Suburban Girl Writer/Director: Confronting the Artistic Gap

04/12/2007 11:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In the months before my film Serendipity was released, my agent concluded that it would be good for my career if I adapted a book that fell into the category of what is commonly referred to as a "chick flick." I'm told this was a fairly unusual suggestion. Most chick flicks are written by chicks, although there are some well known gay men who seem to have a flair (no pun intended) for it. I, on the other hand, am a straight guy from Atlantic City, New Jersey - not exactly a breeding ground for men in touch with their feminine side. But not surprisingly, my agent can be quite persuasive - he's the only man I know who won't take "yes" for an answer.

Week after week, he sent me a fusillade of manuscripts - some already published, others still in galley form. Sad to say, it didn't take me long to experience literary nausea from overexposure to books about liposuction, Restylane, sample sales, hapless marriage desperation, and worst of all - the all night food binge, ending with the de rigueur, Bell Jar-like depression. Call me an elitist, but I simply wasn't going to make my living writing Manolo Blahnik jokes.

Luckily, my misery ended after an elegantly slim manuscript found it's way to the top of my stack. Turns out it was slim because it wasn't even a novel - it was two short stories written by Melissa Bank from her bestselling collection, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. To be honest, I wasn't hopeful. Short stories into movies? Very bad history. When was the last time you stayed up all night watching The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Happily, though, what I discovered was that great writers don't need too many words; Ms. Bank had produced two irresistible gems.

Projects speak to you - and this one was speaking very forcefully, with a great deal of wisdom and insight. While initially captured by the witty, May-December relationship - I later found myself drawn to the melancholy father-daughter subplot. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that every woman I'd ever dated had a complex relationship with her father? Either too intimate (bordering on hero-worship) or non-existent (bordering on vengeful). I often mused with my analyst about what drew me to women who had these "daddy" issues. Was I unconsciously trying to usurp the father figure in some self-absorbed, narcissistic way? Writers do have a proclivity for God complexes, and as Woody Allen said: "I have to model myself after someone." No matter - the subject certainly felt worthy of cinematic exploration. And so, after pitching my guts out to the financers, I got the job, and set off to write the script, and once again, face down the gap.

Now anyone creative knows about what I call "the gap." The gap is the mathematical separation between your vision for a piece of art, and what your talent is able to achieve with it. I'd like to think that the great writers - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald - didn't have to deal with the gap in the same way we shlepper-writers do. If I had to guess, they probably landed in 90% range. But the rest of us are prisoners of our craft - hopelessly wrestling with the progressive anxiety that we are not getting as close as we'd hoped. After years of writing, my feeling was that - if your final work is about 50% of what you went for - you've kicked ass. (As an aside, Ayn Rand was once asked about this gap, and suggested that if you couldn't achieve what you wanted, it's because you never knew exactly what you wanted in the first place. Ah, to be a genius.)

When I finally finished adapting Girls' Guide, I was pretty sure I was in the 50% range, and that's why I considered it (and still do) the best thing I've ever written. And yet, even after being told countless times, by countless people, that I had hit the mark - five years later, interest in the project was tepid at best. Studio attention lasted about as long as Magic Johnson's talk show. A-list directors who had responded euphorically to the script, were suddenly caught red-handed directing other people's movies. Alas, when the financers finally went belly up, I can't say I was surprised. I was reminded of what Elia Kazan's uncle said to him before he went off to Hollywood: "Don't worry, in the end, everything will turn out bad."

Miraculously, though, a company run, operated, and financed by women came to the project's rescue. There seemed to be a certain poetry in that. Chick flick produced by smart chicks. Even better, when I arrogantly suggested that no one on earth could do a better job directing the movie than me, they agreed, and offered me the job. It was my first directing gig - and they were going to trust me with millions of their dollars. These women either knew something I didn't, or had concocted a money laundering scheme that would make John Delorean look like an amateur.

A dream realized is worthy of celebration. I was finally a director! I could wear jodhpurs and no one could make fun of me! Unfortunately, after the initial excitement wore off, I was struck by a terrifying realization: the "gap" was now compounded by a factor of two. I'm no mathematician, but here's how I figured it: if you only get about 50% of the way with the script - and then, you kick ass as a director your first time out and manage, say, another 50% - then you've wound up with only 25% of what you actually wanted. And that's being generous. This was horrifying! All along, I had thought the purpose of directing your own material was to more closely approximate your vision. Instead, I could end up being a directorial Brutus to my screenplay's Caesar.

Thankfully, after consulting with my inner-Churchill, I forced myself to put these fears aside. Suppress, is what my shrink would call it. "The conscious inhibition of a feeling." But as I was about to learn, making movies is more than just a test of physical and emotional endurance - it's a mythological battle against the universe. Par example: did you know that your electrical department could blow up an entire building's power source, shutting all the elevators down? With your stars trapped on the ground floor, and your extras eating up the props on the penthouse terrace, try to suppress your rage as you watch the glorious, cobalt-blue night give way to the bleach-white dawn. As Steven Sondheim wrote so eloquently: "Every day a little death..."

Weeks later, with the film in the can, I was about to face the editor's assembly - the rough draft, if you will, of the film. "Take a valium before you watch it," I was cautioned by a director friend. "You've never felt failure so deeply, so acutely." And boy was he right. As the unpolished scenes passed before my eyes, a chorus of demonic inner voices began to sing to me in unison: "25%! 25%! 25%!" The gap, it seemed, had conquered me at last.

But then, something amazing began to happen. As I set about to edit the film, a different movie began to emerge - one directed not by my conscious vision of what the movie should be, but by what the movie itself was asking to be. The movie spoke quietly at first, but after weeks in the cutting room, it became like a demanding lover, insisting on obedience and fidelity. Themes that I never expected to be there suddenly materialized. Shot choices that initially seemed based on lack of time and money, suddenly looked like the work of some unseen force that had gently guided the film to it's inevitable, preordained version. In a sense, the film was no longer following my orders, it was giving them. (Sort of like Teamsters.) The movie had come together - and turned out even better than I had imagined, because I had never even imagined it that way.

I'm happy to report that it was this experience that convinced me to finally let go of "the gap." Because what I finally discovered is that artistic success cannot be judged by a percentage - and certainly not an arbitrary one set by the artist's expectations. It is the art itself - the story and it's accompanying theme - that should decide what the work should be. Rather than fighting this process, the best artists, I would think, simply surrender. Rather than coping with the fear of failure through some absurd, mathematical, Adler-esque compensation complex - better to just do the work, and see what happens. It is then, and only then, that you've actually got the chance to make something great. Or nearly great. Or maybe even kinda great, which really is nearly great, assuming you're a straight guy impertinent enough to make one of those chick flicks.