“…Earns you some GRATITUDE!”
Oh jeese, did I seriously just type that? Me, a “professional” writer, rhymed attitude, baditue, latitude AND gratitude? I should turn in my writing card this instant. Like I seriously thought that was a good idea, I even pressed ‘PUBLISH’. Who am I? Thinking that was anything other than a total misstep. WOWZERS…
Whelp, no time to worry about that now. Not like I have a magic button on this keyboard that can go back and undue all my terrible mistkes.
Today we’re filling a page (and your eyes) with talk about attitude, and in particular I’m talking about attitude when it comes to a writer’s room, working collaboratively on a TV show, how the ‘in’s & outs’ of someone’s attitude (or baditude) can affect the group dynamic and ultimately what ‘latitude’ a good attitude or a baditude can get you. (See how that all fits together nicely?)
It still amazes me to no end how some people I’ve encountered in this business of screenwriting and filmmaking don’t check their attitudes properly. This is a world where MORE than anywhere else I think (perhaps aside from… illegal arms sales maybe?) word of mouth is the source of your next job. When that word of mouth is good, you’ve got more work coming your way. (I think I’m on the cusp of this myself…) But when you go and ask someone “Hey, have you ever worked with Trenton Ramirez Skarsgaard III?” and they make this face at you…
Then Poor Trenton has a problem. Word of mouth has travelled about him, and that word of mouth is “not good”.
We all need to be reliable and capable in what we do. If you can’t show up on time prepared to work, you won’t be called back. No matter how good your attitude, if you’re completely incompetent, ie delivering substandard material or missing the point of the job or just fucking up royally, you won’t find yourself with more work coming up.
I ‘m not talking about those kinds of problems though. I’m talking about people who are competent, capable of delivering good work and skilled enough to be regarded as reliable, but they have a larger problem: their attitude sucks. The trick is a sucky attitude doesn’t always look like what you think it does.
Filmmaking is collaboration. I know when us filmmakers are learning all about the art of the movie we fall in love with the auteurs…
…But auteurs only make up a small fraction of the media being made. Even then, these people all work with massive crews, many of whom they have stuck with for decades. Why? Because they know them. They’ve learned that these people are solid folk to work with. Believe me I don’t believe for a moment that Woody Allen has people returning to his payroll year after year who he thinks “Gosh gee you know, I uh, I just, I really don’t like that guy. He’s… he’s like the Subway Sandwiches of people; good, but nobody really wants to go there, you know.” [BEST Woody Allen impression (as written out) EVER.”]
The kind of attitude people want to work with is one that is engaged, on the ball, accepting of challenges and always prepared to say ‘Yes, I can do that.’ Essentially an attitude that is all about moving forward with the purpose of achieving the goal, of succeeding. The kind of attitude people DON’T want to work with (a ‘baditude’ if you will allow me to reference my title to make it relevant) is the kind that always finds problems, reasons not to do things, wants to set conditions on what they will do and generally stands in the way of getting things done, usually because they want their own contributions to be weighed more heavily than others.
I’m going to try and stay on point, by referencing from my own ongoing experience working in a writer’s room. I’ve learned that there are GOOD things to say in a writer’s room and there are BAD things to say
GOOD Writer’s Room Phrases:
- “Yes, and…”
- “Does that fly?”
BAD Writer’s Room Phrases:
- “I don’t like…”
- “No, because …”
- “Can’t we just…”
Let’s break things down!
“Yes, and…” Is the greatest way to demonstrate a good attitude and keep the work moving forward. Anyone who’s taken an improv class knows the benefits of this phrase. It shows that you connect with the idea, even if it doesn’t necessarily float your boat, and you can do something with it, take it somewhere it needs to go. It expands on creativity and keeps a positive flow. Even if you’re not totally down with what’s being pitched, it shows that you recognize the value in the idea and that it can be taken somewhere, ANYWHERE. That’s what a writer’s room is all about, moving ideas forward and finding ways to make them work. “Yes, and then we can take our carrot people off the life raft and put them on the back of the giant Space Whale!”
“Whatabout…” There is no better way to divert a train of thought that is in danger of going off the rails than using the phrase “Whatabout…” When someone pitches to you that maybe the Space Whale needs rocket boosters under its flukes that fry the evil pursuing super-sharks as it lifts off into space, and you’re pretty sure that if you’re already using a whale that can fly to the moon, attaching rocket boosters creates the wrong image, you bust out ‘Whatabout if the giant whale has huge wings that creates a storm on the ocean when it flaps them, and this storm tosses the super-sharks around?” You’re not crushing anyone’s contribution, you’re taking what they said and moving it in a different direction. You’re not saying “You’re idea is terrible, mine is better.” What you’re saying is “There’s a different way to approach this that might fit the story more effectively, lets explore that.” It’s a professional way of saying “Let’s try something else”. Dare I say that there are no “Bad Ideas” (except for Transformers that can look exactly like people, that ruins EVERYTHING ‘Transformers’ is supposed to be about.) There’s just bad execution. Not every contribution is going to be gold, but that doesn’t mean you shit on the person making a not-stellar contribution (I’m talking to you Doug – you know why). Having a good attitude doesn’t mean taking every idea as if it had equal merit and usefulness. It means knowing how to frame the discussion in a way that doesn’t stifle the contribution of ideas, no matter how zany. Almost any suggestion has a nugget of worth to it, and “Whatabout…” takes that nugget in a whole different direction. (Unless that nugget is Transformers becoming people.)
“Does that fly?” Is the inclusive way of asking if what you’ve put out matches up with what you need. You aren’t asking for validation of your wicked Space Whale contribution, what you’re asking is if what’s been established serves the story. You aren’t asking the group “Do you like my idea, and therefore approve of me as a person?” What you’re asking is “Does this serve the story we’re trying to tell?” If it don’t fly people will either “Yes, and…” or “Whatabout…” you until success is achieved. Working on episodic TV is about coming to the best story possible, not about affirming someones ego. The right attitude just wants the show to be the best it can be, regardless of who pitches the idea. (Just make sure to take credit for ideas where credit is due, if they are yours. It’s definitely a team effort, but we all need to stake our claims when gold is found.)
“I don’t like…” Nobody cares what you like. What you ‘like’ isn’t going in the episode, what’s good for the episode and moves the story is what’s needed, not a breakdown of someones preferences (NOTE: Unless you’re the showrunner, they always get what they like, cuz it’s their show.) It’s that simple. “I don’t like…” tells people you’re more concerned about your own sense of aesthetics than contributing to the group. Everyone wants what they do to be great, but what you think is great is not necessarily what everyone else thinks is great OR works for the story, and unless you are that mythical showrunner, what you think is great has no extra weight. All this phrase does is stand in the way of moving forward. It shuts down contributions by attaching a personal prefence and value to the ideas, rather than letting them function in their larger capacity vis a vis the story you’re trying to tell. “I don’t like…” is invariably followed up with the question “Fine, what do YOU want to see?” which immediately attaches excessive value to the opinion of the person being asked. The baditude being expressed here is that ‘my contributions are better than yours’, and that’s not an attidute that earns your kudos or a desire to be worked with.
“No, because…” Is just simply the worst way of expression oneself in creative, collaborative environments. It beats out “I don’t like…” because at least there we can chalk your baditude up to your own overvaluation of your crappy taste. This just shuts things down completely. “No, because…” not only closes down contribution and conversation, but also implies that whatever reasoning you are about to spout is so unassailable it would be ridiculous for anyone to disagree with you. “No, because the Space Whale will have nowhere to land on the moon if it flies them there, no oceans after all.” Well thanks for completely cutting the legs out from under any idea. Again the baditude being expressed is one that says “I know better.” and believe me, in many cases you so, so don’t. I have dropped what I thought were some amazingly creative bombs into stories that ultimately didn’t get picked up and were passed over for less innovative or creative solutions. I didn’t get all “No, because…” I wanted MY ideas to be there. Instead I recognied the wisdom of contribution, and deferred to what was best for the story being told. A writers room needs to be a place where all ideas can flow freely, not where people are afraid to speak up because someone’s always telling them their ideas aren’t good, and “No, because…” does nothing but broadcast that someone with baditude thinks someone’s ideas aren’t any good.
“Can’t we just…” is the most infuriating phrase to hear in a writer’s room, but it is also one which has a strange usefulness in select situations. “Can’t we just…” is an absolute idea killer. “Can’t we just not have a Space Whale?” – “Can’t we just have them drive to the moon?” “Can’t we just…” is a way of saying “I don’t want to find a way to make this work, let’s take the easy route. Easy isn’t creative or engaging or interesting. Easy isn’t dramatic. The ONLY place “Can’t we just…” is acceptable is when you’re finalizing an outline/script and you have an implacable issue that won’t be resolved by any other means. Think ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when Indy shoots the scimitar wielding man in the town square: “Can’t we just shoot him?” In that case, it solved a production issue, hit a humour moment, and helped make the film, but they made that choice on the day to solve the issue of Harrison Ford having the squirts. “Can’t we just…” Is the tactical nuke of screenwriting used to solve severe issues, it’s not the fallback remark of a cooperative staff writer. The baditude it displays is one that says you can’t be bothered to do the work because it’s easier not to.
Attitude makes or breaks you in this business. I know several very talented individuals who have earned themselves a baditude through simply being obstinate, believing their ideas and contributions are superior and should carry more weight than others. Sure, maybe they DO have some great ideas and contributions, but thinking that makes you more worthwhile that the other creators is DEATH to your employability. We want to work with people who will contribute to success, who will help a project reach its goal. Not folks who refuse to proceed until something matches their exacting specifications. Problems get worked out along the way, as long as that train is rolling. If it never leaves the station the problem isn’t quality, it’s that you’re not going anywhere. No one wants to work with (or recommend) someone who says ‘No’ all the time until they hit on some magic combination of ideas that strokes their ego enough to get them to move.
Likewise feeling that a contribution is ‘enough’ is another way to get you killed, employment wise. When you’ve put work in, and the feedback you get is “This may need to change/whatabout this/could we try this?” and your response is “No, because…” you just shot your foot off with a giant laser blaster because it shows your baditude is “What I did is enough, and I can’t be bothered to put in more just because.” Sure there are times when changes need to stop happening, like on the day of shooting. But sometimes the very best contributions are the ones that come at the last mintue, and if you’re not into accomodating that, then you’re not doing your project justice, and not sending the right signals about your attitude towards the work.
If you have the right attitude, if you’re ‘easy to work with’, you will also earn some ‘latitude’. You can make more mistakes, take more chances, because it’s clear it’s not about ‘you’, it’s about doing the best for the job. Sure everyone is going to fuck something up SOMETIME. You can either take that as a huge blow to your ego or you can take it in stride and keep moving. People who get hung up on failures quickly develop baditudes as they come across as being unable to get past the failure rather than accepting the fact that they won’t always be right, and being okay with that.
I have done my honest best out here to cultivate the best attitude I could with my approach to the work, and without letting much slip it seems to already be leading to bigger and better things. I’ve always come at the job from the position of “I want this show to be the best it can be.” If that means me contributing great ideas at all hours of the day, then I do that. If it means me backing off something I think is fucking awesome because it just doesn’t fit with where we’re trying to take the story, I roll with it. The show isn’t about me. I’m just here to contribute everything I can and hope something rises above the rest and serves the story the way the episode needs. It’s this attitude that is already leading me not to fear what comes up after this job is over, because I’m already comfortable in the fact that my attitude has been noticed and will lead to bigger and better things. That’s what a good attitude is supposed to do.