Behind the Lines with DR: Own Your Words

It’s out there. From my screenplays and novels to my hundred and forty character Twitter sorties to this very blog. Whatever I say. Whatever I write, it’s mine. My name is on it. I own the content whether I regret having written it or not. I’ve tried to teach this to my children. Own your words. Own your actions.

Easier said than done, because I didn’t always feel that way.

Let me rewind a few years. I was about two weeks away from the premiere of my movie Money Train. My expectations weren’t exactly high for the picture. I’d already suffered through a credit arbitration, I’d read a variety of the rewrites of my original screenplay, including the final shooting draft. The resulting picture would come bearing no great surprises.

I’d turned down a number of invites to screen the movie. My previous film for the very same studio, the surprise hit Bad Boys, had earned some serious box office coin. So when it came to this writer, Columbia was being extra courteous. Still, call it avoidance or instinct, I’d found plenty of excuses to miss the earliest unspoolings of Money Train. With but a few weeks left before it landed on America’s movie screens, it was time for me to cowboy up and see the damned movie.

I phoned Zachary Feuer to see if he wanted to join me. He’s the producer who was responsible for the film’s inception. It was in my office at Disney where he’d first told me about the actual armored train that secretly trolled the railways of the New York subway system. I was instantly on board and, in a matter of moments, had concocted a tale of two best friends caught up in a modern day homage to The Great Train Robbery. Zach had been beside me from the inception and involved in both the sale and development of the original screenplay. But because Zach was a paid development employee for TV producer Fred Pierce, he was relegated to an insulting Associate Producer position in the credit roll. Zach deserved better. But I digress.

The screening we chose was a morning event at a Westwood theater. The audience was primarily comprised of reps from the various exhibition chains around the country. The lights extinguished. The Columbia Pictures logo filled the screen. The rest is a blur. When the credits rolled, I felt like vomiting.

Zach and I retired to the sushi joint next door where we both tried to drown our disappointment in warm sake. How the hell could I have let my expectations elevate?  Especially after having been so acutely familiar with the final script?  Clearly, we’d both been victims of our own optimism. A pair of hopeful fools. Maybe it’s because the director, Joe Ruben, had shown an accomplished hand in his previous films. Or because the whispers around Hollywood were that Columbia had another hit on their hands with the genius re-teaming of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in their first foray since White Men Can’t Jump. 

What I’d watched was ham-fisted, over-the-top, and dull in the center. Frankly put, I felt embarrassed my name was on it.

While we wallowed in our post-screening misery, we could overhear the exhibitor reps at a nearby table lament about how they’d rather dedicate more of their precious screens to the upcoming James Bond picture.

Note: Money Train is not a bad movie. It has its fans and for that I’m appreciative. It continues to play on cable and I gladly cash the residual checks I receive every quarter. My reaction to the film then and now is purely visceral. I could best describe it as watching my lobotomized child stumbling around a house which I designed, but never furnished — only to witness it continually bruise itself as it bumped into tables and tripped over every exposed electrical cord.

Back to the story. And here comes the sticky part.

My wife, aka, the War Department, was seven months preggers with our first child. We were days away from the baby shower. We had family flying in for the happy day which, coincidentally, was scheduled the day before the Money Train premiere. The studio had promised a lavish event and party. As a writer in good stead with the studio, I’d been offered beaucoup invites. And what better way to entertain (and impress) your out-of-town guests but with a big Hollywood premiere? A red carpet flanked by paparazzi. Stars aplenty. All the glitz and glamour movie money could buy.

And all I wanted was out. I didn’t want to attend. Nor did I want to approve it or promote it. Sure. I might just be the writer. But I had my pride.

“I don’t want to go,” I told my wife. “I can’t support it.”

“But my family is flying in,” she reminded.

“Flying in for the shower,” I argued. “Not the premiere.”

“I invited them. They’re looking forward to it. You can’t cancel.”

“I can and I will. They cut the soul from my movie and it makes me sick. I don’t have to support it.”

“Just think about what you’re doing,” she advised. “It’s not just my family. There’s the studio. Your agents. What kind of message are you sending?”

“We have to cancel now,” I insisted.

Oh, the War Department. So wise in her actions and her words. This time, she chose to throw up her hands in mock-resignation.

I’d never been in such an emotional pickle. I’d been pleased enough with Die Hard 2. Ecstatic over how Bad Boys had turned out. This was my first encounter with utter disappointment in the final product.

I needed advice.

My wife suggested I use one of my life lines. In this case, producer, friend, and television legend, Leonard Goldberg. The old sage had produced both film and TV and run more than one movie studio. More importantly, he’d often imparted his special brand of wisdom at a few career points where I’d needed a guiding hand.

I described my quandary to Leonard.

“Let me ask you something,” said Leonard. “Had you’d seen and even liked the picture, would you feel any different about your circumstance?”

“Of course I would,” I said.

“So you’re only proud of your work in success?”

“Not exactly.”

“Is your name on the movie?”

“Yes.”

“Did they spell it correctly?”

“Of course they did.”

“Then you gotta own it,” said the sage. “Not just that, you need to support the movie in both success and failure.”

“Even if I hate it?”

“Especially if you hate it. The movie might yet be a hit and, if it is, you’ll reap all kinds of benefits from it. Correct?”

“Correct,” I repeated.

“If you’re prepared to accept a success you must be equally prepared to accept a failure.”

Oh, the hard hammer of truth. It hurts like hell when it first makes contact with your skull, but clears the fog like no other remedy.

“So I’m going to the premiere,” I said aloud, confirming to myself.

“You’re going and supporting your film because it has your name on it.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re right,” I said, wondering why such simple and perfect logic had escaped me. I’d clearly been blinded by my egotistical emotions. And there ended the lesson.

Until…

Following a post I’d written called Live Free or Die of Pneumonia was an unusually spicy trail of commentary, mostly by a fellow who employed a rather silly screen name. His extremely articulate comments notwithstanding, I was bothered by the choice to conceal his or her identity behind the skirt of a pseudonym. He argued that whether he used his real name or not, his words should carry the same weight. Well, unless you’re a Watergate source or a government-slash-corporate whistleblower, I strongly disagree.

I’m very grateful to Leonard Goldberg. And like most great teachings, his is one I continue to learn, relearn, and try to live by on a daily basis. Own your actions. Own your work. Own your words.

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2 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: Own Your Words

  1. John Thomas

    Doug, thanks for the lesson in the form of a personal story – as always.

    This one may be a little harder to take than others, if only because in this business, other people may have alot more to do with how our little bundles of joy turn out than we do (or than we want them to anyway).

    It’s like having a child, having them ripped away from you at the age of 6 months to be brought up by uncontrollable sociopaths, and then being introduced as the father of the defendant at his murder trial.

    Well, I guess I did start this whole thing, but…do I really have to take responsibility for that?

    Well, yes you do. Because you started it, and you knew from the get-go that you might not be the one coaching Johnny’s little league games for the rest of his formative years.

    Thanks Doug – one more experience that hopefully we can learn from before finding ourselves in the middle of it.

  2. Danny

    Doug, I always appreciate the time you put into your articles. In our careers (and lives) we must own successes and failures equally- a valuable lesson. And a real challenge to any profession, especially one where the creative endeavor can make you loved (and hated) even in the same year. I will try to follow this advice in my writing.

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