I got a freelance editing job (“job”) a few days ago. Today, I went to go get the footage from the guy who directed it. I should mention that he graduated from my MFA program in May. On the phone he seemed like a nice enough guy. The fact that he wasn’t really willing to coordinate with me at a point when he wasn’t in the Hollywood Hills and instead expected me to drive my ass up there (an hour drive) should have been a little red flag, but hey, I’m a good sport. Then I spent some time with the guy.
The file transfer took almost twenty minutes. This meant twenty minutes of talking, and the first thing he says to me is something to the tune of “You know, most students in your position would pay to pick my brain. You know, film school, the industry.” My GOD this was some shade of cocky, I wouldn’t have expected from anyone in my program, but given the reputation USC students have, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. He proceeded of course to list his accomplishments, which to me (no matter how hard he worked for them) seemed about par for the course for a recent grad. He gave me a copy of his thesis, and bragged that he’d gotten a manager right off from that thesis. My only real questions for him (until I switched gears into brownnose mode; I’m really bad at that) were about his debt; he said he’d racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of two-hundred thousand.
I suppose this was noteworthy to me because I felt like I was seeing this black, horrible, twisted image of the future. Not necessarily of me; I’m not saying I’m incapable of such arrogance, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll grow a pair and be one of those Hollywood ball-buster types. But if you’re arrogant, at least have the good sense to be conniving about it. Dealing-with-people 101 is pretty simple, and this fellow failed it pretty hard. Guys, when you want to succeed, DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOURSELF FIRST, no matter who you’re trying to impress. You’ll get much further in life if you make others feel awesome (do as I say, not as I do.)
But I also thought about my classmates. let me get this straight; I LOVE my classmates. Well, most of them. I never thought I’d have such affection for a group of people, let alone so many people (there are about fifty of us). But needless to say, the majority, or at least the plurality, want to be directors. I don’t aspire as intently as some of my colleagues, but I haven’t ruled it out yet. I can’t imagine that these guys (and girls), who are by and large not only talented but generally personable folks, would flaunt their assumed superiority and success over their peers so brusquely. But this guy’s big argument, I think when he saw my thinly-veiled disgust at his own self-aggrandizing, was that if you want to make it in such a competitive, ungrateful field, you HAVE to be an arrogant bastard. You HAVE to believe that your way is the only way, because when you open yourself to other possibilities, everything just falls apart like an undercooked bundt cake.
Allow me to posit an alternative;
Before I moved to Los Angeles, one of my friends was studying at the Actors Studio at Pace University, and always attended James Lipton’s interviews, and the one she got me into was Conan O’Brien, just before he, too, made the jump out to LA to host the Tonight Show. What he said would always stick with me, but one of Conan’s most defining traits is his self-effacing nature, modest, even self-deprecating. One can sense that air of confidence on him, that he doesn’t mean it when he criticizes his appearance or performance, but he doesn’t push anything; he lets his talent speak for himself. And this was what he told Lipton’s students; don’t panic, don’t try to push yourself. Just be present, do what you love, do what you’re good at. Be unassuming, and endear yourself to people, but more importantly, know what you’re good at. Don’t pimp yourself when you don’t really have anything to pimp (this guy’s film, incidentally, while he’d clearly sunk a lot of money into it, wasn’t anything more than technically good). At the end of the day, if you have talent and, more importantly, believe in that talent, it will speak for itself when you take the opportunity to show it. Screenwriting 101; show, don’t tell.
A lot of people would argue that in the cutthroat world of Hollywood this isn’t a realistic way to go about things. That may be, but hey, Conan O’Brien too popped up here in the late 1980’s with nary a thing but a bachelor’s degree and a job at a leather shop in West Hollywood. It seems that some can get pretty far without being a douchebag.