Sunday, November 30, 2008

Better Than Bitter

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a seminar designed to offer inspiration and guidance to young screenwriters. The event was billed as a casual discussion featuring six produced screenwriters. I wound up seated beside a hugely successful writer who opted to use his allotted time to engage in a personal bitchfest about the entertainment industry. Since he was a highly paid, award-winning writer, we were all surprised to learn that he considered himself a victim of the studio system - a system staffed by callous morons who were apparently preventing him from doing any truly great writing.

At first I thought he was joking and would settle down after he got a few laughs, but the rant continued. I began to wonder if he was aware of where he was or who he was talking to. Then I started thinking about how much money this guy made rewriting crappy scripts (the majority of which never saw the light of day). As I watched the smiles start sliding off the faces of our audience, I decided to break in. Using my best "Mary Hart" voice, I said I would love to hear him talk some of the things that inspired him as a writer. My request threw him a bit, but he did manage to rise to the occasion – sort of. The incident made me so angry I wound up recounting it to friends for weeks. I was surprised how furious I felt about the whole thing. And that’s when it hit me. The reason I was so pissed about his bitterness was that I was secretly fighting a little of my own.

When I first arrived in L.A., I was a broke playwright clueless about the movie business. I remember attending a party at a friend’s place in Laurel Canyon. It was one of those houses precariously cantilevered over the edge of a cliff (which to me felt like a giant metaphor for the life I was entering into). I was introduced to a balding, bespectacled guy who’d been making a very nice living as a screenwriter for over twenty years. His gentle, professorial manner instantly put me at ease. I was grateful for the chance to ask a few questions and was dazzled by the list of directors and stars he’d worked with over the years. But the conversation took a strange turn when I asked the one question no screenwriter wants to hear: “What have you written that I might have seen?” In his twenty-odd years of working with A-List talent, he had yet to see one of his scripts produced. His mood darkened. He poured himself a third, then a fourth drink as vitriol began to ooze out of him like molten lava. Suddenly, everyone he’d ever worked with was a backstabbing traitor; a loathsome, lying, Nazi rapist. I began to feel sorry for him. I also resolved at that moment to never become him. I would never become bitter. Never!

That proved to be a hard promise to keep. I’ve been lucky in that, for the most part, my scripts have been greeted with enthusiasm, sometimes wild enthusiasm. I once did a rewrite for a studio (whose logo is a large rodent) and was virtually carried around the lot on the shoulders of the execs, they were so happy. Pre-production would start immediately! My future was bright! Ninety days later, (for dubious reasons) the movie was shut down. At another famed studio, I’ve got a project now entering its seventh year of purgatory. Every full moon it rises from the dead, only to fall lifeless into its coffin again as soon as somebody mentions a start date. This can do a number on you after a while. “Almosts” can wear you down. You can only be stabbed in the heart so many times. As one writer I know who left the business put it, “I got tired of being fucked without a kiss.”

Without constant weeding, my artistic garden can get overrun by jealousy and resentment. Every time I mentor young writers I try to recommend the screenwriting journals of William Goldman and John Gregory Dunne. While Mr. Goldman’s books (“Adventures in the Screen Trade,” etc.) are about his work on iconic films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Mr. Dunne’s book (“Monster”) follows the bizarre, nine-year odyssey he and his co-writer (and wife) Joan Didion took with the largely forgettable “Up Close and Personal.” One thing that Mr. Goldman, Ms. Didion and the recently deceased Mr. Dunne all had in common was that none of them were exclusively screenwriters. All three wrote in other mediums as well: novels, non-fiction, journalism, short stories, plays, etc. And that, in my humble opinion (and Mr. Goldman’s) is the secret to maintaining one’s sanity in the screenwriting business. Write something else.

A few years ago, I teamed up with a composer and began writing choral music for my church. It was a perfect outlet to use my talents as a wordsmith in an arena where it would have meaning and be appreciated. I soon volunteered to write and deliver some speeches on behalf of a charity I believed in (this also gave me a chance to exercise my performing muscles). I never dreamed that doing a short film would alter the course of my career, but it did. Writing this blog has led to magazine assignments and some interest from publishers about possibly writing a book. Although none of these projects has generated a ton of income, they’ve given me the chance to create freely; without permission, interference or notes. With no history of broken promises hovering over my head, I’ve been able to strengthen the most important thing any writer can possess: confidence in his or her own voice.

In my experience, very little good work ever emanates from a place of anger or bitterness. Chances are that nothing is stopping that A-List screenwriter mentioned earlier from taking a year off and writing a novel or an independent film -- except possibly a huge mortgage, an expensive ex-wife or just plain old fear. I like money. I like health insurance. I like success. But none of those things drew me to the altar originally. I thought I had a story to tell. I still think I do. If that’s in fact what I’m on the planet to do, then nothing can really stop me. The simple act of putting a few words down (sort of like I’m doing right now) stitches up the wound. It makes me forget the black eye I got the last time. Yes, it can get a little rough out there on the playground, but there are worse fates than having an imagination and knowing how to use it. Have a good week, Hollywood. Give ‘em hell.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Great post with excellent advice. I'm working on my own bitterness issues. ha

Michelle said...

so far not bitter yet, but I think your advice about channeling your talents into another project (while you are waiting for the dreaded notes) is excellent. Maybe if I follow this advice consistently I can be the rare screenwriter who never gets bitter. A girl can wish:)


Catherine Butterfield said...

David, you're a new facebook friend and I'm not sure how we even came to be that way, but your article is so on point. I too started as an actor, became a playwright and suddenly found myself playing this mysterious game in Hollywood, and the dangers of slipping into bitterness seem to only get more intense when you allow yourself (and you should never allow yourself!) to think back on all the brilliant but aborted projects you've worked on. I think the only solution is to keep your gaze fixed firmly in front of you and yes, to work on other things. Even a short story can cleanse the palate and remind you that writing doesn't have to be a tug of war with the enemy.