Even though filmmaking is collaborative, you can sell yourself short if you focus so much on making a splash that you forget the qualities that drew people to work with you.
Screenwriter Doug Jung (Confidence, Star Trek Beyond, TV’s Mindhunter) said he learned this the hard way through meeting one of his heroes, writer/director/producer Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral).
Mann had liked a script that Jung wrote and contacted the screenwriter’s agent to discuss possibly writing a TV pilot, Jung recalled in a TSL 360 video, one of dozens of masterclasses, interviews, and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, Emmy-winning TV writers, producers, agents, and major studio executives available through a TSL 360 membership.
Just the thought of meeting Mann put Jung on cloud nine. “I mean, short of, like, you spill coffee on the guy or insult him, you’ll get the job,” he said.
Over breakfast, Mann did much of the talking. “I’ve got a list of questions about every movie he’s ever made that I want to talk to him about, but all he talks about is my script,” Jung said. “He’s dissecting it, and he’s critiquing it, and he’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s so interesting you did that here,’ and I’m just basking in the glow of being in his presence.”
The meeting went so well that Mann asked Jung to write the pilot, which didn’t impress Mann at all, Jung recalled.
“He hates it. I mean … it’s like every box, he ticks: ‘Your dialogue was terrible. The story doesn’t work. The characters suck.’ Just down the line. It just flames out,” Jung said.
Sometimes things don’t go your way in Hollywood because of variables out of your control. Or the alchemy just isn’t right.
But in retrospect, Jung realized that he was so dazzled to meet one of his idols that he didn’t fully absorb what Mann liked about his earlier script, a historical drama.
“You sort of get lost in this person who’s just like a tsunami of creativity and intelligence, and … everything he says is magic,” Jung said. “What he was saying, in general, was, ‘You put this all through your filter, and there was a lot of you in this thing,’ even though it’s … a factual-based project. That’s the thing that I forgot along the way.”
It’s simple to forget what you bring to the table when meeting other industry people for the first time, let alone those you admire. “It’s very easy … to say, ‘I’m just going to try and please this person or this entity or whoever as much as I can.’ And it’s very easy, I think, to get lost—and you lose the part of you that was really the reason why you got that job or you got that assignment in the first place,” Jung said.
Writers can be brave when we’re hashing out a story alone, he added. “I think the challenge at times is to not lose sight of that thing, that sort of unique attractor that you have—that voice or however you want to put it—and really to be able to listen to that and hone in on that in the face of studio execs, producers, star directors, whoever it is. Because ultimately, that’s why you’re there. That’s what they’re looking for in you, and to forget that is not only letting them down. I think you really run the risk of letting yourself down.”
He likes to call his Michael Mann experience a “cautionary tale,” both for himself and other writers. “That’s kind of a story I have about meeting your heroes and not doing what I did,” he said.
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Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.