Alan Katz: Last Man Standing

March 29, 2012

"The good times are extremely good. The hard times – daunting. But I honestly can say I wouldn’t have done it any other way."  

Last week a talented artist said to me, "You don't really care about your art. You don't have to care about it because you have kids, a husband, a home, three jobs ... you paint for fun."  
Excuse me?  (The nice alternative to yelling, "WTF?" which is what I wanted to do at the time, steam exploding from both of my normally easygoing ears.)  Must one be homeless and starving without a job or loved ones to be taken seriously in the creative realm?  To succeed? 

Alan Katz
When asked what it takes to succeed in his field, my guest today, Film/TV writer and producer Alan Katz says, "Talent helps a lot. Discipline helps, too. But more than almost anything else – perseverance. The willingness to hang in there despite the vicissitudes and hard times – to try and be the last man standing."

How can I possibly persevere in my field if I'm homeless, starving, jobless, and loveless? Well, I'd like to believe I'd find a way.  Maybe I have found a way by using my noggin to figure out just how to avoid those afflictions at forty something.  Perhaps I work, accept the love of those who can put up with me, and choose to stay in one place because it creates the support I need to meet my insatiable creative needs. So in the end, who's the smartest fellow?   

Think about it.  If I drop dead, what good will that do?  If I can't afford canvas?  If I'm so lonely I can't function?

I may not be there today, but I've seen those streets.  I've been used and abused. I've been poor. I've been lonely and rejected. I've made my share of bad decisions and fought to overcome the repercussions. I've laid in a hospital, nearly dead. Not a pretty image, but I've I crawled through my own emotional filth to make sure I made it through one way or another. I ultimately chose life, and a life with purpose. I worked hard to be happy, and still do.  And while I continue to struggle with the various inner machinations that often go along with being creative, I strive to remain positive. 

Telling me I don't care about my art is the worst insult someone could toss at me.  My art, my creativity, is what I have lived for; it is why I'm still here in one solid piece. 

Alan reminds us that many people in our lives can't compute the equations we live by, and what we do to avoid implosion.  We can't worry about that, even when it hurts.  Instead we plow through the trenches of  this highly competitive world with our swollen hearts driving us forward.  We have what it takes regardless of how many kids, jobs, or homes surround us. 

I'm sad for highly creative people who don't have some of the things I have, yet I sometimes envy their brand of freedom. There are days when I gaze out my window and wish I were them. The truth is there are many ways to live and many ways to fail at it. 

As for myself and, I believe, Alan, we will be the last ones standing because we do what we need to do to make sure we don't fall.

What's your story? How did you get into writing and producing for television and films, and why does it appeal to you? 

When I graduated from college (I was a drama major at Vassar), I thought (for about 3 seconds) that I wanted to act. I went to one audition and thought ‘No way… noooooo way.’ Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly qualified to do much else. I had been working for a company that produced industrial and training films (I occasionally wrote comedy material for them) and talked my way into getting hired to write a script.

Meanwhile – I had a high school friend who’d become an agent at the William Morris office in LA. She suggested I try my hand at writing a screenplay. I did and this friend suggested I come out to LA to see if I liked it. As determined as I was (being a life long east coaster) to HATE LA… six weeks later I moved there.

I made friends with a guy named Gil Adler – who had produced a few small movies. We became partners and ended up landing ‘Tales From The Crypt’ (with Gil handling most of the producing chores while I handled most of the writing chores). It was never my intention to be a producer but television is, by its nature, writer-producer driven. You physically produce what you write.

Consequently, that impacted everything that came afterward. I rarely approached anything as merely a writer but always as the writer and as the guy who would oversee the project’s realization.

That one is actively involved and engaged in every step of the film-making process – from the first glimmer of an idea to the last moment of the sound mix – is exquisite. Film and TV are so incredibly collaborative. I’ve been incredibly lucky – having gotten to collaborate with some of the most remarkable, talented people.

With regard to your current focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

One must always try and make sure that one’s head isn’t inserted up one’s own ass. On my first season of ‘Tales From The Crypt’, I wrote a script that ended up starring Whoopi Goldberg and John Rhys-Davies. It took place in the tropics. Wearing only my writer’s hat, I wrote the following line: ‘It’s hot. So hot even the palm trees are sweating.’

Okay – aside from the fact that I was over-writing (and trying to be funny), I had yet to learn one of the most basic rules of film and TV writing. Economy is everything. And every word you write is going to be someone’s responsibility to make happen. Having written that sentence, I should have switched hats and – with my producer’s hat on – slapped the guy wearing the writer’s hat upside the head.

We were sitting in a pre-production meeting on the first day of prep for the episode (with all the show’s department heads attending, all the producers, the episode’s director of course, a few of our executives – about 40 people in all). And the meeting suddenly grinds to a halt as everyone begins to try and figure out exactly HOW we’re going to make it look as if the palm trees are actually sweating. And we’re talking about spending considerable money to achieve this particular effect!

And I’m sitting there – listening to this – and thinking, ‘But… but – I didn’t mean it literally…’ Finally I raise my hand and say, ‘Um… I think the writer was just being metaphorical – I don’t think we should be wasting our time on this’.

There was a long pause as what I said sank in. It had never occurred to me before that these talented people would do something just because it was written. But that IS their job. It is NOT their job to try and figure out where the writer was talking (or writing) out his or her ass.

I’m glad to say though that from that moment on, I kept the metaphors to a minimum. And became, I think (I hope), a better, smarter writer and a better, smarter producer.

Many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now? 

I’ve gotten to work on a show that I loved (on a couple of shows actually). I’ve gotten to work for and with people whose work I deeply respected. My dreams now are for the projects that touch my heart and that could (even in some small way) change the world or change the way other people see and appreciate the world. 

Can you tell us a little about how the television industry works? How do creative ideas come to life? Is there an accepted process that must be followed? 
TV, from a creative perspective, is a combination of the best of the creative process and the worst of it – at least how we do it here in the US.

But then the TV business (and the feature business too) is in the midst of a true paradigm shift. The goal used to be – when imagining or doing a TV show – getting to 65 episodes – the magic number for getting a show into syndication. Because of that, in this country, seasonal orders for shows on networks were usually 22 or 23 episodes. It’s really hard to do that many episodes of a thing (never mind 65) and maintain the same quality.

Working for HBO, our seasonal order was far smaller – 12 or 13 episodes. Even then, we understood that we would probably do 2 or 3 great episodes, 7 or 8 good episodes and 2 or 3 outright stinkers.

In England, the orders tend to be much smaller. As a result, the quality (well, the consistency anyway) tends to be far higher. There’s a lot less of the sausage factory dynamic where you’re just doing what you have to to crank the damned thing out on time and on budget.

But the Internet – and the various outlets its created – plus the fact that, these days, ANYone can make a TV show or a short – is throwing everything out the window.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?  

Well… certainly, the path my life has taken has been unusual. I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be present for both of my kids for almost every day of their lives. I am simply not cut out for (or qualified to) work in an office. The good times are extremely good. The hard times – daunting. But I honestly can say I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Unequivocally yes. My father was a doctor. His father was a doctor. In the place where I grew up, you were either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Anything other than that – incomprehensible.

And even after I’d been working on Tales for a few seasons, I would explain to my parents what exactly I did and I could see from the glazed look in their eyes that it made no particular sense. That I was making a great living – earning lots of money – that they got. What exactly I was being paid to do? Did not compute. At all.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization? 

Ironically, I think I was far more disciplined (as a writer) before I ever made money at it. Making money kind of broke down my ability to just get it done (unless I was doing a show – deadline pressure is a wonderful, wonderful motivator).

But in terms of getting work on spec – horrible.

Still – yes, there is a process. Getting a story outlined and laid out (almost in a schematic fashion) is key. The worst thing one can ever do is sit down to write without first knowing what you are obligating yourself to do on a daily basis. I make it a point to have my writing day sketched out ahead of time: Tomorrow I’m going to write this scene then that scene then that scene.

Structure – in terms of a script or a story or an outline – and in terms of the writing day itself is vital.

In such a highly competitive world, what do you think it takes to rise above the crowd in your particular creative industry, and has this changed over the years?

Talent helps a lot. Discipline helps too. But more than almost anything else – perseverance. The willingness to hang in there despite the vicissitudes and hard times – to try and be the last man standing. A little luck is good – but a lot of being in the right place at the right time when an opportunity presents itself has to do with being the guy STILL standing there when most everyone else (who can do what you do) has packed their bag and moved on to something else.

Bob Zemeckis
What’s next for you?

I’ve got two feature films I’m trying to get financed, a TV show in development with my old ‘Tales From The Crypt’ boss (Bob Zemeckis), and a web series I’m working on. Aside from that? I’m open to suggestions…

What is your primary motto? Why is this important?

I want to make everyone around me better – and use their input into what I do to get better myself. I want to be a better writer today than I was yesterday – and a better writer tomorrow than I am today.

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