I made two 16mm films while a student at UCLA. I met actors and directors, agents and cameramen. I was in major studio offices and on their sound stages. I wrote a screenplay and shopped it around town. But I don’t think that I really wanted to work in Hollywood, except in brief and sophomoric fantasies involving starlets, Porsches, beach houses, parties. All guys have ’em, and it’s only a matter of what you’re willing to do or give up in order to make it a reality.
Something else turned me off. I was told by more than a few journeymen (though never higher-ups) that Hollywood revolved around money, sex and drugs. In that order. I certainly saw plenty of it in my years in L.A., though not being in much of a position to partake myself. To tell you the truth, of the three, I was really only interested in the women.
I actually had a few chances to get my foot in the door of that American fantasyland that mixes work and play like no other—a couple of UCLA friends had fathers in the Business, as they called it, and asked me to work on film projects with them that would surely have afforded me at least partial entrance. Instead, when I graduated, I took off to Europe for a year.
The reasons for my decision are complex, I suppose, but revolve around two things. First, film is a collaborative endeavor, and whoever has an idea that might make a movie work better—and thus put more bums on seats, as the Brits say—has a voice. In my case I’m not concerned that adding a scene or changing someone’s character might sell more tickets. That’s the ultimate goal, whatever high-flown philosophy you hear in “The making of…” featurettes on your DVDs. In other words, commerce trumps art (or anything else). Even a respected director who has complete creative control has to think about box office if he wants to continue making pictures.
For me, then, writing screenplays would no doubt involve a lot of frustration and probably disillusionment. “Serious” writers who are lured to the Dream Factory (so-called in an anthropological study by Powdermaker) have always been advised to “go in and get out quickly”—take the money and run, as they say—or risk being seduced by the money and sex (and possibly drugs) to stay and find oneself compromised by too many people who are there to get rich and live the charmed life. I couldn’t see how jumping into that would be in any way advantageous to me or what I was trying to accomplish.
The second reason why I eventually turned my back on Hollywood (though no one there is crying about it!) is that my temperament isn’t at all suited for that environment. An unfortunate amount of deception goes on there (often under the aegis of “pitching”), and because I tend to take people at their word, I could find myself hardened, even cynical, very quickly. I had no desire to close myself off or lose whatever sensitivity I have—and possibly even honesty—just to survive there, let alone prosper. Hey, I was 21. What would happen to my writing under those conditions, I wondered. Of course, it could be argued that I didn’t think I was tough enough to compete with the beasts of that particular forest and there may be some truth to that. But it may also be true that my vision was strong enough that I knew what was good and what was bad for my work; moreover, I think it took some strength to resist the call of the Sirens, which is unimaginably powerful out there, believe me. Thus you could probably say that both weakness and strength kept me out of Hollywood.
How’s this for a regret, though: the very thing that at first repelled me—that everyone with a credible brainstorm or who’s a fast-talker gets to put their fingerprint on the work—this is collaboration—on occasion made me wonder in the early days if working with others could actually improve my writing—dramatically or stylistically, at least. The old “two heads are better than one” idea. Having published so little in my lifetime, how could I not sometimes find myself thinking this? Of course you don’t have to go to Hollywood to work with collaborators—many literary agents were once editors and thus work with their writers to polish up their books before even submitting them to publishers, where editors there add even more expertise. But film-making has this built into the process—every day dozens if not hundreds of people are putting their stamp on the work, and some films are so beautifully done—perfect dialogue, engaging music, incredible acting and so on—that a lonely novelist (this is just an image, mind you) plying his lonely trade must certainly envy those who create art so well as a team.
I should say that I haven’t felt this way often—and I’m never lonely when I write because my characters are there with me—but I do admit to occasionally having lapsed into a wistful sigh, figuratively speaking, when pondering ways to make the work better, even perfect. And my meager publishing history makes this feeling all the more poignant.
What do I do about it? Nothing! My belief in what I’m writing has always been solid and I truly believe that only I can do what I do. Certainly someone could suggest a stronger climax, more foreshadowing, greater descriptive detail, increasing the role of a particular character, adding color and so on—all designed to appeal to the audience—but to me these are technical points and are of less concern to me in achieving my essential goal—saying what needs to be said. An editor might help in small but important ways to improve how it’s said (the form), but to me it’s what is being said (the content) that’s most important.
If one of the novels were to be published tomorrow and I was offered a movie deal, would I take it? Probably not. I suppose I’d have to be convinced by the producers and director that they understood the work, respected its integrity and would remain faithful to it—to the point of wanting me on the set to make sure. Not being a well-known novelist, I’m pretty confident I couldn’t demand such conditions. In any case, being forever hopeful (as well as wanting my ideas dispersed as widely as possible so that they might gain in influence), I’d probably meet with interested parties to sound them out about these issues, but realistically I could easily imagine nothing coming from it. I’m not one to take the money and run. I never have been. The important thing is the work and what it says. In fact, to me that’s really the only thing.
This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against Hollywood—though overall I don’t think its output has been healthy for the culture, either in exulting violence and romance as the solution to problems, or creating a celebrity class that we worship shamelessly. I know there are (and I’ve met) countless good people in the Business, and many of them strive primarily for artistic excellence. Some may even be idealistic. But the very real corruption of Mammon is so complete and overwhelming there and the pay-offs so great that I have avoided it like I would crack cocaine.