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Confessions of a Hack

Confessions of a Hack

Articles - Directing

One afternoon, when I was supposed
to be writing but was instead doing my ‘shuffling-aimlessly-from-room-to-room-in-bathrobe-and-slippers’
routine, I remembered something that got my heart pounding. It
was the interview I’d read the night before, where Terry Southern
(he of Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove and The Cincinnati
Kid
fame) described screenwriters as “completely incompetent
in any other form of writing, and, of course, disastrous in their
own.” Rushing headlong to the john, I frantically drew a bath,
determined to soak in my own filth until the terror passed. Soon
enough, my chest stopped heaving and my mind stopped spinning-but
even so, the feeling lingered. Could it be? Was it true? I had
to know.

I heaved my girth from the water, taking most of it with me, and
padded to the mirror. Yes, all the telltale signs were there, staring
me in the face. I was absolutely sure of it, in fact. And in the
next instant, before I could stop them, three little words erupted
like a mid-meal belch: “I’m a hack.”

I couldn’t believe it, but yes, there. I’d said it. And now that
it was out, I knew I could never take it back. Oddly enough, for
some reason, it didn’t feel so bad. In fact, it was something of
a relief. I felt like a dentist who-after years of being mistaken
for a real doctor and keeping his mouth shut about it-finally
stood up and announced to the world: “I’m a dentist, okay?! That’s
right, a dentist! And proud of it!”

Just to be sure I wasn’t making this up as another excuse not to
write, I ran down a quick checklist of known hack trademarks:

1) I have dedicated my entire life to finding ways to avoid real
work. [check]

2) I am articulate but, when stuck for a word or proper phrase, “and
shit” is liberally employed. [check]

3) Writing something that I feel ‘passionate’ about seems foreign
and utterly ludicrous. [check]

4) If someone’s willing to pay me to write, I’m convinced I’ve
somehow “gotten one over” on them. [check]

“I couldn’t blame them. It was standard denial-speak
for those in an industry where the gloriously derivative and
riotously self-indulgent are rewarded, where rampant pandering
passes for ambition, where copycats wind up on the dais instead
of in the courtroom.”

Okay. That clinched it. Finally, I recognized myself for what
I was. So what now? The choices were pretty obvious: either I embrace
the new me or join in the delusional free-fall that is Hollywood.

Hmm. Tough one. I thought maybe it would help make up my mind
if I tried this whole hack thing on for size. A little test-run
so to speak, one which would soon enough lead me to the following
conclusion: Hacks get no respect in this town, particularly ones
who are open about it.

This would become abundantly clear at a dinner party the following
weekend. When the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” query
came up, I shrugged and, with nary an iota of irony answered: ‘Oh,
I’m a writer. A screenwriter, actually. You know, a hack.’

Immediately, the stares flew fast and furious. I ducked into the
kitchen, past the cruel recriminations of my peers mumbling something
about “self-respect.” I couldn’t blame them. It was standard denial-speak
for those in an industry where the gloriously derivative and riotously
self-indulgent are rewarded, where rampant pandering passes for
ambition, where copycats wind up on the dais instead of in the
courtroom.

I drained the last of my drink and, armed with this shiny new
understanding of myself, exited the kitchen. Trying to avert a
lynching (and with the hope of having some “insider magic” rub
off on me), my wife grabbed my arm and led me over to our backward-baseball-cap-wearing
host, a fellow scribe who’d just sold his first big pitch. I instantly
pegged him for someone whose dogged pursuit of success leaves guys
like me in the dust. Even so, I managed a smile, extended my hand
and said: “Fooled ’em, huh? Good for you, pal. How much you take ’em
for?” Said scribe glanced at the offending limb, then offered a
glib response in the man-child argot of his generation. I took
the hint and, once again, made for the safety of the kitchen.

Downing a fresh one, the little voice in my head took up where
my colleagues had left off: “What the hell is wrong with you? Have
you no shame? What about your legacy? What do you hope
to leave behind, you know, for posterity and shit?” Then one final
thought breached the primordial clearinghouse that is my mind: “Hey,
you wanna wind up like that guy Ed Wood, or something?”

Huh. That really hit home. I considered the possibility and-get
this-immediately cheered up. That’s right, the thought that I might
someday be heralded as the worst writer of my time seemed like
an inviting alternative to the obscurity I was accustomed to. After
all, the byways of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of nobodies.
Why not stand out from the pack? “Gee,” I thought, “this whole
hack thing ain’t half bad after all.”

So there you have it. I’ve come clean. Now it’s your turn. But
wait, you probably think you’re different, right? That you’re making
some kind of “contribution” or whatever. Fair enough. Tell you
what, let’s find out once and for all, shall we?

Here, take this little test.

If your agent calls with an assignment, say, to adapt a comic
book or something equally challenging, what’s the first thing out
of your mouth?

a) Who’s the author?

b) When can I read the material?

c) When do I see a check?

If you answered ‘c,’ congratulations. You’re among friends.
But hey, don’t sweat it. Remember: this is our calling, our
mission-to band together and hold our heads high. And one day we
will. And no one will ever forgive us for it. And that’ll be just
fine. MM

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