Staying Strong in the Face of Executive Meddling (Without Resorting to Alcohol or Other Self-Destructive Habits)

Ah, the creative process. Such a joyful thing.

Trying to bring an idea from conception to fruition, striving to maintain the integrity of the piece while factoring in every possible outside element, is a bit like transporting water in your hands while running uphill. Fast as you run, steady as you try to hold it, it falls through the cracks of your fingers and dissipates into the ground below. If you’re lucky enough to retain at least a little bit of it by the time you’ve reached the top of the hill, you should consider that a victory. You’ve defeated the odds, you’ve triumphed against adversity, and you’ve likely had to make a lot of concessions and compromises (this is where the water metaphor falls apart, but hey). Such is the plight of the auteur, a constant struggle to keep his vision from being tarnished by the commercial inclinations of the rubes who happen to finance it.

If you’re an artist of any kind, you want your work to be produced and distributed, and you want to get paid for it. Obtaining the patronage of an institution or an independent investor is actually a pretty fucking awesome deal: someone believes in your work enough to actually give you money to make it happen, and they might also have the means to distribute it to a wide audience as well, putting you at a position you’ve probably never known before: that of being creative, active, exposed to an audience consisting of more than just a fraction of your Facebook friends, and, above all, not poor.  It really is wonderful. A dream come true, one would say. But if R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series of books has taught us one thing, it’s that in every “dream come true” there’s a dark underbelly of untold horrors.

(It’s also taught us to never go in the attic, never trust any family members, and, in the case of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, acting reasonably makes for a remarkably short and unfulfilling reading experience.)

Billy turns and asks, “What do you want to do”? To follow Billy to Satan’s House of Death, turn to page 19. To go back home, masturbate and fall sleep, turn to page 159. You coward. 

What really sucks about having the patronage of a large institution is that you are bound to a ridiculous bureaucratic process that involves production schedules, squabbles over budget allocation and, most likely, a fair amount of creative executive meddling. This means your work– album, script, what have you– is under scrutiny from the people putting up the money to produce it, making changes and adjustments in the form of either “notes” or “friendly suggestions” that can sometimes be so incredibly off-the-mark and stray so far from your vision that it makes you wonder why this institution chose to fund the piece in the first place.

It’s a particularly tricky scenario to deal with because art is so goddamned personal. If I spent months of my life pouring out my heart and feelings, trying to condense the entirety of my life’s knowledge into a screenplay, then laboriously trimming that screenplay down to a neat 90-minute three-act narrative that’s not pure self-indulgent drivel but strives to entertain… shit, I’ll probably take it personal when a know-nothing executive tells me to change the ending. Just like a musician agonizes over every chord change. Just like any well-crafted piece of work that you put your personality into. The concept of executive meddling is especially frustrating because these are the people who want to give you money to do your thing, yet they hit you with all sorts of tweaks and notes and adjustments to attempt to homogenize your deeply personal piece of work and earn back their investment. It’s a tough situation to be in, and especially disheartening when it happens right in the middle of the creative process, when you’re intent on letting loose and moving full speed ahead.

I’ve recently entered one of these ventures and it’s been an intense experience. Very educational, too; in the time I’ve been involved in this process, I’ve learned a few things. First, let me tell you about this group of people I like to call The Evil Art-Hating Executives.

Dear people in this random picture I found through Google Images: Please don’t sue.

The Evil Art-Hating Executive is a money-hungry sexmonger who routinely underestimates the general audience. He strives for one thing, and one thing only: monetary gain. He doesn’t know anything about what makes a piece of art effective or powerful. He can barely read, he can’t write… hell, he can’t even spell for shit. He doesn’t like downer endings or minor-chord balladry. He hates experimentation and sees it as a hindrance to profit. He will attempt to amp up the sexual content in anything you produce, because he understands that sex sells. He hates you, the auteur, the creator, the artiste, for being someone he can never be, for being true to your vision, and pure. He wants to bring you down to his level. He wants to corrupt you. He wants to destroy your creative whimsy, and shackle you to the ever-looming ghost of cross-marketability and licensing. The Evil Art-Hating Executive is a beast. He will destroy anything that’s beautiful, unique and valuable about your work, and leave you a creatively bankrupt drone of a human being.

You know what else? I’ve yet to find the Evil Art-Hating Executive. I’m starting to think he doesn’t really exist.

When I got my fist set of “studio notes”, I was also on the defensive. This was my work, my vision, and nobody was going to force me to change anything about it. I circled around my screenplay like a lioness defending her cubs. I thought for sure my work was about to be bastardized. Chewed up and regurgitated as some generic B-list movie, indistinguishable from the rest. Instead, what I found was a lot of helpful feedback, good ideas and ways to make my film stronger. I found myself nodding along to every reasonable explanation. I found myself inspired by their advice, furiously scribbling down notes and ways to incorporate what they were laying out for me. It was pretty startling. And then it dawned on me: these people know what they’re talking about. That’s why they do what they do. And guess what: they’re on your side. At the end of the day, what everybody wants is for the end product to be good, to be well-received, and ultimately to be profitable. Unless you’re David Lynch. Then I don’t know what you want.

“I want to make the world extremely uncomfortable.”

I walked into a situation believing I knew everything there was to know about making good art, and ready to pounce and fight with everything in me to against the no-doubt painfully sophomoric feedback I’d be getting from the men in suits– instead, I found myself humbled, at the feet of people who’ve been in the industry for decades and know the trappings of it. They’re also savvy enough to know what risks to take, where to deviate from the norm. Not to adhere to a set of rules, but to know them so intimately that we smash them to bits. Someone was actually able to pinpoint, with terrifyingly precise accuracy, the points in writing where I thought “eh, this is good enough”– and pushed me to change them. It was a real eye-opener, and incredibly encouraging.

Now, I’m sure I’m just extremely lucky. I’m sure some version of the Evil Art-Hating Executive exists somewhere in the world, and I just have the good fortune not to be working with him. I am aware of that. If you’re reading this entire entry thinking to yourself “ah, this poor kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about– the system is going to murder his soul“, I say to you…   fair enough. Maybe. I don’t know that yet. This is all very new to me and I’m learning from every conversation, every long-distance conference call, every feverish 4 a.m. email. Even if I’m being incredibly naive about this whole thing, I’m happy to be going through it, because it’s teaching me to be less of a self-important douchecanoe. It’s put me right back in film school. And that’s exciting.

And while it may hurt to see certain parts of your work meet the cutting room floor (not literally… we’re not there yet), it helps to take everything in, learn from what you’re given, and exercise a little humility instead of instinctively pushing back like an arrogant jerk. Sometimes I have to be reminded that I don’t know everything. Which, y’know, is pretty absurd, when you think about it.

10 thoughts on “Staying Strong in the Face of Executive Meddling (Without Resorting to Alcohol or Other Self-Destructive Habits)

    1. Thanks. I think so too. The entire process has been humbling, but… comfortably so. The world of expression is vast and limitless, and sometimes I push myself into corners. I like the nudge.

  1. I understand completely. Having spent so much of my life having my worked ripped to shreds, put back together, and ripped to shreds again has taught me humility. Humility has also been the most important lesson I have learned on my writing journey. It sucks to have your child just changed or torn but you said it, it is a business unfortunately that comes before the work. But having to edit yourself may very well be a great thing, your art can become even greater.

    1. I liken it to raising a kid right and then sending them off to college, and having them come back home almost unrecognizable. Well… the comparison doesn’t really hold up, but that feeling of “wait, what are you DOING with this” I reckon is comparable. Or maybe not.

  2. Hello Mr. Farah- I stumbled across you after I, amusingly enough, stumbled across the “20 something blogger” website. Since staying up all nite, music, film, and writing are some of my past-times (and I am currently working on a screenplay of sorts right now) I had to read your blog. Excellent post- it is incredibly hard not only to find funding as an artist, but to maintain the integrity and vision of your idea. My blog is not much of a blog yet as I am relatively new to the wordpress thing, but I have subscribed to your blog and would love to keep in touch and perhaps chat. Take care and keep blogging!!

  3. oh yes, and drunk and high dial/text/sext (had to put that in there because unfortunately most of my “texting” when inebriated/stoned ends up being R-rated) is another art form I am perfecting. It is an art, and it takes practice (and lots of booze and mary jane, but perhaps for you it is just the booze). Anyways, enough of my comments on your blog. And I assure you this is sober commentary, however fortunate/unfortunate that might be for you.

    – L

    1. Far out, man. I know exactly what you’re talking about. My texts get progressively seedier as the night goes on, as my sense of propriety is dulled further by alcohol or just exhaustion. Thanks for the comments.

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