Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Make Your Own Luck
I recently began a new chapter of my career as a TV animation writer for scripts and development. I don’t venture to guess how much this might come to dominate my career. I’m still directing series, making films, teaching, etc. However new I might be to development and script writing, I find I’m turning to some old tricks to make it work. My first strategy is making creative time during captive time. By captive time, I mean time spent traveling; sitting on the subway, and (at the moment) sitting on a plane during a return trip from Arizona. Instead of tuning out with my ipod, I write in my journal, jot notes on a script, and scribble thoughts on post-its.
My father, Bob Levy, was the art director who single-handedly conjured up the long running series of Crest toothpaste cavity creeps (“we make holes in teeth) campaign (see image above.) While I was growing up, my Dad still had his original conceptual drawings for the series stuck to his home-office walls. My Dad is my industry hero because of his seemingly supernatural ability to brainstorm ideas and solve creative problems. He believes in letting the ideas flow out without stopping to judge them or edit them in any way. The point is to get them down on paper first. Later, he’ll sift through a pile and start picking out the key ideas, the ones that stick. Chuck Jones called his writing meetings with key collaborators like Mike Maltese, “yes sessions.” But, I think it’s important to bring that same yes-energy even when creating on your own. Perhaps even more so.
Writing to order is a really fun challenge. When I write for my own films or pitch projects I can indulge in a relatively full creative freedom. Writing on assignment is about bringing your own sensibility to the table to help birth something else for someone else. I think when it’s done right, it need not lack a personal touch or genuine inspiration. John Lennon wrote “A Hard Day’s Night” as an assignment. Ringo Starr had coined the phrase and the Producers chose it for the title of The Beatles all-important first film. The song Lennon dreamed up captured the true spirit of the band at that exact moment in their development. It was honest, real, while still being made to order.
I owe this writing stage of my career partly to pitching. To pitch is to try to prove how a project is both personal to its creator and at the same time universal in the market place.
Tom Warburton, creator of Cartoon Network’s Code Name Kids Next Door has only pitched 4 times in his life. He’s been successful four out of four times, scoring pilots, series deals, development deals, and most recently a children’s book. That’s a unique kind of success. If I measured my pitching and development career by that marker, I’d be a failure ten times over (ten times representing ten years of pitching without success.) But, then again, what is success? In this business we define our own success. Creating and pitching shows has helped land me 3 directing gigs to date as well as two new jobs as a writer. Over my ten, often frustrating years pitching and missing, I would fantasize that if development executives didn’t buy my ideas, maybe they would engage me as a writer or developer on their own projects. It never happened. Until, one day it did.
The key is to do what you need to do when you need to do it. Make yourself ready for opportunities imagined or unimagined. In a recent lecture to my career class, Tom Warburton advised my students to, “make your own luck.” Despite our very different levels of success, I believe Mr. Warburton and I are talking about the very same thing.