Safe is not safe

stepoffcliff

Yesterday, I watched the interview of Billy Crystal on The Daily Show and aside from the startling reminder of just how funny Crystal is as he approaches his 65th birthday, I was deeply effected by a story he told.

In his earliest days as a standup, he performed one night at Catch A Rising Star, where he absolutely crushed his audience—20 minutes of pure gold. And yet, when he had dinner later that night with Jack Rollins, the man who discovered Woody Allen and made him a star, Rollins was unimpressed with Crystal’s set. This drove Crystal crazy and when he finally worked up the courage to ask why, Rollins complained that Crystal had played it safe.

Crystal’s entire set, he explained, was material that he knew would be appreciated by his audience, and Rollins acknowledged it was funny. But it also left him cold, as it told him nothing about the man behind the humour. It said nothing about who Crystal was and what he thought about the world.

Never be afraid to bomb, Rollins advised Crystal, and it has been Crystal’s advice to aspiring comics ever since.

Too often, writers of all media and genres face the same challenge. With an eye to being popular (liked) and commercial, we play it safe. We don’t push ourselves, our talents, or our audiences hard enough. We hold back for fear of offending. The results are shelves of books and DVDs that are milquetoast, bland, generic, and channels that are devoid of anything stimulating.

It’s not entirely the writer’s fault. Some of us have agents and managers cautioning us before the next deal. Editors and producers “honing” and “refining” out creativity in the hope of better numbers. But we let them do this to us and to our Art. Playing it safe may get you that next deal, but will it keep the deals coming?

When your work reads like the next writer’s work, which reads like the last writer’s work, why does anyone need to choose you or your idea?

Like them or no, there is no denying the talent that went into shows like The Big Bang Theory (4 physicists and an actress?), Breaking Bad (a meth-cooking school teacher?) and The Big C (a cancer comedy?). Or the book 50 Shades of Grey (mom reads porn?). Or the movie Memento (an inside-out movie?).

None of these were safe choices. None of these was obvious. All of these made people uncomfortable.

Go to the edge with your writing. Stare down the precipice and smile.

Don’t just face your fears; laugh at them and then take a giant step forward into the unknown.

In life, safe is an illusion. In Art, it is a lie.

As an artist, the most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I like to live dangerously.)

Another year, another AFF Second Rounder

20th AFF poster

So, it would seem that rewrites work.

Last year, I entered my screenplay Tank’s into the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition and other than some amazing notes, it went nowhere in the competition. (My spec teleplay of The Big Bang Theory, however, reached the second round before bowing out.)

Fast-forward a year and four rounds of revisions, I just learned that the same screenplay made it to the second round of the competition before bowing out…Tank’s made it to the top 10% of its category, which feels pretty good considering the AFF received more than 8,600 screen- and teleplays this year, its highest submission rate ever.

Aside from the $200+ refund on my registration fee, what makes this really awesome is the esteem in which Second Rounders and higher are held at the screenwriting conference portion of the film festival. You see, the Austin Film Festival is more than just a whack of movie screens and Hollywood A-listers (like my own Toronto International Film Festival; on now). The AFF is also a 4-day screenwriters’ conference and love-fest, as 400+ introverts try to get just drunk enough to come out of their shells and commune with Hollywood screenwriters and film-makers.

If you are a screenwriter and have never been to the AFF, GO! It is worth the money.

Sure, some of the sessions amount to little more than hero-worship where you’ll hear questions like: “Remember that scene in X-Files when Mulder gave Scully that look? Did you write that, because that was awesome?” But most of the sessions are actually helpful discussions and learning opportunities with the film and television world’s elite writers…and best of all, these Gods not only stick around, but they’ll actually talk to you at the BBQ or in the bars. It’s like they give a shit about your shit.

Last year was my first AFF, and I was the introvert amongst introverts looking for the closest corner in which to nurse my beer or G&T. This year will be different. This year, I will move out of the corner and occupy the middle of the room…who knows, I may even talk to someone. (God, I need a drink!)

Oh, the Austin Film Festival runs October 24-31 from the Driskill Hotel.

PS If you think I’m bragging, my prowess is kept in check by a friend I met at AFF who had two Second Rounders and one Semifinalist screenplay in last year’s competition alone.