"Kill the Obie!"
I am very honored to be addressing you here today. You who will undoubtedly be prominent among my industry’s trend setters and decision-makers in the very near future. And since I’ve been going through an exciting period in my career with successful projects and wonderful acknowledgements, and I thought, hey, what better time to just start sucking up to you guys in a big way… . So here I am.
You know you already have something that I don’t from this place. A degree. I didn’t graduate. In fact, I don’t think officially I am an alumnus, but I think I am a DISCIPULUS SINE SIGNO, which essentially means, I went here a couple of years and then got the "Happy Days" gig.
But I am very proud to have been a film student here at USC, and there is no question in my mind that being here played a significant role in my development. You see, before I dreamed of being a filmmaker, I had spent my life as a child actor in the very practical workaday world of the Hollywood television and motion picture system. In the late 50s and 60s, the environment on-set was quite different than it is today. It was a gruffer place, and the crews were dominated by ex-sailors, Marines and cowboys.
I remember when I was 5 or 6, I was acting on "The Andy Griffith Show," and our lighting gaffer was a big old guy – with a huge gut and an alcoholic nose – named Joe. Great guy, but he towered over me. "The Andy Griffith Show" was a comedy about small-town southern America; do you remember? It featured Barney Fife, the deputy sheriff who was allowed only one bullet, which he had to keep in his shirt pocket?
Well, my character’s name was Opie, and there was something that confused me. See, there was a light fixed above the camera, today they are referred to as Panalights, but in those days they were called Obies because they had been invented to give extra eye light at all times to the famous actress Merle Oberon. So a lot of the crew guys would accidentally call me "Obie," and I would hear that and figure they were always referring to me and just not getting the name right.
Well, at least once a week, Big Joe would lean over me with his light meter in my little face and he’d scowl, and he would yell out "Kill the Obie!" I never noticed them turning off the light; I was too busy thinking, "Kill the Obie? Kill the Obie? What did I do?" It took me a while to figure this one out, but I had a great childhood on that show and it was there that I developed the dream of directing movies.
When I started film school, it really opened my mind to a radically different and much deeper way of understanding the impact of film stories, and why they work on both conscious and unconscious levels. Symbolism, metaphor; These were new concepts to me. I’m not saying the environment on "The Andy Griffith Show" was anti-intellectual, but if anyone had ever outwardly posited say the allegorical values of a scene on that set, someone would have taken Barney’s one bullet and shot them in the ass. They’d be laughed off the lot.
But of course, on some level, the brilliant creators of the show were working with these ideas. A peaceful town where the deputy’s gun is unloaded, the images of a father and son fishing together, and even Aunt Bea’s apple pie; symbols which are non-threatening to be sure, but symbols nonetheless which played a role in that show’s enduring effect on audiences.
Many things have changed for the better in this industry, and I believe that film schools have played a crucial role. Today, when I direct a movie virtually every department is headed by dedicated, sophisticated men and women who have complete filmmaking sensibilities and understanding. Many are film school grads who know that the story must be understood and told in specific ways through their department along with every other area of the production. And I want to encourage that kind of collaboration, which I consider to be one of the true joys of the entire process. It is exciting to be at the center of the creative swirl that solves problems and makes projects stronger.
Of course, I realize you have learned much more than pure theory during your years at USC, and it is your turn to apply your sensibilities and to reinvent the popular genres while finding original ways to reach your audiences.
As you find your way into our industry, I would ask one thing of you, however – to avoid glibness. I’m talking about the kind of glibness that leads to treating the projects you find yourself working on as "product" to be "manufactured."
Look, I of all people am not snubbing popular entertainment or commercial success. It’s thrilling when a project engages a large audience. And I also believe in understanding the patterns and formulas that have worked over the history of the medium – and there definitely are some interesting constants. But the "manufacturer’s mentality" won’t even get you the "product" that will drive the marketing and distributors systems that make this a major industry.
So I say, "just don’t go there." If you aren’t careful, that glibness turns to cynicism, and then to disdain. And the audience – and the mediums we work in – pay the price.
Every project in every genre of every medium, from silly sitcoms to historical drama, is an opportunity to tell a story well, to communicate something in an expressive and innovative way that can resonate with your audience and fulfill a need.
So as you pursue your professional goals, what will your journey entail? Well, I can’t predict the course or outcome of any of your careers, but I can do this. I can predict some particular emotions that I know you’ll feel.
Here goes: I know that somewhere along the line you will feel tremendous insecurity. I mean deep, neurotic insecurity.
Sorry, it’s just inevitable.
Here’s an example. When Brian Grazer and I had jut started photography on "Night Shift," a comedy for Warner Bros. and the Ladd Company, we had gotten some negative responses to the dailies. It was our first studio feature, and we were terrified of literally getting the plug pulled on the whole film. I couldn’t shake this image I had in my head of Brian and I swimming around in a giant toilet bowl. It was an old-fashioned commode with a long chain and looming over us was a huge Alan Ladd Jr. – who had been nothing but terrific with us, by the way – but I had this picture of him staring down at us and gripping and un-gripping that toilet chain, and we were just one tug away from total humiliation.
It didn’t happen in my mind or in reality, but, oh yeah, humiliation. That’s another one you can’t avoid. Like the time I was looking at the preview cards after a very crucial test screening of "Backdraft." There is a question that asks the viewer "How many movies have you seen in the last year?" This one guy’s answer was clever. "Obviously many more than your bonehead director." I think he was an NYU film major.
Humiliation is rare, but you won’t be able to avoid frustration on a pretty regular basis. There are always more "no’s" than "yes’s."
And then there is the "pain of rejection" and, of course, the "anxiety" you’ll feel when facing the inevitable compromises. It is the management of those compromises that will define your work in many ways because, as in all things, we are the sum of the choices we make. Weigh these decisions carefully. Rigidity isn’t a healthy state, and compromise is a reality of the process. But don’t get too good at it, and always be aware of the compromises you are making.
Sometimes compromise is a threat; sometimes it is the catalyst for a better idea. I’ve agonized over casting decisions that I thought were compromises but who wound up dazzling me and elevating the movie. I once threatened to quit over whether a particular sequence was to be shot or not. I prevailed, the scene went well, and it was the first thing I dropped in the editing room. Stupid.
Did I mention "stupid" as one of the things you will sometimes feel?
Ok, what else? Well, there will be times when you will feel betrayed. Look, this is a very competitive business, and the rules are vague. It is a business that brings out the best and the worst in people. I don’t have any cute anecdotes for this one because those moments hurt.
It is also likely at some point that your own integrity will be called into question. If you are in a decision-making position, you will inevitably anger people. Make those decisions carefully and look yourself in the mirror on a regular basis. Also know that this business is primarily filled with extraordinary and honorable people, and you’ll make some incredible friends. In the end, you will be more supported than slammed if you carry your end of the bargain on a day-to-day basis.
And lastly, you cannot avoid feeling like a failure. You will miss opportunities; you won’t live up to expectations. It is a high-profile, high-performance field, and these are very fragile mediums we’re working with.
Yes, I admit I have fai… . You know, I’m not going to dwell on this failure point ok? Because remember, I’m doing this so I could impress you guys, right? So let’s just keep focus on the positive, like DGA Awards, Oscars and the good old ‘SC fight song!
You know, once you’ve persevered and endured some of these darker moments with your creative energy and your sense of self intact, I’ll tell you what else you’re going to feel: You’re going to feel strong. And if you allow yourself, you can also feel incredibly gratified, at times even ecstatic. Savor those moments. In fact, never miss an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate even the minor triumphs. And, if you are like me and most of my friends, every so often you will admit to simply feeling privileged to be engaged in this creative process every day for a living.
You’ve learned a great deal here at USC. Perhaps even more than you realize, but still you’ve just begun. So have I. These mediums cannot be mastered, only understood a little. And that’s the good news.
I know I’m looking forward to my next decade in the business as much as you are looking forward to your first.
Congratulations, Class of 2002, and welcome.
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