Never Think You're Bigger Than the Gods

Never Think You're Bigger Than the Gods

You sold a script? Nabbed a role? Directed a film? Wow, congratulations!

Now, do it again.

That’s the tricky thing about Hollywood success, isn’t it? It’s great to get your foot in the door, but in order to qualify as a working writer, actor, or filmmaker, you have to keep opening the door again and again and again.

It takes a great deal of self-confidence to keep at it. After all, show biz is tough. And there are no sure things in Hollywood. Even Oscar-winning screenwriters have to pitch their next script. (Yep, they’re your competition, as well as thousands of other scribes.)

The chances of any newbie screenwriter breaking into the industry are low, especially if they don't have a network. It’s just as difficult for actors as only a small fraction of them will make $20,000 or more in any given year. So, no matter your talent, you better believe in your skills and perseverance equally, because your stamina may be what makes you rise above the rest.

There are very few real life “Cinderella stories” where someone is discovered and handed a giant opportunity right off the bat. That’s why your three-word motto needs to be “Keep at it.”

And it’s important to understand the role of your ego in doing so. Keep an open mind and welcome various opportunities, even if they’re not as ideal as you wish they were. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still waiting tables after a year or two or three. And don’t think that writing grocery store flyer copy or performing in a local theater is beneath you. It’s all helpful; it all informs. And when you finally do get your break, all that elbow grease and humility you’ve accumulated will help prepare you for all that comes next.

But even when you’ve finally “joined the club,” be sure to never rest on your laurels. Try even harder next time. Remember to listen avidly and take advice wherever you can. And never stop learning. It’s good to have a healthy ego but you’re never too old or too experienced to learn. Everyone is a teacher. And we are all students.  

Remember, no one is bigger than the gods.

One of the great tragedies of Hollywood is that so many who made it big quickly forget to listen, learn, or practice some basic humility. And nothing sabotages an IMDb page quicker than failure due to an out-of-whack ego.

Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was a wunderkind in the early 70s with three massive critical and commercial hits in a row: The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? And Paper Moon. But then he believed his own press and thought he could do anything, and the world would show up. He tried to turn his then girlfriend into a star repeatedly, putting her in projects that couldn’t carry, like a period piece and a musical. When those two films bombed with critics and at the box office, Bogdanovich’s stature was damaged. And he spent the rest of his career struggling to get the green light for his subsequent projects.

We’ve all heard of stories of difficult actors, too, especially those who bite the hands that feed them and end up ruining the good thing they’ve got going.

David Caruso’s ego got the best of him after his success starring in the hit TV show "NYPD Blue" in the early 90s. After just one season, he thought he was big enough to walk away from his contract and headline big screen starring vehicles. But after the motion pictures he starred in bombed, he returned to TV, tail between his legs.

If you’re going to attempt to fly so close to the sun, you better have the wings.

And then there’s the unfortunate rise and fall of Katherine Heigl. In 2007 she was riding high on both the big and small screen. She won an Emmy for her role on TV’s "Grey’s Anatomy," and she also starred in the big screen comedy hit Knocked Up. But then Heigl made a public spectacle out of herself by knocking both showrunner Shonda Rhimes and director Judd Apatow, and her lack of gratitude did not play well in the town. Her attitude problems pushed her career back demonstrably. Hollywood is full of screen talent like that whose arrogance got the best of them, from Howard Rollins to Lindsay Lohan.

Stardom is rarified air, best not to stink up the place thinking your shit don’t stink.

Oftentimes, it is the most talented who wisely remember their humble origins and keep challenging themselves to grow even more as artists. Take Bob Fosse. The filmmaker only directed five movies before dying prematurely at 60 in 1987, but three of his efforts earned Best Picture and Best Director nominations—Cabaret, Lenny, and All That Jazz. One of the reasons he was so successful was that he never rested on his laurels. He admitted that he always feared failure and such worries drove him to try harder with every new project he felt fortunate to be given. That was incredibly humble for a man whose talent won him an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony in 1973 alone.  

And yet some directors, who haven’t been lauded half as much, think they’re so big that they should have their name paired with the title of a movie. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant? Really? He’s that big? Granted, he’s had successes like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the modern Sherlock Holmes films, and I like him considerably as a filmmaker, but I don’t see Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese putting their names above the title. Whether that’s Ritchie’s doing or the studio’s, it smacks of hubris.  

Speaking of Scorsese, everyone knows that he is one of the greatest directors of all time, a talent with a resume the envy of most everyone in show biz. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman are just 11 in his outstanding oeuvre. (All pictured in my illustration.) And yet, as big as Scorsese is, after he finally won a Best Direction Oscar for The Departed, he decided to take a year off to watch the films of other artists. That’s right, the newly anointed ‘king of the world’ wanted to catch up with all the work of other filmmakers that he had missed over the years while working. He avidly set out to be inspired by his peers. We should all be so humble.

If Martin Scorsese doesn’t act bigger than the gods, no one should.

So, if you’re a writer, struggling to accept critical script notes, remember that film is a collaborative business, and you can start accepting that fact, including others’ opinions, immediately. And if a reader gives you great notes, or you’ve won a few screenplay contests, don’t let it go to your head. Give your script one more run through the computer anyway. I’ll bet there are probably a few clunkers in the dialogue that you could better.

If you’ve been cast in a commercial, show, or film, arrive prepared, be 100% present every minute, and be sure to work well with others. And if you’re a producer or director who’s fortunate to get a film greenlit, realize how lucky you are and don’t screw it up. Do whatever you can to make it great. That probably starts with welcoming the thoughts, opinions, and artistry of the others you’ll be working with on the film.

So, when opportunity knocks, by all means, answer the door.

Just be sure to check your vanity at the door before you go in.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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