Production: Why Strategic Patience is Often Your Most Effective Tool
It was while talking to a friend about romantic relationships that I first formulated the term ‘strategic patience’. I’m not a foreign-policy wonk, so I had no idea that Obama has been using the term for a few years now to define his administration’s policy toward North Korea. Strategic patience is a situational stance more than a policy for me as a creative professional, one that I have had to adopt many times over the years. It’s fair to say would not have survived this long without it.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote the famous aphorism for Johnny Got His Gun, “If you stay in the game long enough, you’ve got to lose.” This has been refashioned by realist-optimists like me as, “If you stay in the game long enough, you’ve got to win.” It’s the ol’ glass half empty or half full. Both are valid perspectives, except one is more pleasant to live with than the other.
No matter how valuable lessons learned from mistakes are, nobody is in anything to lose. But provided you understand the cards you’re holding, provided you don’t go all in on a sucky hand and bet hard on a good one, if you deploy strategic patience you are bound to win at some point. Of course, this assumes you are holding winning cards in the form of worthy projects to begin with.
How do you know what is good or bad with creative projects, or your talent in general, when there is so much subjectivity in the arts? You can achieve a certain objectivity with outside, third-party opinions, from people in the business who have some degree of success or an association with successful entities — the senior script analyst at a major talent agency or studio, for instance, or the award-winning producer. It’s not good enough just to believe in yourself, particularly if you’ve been at it for a good number of years, as I have. If you have made no headway, if you don’t have the data points from accolades and endorsements from successful individuals in your particular niche and specialization, then you probably need to fold. It is likely you are deluding yourself, and ultimately in it to lose.
For those who are holding reasonably strong hands but who aren’t winning immediately, then strategic patience is your trump card. You also need to understand, on a deeper level than intellectual, that you cannot win all the time. You may lose heavily in the beginning, but win big in the end, and vice-versa. I have benefitted from too many blessings in disguise, which I assumed were setbacks when they happened, and vice-versa: A number of putative wins have turned out to be nothing more than mirages.
The riskiest thing you can do is put all of your chicks in one nest by relying on a single project. You’re basically playing with a single high card, again assuming the project is strong enough to warrant that analogy. Almost everyone else who is successful in entertainment is playing with a full hand. A name film director, for instance, will have said yes to at least three projects including yours. As for the few name actors you need to attach to get a feature off the ground, not only are they holding quite a few cards, they’re linked to the director’s hand, don’t kid yourself otherwise.
While I’ve not run the numbers myself, I’ve heard from a seasoned producer that a film takes an average of nine years to be produced, no matter who you are. Spielberg acquired the rights to the book that was the basis for Lincoln in 2001. Liam Neeson was attached to play the title role, but bowed out because he felt he was “past his sell-by date,” a term I particularly hate, but one that is relevant in this case: so much of an actor’s performance is his physicality, and no matter how good Neeson looks for a man over sixty, he doesn’t look like Lincoln did during the time period the film covers.
How fortuitous is it that Neeson was replaced by Daniel Day Lewis? So much so, I’m suspicious of the sell-by-date excuse; seems like a bit of face-saving to me. I like Neeson for many reasons and as many roles, but Day-Lewis he ain’t.
The reason I don’t like people declaring something past its sell-by date is this: If a project is truly worthy of millions of dollars to produce, it needs to transcend timeliness. You can’t engage strategic patience if a project is time sensitive, anyway. In fact, a mark of a truly solid project is one that either warrants a remake, or a revival on stage. This is but one reason Shakespeare was a genius.
When I hear “past its sell-by date” said about a project of mine — I’ve only heard it once; none of mine are time sensitive — I know it’s either time to wrap up the meeting or end the phone call. A critical part of strategic patience is building alliances with people who can go the distance. Those who can’t hack it, who don’t really have the heart for it, will fall by the wayside. Good riddance. Nobody, not even the biggest film star or the most powerful director, makes or breaks a solid project.
Professional peers who are respected and whom you respect are essential mirrors. Aside from outside opinions of your projects, they also help adjust your own internal mirror, which is responsible for reflecting your self-image. Your internal mirror is often flawed for any number of reasons, but which mainly arise from natural insecurities and paranoia. Some of those might be justified, but just as often they aren’t; again, only an external reflection can tell you the truth.
I was taken by surprise when a close friend and colleague called me “uncompromising.” I’d always thought I was just stubborn and spoiled, too repulsed by the idea of doing things I didn’t want to do. According to the American work ethic, you do whatever you have to do as long as you’re working and earning enough to support yourself. If every artist did this, we would have no art. I don’t do this.
When you don’t adhere and espouse the American work ethic, you’re considered lazy, unrealistic, a burden. This is the kind of outside opinion that can cause your inner mirror to warp. I needed my esteemed, successful friend to set my self-perception straight. The lesson: provided you have the data points from professionals that tell you you’re on the right track and not delusional, you should remain uncompromising. You cannot deploy strategic patience effectively if you aren’t vested with the power of conviction.
The event that epitomizes both my uncompromising approach as well as the use of strategic patience is what happened with my problem-child film Hatter several years ago. Five years after I had written it and set the project in motion with one team of producers, I had replaced Channing Tatum, who was now both too old to play the part I had originally cast him in and too famous to be in an NC-17 movie, with a young Israeli model-actor named Michael Lewis.
Suddenly, but not unsurprisingly, I found myself in a sort of hostile takeover that was triggered by Michael’s aggressive Israeli pisher manager, Adi Cohen, the sort of unsavory, ego-driven character who infects our business far too frequently. In love with his client, Cohen was jealous of me, or something — he was so crippled and motivated by bipolar behavior that I called him ‘the meshugana plum fairy’. (My personality is well loved by schizophrenics, but rubs manic-depressives the wrong way.)
The upshot is Adi managed to triangulate the film’s star, Alan Cumming, and our executive producer, Christine Vachon, and pit them against me. Despite having produced sixty of the more radical indie films of the past twenty-five years, the recession was raging and Christine was in danger of losing her company, Killer Films, and desperately needed cash to keep it going. Cumming had always believed he would make a better director than I, and was hungry for the project himself. Cohen promised Christine money he didn’t have for half ownership of Killer Films, and would buy my project for Alan to direct. After much drama and histrionics from Cohen, which included a stint where he locked himself in his hotel room in L.A. for five days, Christine made a formal, healthy offer for Hatter to my lawyer with the condition that I step aside as director.
I was also suffering terribly from the onslaught of the recession; so much discretionary capital vanished almost overnight, leveling our business. Everyone knew I needed the money, but I also knew that something wasn’t right. My family, friends, colleagues and life partner all wanted me to sell. But I couldn’t do it.
When I explained my seemingly irrational misgivings to my agent, he told me to turn it into a play — there are many in the business who have always felt that Hatter should be a play before it is filmed. I had resisted this strategy because my knowledge of stagecraft isn’t as solid as my film skills, or so I’ve always assumed; this is likely another example of my inner mirror being flawed; in fact, I have spent more time directing theater than I have on a film set.
I reached an agreement with my lawyer and my backers that if I could attach a reputable West End director within two weeks, we would pursue it as a play and declare a holdback on the film, and pass on the offer from Christine. On the eve of the deadline, one of the top theater directors in the world, Sean Mathias, enthusiastically agreed to do the play. It was a close to a cinematic cliffhanger moment as my career has ever come.
Despite the fact Cohen turned out to be full of shit and not have the money either for Hatter or Killer Films, Christine is still who she is and would have found the relatively insignificant sum elsewhere to make good on her offer; reputation is a currency for hands-on producers like her, not to mention the legal ramifications and liabilities of reneging. Even with Alan directing, I would have retained a certain creative control that would have guaranteed the film was made somewhat according to my vision, albeit with a great amount of strife, no doubt; he and I don’t share the same tastes as directors, to put it tactfully. In other words, my film would have been made sooner than later.
I paid a steep price financially and emotionally for my decision. Unable to keep up with the loss of income on several fronts, I lost everything, my house, my company, my relationship. I was forced to leave London and ended up buffeted by fate back in Los Angeles, where I had begun the project seven years earlier.
But there were benefits. Many of them. To begin with, under the old deal the project was inextricably tied to Alan Cumming, who was both the lead and a produce. The problem is, I couldn’t raise a dime with him attached; as brilliant an actor as he is, as perfect for the role as he was, he has zero box-office value. With him gone, the project was now free and clear of his encumbrance.
Creatively, the project bloomed — it was already formidable if it had caused so much brouhaha. When I was the director as well as the writer, the script remained locked. I didn’t want to change a word until we went into rehearsal. But if you bring in a director of Sean’s caliber, you’re going to have to make changes to his specifications. The script was rewritten, reworked, there was a table reading, then it was rewritten some more. It is a far stronger piece as a result.
A retooled version of Hatter as a play began making the rounds with new producers and Sean’s weightier name attached. You can only go out to one A-list actor at a time. One by one, beginning with actors Sean has worked with in the past like Clive Owen and Daniel Craig, every actor who could open a big stage production passed — they just didn’t want to go “there.” Few people are as fearless and honest in their selection of material as Alan Cumming is. And Hatter was still too outrageous eight years after being written for anyone other than him.
After two years of making the rounds of agents and leading men, Hatter had become something as bad as being past its sell-by date: it was shopworn. It was retired once again to await a major actor who would have the balls to do it.
It would seem that my uncompromising nature had failed me. The overwhelming instinct that told me to run from the Vachon-Cumming deal had been mistaken. What I thought was strategic patience for the sake of doing the right thing by my beloved ‘masterpiece’ turned out to be misplaced stubbornness. Or was it?
A few years ago during an annual review of the projects I was working on, the same agent who told me to turn Hatter into a play flagged a treatment I had written for a then-untitled script based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story Winter’s Dream, which a rising tech mogul was thinking of commissioning. My agent felt it was the best thing on my list. When it was fleshed into a script named Dragonfly, he advised that my new strategy be that I direct that first and then Hatter, as a film once more — the play could always be adapted from the film, as originally intended. I would come out of the starting gate not with the flamboyant bang of look-at-me scandal and subversion of Hatter, but with a sturdy, conservative love story based on a classic.
Dragonfly is fully financed, scheduled to go into production next spring. Anything can happen between now and then, of course, but experience has taught me how to read my hand, and this particular card gives me a winner in just about every permutation. I am going all in with it.
I told Dragonfly’s backer and producer over a year ago that he wouldn’t be doing Hatter with me. He has plans to run for higher public office in a few years, and there is no point in him getting involved with an NC-17 project that is still so outrageous every leading man in Hollywood of a certain age has passed on it. I have many other worthy projects that are suitable for someone of his future stature, and many others I can create and develop.
A few months ago, however, at a function for his core business, my new producer announced publicly that after Dragonfly, we would be making Hatter with whatever profits the first film makes. This took me completely by surprise.
Despite having already told him he wouldn’t be making Hatter, there is no way I will say no to this proposal. After three years working together on Dragonfly, I know the man is a Godsend from whom I should not easily walk away.
This is a clever move on my backer’s part for a few reasons. Mainly, by dangling Hatter at the end of the racetrack, he guarantees that I will run the very best course I can with Dragonfly. He is strategically harnessing my uncompromising nature. And he follows up one project that is already acclaimed while still in its script stage with another that he knows is also worthy just given the amount of heat it has already generated during its many years in development.
Part of my new strategy for Hatter is to wait for a crop of actors currently in their mid-thirties who aren’t as afraid of their public image to be old enough to play the lead. And Channing Tatum has always loved the project. He’s now a respected producer in his own right who gets racy projects made — he has fantastic instincts. Maybe I’ll rope him in on the next attempt to move it forward. The important thing is I have a fallback in the event the Dragonfly-first plan doesn’t work out, another nest in which to place and nurture my chicks.
Will my strategic patience with Hatter pay off in the end? Both my instincts and my experience tell me it will. But, again, there are so many vicissitudes in this business that any number of things could happen. We won’t know for another three years, at least. By then, it will have been in development fifteen years.
Obama’s strategic patience with North Korea is a euphemism for modern siege warfare. In entertainment, it makes no sense to starve out your projects by withholding them, waiting for some miracle to advance them in the way you see fit. You need to surf opportunities, you need to rope them into your needs, but you also need to create them to begin with.
Above all, choose your gurus wisely, never just because they tell you what you want to hear. And listen to them.
Ultimately, getting a project off the ground boils down to what one producer said to me when Hatter first picked up steam, back when Alan Cumming, Rebecca Romijn and a young unknown male model named Channing cheerfully bounded aboard: “You are the filmmaker, James. You are the only one who makes this film happen.”
Strategic patience is an effective weapon as well as a defense. But that producer is right: At the end of the day, it is only the filmmaker’s determination, tenacity, vision and effort that see the project to the end of the racecourse.