Saturday, 28 January 2017

To Live and Lie in LA

When I lived in Los Angeles, back in 2002, I worked at a call centre selling storage. One colleague I became friends with told me he was an actor. Actors frequently work regular jobs to pay the bills between gigs, so it wasn't a strange thing to say.

When I asked about his career, he told me his one big job had been playing a character on the campy soap opera, Sunset Beach.

I'd never seen the show, but as it turned out, it was running in the UK, and my mother was a huge fan. When we next spoke I told her that one of my new LA friends had appeared on her favourite show. Understandably she was excited to know which character he'd played, I told her, and that was that. Or so I thought.

My mother did a bit more research on my friend and didn't recognise him from the show. The IMDb listing showed two actors playing the role he'd claimed to: Him and the one my mother recognised as actually being on the show. I rationalised that he'd probably been replaced, or that he'd replaced someone else. Such things happen all the time on TV shows, but my mother wasn't convinced. Nobody else, she insisted, had ever played that role.

I decided to do some research of my own. I couldn't believe he'd like to me. I mean, why? It's not like I was a movie producer or an agent, but the more I looked, the less his story added up. No Sunset Beach fan sites mentioned him, or his character being replaced by another actor, or anything. Everything pointed to the person my mother knew as being the only person to play that role. I looked into my friend's other credits, and they seemed even more dubious, not appearing anywhere else online.

I was too embarrassed to confront him, but one day I asked him again about his role on the show, just to see his reaction, and if he would add a caveat about being fired. Instead he was just as earnest and sure as he'd ever been. There were no caveats, he'd played that role. I couldn't quite believe it (and still can't), but it appeared my new friend was lying to my face. Why?

I never said anything about it to him about what I'd discovered. He was always extremely nice to me, and was otherwise an incredibly warm and genuine person. I wished I was wrong (and still do). I always felt that he was such a nice guy that he really didn't need to lie about his achievements. I liked him for who he was, not for anything he'd supposedly been in, but it was a lesson learned.

10 Years Later...

Having a continuing interest in the writing process, I decided listen to the TV Writer Podcast. I'm always on the lookout for quality advice from successful writers in the industry, and this looked somewhat promising.

Having listened to countless episodes of the Creative Screenwriting Podcast (now The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith), The Nerdist Writers Panel, and reading Ken Levine and Jane Espenson's amazing blogs, I know what good advice sounds like.

The TV Writer Podcast video blog was an interview with someone I'd never heard of, but the host was extremely enthusiastic about his scriptwriter guest:

"[Name withheld] is back! In an interview that is sure to change the path of your career, [Name withheld] relates in great depth how and why some artists fail, and others succeed."

I'm usually very wary of taking advice from people whose work I'm not a fan of, let alone someone I don't know, and especially of bold claims like the above, but the interviewee was "Emmy nominated" with "20 years of experience", so I decided to give it a whirl. 

As I watched the video podcast, my bullshit-o-meter registered something immediately -- things seemed a little off. This didn't feel like good advice. I made it 15 minutes before I stopped the interview and deleted the episode. I couldn't believe what I'd heard.

The writer had just wandered into "positive affirmation" territory, claiming the "biggest step" in becoming a writer is really believing you're a writer, and not being ashamed of it. The biggest step. OK. There may be some truth in the power of truly committing yourself to something. And there's no reason to feel ashamed of what you're trying to achieve, so if you have issues about that, you should try and get over them if they're hindering you. Maybe that's what he meant, maybe I was being too criticial, but then he came out with this doozy:

"The next step is saying it out loud. Whether you like to believe it or not, things you say, whether good or bad, probably will come true."

Wait, what? As way of proof of this bold claim, he had this sage observation:

"A good example: I would say that 99.99999% of all divorces start with the word 'divorce'. Someone brings it up and, lo and behold, that's what happens."

Hmm. It's pretty difficult to ask someone for a divorce without using the "D word"!

I suddenly felt very dirty. I felt this man was filled with terrible advice, just who was he anyway? I looked him up online and, as it turned out, the interviewee, while having some writing credits on the IMDb, had NOT received an Emmy nomination. In fact, at that time, he hadn't been nominated for anything. And his TV career spanned 8 years, not 20.

To be fair to him, that’s still an accomplishment, certainly more than most, and maybe the podcast host had simply got his facts wrong when introducing him.

I delved a little deeper and discovered that his personal website had a stack of projects which don't appear to exist anywhere else on the internet. Not even on trade magazine sites. And then I came across the following sentence: "[Name Witheld] is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of more than 20 years."

There it was on his personal website. He was definitely making the claim about himself, but nothing backed it up. Not the IMDb or the Emmy website. Uh oh.

I was suddenly reminded of my old friend back in LA. Was this guy cut from the same cloth? Was it just Hollywood? What was scary about this time was that the suspected liar was, actually becoming a recognised scriptwriting guru.

I can't say for sure what's true and what's not about this guru. Maybe he's the innocent victim of some terrible website error. Several terrible website errors, that all conspire to make him look less than honest. Maybe there's some way his claims can be true, but also not appear online. Maybe lots of TV movies are never properly documented. Maybe he was an uncredited writer on an Emmy nominated script and felt justified in making that claim. Either way he appears on TV and radio interviews about his career, has been featured on other sites offering advice to up-and-coming writers, and (if his website is to be believed) "often guest lectures and panels on screenwriting at film schools and festivals across the country."

What's more, he's also written two books on scriptwriting and created his own consulting firm which promises "professional script consultants with real Hollywood film and television credits and experience".

I don't know what to believe. Surely it must be true if he's got this going for him... but, as with my friend, all the available evidence doesn't add up.

Cut to today

My friend's IMDb credits are today filled with even more dubious claims (including things that surpass his Sunset Beach credit from before I knew him, which he surely would have mentioned at the time I'd known him if they were true) and new credits which (having checked) don't actually exist in the film's credits themselves.

The screenwriting "guru" no longer claims to be Emmy nominated anymore, but instead claims to have three Image Award nominations. (Guess what, I found record of one nomination, but there's no record of two of them.) His website still has lots of credits, and most of them still don't appear on the IMDb.

Are both of these guys the same? Is it the norm in Hollywood to lie? Or am I unfairly maligning an innocent and successful man, just because many of his scriptwriting gigs never went into production, or aren't properly documented?

I still don't know what to make of either of them. I still want to believe my friend was telling the truth (I know, I know), and I also want to believe the scriptwriter isn't carving a career as an "expert" by spinning lies that no-one has bothered to check. But how can it be? Is this the norm in LA?

Thoughts?

8 comments:

Doug said...

Hello. I'm posting on your blog in response to your musings on where to start with Jack Benny's career. From his movie career, I'd recommend George Washington Slept Here and To Be or Not to Be. The 1942 version. If it's in color, your watching the wrong film. I like it, but the original is better. Benny had a decent movie career, but many of his movies either/or weren't very good or didn't have great box office. It became a running joke on his radio show. The Horn Blows at Midnight also has it's fans, but somehow I've never managed to see it. The TV show is very hit or miss, with a variable format. Some weeks it was a sitcom, some weeks a half hour variety show, sometimes both. I would recommend seeking out surviving episodes of his radio program. It usually had all of the strengths of the later TV show, with few of the weaknesses. If you watch my recommended movies and want a "might have been", watch The Sunshine Boys; the movie that revived George Burns' career and earned him an Oscar. The studio didn't want Burns. His career had died off after his wife/comedy partner Gracie Allen retired then passed away. Benny had retained his star power and was the studio's first choice. He refused to do it with out Burns. Benny then died just before production. It was decided that it was too late to scrap the project, so Walter Matthau was quickly hired to play Benny's part in old age makeup.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Doug! Much appreciated!

Wesley Andrews said...

Will you ever do more with the THX1138 comparison?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for your interest, Wesley! The more people who are interested, the more I will be likely to finish it. I think I was surprised at just how deep the changes went, so it will be a long process unfortunately!

Mike said...

Mike from the Ken Levine blog:
How's the new boss? Not the same as the old boss?

Johnny Walker said...

I'm wracking my brain as to what you're referring to. Give me a hint :)

Mike said...

(The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again. My generation, perhaps not yours.)
I was trying to be discreet. You asked Ken for career guidance about whether to work for some mercurial new master who threatened to make life interesting, or to carry on plodding. Web development? How's it going?

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, I thought that might be what you were referring to, but I'm amazed you remembered!

Yes, I took the new job and well, actually, everything has been great so far. Lots of stress, but also very exhilarating. It's definitely been good to step out of my comfort zone. It's been very rewarding to challenge myself, despite the pressure I've placed myself under, and the people have been lovely, too. There's been no issues with the "new boss" so far, either. The revised company structure has tried to neuter his negative influence, but I can't deny that he has genuinely been trying to curtail his more difficult behaviour, be nice to everyone, and them people do their best work without interfering too much.

In short: So far, so good!

Thanks for taking an interest. How are you?