A few years ago, I fell in love with the format of screenplay writing. The craft is understandably intoxicating for anyone who has any inclination toward writing – it’s all action, all dialog, and none of the fluff. So I packed up my bags, moved to the only city in the country where you can be successful at screenwriting and promptly wrote a novel. That’s right. As soon as I got to Los Angeles, I realized that I needed more description in my life (and that I was far, far too egotistical to allow my story to be a group effort), so I wrote a novel. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn a metric ton by working in production.
Above all, I learned that it takes a lot of hard work undertaken with a smile to garner any notice in that world. The reason to get noticed of course is that having a helpful hand pulling you up is infinitely easier than trying to pull yourself into the business on your own. It takes enough sweat as it is just to find that hand up amidst the fog of false hopes, especially after feeling like you’ve already jumped off the cliff.
As some of you may know, Josh Olson is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter that delivered A History of Violence to the world. He’s a talented writer with what appears to be a bright future, and if he continues on his path, he may very well earn a golden statue of his very own one day for his mantle.
So why is he an asshole?
Because he won’t read your fucking script.
Olson wrote a piece for The Village Voice Blog recently detailing the many professional frustrations of being an in-demand screenwriter whose friends of friends seem to constantly barrage him with amateur scripts that they want him to read. Essentially, his complaint is not outrageous. Asking for professional help in such a sought-after field creates an instant social conundrum – asking for help seems at once both a minor and a grand inconvenience. A pro like Olson either has to decline (which makes him look like an asshole for not helping) or accept (which makes him look like an asshole for giving earnest, brutal advice that takes up precious time to give).
So it’s not necessarily that the reason behind Olson’s complaint makes him an asshole. However, rest assured that he’s an asshole nonetheless because of his general attitude and the delivery of that reason.
First of all, who writes an unsolicited rant piece about how tough it is to do favors for people? In the article, Olson relays a story about how an acquaintance asked for guidance in the form of reading and giving notes on a two-page synopsis. How hard could that be? It’s not even a full script. Olson goes through the same thought process but then agonizes for several weeks over how to delicately tell this wannabe that his work is awful. This agonizing period, of course, is blamed on the social situation and not, you know, Olson’s inability to deliver solid criticism. It should not take several weeks to mull over two pages, especially if they are so clearly terrible.
When he does send his comments, they are greeted with the height of ingratitude. Make no mistake – Olson’s acquaintance is an asshole as well (and presumably a bad writer), but that doesn’t excuse Olson from the general heinous bitterness that a simple social interaction has caused him. One wonders whether Olson gets angry in traffic or vomits whenever his clothing isn’t laid out in alphabetical order.
Second of all, the analogies that Olson throws out are laughable. He likens asking him to read a script to asking a friend who paints houses for a living to come do your house for free. I’d expect more direct comparisons from an award-nominated writer, but this baffles me. It seems obvious that asking for notes on a script is more like asking a house painting friend for advice on how to paint a house. Maybe he can come over and tell you what colors will work best for your lighting over coffee. Maybe he can suggest a few good painters he knows if he doesn’t want the job outright. Maybe you can share your vision of how you want the house to be, and he can help you edit a bit to get that vision. But until a friend asks Olson to write a script for him, his analogy makes little sense.
Olson also tacitly compares himself to Picasso in the piece. Seriously. As if doing my work for me in proving his asshole-esque nature, he compares himself to fucking Picasso.
And speaking of fucking Picasso, injecting the word ‘fuck’ into your title and using it 9 times in 3 paragraphs shows the particular brand of animosity that’s often found amongst those in the asshole community. Plus, it’s plain old weak writing. I should know. I used it earlier because I’m a weak writer who uses curse words as a goddamned crutch.
Do not ask him to teach you how to make coffee at your house for free.
Thirdly, (we’re on three, right?) I understand that the craft of writing takes years and years to develop and that writers (and screenwriters in particular) are not as praised as they should be. They’re usually overlooked in the film world and in the production process itself. This coupled with the fact that everyone on the planet seems to want to be a screenwriter can be understandably frustrating. The problem that Olson clearly demonstrates is that he doesn’t understand how to be polite. You know who else doesn’t understand how to be polite? Assholes and people who use too many rhetorical questions in essays.
But mostly just assholes.
His situation reminds me of a friend (let’s call him Delbert) that frequently goes to movies with me. My friend pops a nerve in his neck whenever anyone talks during a film. I get it. I hate talking just as much as the next moviegoer, but I could never understand his responses. He only had two settings: 1) quietly stew and allow his experience to be ruined while his anger rose, or 2) yell something intense like, “Would you shut the fuck up?!” to the sinner in question. Delbert was astonished beyond measure when, at a screening two weeks ago, I turned around calmly and asked if the talker would please be quiet, saying thank you after my request. Mostly he was astonished because it worked in a way that yelling didn’t seem to. I think there’s an expression here about vinegar and honey, but it escapes me at the moment.
So, as a public service to Olson and assholes like him, I offer these three statements for use whenever the big, scary situation of someone asking a favor arises:
- “I’m really sorry. I realize that it seems like a small request, but it would take me considerable time to give it the attention it deserves, and I have stacks and stacks of scripts to read for work and another giant stack for friends. How about I give you a call if my schedule clears up?”
- “Sure. I’ll take a look at your synopsis/script, but I have to warn you that I won’t hold back in my notes. If I think it sucks, I’ll tell you so, but I’ll do it constructively no matter what.” NOTE: This only works if you understand how to give constructive criticism.
- “Oh! You think I’m that Josh Olson? No, no. I’m actually international hockey player Josh Olson who was formerly of the Florida Panthers.” NOTE: This only works if you’re Josh Olson.
Here’s where I could go on a rant about how society at large has lost a sense of politeness, but the real point is that if you’re polite and genuine, you’ll never seem like or be an asshole. It just doesn’t work that way. And if someone does feel like you’re an asshole when you’re being considerate and polite, you can still sleep at night knowing that you aren’t. Basically, there are ways to handle the situation that don’t seem to enter into Olson’s mind (or at least don’t enter into his essay).
Fourthly, I don’t think that most screenwriters feel so trapped by the whole thing. I’m speculating here, but I use John August, Craig Mazin and Ted Elliott as living counter-arguments to Olson’s vitriol. All three take their personal time to answer questions from total strangers and run incredibly good websites (August’s Blog and The Artful Writer) that offer tips on writing. They are living, breathing arguments as to why Olson is, in fact, an asshole. Perhaps they still have some perspective on those hands in the fog that helped them get their first foothold in an impossible business. Perhaps they just realize that helping others isn’t such a bad thing. And that leads directly into my final and most important point.
I have to wonder if Josh Olson circa 2002 (fresh off of writing and directing the direct-to-video masterpiece Infested)would have written this same piece. I doubt it. I also highly doubt that Josh Olson got to where he is on his own. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to jump from schlock horror into a tuxedo at the Academy Awards on your own merit, but it seems far more likely that Olson had a few friends reading his stuff and giving him harsh notes. Because that’s how it works.
Maybe a few more struggling writers should display their seriousness and willingness to learn so that pros offer to read for them, maybe pros should realize that there are worse fates in the world than reading a bad script for a friend of a friend. Either way, violently crying into your soup as a representative of your trade while wondering why some don’t respect the artistic integrity of your trade is an asshole move.
In the end I have to thank Olson. Usually I have to talk to people for several minutes before figuring out whether they are assholes or not, and Olson has done a service by simply publicly identifying himself as one. I have no desire to write screenplays, no desire to become a working screenwriter in any way, so I don’t count myself among the ranks of bitter wannabes who feel slighted by the very idea he’s propelling into the world. On the other hand, I’m not a professional screenwriter so I see no need to justify what must be a very real, very irritating reality in their world. Still, it’s a good thing that he doesn’t want to read my fucking script because, if I had one, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t want him to.