When It Crashes, Part Two
Did you ever see the movie Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Deniro, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet?
The film is about a lot of things, but at its core it’s a portrait of a Hollywood producer. The character of Stanley Motss, played by Dustin Hoffman, is, by all accounts, a spot-on portrayal of Robert Evans (who produced The Godfather and Chinatown, among many others.)
What does a producer do? Nobody knows. Even in the movie biz, no one appreciates the producer’s art. “Did you know,” Dustin Hoffman complains at one point in the story, “that there’s no Oscar for producing?” There’s Best Picture, he says, but not Best Producer. Because nobody knows what a producer does.
What a producer does is make things happen. What a producer does is save the day.
The point, for this post, is that you and I have to be producers “When It Crashes.” Two weeks ago, in my first post on this subject, I described a point about two-thirds of the way through the writing of my newest book, The Profession, when the wheels came off and the whole project went careening wildly off the highway. The next thing that happened, as I said, was that I myself fell apart.
What happened? In a nutshell, I forgot that I had to be a producer. I forgot that I had to shift from writer mode to Robert Evans mode.
A tremendously astute observation came in response to that first post from Rick Wolff (thank you, Rick!), who wrote in the Comments section:
One common thread I’m noticing here, more from my personal tailspin (longer than yours, Mr. P.) than from your book, is that a panic mode pulls the concentration off the problem and onto myself. It’s all, “What am *I* going to do? How will *I* survive this? How could this happen to *me*?” It’s a defensive posture, hardwired into us all. But the solution begins when I take the effort to push the spotlight off myself and back onto the problem. Putting my situation onto a mental back-burner, first, helped me feel better and stopped that negative feedback loop, and second, let me imagine a solution.
A commonplace from Hollywood and the theater is, “All actors are children”—and its corollary, “All writers are children.” There’s more truth to this than most actors, writers, dancers, singers and entrepreneurs would care to admit. What I mean is that creative types notoriously come unpeeled when the vision they’ve invested their identity in suddenly and catastrophically unravels.
That’s when the producer has to step in. That’s when grownup supervision needs to arrive. In the case of When It Crashes, that producer has to be you and me.
A producer, in real life, may be nutty. He may be a character. He may be a bully. But a producer gets things done. A producer solves the problem. When your leading lady decamps to rehab, when the city revokes the license for your new tapas bar, when your second act crashes, you—the producer—must produce. As Dustin Hoffman says to Anne Heche and Robert Deniro at the darkest hour of Wag the Dog:
This is nothing! Piece of cake! Producing is being a samurai warrior. They pay you day in, day out for years so that one day when called upon, you can respond, your training at its peak, and save the day!
On any project, the Big Crash usually happens two-thirds of the way through. The phenomenon is so common, across so many fields, that you can almost bank on it. Pencil it into the schedule. It’s gonna happen.
The culprit is usually laziness. Laziness at the start. Somewhere in the initial project conception, we took our eye off the ball. We didn’t think our new drama/high-tech startup/philanthropic venture all the way through. We counted on instinct and passion. We banked on the intercession of the gods. Now our play is two-thirds done, our killer app is due to ship, our clinic in the slums of Zamboanga City is set to open its doors. Now we realize the third act doesn’t work, the software keeps eating itself, and the shantytown gangs have discovered our clinic’s cache of painkillers.
It’s one of the most amazing things in the world, watching a star producer at work. Because he or she can’t solve the problem with smoke and mirrors. He or she has to actually solve the problem.
That’s us. That’s you and me. We have to reel our project all the way back to Square One and dig it out of the hole we dug it into by our laziness and aversion to pain and work in the first place.
I’m writing this in a tongue-in-cheek tone, but When It Crashes is no joke. The skill to deal it is something they don’t teach you at Harvard. How do you learn it? Only in the moment. Only under the gun. But two things definitely help.
The first, as noted in the original When It Crashes post, is to prepare ourselves mentally in advance—so that when the shit hits the fan, we’re at least not blind-sided by it … and can stay in problem-solving mode (as Rick Wolff says) instead of tailspinning into panic mode.
The second is to have mentors and role models. “This is nothing! Piece of cake!” Be like Robert Evans. Start channeling Stanley Motss. Switch to producer mode and grind this puppy out.