At a Writer’s Guild panel discussion of screenwriters nominated for this year’s WGA Awards, Dustin Lance Black told about working with Sean Penn on Milk. “He’d call for more research. I’d give his assistant binders, transcripts, huge piles of stuff, and the next morning he’d hand them all back to me. He had read all of it.” Clearly, Sean Penn takes pride in doing his job well, and it shows. I was amazed at his portrayal of Harvey Milk, charm oozing, light literally radiating from his eyes. In the interviews I’ve seen of Sean Penn, he hasn’t come across as particularly warm. It was a complete transformation. People can say what they will about his personality, but Penn’s commitment to his work is commendable. He understands that with the large salary he earns comes a responsibility to the cast and crew he is working with, to the studio or production company funding the project, and to the fans that pay $13 a pop to see him in a film. It’s an admirable work ethic that people would do well to emulate.
The event was the Writer’s Guild annual “Beyond Words” in Los Angeles, and moderator Judd Apatow was not prepared. “Do you all see how he is radically misinterpreting each question?” Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) was visibly annoyed, and well-established screenwriter Eric Roth, a WGA Award nominee this year for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was also irritated: “I’ll answer that question, but that’s not what the audience member asked.” Apatow responded like a petulant child and sulked while the nominees gave answers. He spent more time throwing out comedic lines and one-upping the panelists than he did in listening to them or formulating thoughtful questions. He admitted that he was winging it, as if it were a good joke or a badge of honor. We, the audience, mostly writers ourselves genuinely interested in the experiences of the five screenwriters, were forced to listen to Roth field questions about his college acquaintance with Jim Morrison and McCarthy about his acting gig on The Wire – questions Apatow was interested in himself, and which, to their credit, the panelists were not willing to indulge.
I do not doubt Apatow’s commitment to filmmaking; he wrote and directed Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin, among others, which were very successful movies. He is obviously a talented, funny writer/director/producer who worked very hard to get where he is today. But why the lax work ethic in other areas? I paid $25 for the event plus parking, as did all the other audience members – where was the responsibility to us? It wouldn’t have taken more than an hour - 90 minutes tops - to read up on the panel members and develop some insightful questions. He was one of us once.
I’m dumbfounded at how often I come across sloppy work like this. I’m even more astonished at how many people do it without repercussion. As one of four children growing up, my way to get attention was to be perfect. I worked hard and excelled at everything I did, often to my own detriment. I’m not advocating the incredible stress to always be the best; that only leads to burn-out and dissatisfaction, but meeting the challenge sufficiently is essential. I’m not the psycho overachiever that I used to be by any means, and I’ve certainly had positions in which I really did not shine, but I always do thorough work: I prepare and I follow through. It’s not rocket science.
The one time I was completely unprepared, I was not given a second chance. While in college, I attended an orientation for new lectors at the campus church. I thought doing the readings aloud would help me for my public speaking class. The night before the auditions, I didn’t have time to practice my passage, so I thought I’d get up early and read it through a few times before leaving in the morning. I overslept. I arrived late and read the passage without rehearsing. I didn’t perform horribly, but I didn’t do well either. My name was put on the list of lectors, but I was never called to read. (So much for second chances with the Catholic Church.) That was for a five-minute weekly volunteer assignment, yet there are people who give much less than adequate effort every day at work.
There are bright spots. I cancelled the automatic deduction feature on my health insurance when I was switching bank accounts, but my premium was withdrawn last month anyway, resulting in an insufficient fund fee of $30 from my bank. When I called to complain, the health insurance representative was diligent about fixing the problem. She talked to a number of departments, explained what needed to be done to remedy the situation, and even dictated to me the email she was sending about my reimbursement. Granted, some careless worker allowed the problem to develop in the first place, but at least I received friendly assistance and a resolution of the issue. It would be nice though if I didn’t have to spend so much time on the phone sorting out mistakes made through company negligence. Maybe it’s a sign of how poorly the American work ethic has sunk that we’re comforted by knowledgeable service associates who can fix problems caused by their own colleagues.
At any rate, I’ll think twice before attending another Writer’s Guild event. Finances are tight; I don’t need to pay for disappointment. Shouldn’t the WGA be worried about fewer attendees and loss of revenue? For that matter, with layoffs rampant in the strapped economy, shouldn’t everyone be trying to do his or her best at work? Our country certainly wouldn’t be the worse for it. Of course, Judd Apatow isn’t about to be laid off. But then again, neither is Sean Penn.