I have always hated Los Angeles, and I’ve never been shy to make it known. In my mind it’s always seemed like a glorified parking lot, devoid of anything but mediocre Mexican food, anorexic celebrities, and enough smog to keep The Lorax from even trying to help. Oh, and self-centeredness. Lots of it.
So the decision to pursue a career in screenwriting comes as a bit of a shocker to anyone who knows me, but realistically, I had to move to LA if I had any hope of striking success as a screenwriter. Six months into this Hollywood life I find myself two jobs deep, currently unemployed, and recovering from a recent heartbreak. But these circumstances are not uncommon for the average quarterlifer starting out in a cutthroat and wholly subjective industry, and it’s hard to be bothered by them.
What does worry me is something my friend and unofficial writing mentor said recently. John, also a screenwriter, has a habit of delivering irritatingly unsolicited advice — like most people, actually — but his suggestion struck me: “You absolutely should not waste a good deal of your energy and focus onto any one person who isn’t you, especially when you’re just starting out. That’s advice I really hope you’ll take. I want you to be more prepared than I was.”
In order to make it in this town, I need to become a self-absorbed asshole. Noted.
I find proof of John’s advice everywhere. A good friend struck success as a mainstream actor and musician last year and knows there’s no chance at a meaningful relationship for him any time soon with his crazy schedule. My roommate regularly breaks plans for auditions. An acquaintance can’t possibly become a real friend to anyone until he actually has time for people, but he’s so in love with his job as a recording engineer that everything else takes a back seat. The most reliable friends of mine in this town are also the ones not somehow involved in the entertainment industry.
But being stubborn (read: naive), I took John’s advice as a challenge to prove that narcissism doesn’t have to be a requirement to success. Well-rounded, profoundly caring people can make it here, too! Just you wait!
And of course I was wrong, but not entirely.
A couple weekends after John’s “focus on yourself” advice, I find myself out at a popular bar on Melrose Avenue. The place fills up with a few hipsters — I’m convinced there’s a quota no matter where you go in Los Angeles — but the great majority here are industry folk. And by that I mean behind-the-camera types, which translates to generally average looks, laid back and casual (read: lots of plaid), and a definite tendency toward social alcoholism, if not actual alcoholism. Basically though, it’s a fun crowd.
We’re here to celebrate our friend Zach not only selling his idea for a show, but getting a major cable network to invest in him writing and making the first episode — an enormous accomplishment, to say the least. Drinks are on him and his manager the entire night, which while not out of the ordinary for how much cash they’ve just made, is still very generous. To a near-broke newbie like me, the free buzz is beyond appreciated.
There is no question that tonight is Zach’s night, but he bombards me with questions about my own writing progress. Did I make sure to submit a spec script to the WB Writer’s Workshop? (Zach got his start there and can’t recommend it any higher.) Have I started writing my own original pilot? (It’s how most showrunners select their staff writers.) I know his job involves regular 12-14 hour days, sometimes seven days a week, and I can only imagine that his willingness to read any of my work is the kind of hope I’m looking for to confirm that Hollywood’s self-absorption has its limits.
Along those lines, I’m reminded of the first time I met Zach. It was at his annual Halloween party, and our mutual screenwriter friend John was just about the only person I was going to know there. I considered passing on the invite, but John assured me that Zach was one of the most welcoming people he knew.
Given his devotion to comic books, I was somehow unsurprised to find Zach dressed as He-Man: blonde wig, practically naked, painted abs to make up for his ever-so-slight beer gut. I waited until after he posed for a picture with his plastic sword pointing skyward heroically to introduce myself. I was then promptly swept up into the most crushing bear hug of my life, followed by: “Laurennnnn!!!! We finally meet.”
The rest of that night consisted of him taking the time to introduce the new girl he just met to everyone at the party. And conveniently enough, they were the same writers and filmmakers currently clamoring around Zach’s post near the bar, all of them part of this lively social circle I’ve been lucky enough to fall into.
“To Zach!” everyone cries. The group has fully circled around — some of us hugging, some of us holding more intoxicated individuals upright — and every single smiling face is loving the fact that one of us sold a show. I can’t help but be thrilled to be included. It’s an honor to be welcomed into this supremely talented Hollywood crowd, to be one of the lucky few who write for TV and film, or else are everyday trying their damnedest.
I scan each face and note that at least half of these people have read or offered to read my work, and all are more than willing to send me job opportunities. I feel smug for a moment: you don’t have to be a complete asshole to make it.
And then of course I realize that these relationships are still industry-related. We freely offer our advice about jobs and scripts, creative successes and failures. We relate to each other in terms of where we are in our careers — it’s our shared passion after all. It’s a unique phenomenon that occurs when an entire city is powered by a singular industry.
These are real friendships, sure, but they don’t prove that success in Hollywood is achievable without an unwavering and singular focus on oneself. It’s a creative field and everything is therefore intrinsically linked to our egos and sense of self. My writing “for fun” as a break from screenwriting is writing a piece about my Hollywood experience as if it’s the most interesting thing in the world. It’s official: I’m totally one of the self-absorbed Hollywood assholes now.
Photo by Neil Krug