by Gerry Conway
LB’s NOTE: Convincing ourselves that whatever show or film etc. we’re making is worth all the time and effort we put in is a show business way of life. Writer-producer Gerry Conway, whom I’ve known since we both were wee tadpoles swimming in Harlan Ellison’s Wonderland pond, brilliantly puts it into real-world perspective:
Hollywood is a weird small town.
That’s hardly a new observation, but new or not, it’s true. And because Hollywood is a weird small town, that’s how I came to know and befriend the man who directed one of Steve Bannon’s alt-right documentaries.
For twenty years I made my living as a TV writer-producer in “Hollywood” (which is less a place than a set of business and social connections) and it really was like living in a small, tight community. Everyone either knew everyone or knew someone who knew someone. There were cliques and in-and-out groups, the cool kids and the nerds, the crazy Old Man who lived in the big house on the hill, the rough neighborhood and the new money arrivistes, the rundown homes of the formerly great…
And the schools. In “Hollywood,” there are several “industry” schools favored by parents with the financial resources to keep their kids out of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
(Before the tax-decimating years that followed the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, California had a top-ranked educational system; today it’s the 10th worst. That decline can be traced entirely to Republican tax-cutting fervor. But I digress.)
For the Hollywood parents of a K-6 child there are a number of options, ranging from schools in LA’s West Side for “artsy” kids, to more “academic” schools in the Hancock Park area and the Santa Monica mountains, to “nurturing” schools in the Valley, and “religious” schools in Bel Air and Beverlywood. My wife at the time and I decided to send our daughter Rachel to one of the “nurturing” schools– a terrific family-run K-6 school in the mid-Valley that, until recently, had slipped under the “Hollywood” town radar.
(That changed the year our daughter arrived when Peter Guber decided to enroll his child. Shortly afterwards his competive ex-partner Jon Peters enrolled his child. Then Kate Jackson arrived, and Al Pacino, and Ben Stiller, and within a few years our little family-run K-6 in the mid-Valley was buying property and expanding and had become one of the hottest places for actors and producers to send their kids and network at father-daughter dances and school wide fundraisers. But again, I digress.)
Rachel has an outgoing and social personality. She’s in college now, where she’s well-liked and respected. All likeability and respect was also present during her years in K-6 , where she made friends with whom she’s still in touch now, years later. Since I’m not the most eagerly social person myself, many of the people I befriended during that time were parents of Rachel’s friends. One of those was a man I’ll call Harry.
Harry was (and is) a director of documentaries. That’s a tough business to make a living in, unless you find a gig working in “reality TV”, which, for anyone with an ounce of creative talent must be a soul-crushing experience. Harry had worked in TV for various light-entertainment shows but he wanted (and needed) to branch out into the world of independent documentary film. Like I said, a tough business, especially for a first-time director. Most independent documentaries are either self-financed or funded by foundation grants, because documentaries aren’t profitable for investors. Pursuing such funding can be a full-time job in itself. But at the time we met Harry had lucked into a financing network that promised almost unlimited funding resources– all because of an unlikely accident.
Remember Michael Moore’s post-9/11 anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 911?” It’s one of the few documentaries that actually crossed over into near-blockbuster territory. The success of “Fahrenheit 911” infuriated conservatives, including the handful of conservative filmmakers who occupied Hollywood’s right-wing fringe. One of those conservative right-wing filmmakers decided to make his own pro-Bush 9/11 documentary in response.
(Another digression: there is a vocal right-wing creative element in Hollywood, though it’s much smaller and less vocal than during the days of the Hollywood Blacklist. As a practical matter, Hollywood is culturally progressive, though upper management is often fiscally conservative– particularly when it comes to paying talent. That’s a different rant, though.)
Despite his powerful desire to outmatch Michael Moore’s liberal outrage with his own conservative outrage, however, the filmmaker/director who wanted to make a pro-Bush documentary wasn’t an actual documentary director. After raising funds for his project from right-wing financiers, he discovered he couldn’t make a documentary on his own. So he asked around–like I said, Hollywood is a weird small town–and Harry’s name came up as someone with the skill set to assemble a documentary who might be willing to take on the project as a way to showcase his own talents.
As far as I know, at the time he took the job, Harry wasn’t a conservative, let alone a hardcore right-wing conservative. When we first met at a K-6 social event I felt we had a lot in common politically. We both expressed contempt for Bush’s idiotic jingoism, we were both socially progressive, we liked the same kinds of movies, and we were both doting fathers. Our wives liked each other. Our families hung out. Barbeques, movie nights. Good times.
First time directors often don’t get to pick their projects: if an opportunity presents itself, you jump and try to make if work. If you don’t grab the brass ring the first time around you might not get a second chance. When that right-wing filmmaker offered Harry a chance to get his name on a feature length documentary, Harry grabbed it. He told himself he wouldn’t make a conservative propaganda film. Like most fair minded observers he saw Moore’s film for what it was– a scream of liberal outrage. (I like Moore’s film, but let’s be honest, it’s as fair and balanced as an episode of Sean Hannity.) Harry convinced himself his documentary would be a counterweight to Moore’s film. He wanted it to be fair but strong, passionate but not strident. He seemed to think his own desire for objectivity would influence the final product and make it less a piece of conservative propaganda than it might be otherwise.
He was wrong, of course. As a first-time director working under supervision by a right-wing ideologue he didn’t have any power to influence anything. The film that resulted, the film he was credited with directing, was the film the writer-producer wanted it to be, not the film Harry hoped it would be. Yet that creative defeat was a career-making triumph. Harry was now on the radar of right-wing financiers who wanted to make more “documentaries” like the one skewering Michael Moore which Harry had just “directed.”
People like David Bosse, President and Chairman of Citizens United (yes, that “Citizens United”) and future Deputy Campaign Manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign; and the Dark Lord of Breitbart himself, Steve Bannon.
Over the next few years, as our daughters moved through K-6 together, Harry and I had several interesting conversations about his work. I hadn’t seen his first film, but I understood from what he said that he wasn’t happy with how it turned out; he seemed to feel he’d been thwarted in his effort to put together an honest criticism of liberal attacks on Bush. Like I said, Harry and I shared similar progressive beliefs, though he tended to be slightly more moderate. But as time went on I noticed a subtle change in how Harry spoke about his projects.
While making his second film, Harry described it as a serious appraisal of international politics. He said he was discovering things he never knew that surprised him and that he felt were important for Americans to understand. Of course, he said, he knew his backers had an agenda, but he was steering the film down a middle course. While the movie didn’t entirely express his viewpoint he felt it was less biased and more balanced than his first film. He seemed happier with the outcome. I felt pleased for him – though I was also skeptical, considering how the film was financed as well as the obvious political agenda of the subject matter. Since the film was only available to conservative audiences at conservative conventions and gatherings, I never saw it myself so I can’t judge whether Harry was correct in his assessment.
I did see his third film, however, the one financed and produced by Steve Bannon… and that was an eye-opener.
Harry was proud of this film, so proud he invited my then-wife and I to the “premiere,” a special screening at a theater in Burbank. In conversations leading up to the showing he talked about how he’d worked to create a legitimate documentary about a crisis in American politics, a failure of government to address a growing and horrific problem that threatened the nature of American society– the criminally weak Washington response to the threat of illegal immigration.
My wife and I went to the premiere, expecting to see a documentary on the problem of undocumented immigration told from a moderately conservative viewpoint–a reasonable expectation given how Harry described the film in contrast to how he’d talked about his previous films.
Remember that scene in “The Producers” when the curtain goes up and the unsuspecting theater audience experiences the opening number, “Springtime For Hitler?”
Yep, it was like that.
The documentary Harry had described as a serious examination of the problem of undocumented immigration was a ninety-five minute diatribe against Mexicans and Mexican immigrants, told almost entirely from the viewpoint of hardcore right-wing Arizona border patrol guards and civilian vigilante Minutemen, interspersed with interviews of wives whose husbands had been killed by illegal Mexican immigrants and subtitled interviews with “illegals” who were drug mules or who had been left to die in the desert by “coyote” smugglers. The only “pro” immigration interview was with a radical Mexican nationalist who argued that America’s possession of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico was an illegal occupation and it was Americans who should be kicked out.
We were, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. After the showing we made polite noises about the documentary being “very effective” and fled quickly while the rest of the invited audience heaped praise on Harry and the producers.
After that, though we stayed friendly with Harry and his family because our daughter and their daughter were friends, I made a point of discussing work and politics as little as possible with Harry. Even so, I found myself wondering if Harry was conscious of the dramatic change in his self-perception.
This was the same man who recognized his first documentary was manipulated by his writer-producer into a blatant right-wing propaganda, who’d known he made compromises in his second film to accommodate the financier’s point of view, and who, nevertheless, had tried – and failed – to produce a balanced piece of work. He’d been aware of the compromises he made. I liked to think he was unhappy but resigned to the financial reality of an independent documentarian’s life. He was also constrained by the fact that after his first film–so much right-wing propaganda–he found financing from less conservative sources closed to him. His only recourse was to make films backed by conservatives. That was the reality. What surprised me, though it shouldn’t have, was the extent to which he rewrote his reality to fit the films he made into his self-concept of being a fair and moderate voice of reason.
The reason Harry’s self delusion about his work shouldn’t have surprised me is simple: I’ve been there. I’ve done it myself and seen many others do it. In Hollywood, it’s a way of life. It’s how people who should and often do know better convince themselves the project they’re working on is brilliant and insightful, when, in truth, the show or movie they’re devising is often a piece of crap.
William Goldman, master screenwriter, once said, “No one ever sets out to make a bad movie.” There’s a corollary to that observation: Very often, no one knows they’re making a bad movie.
When you devote ten hours a day, six or seven days a week to a job–making a film or a TV show– for the sake of your own sanity you must believe the effort and sacrifice is worthwhile. Not just financially worthwhile–in Hollywood, that’s an easy call–but creatively worthwhile. Go talk to the writer or producer of the worst dreck on TV and often you’ll come away astonished by their belief in the worth of their own shitty show. “We’re doing something special here,” says the writer of every predictable family comedy. “We have a great cast and we’re telling important stories,” says the producer of yet another teen drama. These people aren’t lying to you; they’re lying to themselves. They have to lie to themselves– otherwise they’d be forced to admit they’re wasting valuable and irreplaceable hours and days and months making mindless and forgettable entertainment at the cost of marriages, families, health, and sanity. Lying to ourselves under stress is a human defense mechanism. I’ve done it, everyone in Hollywood does it who isn’t a sociopath, and it’s one reason I was happy to leave the business behind more than a decade ago.
So, I understand Harry’s self-delusion. He’s in a tough spot. To make a living doing what he wants to do, he has to convince himself he wants to do what he’s doing. To see himself as a serious documentarian he needs to believe he’s making serious documentaries. To see himself as a progressive moderate he has to ignore the reality he’s promoting a fringe right-wing agenda.
It’s tragic, really. Unfortunately it’s the current reality of the small weird town that is Hollywood, and the much larger, much weirder nation that is Trump and Bannon’s America.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.