ZEN IN THE ART OF SCREENWRITING: Dreams vs. Reality

Jose Prendes has written multiple films and novels, including his latest film The Divine Tragedies and novel, Sharcano, which is as awesome as it sounds and can be found here with his other books. Current whereabouts are unknown… Follow Jose on Twitter: @JosePrendes.

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I couldn’t believe that Christopher Nolan, the co-writer and director of the dream-trumps-reality film Inception, would hasten young people to not follow their dreams, but reality instead.

He recently gave a commencement speech to the graduating class at Princeton and said the following:

“In the great tradition of these speeches, generally someone says something along the lines of ‘Chase your dreams,’ but I don’t want to tell you that, because I don’t believe that. I want you to chase your reality.”

This statement is bold for a man who makes his living, his reality, practicing his dream. It would be easy to take this statement apart and lambast him with the sort of spiel you would imagine from a typical dreams vs. reality article. But while I don’t think he’s right in putting it in those terms, I think his message has resonating meaning.

The movie business was built on realists who discovered a new thing and wanted to make a quick buck, but was quickly populated by dreamers. Those realists eventually became dreamers. Even when worrying about the bottom-line, they had to be acutely aware they were making dreams (i.e., movies). Chasing your reality in the corporate world might be one thing, but chasing reality in the creative space could be a soul-destroying endeavor.

The reality of the screenwriting trade is that not every spec will be a million dollar sale; odds are none of them will. Not every query letter will lead to representation, much less a “send it along and I’ll take a look” response. Not every pitch is going to get swung back at you with a gig. Not every general meeting will amount to anything except a bizarre, awkward speed date. The odds are remarkably stacked against you in this industry.

What happens to you if you chase that reality?

I think you all know the answer to that one. The crushing weight of impossible odds makes reality a dream-rusting, soul-draining thing and you wither and die and eventually you give up the fight because odds are you won’t win anyway. So you don’t want to spec anymore, or query anymore or do any of that bullshit because it’s just too hard. It’s just not possible. Reality wins and dreams die, but what ideas and beautiful things die with it when you give up?

Nolan was correct, in a sense, that we must be aware of reality. I would call it pragmatism, however. You must be 100% pragmatic in this career. You must be willing to fight, grind out the day jobs to stay fed, and willing to take the sidekicks to the face now and then. You must understand that not everything will lead to success, but you must keep a fire burning inside that speaks in a booming voice that reminds you that on the other hand, maybe, possibly, it also could.

I call that fire by one name: a dream. A dream is the thing that makes you want to be greater and better than you are. A dream is the perfect image of your life, and you should absolutely strive for that. I call the booming voice by another name: faith. Not faith in God, but faith in you, in your skills and creativity and your stick-to-it attitude. Your dream is to create, you don’t need to worry about chasing it, because it exists, what you need to chase, what you need to keep stoked, is the voice in that fire. Faith in yourself is the hardest thing to keep alive. Rejections and naysayers will force you to lose faith in yourself, to not believe in that burning bush from whence the dream sprung from.

I say chase your faith to bolster your dream to deal with reality. If you can honestly tell yourself everyday that you are doing exactly what you want to do, then you’re ahead of every other sucker who let reality win. Be confidently aware of who’s winning the fight at any given moment.

Nolan goes on to say, “I feel that over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense… I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with — they are subsets of reality.”

If dreams are subsets of reality, wouldn’t that make them a part of the same thing? Telling a graduating class that dream-building isn’t important, and that paying your bills and grinding through life is what you should focus on is doing a disservice to our new minds. Yeah, life sucks, life is hard, you won’t always win. But no one can tell you not to stand up and try.

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach or ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it…,” Jim Carrey said, during a commencement speech he gave in 2014. “…you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love.” Now that’s a message! That’s righteous fuel for faith in yourself to keep that dream fire going. I urge you to watch the video for Carrey’s commencement, it’s fantastically full of truths and worth listening to.

In closing, I want to say that I didn’t write this to argue with Nolan, one of the world’s great dream makers, I came here to argue with the idea that reality has more benefit than dreams. Dreams keep you hungry and fill you with power, and even though you must deal with them on a day-to-day level and don’t expect them to just magically come true for you, dreams shouldn’t be discounted. Be pragmatic, but never forget for one second that you aren’t writing movies because you want to be a millionaire, you’re writing movies because you want the world to dream along with you.

One of my great idols was an amazing business man, a savvy realist, and an unabashed dreamer. He once said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” His name was Walt Disney, and he did pretty OK for himself.

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