How to fail in Hollywood…
by Gregory Small
…and keep ignoring it.
A successful producer friend of mine likes to tell people my writing partner and I are an inspiration. “Yeah?” I fluttered when she first told me that, my chest puffing like a pigeon’s. “Yeah,” she continued. “’Cause you made it in Hollywood after slogging away at it for so damn long. I mean, it just shows it can be done!”
She meant it as a compliment, right? I’m sure she did. Right? But what I heard was, “You pathetic trolls have been pounding on the castle doors for so long the guards finally got tired of pouring boiling oil on you and threw you some scraps of food.” There you have it – success, Hollywood-style.
Before said “success,” though, lots of people would ask my partner and me a perturbing question: “Why, in God’s name, do you keep at it?!” Actually, most didn’t put it exactly that way. They’d give that knowing smile at a party as they reached for the Doritos, and say, “Well, good luck with that.” Then they’d slip off to talk to a bio-engineer or a lawyer.
Hell, I’d ask myself the same question sometimes. Usually right after my wonderful, caring, smart mother-in-law, whom I love and admire (no, really), would tell me about her morning walk. You see, as fate would sadistically have it, my mother-in-law’s neighbor, with whom she walked every morning in far-off, innocuous New Jersey, just happened to be the mom of a colossally huge Hollywood director. I’m talking whatever-you-say-Mr.-DeMille big. But when they first started walking, he was just another guy trying to get a foothold in the business. Then, like a giant praying mantis lunging from the mist, he became a powerhouse, whose total movie grosses are nearly a billion dollars. And then there was me. Her son-in-law, the “writer.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. My mother-in-law never criticized or compared. She was always supportive as she breezily brought me up to speed on the rarefied feats of my unwitting nemesis, as if to say, “Look how well you can do out there, in the land where dreams come true!” But, c’mon – a billion dollars?!!!
It’s not that Hollywood tarred and feathered and horse-drug us to the edge of town. All along, we’ve had nibbles of the carrot to keep us going – this option or that deal or the executive who apologized really, really earnestly for not being able to make it happen despite our dazzling talent. In fact, only one of our scripts was a non-starter, and that’s only because our agents, whom we love and admire (no, really), thought we’d been into the mushrooms and never sent it out. They couldn’t be more wrong, by the way, and someday Monkey Cop will soar. But, there have been days when ice road trucker seemed like a way saner choice of careers. Which brings me back to the question, “Why, for God’s sakes, did we keep at it?”
In my case, the answer is Billy Jack. Billy Jack was an underdog-kicks-ass movie made by a tenacious sumbitch named Tom Laughlin, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in it. When the original distributor pulled out, and then the second, and then the third, Laughlin took over distribution himself, and ended up breaking box office records. If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor – don’t. It stinks. But it’s a remarkable piece of Hollywood lore.
For me, though, it stands out because of this guy I knew in college. He was unusual because he was almost 10 years older than most students, and he was an army veteran. This was at Brown University, I should mention, not exactly a place known for its love of the military. Over a beer one night, I asked him how he ended up there. He took a swig, barely taking the bottle from his lips, and said, “’Cause of Billy Jack.” After I recovered from the beer that snorted out my nose, he told me, in all seriousness, that years back he’d seen the film and it changed him. He’d been adrift and self-pitying, not sure he wanted to bother with, well, anything. But then he saw that “crazy motherfucking movie” and it hit him that his happiness, his value on this earth, it was all up to him. He could let his enemies – and his biggest, he admitted, was himself – run over him without a fight, or he could summon up the strength to beat them back.
All that from a piece-of-schlock movie? You better believe it.
Because, I realized in that slow-motion moment that resonates in me to this day, movies count. When they’re done well, movies and television tap into something deep in our DNA. Humans are programmed to relish stories.
The dinosaurs were still fresh in history’s memory when a Homo erectus surely told the first campfire story. Is it just to escape from our doldrums or pain? Sometimes. But, at their best, stories offer up life’s lessons. Sure, you can get that from the pulpit or the classroom, if you’re willing to listen. But movies and TV execute a sneak attack. And we love them for it. They grip and spin and wrench our hearts, and, in the process, pass on the moral of the story. We may have heard it before. In fact, we probably did. But movies and TV have the astounding ability, in the glow of their powerful campfire, to enable us to each extract the lessons we need to learn or be reminded of.
Hollywood may have finally thrown my partner and me some welcome scraps of food. But we’ve been nourished all along by our certainty that our work was worth it, and, if we were lucky enough to have them open the castle doors, it could actually make people better.Tags: Billy Jack, Entertainment industry, Follow your dreams, Greg Small, Hollywood, Movies, Screenwriter, Television