The Power of No

Maybe the biggest thing they won't tell you in film school is that nobody wants to get out. Everyone knows this, of course, but it is never discussed, due to superstition, perhaps, or maybe just simple decorum. We all ignored the Bad-Ass Directors who’d lurk around silently in the background for five, six years, furtively enjoying student discounts, awards and accolades while putting those insignificant final touches on their forty-five thousand dollar thesis films few would ever see. Deluded Screenwriters like me could remain in the program for up to ten quarters—entering a fourth year of study, longer than law school—before being forced to the gallows of the graduation stage. The Producer's Program is only two years long, but I saw some of those Fast-Talking Slicksters linger on for a full extra year on the flimsiest of excuses—illness, injury, death in the immediate family.

The point is to stay on the inside, whatever it takes, because once you cut bait and run, your fortunes are bound to take an extreme nosedive. The scholarships, fellowships and compliments dry up at once, while your star—the one you earned just by getting into that Big Deal Film School, beating odds longer than gaining admittance to Harvard Med—inevitably fades as well. You've got nothing admirable to talk about at Suburban Parties In The Valley, where you were once inarguably superior for having up and ditched your whole life, come what may, and gone back to school. Everyone secretly wants to do either this or run off to Micronesia and open a surf shop. You, however, actually chased your dream—only to have it slip through your fingers. Suddenly, you're just a Regular Hollywood Wannabe, Another Guy With Another Screenplay, no better than your Average Hollywood Gardener, who in all likelihood has a few of his own stacked up out in the pick-up.

There are, of course, exceptions to the doldrums of post-graduation obscurity. An animator I studied with is already the stuff of legend, having won the Student Academy Award for his short, which was then sold to Tim Burton for feature expansion. I hear the studio campaign for a grown-up Animated Short Oscar is already underway. You like to think you had some small hand in your classmate’s success for which you're above accepting the screen credit rightfully due you. In truth, the sum total of my relationship with Animator Boy occurred during the single Crit Studies class we shared, where I told him I liked his glasses and he said thanks.

I do know the one writer who's landed a Big Deal Staff Job on a Lame and Popular TV sitcom for the fall season, though I don't recall punching up any of her jokes. I could have, but I didn’t. Okay, that’s a lie. I never even laid eyes on the thing. Anyway, beyond that, one or two writers in my class, including me, have had scripts optioned, at least according to the trades and tracking boards, which are also given to bald-faced lying.

It is heartening to know, however, that even the Bright Shining Stars are not immune from suffering. The brightest star of all who ever attended my Big Deal Film School now sometimes returns to teach master classes. He told us he lived in his seven hundred dollar a month apartment until the age of thirty-seven. He had already written and directed both Citizen Ruth and Election by that time, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. Still, so uncertain was he about his future prospects that he continued to spurn any major adult commitment—premium cable subscription, car insurance or even a good woman to smoothe the sheets and call him Pookie. After Sideways, he immediately got a divorce from his Brand New Actress Wife who starred in it, though I’d somehow bet that she got the long-delayed house.

I’m not at all sure what that’s about. Maybe success is just as emotionally risky as failure, although I’ve always had a hard time swallowing that notion. Another one of my Big Deal Teachers was a Famous Scary Superagent, who I always thought was kind of a softie—though I once read somewhere that he'd light New Age candles in his office before calmly breaking your thumbs. Either way, he eventually gave all that up to teach us and be producing partners with Bruce Willis. He had a whole line about keeping it simple so you don’t have to hire people to manage the people who manage you. I’ll always remember his theory that once you’ve installed velvet drapes you lie awake nights dreaming of double velvet. To which I responded, silently of course, yeah, bite me. Me, I like my thumbs and use them to ply my Imaginary Trade.

Scary also talked a lot about sticking to your guns, using the famous story about Sylvester Stallone, who refused to sell his script for Rocky unless the studio let him star in it. “The Power of No,” he’d say, flipping the piece of chalk in his hand as though it were cloistered there as part of some magic act. “That's big stuff.” What the hell he was talking about I still don’t know, but I was relieved to learn that some day I’d apparently have some power. Or something.

The immutable truth is most of us aren’t going to have to worry much about velvet, double or otherwise. Or whether to say yes or no to a deal, because there won’t be any such thing on any table we aren’t waiting on for tips. Best case scenario for your average Film School Survivor is teaching Therapeutic Videography to at-risk youth at the East L.A. Police Activities League. Worst case is temping, which I haven’t been reduced to yet but I do feel it coming, like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. There’s just something ugly in the air, something wicked and inevitable set to hurl me off to a strange foreign land peopled by witches and flying monkeys wearing sensible heels.

Fortunately, temping jobs are perplexingly hard to come by in this town. I registered at a major agency months ago and haven’t heard a peep from them since. Actually, that isn’t so. The truth is I got The Big Call the other morning. They were looking for someone to wave a foam finger in front of Quiznos. Twelve bucks an hour, which means the agency is getting twenty-five and pocketing more than half. I didn’t know what to say, except no. Hell no. Thank God I was taught that there’s power in that.


  1. I guess it's obvious to most, but I always thought that people never leave film school is out of fear. There are no job fairs for film school after all.

    So UCLA is the school, huh? Well, well. That explains something. I'm not sure what, but it's something.

    Anyway, I'm loving this damn thing and can't wait for the next day's post. When is that 1 in 3 meeting again? Good luck and take care.

  2. Aw, shucks, I'm glad to have a follower. The meeting was put off until next week -- never a good sign, in my view. But then so little is. Here's a literal promise to keep you posted.