Friday, December 28, 2007

Battling Bullies...(Or Your Worst Work Day Ever)...(Reprint)

Talking TV trash talk here, sort of your anti-Ken Levine post...your worst day ever whilst working on a television series (or a movie if that's your niche).

Here's a couple of 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 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 start being 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 enough that 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 everyone wanted...yet there was no way we could afford it 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 desired because, after all, they were paying for it. This 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! Do not fuck this up!! This is my retirement fund we're talking about here!!! And. You. Will. Not. Fuck. It. Uppppp!"


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 in the middle of two opposing sides they weren't going to bend, and my next ten months were 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. Everyone just seemed so out of my league, and I let that get to me.

Anyways 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 called to immediately get down to the head writers office. 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 losing badly. 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? People who work in homeless shelters don't act like that!"

I stammer, look desperately at faces of other writers sitting in room, but most were staring at the floor. See I'd played the priest as a happy, enthusiastic caregiver in my initial pitch, and it had been the writers room that had said to change it to this 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 what he wanted it changed to. This without him having even read the rest of the draft. Any attempts 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 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 to be there 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? A few years later I found myself deep in the muck on three TV movies with an aging Hollywood has-been exec screamer. I was directing one and kind of creative 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 the director of the first movie and Aging Screamer 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 brought it up...and Aging Exec lost it.

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. We came to conclusion it was neither a clue or a red herring or a red herring clue (whatever that is)...and we got there because 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 and decent 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 and wrong.

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.

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."


Chris said...

RIngs so true of everything I know in development, and the paranoia I see among my counterparts in TV...except when it isn't and the whole thing works like a FUNCTIONAL family. And that's only about as rare as real world functional families are...

greg said...

I was directing for a really bad anthology series. Show Runner from LA was a screamer. He worked with Michael Mann and used to say - if Michael Mann can yell, I can yell. I was doing a lot of rewriting for the show on my episodes - I was the only director he would allow to do that... but one day - I shot a scene where the lead actress is being chased through an old abandoned warehouse. The guy chasing her called her character's name as he did it. At three AM I received a call from the exec screaming about how I "fucked him" over. He gave me rope and I hung him with it. Calling the character was NOT IN THE SCRIPT. How could I have done this to him? He TRUSTED ME! Of course, I had shot it in plenty of ways to not hear the offending name - but he was PISSED. I just listened - told him I really had to get some sleep cause I had to shoot in a couple hours - and went back to bed.

It never really got better. And the series still sucked. But I'm still here... :)

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