personal stories

The Baggage of the Hollywood Dream

Last week in the Hollywood Career Anti-Plan I said:

“I believe the amount of work you put out into the universe is inversely proportional to the amount of baggage you carry. Just my theory.”

I wanted to explore the idea of (physical) baggage from the perspective of working in the Hollywood system. First, two stories I wanted to share:

The first is fact.

The second is fiction (but still illuminating).

The Fast Track to be a Hollywood Working Man

The first story is about David O. Russell.

He’s the director of critical darlings like FIGHTER, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE. Yet still calls himself a “working man… living from picture to picture.

Russell: … I’ve been a working man, I work to make a living; I take writing assignments. So I take a writing assignment to write this Uncharted film, because I have to support my family. I live from picture to picture, regardless of what anyone’s fantasy of Hollywood is.

Movies.com: In Hollywood terms, that’s paycheck to paycheck…

Russell: Yeah, I never found that pipeline, so I’m just picture to picture.

The second fictional story comes from Simon Rich. Rich is the youngest SNL writer in the history of the show. In a piece called SELL OUT for the New Yorker, he tells the story of a character named, uh, Simon, who is a screenwriter living in NY:

“I already said no to that!” he says. “No—I don’t want to punch up any more sequels. Because it’s completely unfulfilling. It’s someone else’s characters, someone else’s plot—I’m supposed to be working on my novel, for God’s sake.”

He pauses mid-stride.

“They’re offering what? For just six weeks? Holy shit.”

“You know what?” Simon says, in as cheerful a voice as he can make. “That’s actually an excellent idea for a ‘Zoo Crew’ movie. I mean, they already had Captain Cow go to outer space in the fifth one. But he’s never been to the moon.”

His voice lowers.

“Do you think we can get them to go up even higher? No? O.K.—just checking.”

(Hat-tip to Isaac Katz for the suggestion.)

The Hollywood Dream in 3 Steps

There’s a version of the American dream that’s pushed in the industry. It’s the Hollywood Dream: make absurd amounts of money on your art, then spend a major portion “rewarding” yourself for your hard work.

Those rewards paint you “successful”: the nice cars, the beautiful homes, and the entourage of people who drive your nice cars, clean your beautiful home, and watch your kids.

Then you realize to maintain that lifestyle, you have to keep working. Eventually, you’re making choices based on supporting the trappings of success, not the work that made you successful.

This doesn’t just happen at the highest levels of Hollywood. It’s ingrained at the start. It’s pressed onto the assistants. It’s passed onto the interns:

  • “Work really hard now, someday when you’re an executive it’ll be worth it.”

  • “Don’t expect a raise. You’re lucky you’re working here. Be grateful.”

  • “I know you can’t afford it, but you won’t make it unless you look the part.”

And young Hollywood hopefuls lap it up. They don’t question the Hollywood Dream — they covet it.

How to Eliminate Baggage

It’s not crazy to covet the Hollywood Dream.

It’s okay to like nice things. I like nice things. I like nice restaurants and good tequila and Uber Black Cars. The problem with UberX is the drivers really like to talk — about themselves. So I’ll pay a premium for silence.

If you want nice things, save the money. Buy those nice things.

What I DO think is insane is most people DON’T THINK ABOUT WHAT THEY WANT. They buy shit because it’s conveniently been decided for them it’s what they SHOULD WANT.

That’s what leads to baggage. Which in turn, means you’re able to put less out into the universe.

I’ve been sitting here, thinking about what I want. I came up with a lot of stuff. A Ghurka bag made several appearances. And a Boosted Board.

Eventually, I whittled it down to 3 crucial things, however:

  • Freedom to work on things I’m interested in

  • Spend more time with family and friends

  • Freedom to pay for dinner or drinks — and never think about the cost

Great! That was a wonderful exercise…

But what will I sacrifice so I can focus on these 3 things? What will help eliminate the baggage?

Here are some ideas. You’ll probably have your own, for what works best in your life. Or maybe you’ll think, “no way I could do without X.” That’s fine. Some of these used to be big parts of my life. Now they aren’t.

Shopping For Stuff

I can’t remember the last time I went shopping for stuff. I mean, going out into the world and waiting for the world to sell me something.

I’ve exchanged this activity for one I call, “Need it? Buy it.” It’s very simple. No more fretting about sales. No more “cost-cutting strategies” like off-season shopping.

I need something? I buy it.

My friends are getting married. All the time, it seems like. I like to buy a new shirt for these weddings, because I’m terrified these friends will get together without me and look through their wedding photos on Facebook, then burst out in laughing fits when they see what I’m wearing.

“He’s wearing the same shirt!” they’ll laugh, pointing. “He wore the same shirt twice!”

So I buy new shirts. I walk into the store, pick what I like and pay full-price. Then I leave, only to return before the next wedding.

There was a time I loved shopping. I loved those timed online stores, like Steepandcheap.com. Man, the savings! Once, they had this amazing Mountain Hardware jacket for 70% off. Nearly bought it, until I remembered I lived in Los Angeles.

Haven’t been back since.

The “Right” Clothes

In high school, I spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to get my jeans to fall perfectly over my sneakers. It felt like social suicide if they bunched up at the ankle like a slinky.

The “right” clothes back then was anything with the brand name prominently displayed. On your chest, your arms, your ass. I didn’t like it, but I remember feeling profoundly more confident in a GAP hoodie or AMERICAN EAGLE t-shirt.

I like to look neat. Not neat like “neat-o,” but you know, polished. Fortunately that takes a lot less time and energy today than it did in high school.

Plus, one of the perks of working at a home office is the “right clothes” are often basketball shorts and a t-shirt.

Shoes

I have about 10 pairs of shoes in the apartment right now. Haven’t bought a new pair in a while, but yeah, that’s too many. I’m working on it.

Brand Name for Brand-Name’s Sake

The last pair of sunglasses I bought were Ray-Ban.

Specifically, they’re a Ray-Ban’s model called “LA.” I bought them for the “LA” next to the Ray-Ban logo. I paid an extra $50. That’s $25 per letter.

The sunglasses themselves are okay. They do their job. But they slip down my nose a lot, so I was looking to buy a pair of Ray-Ban wayfarers. These cost $200.

I had them in one hand, and my credit card in another. Then I stopped. It wasn’t the price. It was the thought: “is the only reason I’m buying these because they say ‘Ray-Ban’ on them?”

Yes.

Did I actually care?

No.

I put them back.

Brand New

The table and chair I’m sitting at in the kitchen as I write this belonged to a UCLA grad student who was moving back to China.

The movable island behind me, I bought from a former neighbor, before he moved to Chicago. The sofa came from a couple in Venice. A couple years ago, I told Amy I needed a new desk. We walked outside, and 300 feet from the apartment, a guy was selling his on the street.

Are there reasons to buy brand new? If it’s important to you, sure. Buy new. Get the warranty and peace of mind.

Plenty of things don’t, though. Like this kitchen table. It’s got four legs. To my knowledge, those four legs will still stand upright tomorrow. No warranty needed. Is the idea I’m the only person who’s ever broken bread here something I’m willing to pay a premium for?

I understand if that’s important to you. For me it’s not.

Comfort

A world of possibilities opens up when you’re comfortable with discomfort.

You can drive across the United States with a lot less hassle and worry. Instead of searching for hotels or trying to save money on rate differentials, aim for a National Forest and throw up a tent. Or if you’re in Utah, drive a quarter mile off the road and do the same thing.

Comfort 100% of the time is great if you want to be a giant pansy. “It’s too cold, it’s too hot, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, boo-hoo.”

True story: when we used to go on long car rides, my siblings and I would complain we were thirsty. We wanted to stop at McDonald’s and get a Coke. My mother would tell us to stop whining. “Drink your spit,” she said.

Comfort on occasion is nice. You upgrade or whatever, it’s a great experience, but you don’t make it a way of life, because that lifestyle isn’t what’s important to you.

You know what is important to you?

No?

Better get working on it, then.

What If I Missed My Chance to Work On A Television Show?

A week after my boss agreed I could work half-time so I could pursue another opportunity (more on that later), news of this show broke:

Ashecliffe

HBO, Paramount Plot ‘Shutter Island’ Series ‘Ashecliffe’ With Martin Scorsese And Dennis Lehane

On one hand, it’s amazing, because I the researcher. I was in the room when Dennis and Tom crafted that story.

On the other hand, by going half-time, I had already shut myself out of the project.

When I saw this story, the emotional reaction was: “Oh man, I am an idiot. What did I just pass up?”

[click to continue…]

Don’t Pay Dues and 3 Soul-Saving Mindsets When You’re Fed Up At Work

At a wedding at the Benjamin Franklin Institute, I explained to my friend Sean how part of my work involved chauffeuring pets to and from vet appointments.

“I don’t know man,” he said. “I don’t think I could do it.” Big Ben (the 100-foot replica of Benjamin Franklin glaring down at us) seemed to agree.

I get it. There are days that made me feel all Anne Hathaway in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. During a recent trip to the vet, the dog expressed her gratitude by leaving a lake in the reception area. I cleaned it up with half a roll of off-brand paper towels, the kind that gets soaked by a gentle mist.

you had one job

After her appointment, I had to take my boss’s car to the DMV to get it inspected and registered. I finished the paperwork and paid for the registration:

“Great, now go get the smog inspection, come back here, and we’ll give you the plates and stickers,” the person said. Another 90 minutes and a smog inspection later, I returned to the DMV and got back in line.

An hour later, I had the plates and stickers. I dropped off the car, and returned to mine, then proceeded to cross the hell hole that is the 405 on a Friday evening.

Total time running errands: 6 hours.

Keep Reading If You’ve Ever Been Fed Up At Work

My inner monologue at these moments used to sound like any other whiny, self-entitled intern or unique snowflake college graduate:

  • “I am too smart to sit in line at the DMV for someone else.”

  • “I have so much more to contribute to the world than chauffeuring around dogs.”

  • “I’m cleaning up my boss’s dog’s piss — what is wrong with this picture?”

Mostly, I was angry. I was frustrated. And I didn’t know how to handle it, or make the situation better.

[click to continue…]

The Accomplished Critic

In college I wrote book reviews for the university magazine.

It was a lot of fun. It was college. Your opinion vastly outweighed anyone else’s. Especially if it wasn’t hypothesized and percolated within the university bubble. We’d rap on subjects with an assurance that comes from knowing half-formed theories would stand unchallenged by the real world.

When I reviewed books, most of the time I did it with respect. But I clearly remember ripping into a few with spite and mean-spiritedness. There was one novel in particular… It was part of THE CAT WHO… series, by Lillian Jackson Braun.

I spent extra time crafting that review. I wanted people who read it to think I was funny and clever, and could turn a phrase. It’s embarrassing to think about now.

Yesterday, I read a review of Dennis Lehane’s film, THE DROP. The review closes with:

“It’s definitely my least favorite Dennis Lehane adaptation to date, and I believe he should stick to writing books.”

[click to continue…]

If It Doesn’t Hurt You’re Not Doing It Right

The other day, I went to a lawyer networking dinner in Pasadena with my girlfriend, Amy. She asked me to be her date: to rub elbows and drink blended margaritas with too much ice and not enough tequila.

She asked… expecting me to decline.

Because most of the time, that’s what I do.

Amy knows me better than I know myself.

She knows what it means when I get quiet… or talk too loudly… she knows EXACTLY what I’m thinking when someone starts talking about what “they deserve” (e.g, a good job, a good salary) after earning a piece of paper after four years of delaying the real world.

So she knows when she asks if I want to go do something (drink blended margaritas, go to the beach, eat froyo) I’ll act like I’m considering it… but what I’m really doing is opportunity cost calculus.

Here’s what that calculus looked like when she asked me to this dinner:

  • “Well, I’ll take an hour train ride into downtown Los Angeles where she’ll pick me up

  • Then it’ll be a half-hour drive to Pasadena

  • We’ll be meeting these people who aren’t in my industry, so it’s unlikely any long-term relationships will come out of it

  • (plus they’ll probably be way older than us)

  • We’ll eat food, make small talk, listen to some speeches for two hours

  • Then get in the car and drive 30 minutes back home

  • At which point it’s 9 p.m., and I know I can’t work after 8…”

“So going to this event = an opportunity cost of 4 hours of work.”

Then I think: “Well, shit, 4 hours is lot, to hang out with a bunch of people I’m never going to see again…”

This happens in the pause after Amy finishes her sentence.

She catches it (and I catch her catching it). It happens in a blink but it’s still noticeable, like flicking on-and-off a light switch.

Opportunity cost calculus is something I do several times a day. It is, without a doubt, the thing I hate the most about myself. [click to continue…]