making a movie -- 5/17/24

Today's selection -- from Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions by Ed Zwick. “Little is learned from success”:

“Movies aren't born. They fight their way to life. And the struggle can wear you down. I send the script to a movie star's manager, who says, ‘I love the script for him.’ It means her assistant read it. When the movie star's ‘covering agent’ says, ‘I love the script for him,’ it means the actor is technically available and needs an offer to read it. When the movie star's ‘responsible agent’ says, ‘My client loves the script,’ it means the actor has notes. When the movie star's lawyer says the same thing, it means he's going to make the negotiations as painful as possible. When the movie star himself says, ‘I love the script,’ it means he wants to know who's going to rewrite it.

“And then comes the same process with the studio. When the creative executive says, ‘We're gonna make this movie,’ it means she'll try to get the VP to read it. When the VP says he'll make it, it means he's read positive coverage. When the EVP says it, it means she'll take credit for finding it if the president of production likes it. When the president of production says it, it means he needs to tell the CEO which actor is starring in it. And at last, when the CEO says, ‘We're gonna make this movie,’ it means it'll get made if he still has his job in six months.

“One day, while Menno Meyjes and I were dealing with an especially galling set of studio notes, he said something that should be tattooed on every director's bicep: ‘Working in Hollywood is a series of small humiliations interrupted by bigger ones.’ Because there's often a secret loathing between artists and management that's toxic and ultimately destructive to the process. They tend to think of us as irresponsible children while we in turn consider them venal philistines. Yet we also love each other. Or say we do. Certainly, we are dependent on each other. They give us millions to indulge our fantasies. We make them millions to send their kids to private school. We lunch together, schmooze at parties. They visit us on the set and celebrate with us when we succeed. When we fail, not so much. And when they call something a passion project, it means they're patronizing you and never intend to make it.

Film director John Badham during filming of The Godchild in 1974

“After fifty years of getting their notes, the sum creative contribution from all but a few truly gifted executives might be reduced to four words: ‘Faster. Dumber. More likable.’ Every script ‘needs work,’ every first cut is ‘eighty percent there.’ In the new millennial Hollywood, the legacy of Silicon Valley start-up culture is felt everywhere. Everything is decided by ‘the group.’ An idea needs to be ‘socialized.’ But since when is consensus the best way to judge art? Is homogeneity really the goal? Each year they introduce a crop of new phrases: ‘edge it up,’ ‘backload it,’ ‘unpack it,’ ‘lean into it.’ At such moments I remember Cameron Crowe describing an executive as someone who claims to know the way, doesn't have a map, and can't drive a car. As Steven Soderbergh once told an executive, ‘You confuse having an opinion with having an idea.’

“Before each film I've had to ask myself, ‘Am I a retail businessman, or do I care most about expressing my personal vision with millions of other people's money?’ It's not a simple question. The answer affects every decision, from script to casting to release. My films have to enjoy at least a certain amount of commercial success if I want to keep getting them made. Then again, the best definition of success I ever heard was going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

“No matter how much good fortune I've had, I always feel like I'm never more than a big failure away from movie jail. Happily, I'm also never more than a hit away from being paroled. Even if a movie happens to be a hit, things are never simple. Success is essentially mysterious; marvelous, unidentifiable forces in the universe have converged to make a movie exceed my imagination. Did I think of that camera move, or was it the dolly grip? What if it hadn't rained that day and I had shot the crucial scene in bright sunlight the way it was originally intended? Only in humiliating failure have I ever been willing to open myself to the harsh self-scrutiny that leads to growth as an artist. In success, the revisionist history claims everyone loved each other and can't wait to work together again, which wasn't necessarily the case. Sometimes I think little is learned from success except maybe a greater fear of failure.”



Ed Zwick


Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions


Gallery Books


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