BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Writer Reviews – Growing a Thick Skin

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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I’ve had some pretty harsh knocks. The New York Times once accused me of wasting two hours of the film reviewer’s time. Before I wrote Bad Boys, the late great Don Simpson said I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. Even my old man once told me I was going to hell for the kind of stuff I was putting on three-hole punch paper.

writer reviewsTalk about a bad notice.

Yet I’m still here. Still standing. Plying my wordy trade despite having been impaled by the inevitable slings and arrows that come with a career as a word merchant.

There’s an old showbiz adage, warning artists to never read their reviews. Some have amended that advice to never reading any bad reviews. I suppose there’s a bit of wisdom there. But without negative feedback, how the hell are we supposed to learn from our mistakes? Or more importantly, develop that prick-resistant skin one requires to succeed at the entertainment game.

Here’s a suggestion. Take a film school class like this one.

When I went to USC it was called Cinema 190. It was a semester-long course where, over the term of twelve or so weeks, students were required to make five films of roughly five minutes in length. Each short was to be photographed and edited on Super 8 film and accompanied by a non-synchronous soundtrack of the filmmaker’s choosing. Sounds simple enough. Overly simple, in fact.

Easy peasy.

What is Super 8? Forgive me folks. This was before digital or home video cameras were as ubiquitous as reality shows shot in Alaska. Sometime between the Stone Age and the omnipresent Kardashians, there was a film product called Super 8. Half the size of of 16mm film, it became the rage for home movies in the sixties and seventies. Cheap. Available. And your corner pharmacy was happy to serve as the neighborhood film processing lab.

Back to the toughening up of my lily white epidermis.

In Cinema 190 there were no budgets or instructed techniques. No scripts we had to vet through profs or department heads. Just a filmmaker and a camera and whatever he or she could scrape together to throw onto the screen. The purpose of the exercise was about communication—not just what the filmmaker was attempting to say with his eight millimeter opus, but more importantly, I believe, about what the filmmaker was required to do after.

And that was to sit and listen to the feedback.

For me it went like this. After each of my films was screened in the small classroom, I was required to sit next to the professor at the head of a large conference table. For the first ten minutes after the lights were returned to full, I had to silently observe as my fifteen classmates—some of them fellow undergrads, others graduate MFAs and critical studies students—inked their reviews of my work on self-carboning sheets of paper. After ten minutes, the pens had to drop and the hand-written critiques were passed forward.

The trauma of reading each, gut-scorching review would be saved for later. The next fifteen minutes were reserved for a near free-for-all of verbal lambasting. Each syllable of which I would have to swallow, because I wouldn’t be allowed to argue or defend my work until the initial round of shelling had ended.

Now mind you. Not every review was fiery or unflattering. Flattery was equally recognized and appreciated. It was just really rare. That’s because we were more than just film students. Back then, the tiny program had accepted most of us for our innate competitiveness as much as our talent or acumen. So there was more reward—not to mention blood lusty satisfaction—in pounding a film student’s silly little Super 8 short into celluloid dust.

On five separate occasions, I unspooled my filmic adventure for my Cinema 190 class. At each go-around, I sat before them and listened to their not-so-constructive criticism. And when at last, the timer dinged and it was my turn to defend my unworthy little work, I was often shredded all over again.

Come evening, I would retire to my dorm room and read through the carbons of those “crit-sheets,” as we would call them. Two or three films into the course, I was able to recognize some of my critics by their handwriting and others by the consistency of their malignant content.

Yeah. And it hurt some more.

Yet all the while I saw results. Not only in my work, but in the necessity of building up my tolerance to negative criticism. There was no place to hide. The only refuge from the hail storm was to roll up my sleeves and get neck deep into my next short.

I distinctly recall the moment I screened my fifth and last film. I sat ramrod straight at the head of the table as if I had reinforced steel up my spine. I wasn’t at all inured to my classmates’ critiques. But… and this is significant… I felt absolutely no fear whatsoever. I was ready to take what came. And have been ever since.

To date, whenever I deliver a draft, publish a book, or even post a simple blog, I’m ever aware that some may like what I’ve written while others will certainly not. I’m good with that because my skin has become thick enough to repel, but not so that I can no longer feel.

I credit much of that to a Super 8 camera and a room full of painfully honest film students. I graciously thank them all.

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