WHORES AND LIARS
A few weeks ago I was at a panel discussion where the TV writer/showrunner David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood, the upcoming Luck), known for his powerful intellect and oratorical abilities, talked for a bit about his philosophy of how an artist (in his case, a TV showrunner) should go about striving to get his art into the world (i.e. get his show on the air). He said you have to lie like hell.
He said, “One synonym for passion is a willingness to lie… Don’t confuse artistic passion with passion for truth-telling, and don’t strive for purity of intention. It does not exist in our species.” He said, “If a network executive tells me, ‘We can’t move forward without a script,’ I tell him, ‘You don’t have the script?? Oh, no–I’m humiliated. I can’t believe this. I’ll have it sent over in two hours.’ And then I just don’t send it to ’em.” He went on, encouraging everyone to lie whenever and however necessary to get your project done the way you want it. (Perhaps this may have something to do with the cost overruns that allegedly prompted HBO executives to cancel Deadwood way too soon, but that’s another story.) And let lowly PAs get blamed and fired for your crimes (i.e. not sending the script) if necessary. Because it’s all in the service of getting the show made.
There’s a difference between what we think of as “integrity” and what we think of as “artistic integrity.” And sometimes the two are in direct conflict. I’ve heard actresses in L.A. complain bitterly about other actresses who got a part, suggesting that it was because of sexual favors provided, etc… you know the cliche. The implication of the complaint is that the complainer would never do such a thing. But my feeling is, say Actress X wants to practice her art by performing a certain role, and to do that, she needs to get approved by a gatekeeper–say, the director. She can get the approval in exchange for sexual favors. She believes that she’s the best actress for the role, and in an ideal world, her talent alone would get her cast. But she knows the world isn’t an ideal one, and she can’t trust the vagaries of politics and personal taste. So she fucks the director, which drastically minimizes those uncertainties. Okay–I’m not going to judge.
While I don’t deny the unfairness of this in a larger context–it’s quite likely she wasn’t the best actress for the role, and more talented actresses were denied a shot at the part–I don’t lose respect for the actress herself. She was willing to go to great lengths for the opportunity to practice her art. …Now, I get that in many cases we may be talking about a talent-challenged performer trying to get a role in Marmaduke 2 or some such thing; what I’m saying is that I don’t find the transaction inherently inconsistent with the concept of “artistic integrity” on the part of the actress. (The person in the scenario for whom I lose respect is the director, who’s potentially sabotaging his own work in order to get laid.)
This topic reminds me of someone I met a few months ago whose father was a very successful writer, much admired in HTML Giant circles. She identified herself as a writer, too, and said she was working on a novel. She also said she was trying to get agent for the novel, but she was undertaking the task on her own, declining the opportunity to have her father’s agent represent the book, which the agent would have done, guaranteed. My thought was: This person isn’t truly serious about being a writer. If she really believed passionately in her book, she’d seize every opportunity to get it out there that came within her grasp, whatever the provenance of that opportunity.
Peter Matthiessen started The Paris Review with CIA seed money. He wanted to create a magazine that would publish the talented young writers he knew (including himself), and he got the funding for it from an agency–his employer–engaging in radical and experimental mind control/interrogation programs. He’s said that he regrets this. I’m cool with it, though–I respect it. He wanted to create and distribute literature and in the context of his life/position at the time, that was the way to do it. And what came of it? One of the most influential and important literary magazines of the century.
The world is not designed to make it easy for you to create and distribute your writing. You say what you have to say and do what you have to do. And maybe what you’re willing to say and do depends on how serious you are about being an artist. I’m not saying you should be a whore or a liar–I’m saying don’t confuse personal integrity with artistic integrity. They’re both important, but they’re not the same thing at all. And sometimes they smash into each other and one gets bloody.
(photo by Didier Hubert)