MUSE-INGS: ESCAPE FROM HOLLYWOOD

(From WRITTEN BY. the journal of the Writers Guild of America, April, 1999)

by Ian Abrams

This past August, I finally got what I most wanted from Hollywood.

Out.

Complete change. The guy who boarded the jumbo jet at LAX was a screenwriter. The guy who disembarked in Philadelphia was a professor at Drexel University. (By the way, there's a commercial coming at the end of this; stick around for it).

A lot of people thought I was, well, nuts. Wasn't I at the top of my game? I'd just finished three years of various TV development deals, during which I'd written a half-dozen pilots and gotten a show on the air. I was being pursued with varying degrees of vigor for film assignments, I had a good track record for writing and selling spec features, and I was working for a development executive who actually reads for pleasure (Jonathan Levin at Spelling, great guy). My agent, my manager, my lawyer and my accountant all returned my phone calls promptly. I was making an obscene amount of money. And I was in a great weekly writers' group.

So, why leave?

Well, sooner or later, it wouldn't have been my choice. In a place where execs think it's a keen idea to hire (alleged) 18-year-old writers, at 43 I was coming up fast on my sell-by date.

Still, I probably had a few good years left in TV development, a few more overall deals to make, pilots to write. Why jump instead of waiting to be pushed?

Because it wasn't fun. When I started, it was fun-- even the idiots were fun, you could laugh about them later. (Note: eight out of every ten development people are non-idiots. Some of them are really smart and capable and creative and good editors and contribute to whatever you're working on. But they're not the ones you remember.)

After close to 20 years in Hollywood, I peered deeply into my soul and found a layer of waxy yellow buildup. Too many professional back-stabs. Too many meetings where somebody says, "I've got this great idea, I just need somebody to write it." Too many meetings where somebody says, "I'm not a writer, but..."

One particular meeting...

You know the drill. You've handed in your script, they've read it, now you go in to the network or studio or production company to get their notes. They tell you what they want you to change, you nod, you make marks on your yellow legal pad, you tell them you'll "take a look at it," you shake hands, you go away. And, depending on what the notes were, you address them or not, fairly secure in the knowledge that the execs you met with won't remember what they told you to do.

So, I'm in this meeting, meeting with a third-string d-weasel, and this kid is maybe 23 and he's parroting back stuff he's apparently heard from his bosses, who are too busy (for reasons I'll get to in a minute) to attend the meeting themselves. And since these notes aren't the fruit of the d-weasel's mind, he can't really _discuss_ them, he can only _repeat_ them. And since he only has five minutes of notes but has to fill the hour, he's saying everything twelve times.

Which wouldn't be that terrible, except--

These notes are really bad. Poorly thought out, light-years away from the agreed-upon tone of the rest of the script, would require page after page of pure exposition-- bad notes.

But, okay, I know the procedure. Nod, write on pad, say "I'll look at it," shake hands, go away.

Which wouldn't be that terrible, except--

Why isn't anybody more senior to the third-string d-weasel in the room? because, at the time this meeting was taking place, the project was dead. I knew it, the d-weasel knew it, everybody knew it, nobody was saying it out loud, but the project was dead, dead, dead, as dead as disco. The meeting was just going through the motions.

...And, I'm thinking-- I'm spending an hour listening to a fathead give me bad notes on a doomed script.

And not for the first time, either.

Can you say "futility," boys and girls?

Is this what I want my life to be?

What other life is there?

That's the thing. You stay in Hollywood long enough, you forget that there's any other kind of life. There _is_ something seductive about the excitement-- and certainly about the money.

But if the excitement isn't exciting any more-- and if you've managed to hang on to the money--

Why stay? Why not do something you want to do?

How much money do you need anyway? Me, I had enough to send my kid to a decent college and to keep me in hardback fiction. I was never into "flashy"-- until recently, I drove a car that was older than MIR. So, the money was there if I wanted to get out--

And do what?

Well, I always wanted to teach. In L.A., I worked in the UCLA Mentorship Program through most of the last decade. I go to my alma mater, Duke, once or twice a year and do a lecture or two.

And I always come back feeling renewed, refreshed, re-excited about my own writing.

So, maybe there's something I should be exploring...

At exactly that point, in a classic movie moment, I found out that Drexel was looking for somebody to teach and direct a new dramatic writing program. I applied, figuring I'd never get the job because I was totally nuts-and-bolts oriented, not an academician at all.

Turned out, that's what they were looking for.

. . .

I'm writing this the day after Christmas, 1998; just finished my first quarter as a teacher.

My office has no window, and it's about one-third the size of the last one I had in Hollywood, which, unlike this one, I didn't have to share. I don't have a parking space. I don't have a personal assistant. I've never worked harder for less money.

I can't remember ever being happier.

I just deleted three paragraphs of gush. Write 'em yourself, if you like.

The point is-- I'm having fun. Better yet, I feel like I'm doing something that matters. The Dramatic Writing Program is brand new-- meaning, I get to shape it, to decide how screenwriting should be taught. My students are going to learn not only everything I know about writing, but every damn thing I know about how to be a writer-- including how to behave in meetings with d-weasels. I'm teaching some theory and a lot of practicalities.

And I have to tell you-- watching these kids take their first steps as writers has been like a pilot light for me. It reignited the thrill I had when I first started writing-- the work I'm doing now is more excitement than I've had in years.

The fact is, I always loved writing. More basic than that-- it's what I do. But it's been ages, really, since it was actually exciting. When I first started out, I'd write a stage direction or a line of dialogue that surprised me, that had me whooping and pounding my desktop. It's been a long time since I did that.

I did it twice last week.

Maybe it'll turn out that the best thing I ever did for my Hollywood career was leave.

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Here's the commercial: Drexel has a co-op program whereby students go out and actually work in the real world for six months before they graduate. You can pay 'em as low as minimum wage and use 'em for just about anything that isn't illegal or immoral (no Lewinsky jokes, please.) My first batch is coming up for placement and they'd make terrific writers' assistants or staff gophers. If you want some smart, cheap. highly-motivated help, drop me a line at abrams@drexel.edu, or call me-- 215-895-1332.