Jeremy Pikser: the Hope-Dread Axis and the Potential for Good

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Jeremy Pikser is an award-winning screenwriter, best known for “Bulworth” (co-written with Warren Beatty), which was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and WGA Awards for best screenplay, and won the LA Film Critics Best Screenplay award for 1998. Pikser cut his activist teeth at Oberlin College, where he was a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, and was one of the authors and organizers of the Not in Our Name Statement of Conscience opposing the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Being a teacher, you’ve seen and mentored a lot of writers. What are some things you’ve seen writers struggle with? Maybe that whole stereotype exists for a reason.

I don’t want to disappoint you but to be perfectly honest, I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of writers in particularly great emotional distress. I think I’ve seen people in great emotional distress. I suppose it makes sense, but I can’t say the artists and writers that I’ve known have been particularly emotionally tortured.

I do think it’s very hard to make it as an artist and I think that upsets people. [Laughs] I think that causes them to struggle. I hate to blame the victim here, but I think the people who aren’t making it as an artist and don’t find something else to do are trying to be unhappy. They’re trying to punish themselves for something.

But it’s not something you’ve encountered very much.

I know people who have tried to be artists for many years and never really gotten where they wanted to, and it always fucked them up. But there was always a solution, which was to do something else. When they do, they very often turn into happy people. I have one friend in particular who tried to make it as an actor for many years. It was quite clear to me that other people who had less talent and even less good looks had been more successful than him, but there was some reason he wasn’t. It wasn’t just bad luck. After 20, 25 years of just barely subsisting, he trained to become a family therapist and he’s 10 times happier now than he had been all those years [before].

There have been other people who never made even the most meager living as an artist but continued to try to be one. They did other unfulfilling work, work that might have been more fulfilling if they had committed to it. They were bitter and never did well at anything.

I will say I was lucky. I ended up doing writing as my first job in the movie business. I was not paid as a writer but I was on a very high-budget Hollywood production, and I met some very big-name people. I don’t think I ever would have set off as a screenwriter if I didn’t think, “You have a really good shot at making a living.”

When I got done with that film, instead of enrolling in NYU film school and making a bunch of friends, I wrote a novel, stupidly. I got it published in several languages and grossed about $4,000 on all of those publications. It took me a year to write it, took me another year to get it published. So I was making about $2,000 a year as a novelist. I then decided to try and write a screenplay. I pitched an idea to Warren Beatty and said, “Will you pay me Writers’ Guild minimum to write this?” He said sure. I wrote it; I don’t believe he ever read it. The Writers’ Guild minimum at that point was $27,000. So for a novel that was published in three languages and four continents, I made $4,000. For a screenplay that no one ever read, I made $27,000 in six months.

So I became a screenwriter.

[Laughs] I see the irony.

Do you see what I’m saying? I was never a person who set off to do this because I had a great calling for it. For me, there had to be a reasonable expectation that I’d be able to make a living at it, or I wouldn’t have done it. I’m just not built that way. Now, [there] came a period where I simply couldn’t get any work, and I didn’t work for two years. It coincided with moving from a rental that was $500 to a co-op where my combined maintenance and mortgage was $4,000 a month, and I had a nervous breakdown.

I went to see a psychiatrist, which honestly, if you cannot afford good psychotherapy, you probably shouldn’t be an artist of any kind. That’s the real catch-22, is if you’re making enough money to pay for therapy, then you probably don’t feel the need to go see one.

This is the only really lucky thing, I guess. I had a very weird psychiatrist who I had seen for a number of years before becoming a writer, and who encouraged me to become a writer. I had stopped seeing him for a number of years and I went to see him and said, “I need to see you for a session or two. I’m falling on the floor crying every morning. My hand is shaking so much I can’t write even if I want to write. But I can’t afford to pay you for more than a session or two.”

He did something I’ve never heard of before or since, and my wife who’s a psychotherapist raised her eyebrows not at all convinced this was even professionally acceptable. He said, “I’m so convinced that you’re going to be a successful writer, that I will treat you for free until you get your next writing job, and then you’ll pay me what you owe me.” I ended up owing him $10,000 and I paid him when I got my next writing job. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten out of that hole without seeing him.

Was it a specific thing that I he did [that was helpful], or was it just the act of talking it through?

Well, one specific thing he did was he put me on Prozac, which was a relatively new thing back then. The funny thing was, I had an epiphany two weeks after I started, which was theoretically not enough time for Prozac to kick in. My mood turned on a dime. Two weeks after I started seeing him, I went to Mexico.

Of course, if you’re really depressed, being in Mexico isn’t going to cheer you up that much. But I was walking down the street and I looked into one of the houses. The entire house was a room maybe twice [the size of this room] with virtually no furniture, a couple of hammocks, a concrete floor, and a TV. The kids were sitting on the floor, the parents were in the hammock, all watching TV, and they were all much happier than me.

I thought, “Worst-case scenario, you can’t pay your maintenance, lose your apartment, take your kids out of private school, move to Washington and live in your parents’ basement. [It’s] better than what these people have and they’re not having a nervous breakdown. So stop having a nervous breakdown.” Look at the worst-case scenario of your life and it isn’t that bad. I know it’s crazy to say something that logical could have affected my emotions, but it did. Or something did. All I know is when I came back, I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m great now.” But I’m going to work now. I’m going to write a screenplay.

I came up with an idea, I researched it. I was still obviously mentally ill because I went up to Montreal in February.

[Laughs] The Prozac didn’t help?

[Laughs] My moustache literally froze to my face. But I never had a seriously depressive collapse again until I went through cancer treatment, which was a whole other kettle of fish.

So many screenwriters have that New York/L.A. discussion, and you said once that you were absolutely certain if you went to L.A.—

I would’ve killed myself. That’s a bit of a hyperbole. I don’t think I would’ve killed myself. I would have left L.A.

So many people I know is having this dialogue, so I was curious about how you arrived at your decision [to stay in New York].

I don’t know if you’d call it luck. I married a woman who really had her shit together professionally. There’s never been a time in my life where I was in danger ending up on the street. Like I said, my parents had a basement I could move into, and not everyone even has that. If you haven’t got that, that’s legitimate terror. You’re going to have some anxiety about that, although another one of my mantras is, anxiety never makes it better. You can’t say it’s not a real problem, but being anxious about it doesn’t improve the problem. That’s kind of a Buddhist approach, I suppose. Unless you’re getting something out of the drama, then that’s that problem.

My father hated that I was doing something so insecure. He had a steady job his whole life and his advice to me was always, “Get a crappy job in a big corporation, and you’re smart enough and talented enough that you’ll end up great.” And when I did this thing where if you were a success, you were [still] more or less unemployed every year, he said, “Having a nervous breakdown was a logical response. You don’t need a psychiatrist because what you’re doing is so crazy, you should feel crazy.” But being overcome with anxiety and depression is never the right answer. It’s understandable, but you don’t solve a problem because you’re anxious about it.

It has no adaptive value, and if that logic extends to being in an unreliable profession, it still doesn’t help a whole slew of people who are artists regardless of that.

It really doesn’t. Now, I know another person who is an artist, and he spends every penny he gets almost as soon as he gets it. He leases a Mercedes, but he’s always desperate for money and maxing out his credit cards. He does get anxious about it, but he also tells me that this is the life he wants to live. It fuels his art and it’s a part of his identity. He doesn’t ever want to be comfortable in his life. He always wants to be on the edge.

Do you want to be on the edge?

Hell no. That’s why I say temperamentally, I’ve never considered myself to be an artist. I’ve made a living in the arts but it’s only because I felt there was a living to be made. The real reason I had my mental breakdown was that I decided to go back to being a high school teacher after not being able to work as a writer for two, three years.

I couldn’t get those jobs back because I had been out of it for 10 years. Nobody would hire me. The only job I could get was to teach E.S.L. to the slow track of junior high school kids in Washington Heights. I didn’t speak any Spanish at that time and I thought this job would kill me, and I was going to be paid $27,000 a year doing it. So I was sort of forced to continue trying to be a writer because I had better job opportunities there than a “straight job.”

And you still didn’t want to move to L.A.?

The thing about moving to L.A. is that I am by nature extremely vulnerable to envy. L.A. is a place where if you’re working in the movie business, socially, you have no life other than an extension of your work in the movie business. When I go to a film opening in New York and I’m there and I don’t know anybody there, and everybody else knows somebody that’s there, I feel real bad. I feel not worthy.

That’s what life in L.A. is—a non-stop movie opening party. Every dinner party you go to, there will be three people there who are doing better than you, who think they are better than you and if you’re like me, you think they’re better than you too. I can’t handle that. Somebody can. Some people thrive on it. I can’t. It makes me desperately unhappy.

In New York, that’s not true. When I go out with people, very few of them are involved in the arts. My only really good friend in the movies is Walter Bernstein. And I’m envious of him because he’s working more than I am! Thank God it’s not enough to poison my relationship with him. But in L.A. you’re surrounded by that all the fucking time. Now, if you’re better put together with those questions than I am, there’s no question you work more in L.A. If I lived in L.A. all these years, I would probably have two or three times the amount of money I have now. To really make it in New York doing film and television shit, you’ve got to be very good.

That said, I never had very high aspirations for how much money I wanted to make. I’m a hippie slacker. I was able to maneuver my career well enough that the job I finally got after I thought I was never going to work again got me an Academy Award nomination. That meant I was able to make enough money the next five years doing mostly doomed and stupid projects to fund a pension. Coupled with the moderate amount of savings that my parents passed on to me when they died, this would probably enable me to stay in this apartment until I die.

It’s a career a lot of writers would envy, but it’s hardly a fucking career. I only worked steadily for about five years. Other than that it was scuffling and scrapping, and ten times more work to try and get work than actually working, which is the life of a writer in this particular business. Theater’s different. The problem is you never get paid in theater, but you can work in theater.

Of all the projects you’ve written, what was the most satisfying to you?

It’s no question that the most gratifying one is “Bulworth.” It’s the only one I’ve written that got any public acclaim with my name on it. “Bulworth” expresses my point of view about the world as closely as anything I’ve written, produced or unproduced. So it was hugely gratifying to me, and in a way it saved my creative life because there was one thing I could point to and say, “I did that and I’m proud of it.” People I respect like it, appreciate it and think it’s special. Now, the process writing it was horrific. There was nothing gratifying about that at all.

Would you do it again?

Shit yeah. I just tried to. [Laughs]

[Laughs] The reason I asked you about L.A. is because now that it’s been a few years since graduating, I can see the pattern. People get a little crazy in that environment because of the competition, and it’s this microcosm of the industry.

I don’t think that’s unusual in any kind of school. It’s part of the territory of just being that age. It’s scary to become an adult. You’ve been told your whole you’re great and you’ll be okay, but you never really know. “Am I going to fail?”

Interesting enough, I never worried about whether I’d make it in my career because I never cared. I was always scared from a very early age that I would never find anybody to love, and that was my big issue. It was originally why I went to see that psychiatrist. I did come of age at a particular time. When I was a kid, I thought I would become a rich lawyer by working for trade unions like Clarence Darrow or something. Take on noble causes and get rich doing it. Then the high 60’s rolled in and people said to me, “Do you want to be a lawyer?” I said, “Not really. I’d like to be a teacher. But I can’t make any real money doing that.” They said, “So what?”

Maybe the times have changed, I’m not sure.

There’s no question they have. When I was in college, only a snake would go to a party to advance one’s career. And now that’s the number one reason to go to parties. But it was the 60’s. Career was a dirty word amongst my contemporaries. Nobody wanted a career, they just wanted to do good things. If you had a career it meant you were basing your decisions around making money, and that was inherently corrupt. I don’t think that was ever the majority position in my generation, but it was a popular enough opinion that there was a critical mass. You had a community that felt that way and not feel like a weird idiot. Now that doesn’t exist.

Do you think that’s caused some problems?

I don’t know if it’s causing the problems or symptomatic of them, but I think it’s ruining the world. So in terms of self-care, I would say, get over yourself. Being an artist is not that big of a deal. Be a good person and be nice to yourself. If it’s not working, maybe it’s because of talent or maybe it’s because of some other reason, whatever. Don’t kill yourself over it. People suffer from depression for a lot of different reasons. You have to get help for yourself.

Anything else you want to add?

Value what you’ve done. This is going to sound very Pollyanna. Thinking of some of the people who’ve come out of NYU, they have reached the point in their lives where it’s very unlikely they’re going to have the kind of careers they would like to have had. Where they will have the kind of careers in the arts like the people they admire. Where they will have the kind of careers that I feel, as a teacher, they had the talent to achieve.

And I know all of those people have done something of value. Some of it has been in the arts. Some of it has been in human relations. Be nice to yourself and value what you do, because you do good things. The only thing to feel bad about is being a prick. But the people I’m thinking about are not pricks. They teach, they share, they give things to people. They give of themselves, they write something that means something to them, and they do their best to express something that can reach other people. Feel good about that.

You’re only here for a certain amount of time. Try to be a force for good.

I still remember your speech about that. Can you repeat that?

It’s that I think in every person, every moment, there’s always a potential for good. This is the hope-dread axis. This is what makes dramatic tension.

Yeah!

There’s always a potential for good in every situation. Better and worse. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, the human spirit is that thing that struggles towards the better. That potential is always there, and the struggle to reach that potential is the meaning of life.

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