Fear and hunger
Quentin Tarantino famously insists that he will stop directing after his tenth film. His cited reason is that directors don’t get better with age, something he backs up by pointing to the demonstrably less vital late career work of various great auteurs. It’s hard to deny that he has a point; Steven Spielberg will always be Steven Spielberg, but there’s a huge gap between Jaws and Ready Player One.
I would never presume to guess what’s going through anyone’s mind, let alone Spielberg’s, but it has felt for a while like he’s reached a place in his career where he has nothing left to prove and so he’s no longer really trying. And honestly, that would be fair enough; there’s no way that Spielberg owes any more than what he’s already given. Yet it’s hard not to feel a little wistful for the time when a Spielberg film was synonymous with an instant classic.
It’s no secret that Bruce Springsteen is one of my biggest inspirations, and that has only been consolidated by the fact that he seems to be consistently challenging himself to explore new territory even as he enters his 70s. His most recent album, Western Stars, was initially sold as a return to his sparser acoustic efforts like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, but in reality it’s something totally different, an introspective work of sweeping grandiosity, the haunting poetry of his lyrics elevated by the sort of soaring orchestral accompaniment he’s never really utilised before. Like it or not, there’s no mistaking Western Stars for any previous work of his. And beyond that, Springsteen is now using it as the platform for another artistic challenge, adapting the album into a concert film/documentary that looks likely to be a tear-jerker of immense power.
This, coming hot on the heels of not only his triumphant autobiography, but the beautiful work of self-reflection that was Springsteen on Broadway. He could easily spend the rest of his career dropping interchangeable albums and going on greatest hits tours but instead is swinging for the fences and trying new things. That, to me, is as exhilarating as it is rare to see from an artist of his age and stature. Springsteen has stayed hungry which is why for his fans a new project becomes an event of almost religious significance.
But outside of the devoted faithful, most would believe that Springsteen is past his prime. In truth it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another hit from him on the level of Born to Run or Born in the USA. Given his back catalogue I think that’s okay, but it does make me wonder how Springsteen himself feels about his old work compared to his new. Does he roll his eyes at the now 40-year-old naivete of Born to Run? Does he wish that he could capture that power and energy again? Or is the answer something a bit more complicated?
Back in high school I wrote as much as I do now – maybe even more. I would finish stories, become convinced they were straight up perfect, and then start sending them off to publishers and agents with predictably non-existent results. Within a year, I would be turning my nose up at those pieces, cringing anytime they were mentioned to me and promising everyone that I could write much better stuff now. This cycle of essentially disowning past works for being inferior went on for a long time.
In some ways, the tendency remains ingrained. When we decided to revive We Can Work It Out for Fringe last year, my first instinct was that the play would need some major overhauling, that it wouldn’t be representative of what I was now capable of. It was a surprise, then, to read over the script with a view to making changes only to find that by and large, I was happy with it. There were lines, concepts and developments that I wouldn’t write today, but that didn’t make them inherently bad. A couple of beats went or were tweaked, but otherwise it was the same text. A similar thing happened with The Critic this year, which is also returning for a Fringe run after doing well in 2016. Again I was sure I would need to rework the thing. Again I barely touched it. With both We Can Work It Out and The Critic I remain comfortable to share them as representative of my writing, even if, due to circumstances and shifting worldviews, I could write neither today. Does this, then, mean that I’ve reached a place where I’ve ‘developed’ enough as a writer to not cringe at old work even when it’s no longer as thematically relevant to me?
Not quite. We Can Work It Out was arguably the first good play I wrote, but I won’t let myself forget that it was put together around the same time as A Good German – the nadir of my work as a writer so far. Within months of each other, I was capable of writing both plays; one that I remain proud of, the other representing a low I never want to hit again. This fact precludes me from claiming some quantifiable shift in ability occurred around that time.
I think age and experience helps you be a little more discerning in knowing when a work is ready for public consumption, but it can only go so far. We never see our own stuff 100% clearly. And that, I think, is where a healthy combination of fear and hunger is your best friend. Hunger to challenge yourself, to jump higher hurdles, to try new things and wade into uncharted territory, but also fear of catastrophic failure, of another Good German.
Recently, delivering new drafts of both the manuscript and screenplay of The Hunted/Sunburnt Country, I was scared. I’d followed the notes I was given, but part of me was certain I’d got it wrong, that my reworkings had thrown off some integral but accidental balance in the text that was only the reason anyone liked it to begin with. Similarly, I’ve already finished the first draft of the sequel to The Hunted and yet as the first book gets closer to publication I’m finding myself almost paralysed with fear that the second will be laughed out of the building, that it’s too different to the first, that I’ve lost the alchemy and The Hunted was only a fluke.
And maybe those fears will be proved correct. But you know what? They also hold me to account. Fear means that I’ll only deliver the book when I’m confident that it’s the best I can make it. For this reason I now think that We Can Work It Out never represented the turning point in my writing; A Good German did. Because before failing on that level, I didn’t carry that secret fear of it ever happening again, that constant check on the easy assumption that something is good enough.
Fear of failure is universal to any artist trying to prove themselves. When Springsteen received the first pressing of Born to Run, he could listen to only a few minutes before he stormed out and threw it in the pool. The album was his last chance with a label looking to drop him, so he put everything he had into getting it right. The album, of course, was a masterpiece, but what lies under the perfectionism that led to its success was a deep and terrible fear that it would fail and ruin his career, fear that he couldn’t see past even when he heard the now-classic finished product. After Born to Run made him a legend, I doubt that fear was ever as strong again. How could it have been? Forty years later, Springsteen’s artistic ambition remains evident, but he’ll never again pour everything he has into making an album the best of all time. Born to Run’s brilliance was at least in part born of a necessity that no longer exists for him.
Maybe, then, Tarantino is wrong about age being the enemy of artists. I have to wonder if, in some ways, the biggest detriment to art is success. Consistent, regular success that slowly erodes your fears until you become comfortable that whatever you do will be good enough. Maybe dwindling ambition has a role to play as well, but if you’re no longer scared of failure I doubt you try as hard for victory.
I speak with minimal authority, but for what it’s worth I think that mix of fear and hunger is the artistic sweet spot. It doesn’t guarantee good work, but it makes it more possible.
The day I found out I’d won the Sir Peter Ustinov award, I sat out on the deck of the house I lived in at the time and had a glass of wine with a friend. I explained to him what the award meant and where it could lead. A shining, glorious career was ahead of me, my creative success practically assured. I was about to become an in-demand writer and all the failures and disappointments that characterised the first half of my twenties would fade fast in the rearview mirror.
This friend, who tends to err on the side of cynical, listened in silence, then simply and honestly said ‘wow. So you’re set, then.’
I smiled, sipped my wine and agreed. Everything seemed certain and kept seeming certain for a long time after that. Even when the meetings that followed came and went without any tangible change in my life, I still believed that I was riding the wave of success. It probably took about a year for it to become clear to me that I was a lot less ‘set’ than I’d let myself assume.
There are various reasons for why things didn’t blow up the way I thought they would, but looking back the biggest one is that I just don’t think I was ready. Outside of the award winning Windmills pilot I didn’t have much else to offer when I went into meetings with producers, and beyond that my conception of what I wanted my career to be, the sort of writer I envisioned myself as, was vague and poorly defined. What I had been working towards was less a clear goal and more a kind of blurry notion of ‘making it’ without any realistic consideration of what that actually meant.
The Ustinov and its aftermath was a long, painful lesson in making assumptions. A few months ago, when initial interest came out of LA for the film adaptation of Sunburnt Country, my agent noted that I seemed very calm about what should have been mind blowing news. In truth, I was close to squealing with excitement – I just knew not to take anything for granted, that even certainties are a lot less certain than you might think in the creative industries. In retrospect, the Ustinov experience was preparatory for what was to come, a valuable learning curve about keeping a level head even when it seems like your dreams are coming true around you.
All of which brings me to the past week. You’ll have to excuse me being a little vague about things; some conversations are in such early stages and some projects aren’t able to be spoken about just yet, so I’m going to talk around a lot of what I’ve been doing and hope I arrive at the point I’m looking for.
Last Friday morning I flew to Sydney for a writers room job. Securing it was the work of my brilliant agent and it would be the first time I worked in a room over the course of several days, shoulder to shoulder with other writers as we developed the outline for a new TV show. The room, however, didn’t kick off until Monday; I was flying up early for a series of meetings at Harper Collins about the next stage of my book’s development.
That alone was a head-spinner. Seeing the passion from the team led to a mix of excitement and gnawing anxiety over when exactly they’re all going to realise that I have no clue what I’m doing. Their faith in the book and the scale on which it’s going to be promoted is mildly terrifying and I can’t wait. Of course, everything going smoothly relies on me holding up my end of the bargain; namely finishing the edits and getting the book to the highest possible standard before it goes to print. Flying up on Friday gave me Saturday and Sunday to wander around Sydney, stopping in at occasional pubs and cafes in order to keep working on the edits. By Sunday evening the major rewrites were all wrapped, right before I dove into a week of working on a very different project.
Editing the book is only one part of the ongoing Sunburnt Country/The Hunted (different names in different territories) experience. I’m also currently working on the next draft of the screenplay, which as has now been announced, is being developed by Stampede Ventures and Vertigo Entertainment in LA under the guiding hand of some of the biggest producers in Hollywood, including Greg Silverman – the former head of Warner Brothers. The film deal technically got underway before the book was sold, but I don’t think the size of the thing hit home for me until I saw the Variety and Deadline articles come out last week. For the first time it felt real. Add to this the fact that the other night I had dinner with a Stampede Executive over from LA and was given a bit more of an idea of what they have in mind for the film, including the timeline and potential talent involved. All of which left me with a panicky feeling of holy shit I have to finish this screenplay.
My plan was to get the script done in the evenings over last week in Sydney, but writers rooms are tiring and by the time you get out at the end of every day your brain is so stretched in so many different directions that giving any thought to a different project is nearly impossible. I therefore made the decision to focus on the room, do some screenplay notes if I found the energy but otherwise relegate the script to this week’s job. As much as I wanted to get it done, I don’t benefit anyone by rushing or not giving it my full attention.
The writers room was a fascinating experience, in its intensity, frustrations, and ultimate arrival at something really cool. I was comfortably the least experienced writer working on the show, and while it was a little intimidating to be working so closely with people who have been in the industry for a long time and have massive successes to their name, I never felt like my ideas weren’t being valued. Still, I was fairly exhausted by the time we wrapped on Friday and keen to get home and get back to work on the script. But over the course of the weekend, a couple of other things happened – nothing huge, but some potential movement, in one case on a project that I’d long since suspected would stay still indefinitely. I also found out that my TV concept Endgame (the name will change, thanks Avengers) is a finalist for a major pitching competition. If we win, we’ll get some development funding and support, which is thrilling but a little daunting from a time perspective. The pitching stage alone means another trip to Sydney before the month is out.
So yeah, things are hectic in the best way possible.
With so much tangible momentum on so many different fronts, am I starting to think that this is the belated realisation of that premature prophecy of being ‘set’? To be honest, I’m not thinking about it in those terms. Because as exciting as everything is, it’s also early days. Some high profile stuff has happened and I no longer have to do freelance gigs in order to support myself financially, but that doesn’t mean my career has erupted in a way that’s necessarily viable in the long term. Obviously I hope that’s the case and I think it’s fair enough that I’m optimistic, but I’ll never forget that, as I learned after the Ustinov, nothing has happened until it has happened. I strongly believe that one of the keys to creative success is a balance of realism and almost deluded hopefulness. I really hope every exciting seed that has been planted recently grows big and strong, but at this stage who knows? For now, I’m enjoying the ride but remembering to hold on tight and keep one eye on the ground.
Writing words about writing words.