Saturday, September 12, 2009

Weekend blog: The subject of respect

Besides talent, respect is the other word that is often tossed around.  It seems everyone wants respect, gang-bangers will shoot you dead because you didn't respect them, minority groups will protest you if you don't respect them, employees will sue their bosses for respect and relationships can end if there isn't enough respect. Then there's respect for the writer.

Arguably the lowest person on the "above the line" group in movie production, is the writer. They can write a great script only to see it taken from their grip and handed over to another writer and another. The one thing we writers are is definitely faithful to our kind. We are pleased to take another writer's work and shape it into something new, maybe even worse than the original. 

This is what I think about respect. 

When I came to LA in 1990 I was exhausted by of the Canadian film system. Writers are generally not respected in Canada.  Producers, often second-rate ones, would do their best to let a writer being interviewed for a job feel like he was a third class citizen.  But when I came to LA, I suddenly found a lot of respect,  at least I thought so, because when Hollywood wants you, they treat you great, that is until they don't need you. Then that home phone line is busy, and nobody calls you back. But at least they take you to expensive lunches and say they're "a fan".  In Canada they tell you you're just one of a few hundred unemployed writers.

The lack of respect for writers goes back to the beginning of movies, when it was mostly women who wrote the "title cards" for silent movies, those bits of dialog or explanation between the scenes.  When talkies came to being, the studios hired playwrights, figuring they knew how to write dialog. Many did and many succeeded. But since writers are always rewritten (how many actors get fired in the middle of a movie and replaced by someone else?), they became disposable. 

"Schmucks with typewriters", a famous studio head said once, referring to writers. And of course, another studio head, when passing by the rooms where writers worked, noticed it was quiet, no keys being pressed down. He shouted "I don't hear typing".  I've always had a problem about respect, untalented hacks demand it, guys like me never ask for it, and some think it's unwarranted.

I taught screenwriting extension classes at UCLA for awhile, and the question often came up, why don't they respect writers? I think that it may be because so many of us are willing to stab the other writer in the back for a job, or that we're marks for work.  I know I have worked for free almost as many times as I have been paid.  Anyone who does that is surely an idiot.  But you have to remember that we write because we like it.  It's not a job, it's a life and it doesn't end till we drop dead over the computer or whatever the medium will be in the next 20 years.  And they know it. 

My agent used to go crazy when I told him I was doing a freebie for a friend, maybe it was because he wasn't getting any money, but maybe he thought I was devaluating myself. And I probably was.  But I learned one thing in my years in LA, and that was that I never needed anyone else to say they respected me.  I respected myself, I knew that I could write a good screenplay, they might not like it, but it was good.  And frankly I didn't give a damn if they respected me or not. 

The only respect I wanted from them was the check.  I always tell writers there are 3 things you need to know in a contract; how much do I get paid, what do I have to do to get paid and when do I get paid. You laugh, but that's the reality.

There were producers and studio execs who did respect me, at least they said so, and it was nice, and I smiled as I asked for another latte from their assistant.  But I didn't really need it, their comments were more gravy on the fries rather than elated moments of self-absorption. Praise doesn't buy you a car... or a house.  Frank Balkan, the best agent I ever had and still a good friend said this about praise, "I'd like them to praise you less and pay you more."  Well said.

And finally my former live-in told me that I was one of the few people she knew who was living his dream.  Now that's the respect I admire and am grateful for and I didn't even ask for it. 

Respect is what someone else offers to you, it's not what you demand or expect. 

It's their gift not your right.

(Next blog: The Proposal Pt 2)