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Devourer of Words 028: Vision and Compromise

Marc Bernardin

Like many of my life-minded brethren and sistren, I went to go see director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road this weekend. And, too, like many of them, I was left gobsmacked. Not just because the action is amazing (it is) or because Charlize Theron was fantastic (she was) or because it has a sense of scale one encounters once a decade if you’re lucky (it does). No, the gobsmacking came because it is so incredibly weird in a day and age where one rarely encounters the weird.

As writer Antony Johnston wrote yesterday of the reason why creative people more than most are responding to Fury Road: “We know how hard it can be to push strange ideas past the money men; how hard executives push back against anything that risks the ROI, and the toxic effect that pushback has on everyone below them.”

So how do you retain the weirdness, the oddity that keeps a thing from being just another brand extension, another installment of punchy-punchy-shooty-shooty?

Be Able to Articulate WHY You Need it to be Weird

You have to understand that it’s one thing for you to tell your editor or publisher or financier that weird is good—those people then have to justify that weirdness up the ladder to the people they report to. And they have to be able to do it in such a way that makes them look good for being your champion. Always remember: no is the easiest thing to say for the people who control the purse-strings. If they’re going to say “Yes,” then make it easy for them to cover their asses.

Give Them Something to Say No To

I learned this one from my buddy and writing partner Adam Freeman, who spends much of his time working in reality TV and wrestling with networks who want things to be edgy in the safest way possible. When writing proposals, he would always toss in something so outrageous that he didn’t really want for the show anyway, so when the executives invariably turned it down, he wouldn’t miss it. That way, he allowed those executives to be able to say to their bosses that they did their jobs. “No, you can’t set that bus-full of clergymen on fire, but everything else is fine.” It’s a little underhanded, to be sure, but it lets everyone feel like they did their jobs.

Understand When a Fight Isn’t Actually Worth Fighting

As much as it would be great to think that Miller got to put everything he wanted on the screen, that’s probably—nay, definitely—not the case. I’m sure that for every Nitro Guitarist with a Fire-Spewing Axe he got through, there was something he had to give up. And while it’s easy to be precious about such things, you need to know what’s important to your story. You need to decide which things are not sacrificing for any reason. You have to survey the landscape and choose the hill you’re going to die on. Then, be willing to let some other things slide.

It’s not that vision is a rare commodity among writers—we’ve all got the stories we’re dying to tell in the exact manner we’d like to tell them—it’s that figuring out how exactly to circle the wagons doesn’t necessarily come naturally. We know why a thing needs to be weird: Because that’s how it needs to be.

It’s getting everyone else on the same page that’s the real trick. Like Butch Cassidy said in that movie: “I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!