Friday, February 24, 2006

Zach Helm

There's a great article in this month's Vanity Fair about screewriter/playwright/director Zach Helm. He and I share an agency - CAA - but more importantly, a professional philosophy. Evidently, Zach's career, while successful, wasn't going where he wanted it to. So he sat down and wrote a Manifesto - the ethics and rules that should govern his creativity. Since he's abided his Manifesto, his career has really taken off.

As I've learned - you have to respect your creativity or it'll get tired of you and move on.

A few points that he emphasized I believe make for important lessons for young writers.

1. Write what interests you. Don't get penned into one genre or field. This year, I've worked on a new thriller novel, a historical sports drama screenplay, and a six-man play that tackles social issues. Each one, oddly, informs the other and allows me to approach all my writing with a freshness that I wouldn't have if I focused on, say, crime fiction alone.
2. When placing your work, don't decide merely based on immediate financial gain. Money works in odd ways - sometimes, if you take more cash up front, it's a short-sighted proposition. Better to place your screenplay with the right producer or director, for example - someone who gets the project and respects you. You'll be happier if you're demanding that your work is treated with respect - and to get that, you have to treat your own work with respect. Plus, you never know when or how something is going to pay off - either in a financial or creative windfall.
3. Don't take crap jobs for money. Rewriting gigs can pay a lot of money in Hollywood, but they can also drain you. Likewise with other projects that sail down the pipeline. The first question should always be: Is this a stimulating, challenging project? When you're focusing on your own writing, why do anything except what is of the highest interest for you? For the money? If you're after that, you'd do much better to go into commercial real estate or investment banking. If you're going to tackle the trials and tribulations of a writing life, follow your passions. Take risks. Go out on limbs. It's a field where - at least for me - playing it safe means creative stagnation.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just finished reading the Vanity Fair article on Zach and people kept telling me about his 'Manifesto' but they only touched on it briefly. I was sort of hoping to read his whole list, but I guess he wants to keep those cards close to his chest? If you know more of them or if Zach has a blog anywhere could you shoot them to me? You can get me at my Blog. said...

I too have been unable to locate a complete Manifesto - only those points touched upon in the article. If you find it, please let me know.

Unknown said...

I have just seen 'Stranger than fiction'. Feeling a little overwhelmed by the talent of Zach Helm. However the quote from his manifesto"Respect your talent or it will tire of you and move on" has kicked my butt sufficiently to finish that draft.

Joe Shapiro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Shapiro said...

Read the screenplay for Stranger Than Fiction. It's even better.

Unknown said...

This advice is interesting. Being a young writer can be very discouraging. When I was a child, I had several poems and short stories published or awarded first place in contests. I had my first play produced when I was only 13. Highly imaginative since early childhood, I seemed to have a very promising future as a creative writer. I wrote my third play when I was 15, in 2003. It was produced in early 2004 as a staged reading by Live Girls Theater in Seattle. It was one of my favorite plays, and if there was any chance I could ever get it produced again, I would now edit/re-write it and do so; however, this play was called "Stranger Than Fiction." It was about a writer who is having difficulty finishing his book. The main character enters his life to try to get him to finish the ending so she won't die. My play was written and produced before the movie, but because I was just a penniless, unknown teenager and it was a small production, nobody cared. "Stranger Than Fiction" was my favorite of my original plays. When the movie came out, I was at in college working on an expansion of my second produced play, and planning to do the same with "Stranger Than Fiction," but the movie made that impossible. This is more crushing than rejection. I can never use my own idea; a story I loved and once which I would have liked to develop as an adult, because although my version came out first, a man with money and connections produced the story. How does a young writer move forward from that? It is heartbreaking, depressing, and more discouraging than anything else I have ever experienced as a writer. Not to mention the extreme paranoia it has instilled. Even if this is just a HUGE coincidence (another freaky coincidence: the screen play shown in the special features is dated on my birthday), it's still ultimately discouraging. Zach Helm was lauded for originality for writing a story I came up with when I was a kid. Maybe he doesn't go for the "big money," in Hollywood terms at least, but I am extremely impoverished; I have an autistic son who I can't even take care of right now because my finances are so low I don't even know if I will have a roof over my head next month. I had an idea that another guy used to become rich and famous, and I am nowhere. How does this "Manifesto" address my situation? As a young writer who has faced the ultimate discouragement, how do I move forward?