When I came out to Tinseltown from New York in the 80’s, one of my first paying gigs was working with a grizzled, old-time director on a low-budget action script. (This post is picking up from last week’s, about “Track #1” and “Track #2.”)
The director and I used to work at his house in the Hollywood hills. We’d sit side by side at a huge oak table in his kitchen for eight or ten hours at a crack. I’d drive home exhausted, but I was having fun. The director and I started becoming friends. One day during a break he asked me what else I was doing, when I wasn’t working for him.
I told him I had written three novels that never got published—and I was constantly hammering out spec screenplays that also didn’t sell. He regarded me thoughtfully for a long few seconds. “Keep working,” he said.
I could tell this was a piece of serious wisdom from a veteran who had been through the wars, but I wasn’t really sure what he meant.
The next day I asked him if he wouldn’t mind elaborating. Again he said, “Just keep working.”
Then his fiftieth birthday came around. His wife threw a big party and I helped out. The director had a few more Margaritas than he intended. He had also recently been diagnosed with cancer. When the party was over, he and I wound up in the kitchen together, doing the dishes and putting them away.
“Keep working,” he said. “Don’t turn anything down. Porn flicks, slasher movies, free stuff for friends. Don’t get precious. You’re young, you’re learning. Keep working.”
He cited three reasons:
“One, working means you’re getting paid. I know I’m giving you bupkus on this job. But it’s money, it’s validation. Every buck means you’re a working pro, you’re toiling in your chosen field.
“Two, when you work, you learn. Everybody has something to teach you. A grip will show you something about lighting, an editor will drop some pearl about what to keep and what to cut. Even actors know something.
“Three, you’re making friends. Some kid who’s schlepping coffee today may be a producer tomorrow. An actress you run lines with may hire you for a rewrite five years from now. Who knows, you might even get laid.”
My friend was making a case for Track #2, the commercial track. But implicit in his advice was to never take your eye off Track #1, the artistic track.
“This crap story that we’re working on now can teach you plenty. Because it’s working. The principles of story-telling are in this piece, just like in Shakespeare. I’m making sure they’re in there. Watch me. Do what I tell you. Porn works, splatter works, horror works; if they didn’t, nobody’d finance ‘em and nobody’d go to see ‘em. You can learn from all of them.”
We said goodnight outside by my car. I wished my friend happy birthday. He turned and walked back up the steps. He and his wife had a great house with a view over the whole city. At the top step he stopped and turned back.
“But don’t forget, the same principle that’s healthy at one stage of your career can be fatal at another. You have kids, a mortgage, you find yourself caught up in a life that you can’t let go of. Now you’re doing work because you have to.”
Inside, on my friend’s mantel sat an Academy Award. But he had been doing episodic TV and worse for a lot of years. He didn’t say anything now, but I got the message.
“Take any job now. Learn. Make friends. Don’t turn your nose up at anything. But keep your eyes on the prize.”
There’s a sad ending to this story. My friend died a few years later. Our little action movie never got made. But I took a lot of jobs because of what my friend told me, and I never regretted any of them. And I didn’t forget what he said about Track #1 and Track #2, even if he didn’t use those terms.
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