Sunday, 5 May 2019

Joe Carnahan and the Importance of Screenwriter's Etiquette

Consider this a sister piece to both my blog on the response to Sarah Phelps' ABC Murders from Christie fans, as well as my recent writing on things I wish amateurs would stop doing. There'll be a lot of crossover in what is said here, though the target in the former will be different.

Smokin' Aces and The Grey writer-director Joe Carnahan (who's probably just as well known for blockbusters he ALMOST made, such as Mission Impossible III, Uncharted and Bad Boys 3) has a new movie out: a low-budget superhero picture titled El Chicano, centering on an LA detective out to avenge his brother and donning the titular mantle. A big part of the production's press revolved around how hard Carnahan and the film's director pushed for an all-Latino cast, recognizing a vital demographic.

All seems well so far, but then reviews came in and weren't too flattering. One moderately positive review by Carlos Aguilar, that questioned some of the representational choices in the film, got real heat from Carnahan, who went on an anti-critic tirade.

Backlash ensued, and Carnahan deleted his twitter. Not long after, other screenwriters chipped in with takes on Carnahan's behaviour:

Stuff like this always frustrates me: it's stupid, pointless and it's a bad example for other creatives. Making a film, or any piece of media, is a long, grueling and often frustrating process that can, and will, trip you up many times. I get Carnahan's passion for his work (just watch any of his interviews) and why one would feel so defensive of it. That just comes with being a creative: if you didn't have passion, why did you create?

That said, a thick skin is a basic survival tool in any type of collaborative business and with it, the ability to stop, breathe and think. What has Carnahan proved or gained by blasting Aguilar? If it's about the writing quality, why not cite and explain the issues you had with the review's construction? Why not create a constructive dialogue with a critic so that both you and they learn from it, instead of shouting it down?

The truth of internet fire-fights is pretty much no one, regardless of position, comes out looking good. The rapid-pace nature of social media is catnip to impulsive decisions and the lack of face-to-face contact emboldens the worst behaviours. It's a dangerous cocktail that can tempt even usually smart people into poor argumentation and worse decorum.

And now that we've taken 'stupid' and 'pointless' to task, let's now dive into 'bad example': this is a terrible way to handle critique. As I mentioned in my Amateur Screenwriters piece, people are not out to get you when they say something you wrote needs work. They are not denying your 'genius', and they are not forcing you to conform to whatever dogma they may subscribe to. Nothing gives you the right to be abusive or sharp with people who have given you their time to engage with your art and, in some way, give you feedback.

Does that mean you blindly agree with everything they say and have no right to defend your work? Of course not, but being open-minded, as well as showing restraint, are vital tools if you want to make it as a screenwriter. If you get fiery right away or misconstrue critique of the work as personal attacks, you won't survive long. If you can't take feedback or notes, much less one like Aguilar's review where it's balanced with positives, how can you expect to work with other people and improve both yours and their work? Conduct and etiquette are important and often overlooked parts of an artist's toolbox.

So, what's a way of dealing with negative feedback that allows for said better etiquette? Well, a teacher of mine had a great saying, 'look for the note behind the note'. If you feel like a criticism of something you made doesn't make sense, rather than start attacking, put some distance between you and the critique and think: why would they say this? Is there a choice I made that made them take away that impression instead of the one I wanted? Was it the way a character spoke, or how a scene played out? Did a certain descriptor carry a double meaning I may not have considered?

The fact is, in the social media age, the internet remembers. Be better than trolls or fanboys or general malcontents, and not give into the first thing that pops into your head when someone says something about your work. And don't broadcast it for the whole world to see if you're not interested in being productive or mature.

People check these things now, and your online activity paints a picture of you before they ever meet you. Whether you're amateur or pro, knowing how to take the hits matters as much as dishing them out, especially if you still want to be in the fight. No amount of credits or fiscal success entitle you to belittling or bullying others, nor take said success for granted. No one is bulletproof, and manners go a long way.

1 comment:

  1. Even if there was no damage done to the poster of an attack on a critic, the very energy needed to engage in this sort of quarrel is exactly the sort of energy needed to fuel the next creative project.

    I've worked alongside other fledgeling writers, and those who are capable of receiving productive criticism well are the same ones who have made most rapid progress. Those who defend every point, or simply refuse to accept that there might be something in their own work that could be improved, tend to stagnate; on top of which, they risk losing the respect of their peers.

    I would, however, retain respect for an artist who comes to the defence of another artist (or artwork by another artist) they feel has been unfairly maligned.