I’ve been to so many Q&As with creative professionals both for my job and my education that I think I can throw some ideas out here for a FAQ that writers, producers, directors, and the like are just too polite to answer truthfully. They dread these questions, but are always quite nice about you, the person who asks them.
As a fool on the Internet, I have no such need to protect a fan base of hopefuls from the cold bitter truth of creative endeavors.
#1: Where do you get your ideas?
A: While Harlan Ellison has the pithiest response to this question (that I won’t repost here because he’s litigious and loud), I’ll give you the honest truth. Ideas aren’t the problem. Look at “Cloverfield” — a going-away party is interrupted by a monster. Anyone can have that idea. Everyone has. “Independence Day” was born while director Roland Emmerich and then partner Dean Devlin were doing press for “Stargate.” Asked this most dreaded of questions, they responded, “What if you looked out your window tomorrow morning and saw a space ship?” Two years later, they answered it. So the hard part is sustaining an idea in the chosen medium. Can you keep the momentum going for three hundred pages, forty-eight issues, two hours, or seven seasons? Every person who has made it learns how to keep the work moving even when it seems impossible to do so. Those that cannot ask about where ideas come from.
#2: How did you get into the industry?
A: This question, and its variations, is largely a lie. What is really being asked is “can you get me into the industry.” The answer is, of course, no. The industry doesn’t need you and doesn’t want you. There are plenty of people trying to get in and unless you’re loose about certain sexual favors, you’re help is not wanted by the people in power. Stop asking writers how they get in, advice in breaking in, or if they can read your script. They have their own livelihoods to worry about without you potentially stealing a job from them. There is one variation that I’d like address specifically, though.
#3: What advice would you give to a young writer?
I saw someone ask Ray Bradbury this question a couple of years ago. While he was quite gentlemanly about this, I felt the lad asking this question needed to be schooled. If you are a young writer asking an old, established paragon of the field for advice, you deserve the following answer: stop writing and get a real job. A million years ago, Neil Gaiman offered me, without asking the question, the stock answer: “Keep writing.” While it is certainly a helpful bit of advice, I think it does you a disservice if you’re approaching age 25.
Luckily, I was 16 when I chatted with Gaiman.
A writer never wants to piss off a fan, and the great fraternity of writing requires you to be encouraging if a fan expresses a desire to follow in your footsteps, but at some point, you deserve to be slapped in the face. A long gone DC Comics editor told me around the same time to make sure I learned everything I could about story before even attempting comics. I seriously quite trying to make comics for about ten years and devoted myself to story. The bitter truth hurts, but if you have the drive and the passion, you’ll keep working at the art despite it all.
#4: I’m a film student, and …
A: That’s nice, precious, but the director/writer/producer you’re trying to engage just disengaged from you. Oh, he or she might still be smiling. They may give you an answer made up of words you used in your question, but you’ve turned yourself into a pest because you preambled with that piece of information. Film students only matter to these people if they’re bringing them coffee … or the sexual services I alluded to earlier. You actually want to discuss craft? That’s great, just don’t admit you pay money to study it.
All of these questions are about desperation; the fan wants to make the jump to professional. J. Michael Straczynski calls the step up onto a fan convention dais “the longest step.” As someone trying to complete the leap, I do sympathize … but there are no ways to game this system outside of befriending someone already in and that’s not going to happen at a Q&A. Besides making friends, you write, publish, or make a film and offer into the YouTube altar. There is a genuine answer writers/directors/producers could tell you, but you don’t want to hear it. You want it to be like the lottery, but even those seemingly lightning bolt stories you read about have a lot of [do you really want to hear it?] behind it.
Are you sure you want this secret? It isn’t glamorous.
Okay. It’s effort. Even the lousiest script requires effort. If you can gladhand and weasel a way in, you still have to make the effort to produce something. At some point, expos, conventions, and seminars will cease to offer you any insight and you must make the effort and produce something. For those that truly have the creative spark, they have no choice but to create. They find a way to make it happen and offer it to the world with no expectation of return on that investment.
And that’s the key. When you ask a writer/director/producer about getting into the industry, are you really asking about telling a story or being (relatively) famous? What is your true goal in getting up in front 25/50/300 people and asking about how one gets into the business?
Because, really, anyone can have fame … but only a few can create.