch, and it had been the writers room that had suggested to change it a more jaded character because that was 'more interesting'. And kudos to the head writer for piping up at that moment and stating that the room, in fact, had asked me to change it (it was all so pointless in retrospect because this character disappeared from the story by the end of act one).

Screamer Exec: "I don't care if you told him to change it. He wrote this shit. He's responsible for this shit, and he is going to eat shit!"

The next hour was him yelling about every line of the first eight pages and how he wanted it changed. This without having even read the rest of the draft. Any attempt to explain that things were there to pay of story stuff later was met with he didn't care and ordered to change. Call finally ended with him addressing me personally and yelling (still!): "You're a fucking idiot and you don't write worth shit. I want this fixed and brilliant by tomorrow morning or you’re fired!" Click.


To say I was shell-shocked is an understatement. I'd heard the stories, hell, I'd even seen Kevin Spacey in 'Swimming with Sharks'...but until you're in the room and at the other end of that kind of attack, you have no idea. And I got a draft done and managed to muddle through rewrites until it went into production, but I never really recovered. He was gunning for me and I knew it (seeing how he went after my next outline), and I began to believe I didn't deserve or even want to be there anymore. I did my time and put in the effort, but when they decided not to extend my option to the next year, I wasn't broken up about it.

The upside to all that...there's an upside? A few years later I found myself deep in the muck on three TV movies with an aging Hollywood has-been screamer Exec. I was directing one and kind of co-producing the three. He ended up on my watch a lot of the time. And I endured more verbal abuse from him in three months than I'll receive in a lifetime. But the difference was I'd been there before.

We had an early story meeting with me and Aging Screamer and the director of the first movie in the room and the writer on speaker phone. And I'd remained pretty quiet as the director discussed changes or adjustments and was mostly rebutted. Finally, near the end of the call, the director turned to me and asked me to bring up a logic point that basically turfed the story but I did have a solution...and I explained my thought...and Aging Exec went apeshit.

Aging Screamer Exec: "Have you lost your fucking mind? Have you made moving pictures (that's what he called them) before? It's a fucking mystery. And mysteries have clues and red herrings. And that's a fucking red herring clue! Don't you know anything?! Get out! Get out of my sight now!"

Director gaped. But I just shrugged and stayed seated and said I thought it was a valid point and we should consider changing it. Aging Screamer's face was beet red and he was spitting and stammering, but then started to calm down and asked what my note was again. The reality was it was neither a clue or a red herring or a red herring clue (whatever that is)...and he didn't scare me. I'd been there, done that. I could be offended or insulted, but I wasn't going to be bullied.

There's a lot of good pleasant people in the TV/film business, but there's also a lot of assholes and bullies. Probably like that in every line of work. And I'm sure it's no coincidence these stories were with Hollywooders having to work with us lowly Canucks (Canadians tend to be a lot nicer). But if you want to swim in those waters, be ready for it. And the first time you run up against it will feel like a slap to the face. But you've got to go through it a few times in order to discover your way of dealing with it. And the toughest thing can be when what they are saying is actually a good point, but the way they are going about passing along that point or note is what is offensive.

So you learn to listen patiently, and try not to get angry or defensive, and then counter with words just as strong as theirs. If you make sense and don't make it personal, plus can incorporate some things they brought up into your counter attack, they will generally back down. Or not. In which case you either quit, or grin and bear it.

TV/Film stories like this is what I'm looking for, but anyone in any line of work with a similar tale to tell is more than welcome.


SONG&ARTIST? - "Now that your picture's in the paper
being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that
you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.
Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week."

19 comments:

Heart Of Darkness said...

Whoa... should I really work that hard on the business-2-business crossover? :)

Still, it seems more interesting then my job. Want a trade?

Good Dog said...

I came across more than my fair share of outright bullies and idjits during far too many years in animation, and elsewhere. At the last studio most of it came down to the producer not wanting to say no to the “artists” and leaving it to me to explain there wasn’t the time or the budget for their pre-packshot extravaganzas.

Then again, during my final six months there, a time came when the producer called me a c**t in front of everyone in my department. Long convoluted story, which I was going to write about anyway since I brought it up yesterday, but what it came down to was her failing and a facilities-house fuck up. So she just wanted someone to blame.

After leaving college, and after the big animated feature I worked on was over, I worked for a design and advertising consultancy. One of the copywriters kept playing the Beach Boys day in and day out. One day he came in late, put on the CD and as the first notes of an intro played I muttered, “Oh crap, not the freaking Beach Boys again.”

And he went off on one, calling me every name under the sun, and added c**t to the end of word to give me both barrels. This went on for a good few minutes. When he went to make a coffee I simply gathered the work together and worked at home for the day.

Actually, on my degree course a number of the first year tutors had it in for me from the start. After Easter, when kids were coming for their interviews for the next year, we had a project crit and he singled out my work. We were the product of two large London art schools merging so there were seventy-five students in the year. And the studio was open plan. Everyone had been split into five groups, each given a different project, and the tutors were discussing the finished work with their block of student.

It was the end of the weekly life-drawing day. The bunch I was in had come back from sketching at St. Katherine’s Dock by the Thames, just east of Tower Bridge. Obviously I hadn’t drawn what I was supposed to and when the tutor came to my work, he got louder and angrier. By the time he told me to go down to where the kids were waiting for their interview and explain to them how I had got on the course and they wouldn’t the whole floor was dead quiet and we had a large audience listening. Went downstairs, had a coffee and a game of pinball.

I’ll stand my ground to get the work done on time, so I’m certainly not a pushover. Had a go at an animator once who was up in the department loudly goofing around with a background artist. But at the time I was trying to work out the cushions on a rather complicated camera move and the clock was ticking.

But in general I’m rubbish in an argument because I don’t remember the minutia they bring up because it’s too trivial. And like I said, mainly it’s their failings they’re trying to cover up. I tend to stand, smile and agree with them. If the muscles start twitching under my right eye, I’m afraid that’s another matter.

DMc said...

You know there was this one...

this o..

on...

oh...oh..rock...rock...puddle.

Mm.

guess I'm not there yet.

But I do appreciate the story, and I do have a question:

Why do the screamers honestly think this is a good management strategy?

Good Dog said...

Why do the screamers honestly think this is a good management strategy?

Because they don't know any better? I mean we could go back to discover that mummy and daddy didn't love them as children. Maybe they got screamed at when things went wrong in the early days and they think that's know it's done. Maybe they can't articulate their desires properly.

Or maybe they're just a muppet.

wcdixon said...

What I discovered was the M.O. was generally always the same: an attacking harsh reactionary outburst, followed by coming in the next day all smiles and hugs and kisses. Or even an hour later. Like it never happened. And I started to realize that they didn't seem to be truly aware of what they were saying, or at least how they were saying it.

The few times I pointed out something as being mean-spirited and insulting and yes, unproductive, the reaction was always the same: 'Really? Oh my god...really?! Did I say that? I didn't, did I?" And the explanation always ended the same way...no real apology, and the statement: "I'm just a passionate person and only want what's best for the show."

Um...yeah.

I'm sure there's a category for this personality type, which this industry seems to attract a lot of, but my mind is drawing a blank. Please don't yell.

Diane Kristine said...

I'm sure there's a category for this personality type, which this industry seems to attract a lot of, but my mind is drawing a blank.

Abusive?

English Dave said...

lol.

I have a great story but it's about a show I'm currently working on and so too iffy to tell right now. Suffice to say it involves the silent assasin more than the screamer. I'm not sure which one I'd prefer.

I've never had anyone actually scream at me. Could be because I'm 6 feet, 190 lbs and short tempered?

I have noticed that speaker phones seem to loom large when the screamer is in action. I wonder if they'd be the same face to face?

DMc said...

I can yell when I need to. I'm actually kind of loud to start. Still working on the inside voice.

But the starting from yelling thing just seems so counterproductive. Also -- if you always yell, then how can you possibly expect your yelling to have any impact?

Ive found the yelling also goes hand in hand with the "you have no idea what they're doing to me" - the personality who can only ever see their own pain and challenges, with not a drop of empathy for anyone else. I think if you're capable of empathy, you can't possibly start from that position of unmitigated rage. I mean, why would you?

blueglow said...

most of my experiences have been either good or great. no really. but there was this one ...

working on a canada/america co-pro with a couple of unlikely broadcasters -- cbc/cbs ( the whole story of that unholy marriage is a very interesting one but not the subject of this tale)

anyway...

the americans wanted to have someone on the ground while we were shooting, the canucks were content to do their talking via speakerphone (and man could they talk -- often I'd get dragged into their notes sessions with the producers and on more than one occassion I would actually leave the building, have lunch and come back and re-enter the conversation without missing a beat)...

anyhow...

it soon became apparent that there were two competing agenda for the show -- the american and the canadian. financially the canadians held the hammer but the americans had the boots on the ground in that they had their guy there (boots on the ground in this case was literal -- the dude was a two tour vietnam vet, prone to all the psychosis you see in every bad b-movie) and he was an imposing figure.

as the primary writer on the show it was clear that I had to make a choice as to which piper to pay. so I chose the american 1 because i liked him 2 because he knew how to stroke me and 3 he scared the shit out of me.

the other writer tried to tow the Canadian line -- he'd been on the show the year before me and believed in the series as it stood (before the americans bought in). I didn't, at least not one hundred percent, so there was no way I was going to back him (i'd made my choice-- i was with the philistines) and so basically i watched him get ground into the dirt. up until that point we were friends -- now we don't speak.

there was no single bad day or incident that i could point out as being particularly bad -- in fact i had a pretty good time being the american's golden boy -- the only one who stood out from the rest of the idiot Canadians he was dealing with (his evaluation, not mine) and I ate it up.

he only turned on me once.

a friend of mine wrote a script. i thought it was pretty good, so I let it go out into the world with minor revision -- it was a classic buddy movie story -- a cop and reporter working the same case, they start out hating each other and in the end they like each other.

now the american went crazy. he didn't like the script at all. I defended it, told him that it wasn't going to change and went back to my apartment for the night.

and the phone calls started. about every half hour until about six in the morning.

"i can't beleive you like that script"

"when are you going to start rewriting it"

"do you like him better than me'

"I thought you were special, but you're just a stupid Canadian like all the rest"

"what's the matter, don't you like me"

"you have to understand, this story is important to me"

"call me back"

"please call me back"

"don't try and call me back, you're dead to me"

etc, etc, etc...

it was wierd and twisted...

but, of course, we got over that and continued on (i changed the script -- gave it the requisite fist fight and high fives that a lot of American buddy pics have) and i remained the golden boy.

the show finally wrapped and with it were great plans that me and the american would, along with jean claude van damme(?!) take over the straight to video action world.

this, of course, never happened.

but the thing is -- my worst work day, or worst work experience, wasn't a result of what someone did to me. it was what i did to others in an effort to protect, promote myself. for a brief period of time I enjoyed being an asshole and found it was really easy to fuck others around to get ahead.

i remember coming home. taking a break -- i'd been working a lot -- and then about three months later it hit me -- it was a what the fuck was that? who the fuck was I? moment.

I'd basically sold out the dude who came up with the show and basiclaly sold out the Canadian network so that I could be liked by someone who I thought could do something for me.

there was no great psychic trauma about it it was just kinda funny realizing how low you can go to get ahead.

and , oh yeah, then there was the time montessi threw a chair at me....

wcdixon said...

Jorge!

Jorge was notorious, but he and I got along grand for some reason because apparently...'I got him'. But I never turned my back - knew he could turn like... "snap"... that.

Great story.

English Dave said...

''but the thing is -- my worst work day, or worst work experience, wasn't a result of what someone did to me. it was what i did to others in an effort to protect, promote myself. for a brief period of time I enjoyed being an asshole and found it was really easy to fuck others around to get ahead.''


Profound.

Jutratest said...

I've got a world famous screamer in my life, but after the first three years I just started seeing the yelling as a "conversation", and reacted accordingly.

Bill Cunningham said...

I was the Associate Producer on a little movie here in LA. It was my first producing gig and I worked hard for it - I was in the office at 8am after wrapping at 4am nearly every day because the normal office stuff still had to be done and we needed a lot of indians because there were too many chiefs who didn't want to do anything...

So I'm on set one night, at this huge concrete and glass mansion overlooking Sunset Plaza and we're shooting outside. Well, apparently someone didn't address some issue and the director (who was also the producer and co-writer) goes off on me about firing that person. I told him , "no" and he starts yelling at me how I'll never make it in Hollywood, that I'm a pussy, etc...

All right in front of the crew I had been shielding from this kind of abuse.

I looked at them, then I looked at the director and calmly told him that if he thought I wouldn't pick his scrawny ass up and toss it down the cliffside, he was sorely mistaken...

He shut up because he could see the crew was behind me, and some of them had wrenches...

We had the problem "fixed" about fifteen minutes later and brought talent out to shoot. We got the scene done and moved on. We wrapped the picture and two months later after it was all posted, I sent in my letter of resignation and moved on...

Diane Kristine said...

My worst boss was an assistant managing editor who actually knew his stuff really well and could have been a great mentor, but ruled the place with irrational outbursts and belittling. The number of people who quit because of him was astronomical.

He was always really nice and supportive to me, until over a year on when he asked me out and I said no. I offered the reasonable truth of having a boyfriend instead of the more to-the-point truth, which was “not if you were the last man on earth and the future of mankind depended on it.”

A few days of belittling me later, I walked out on one of his rants (I was done for the day anyway and told him I wasn’t going to put up with him unless someone was paying me) and he trashed the newsroom – literally throwing chairs and stuff - and threatened to beat someone up for not tucking in his shirt (that was the dress code - if this guy was in a bad mood, the guys had to tuck in their shirts). He was fired the next day. I'd brought my letter of resignation with me that day and was happy I didn't have to use it.

To this day, I think of how things might have been different if I'd said yes, and I look at him as the one who got away. NOT.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

I have a 3 tiered strategy when dealing with screamers. Pretty much works whether I'm dealing with bosses (where they have complete control over me), clients (a partnership of sorts, where I have some control) and co-workers (equal balance of power).

When caught in the net by an irrational, screaming maniac:

1) Appear wounded and frail, as though their every word was cutting into your soul, making you feel like dirt. You might even take it so far as to act like a slave about to be beaten for spilling a glass of milk on the "master's" table. Give them the guilt trip. Appeal to their Humanity, hope that they recognize their deplorable behaviour, pull back a bit and apologize for being such a dickwad.

2) Be the soul-saving, empathetic angel. You recognize their pain, you can sense the darkness in their soul and want to help. Family troubles? Health issues? Things not going well for you at work? Come, let's sit down with a cup of tea and talk about it. If you can be truly honest with yourself, you can begin the healing process and find the path back to your authentic self...

3) You SO don't want to fuck with me. I may be short/a woman but I'm a scrappy and vindictive little mother-fucker with a looong memory and I will take you out, you demented, pathetic little son-of-a-bitch! Now apologize to me for that ridiculous outburst and let's get on with business because I don't time for your childish bullshit today!


Uh, y'know, looking back on these three strategies, they would probably work well both at the office and in the bedroom. :-)

KJC

wcdixon said...

Excellent trench tales...

Part of me wishes a 'screamer' would comment from their prospective and we could go all Dr. Phil on them...

Mef said...

I'm late to this but I also had a tv thrown at me. Actually it was kind of pushed at me by a cast member when I was a writer.

At the time I thought I was going to be fired even though I had done nothing wrong except not catch the tv.

Nothing happened to the actor. Not even a bill for the tv.

Mark

wcdixon said...

'Welcome To The Working Week' - Elvis Costello

Sugith Varughese said...

I wish there was a way to quantify the success of screamers vs. non-screamers. I doubt a monetization of screaming would come out ahead.

I began my career writing for the Muppets--talk about starting at the top--and in four years I NEVER heard Jim Henson or Jerry Juhl (who basically wrote everything Miss Piggy and Kermit ever said) ever raise their voices. Worked for them.

Works for me.