When the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty hit theaters, I thought it was the most blasphemous concept for a movie I’d ever heard. I mean, Morgan Freeman playing God? And then vacating His powers to Carrey? Yet when someone finally sat me down with a DVD copy of the film and assured me it wasn’t as blasphemous as I thought, I found that I really liked the story. I especially liked the conceit that, even though we all think we know what’s best for everyone around us, if any of us had our way all the time, it would seriously mess everything up. As a whole, people have too many conflicting interests and too many conflicting world views. Plus, the examination of free will in the film is as good as any sermon I’ve ever heard. It was the first time I ever watched a movie and came away with big questions about my own theology and worldview. The closest I can remember to experiencing this before was after reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and yes, some tiny part of my soul just died upon realizing that I’d made a favorable comparison between that masterpiece of a novel and a Jim Carrey film.
Years later, when Bruce Almighty‘s “sequel” Evan Almighty was released, I wanted to like it. I wanted to have that same experience again. Yet, as more and more marketing materials poured into the church where I was working at the time, I slowly came to realize that Evan Almighty would be nothing like Bruce Almighty.
I tried to keep my hopes high. I know the movie was based on the largest spec-script sale in history, a little project called The Passion of the Ark. That screenplay was written by a pair of writers, Robert Florsheim and Josh Stolberg, men I knew nothing about except that they’d netted somewhere around a million dollars apiece for their work. As I’ve embarked in my journey to learn the art of screenwriting, I’ve always had the story of that script in the back of my mind as an inspiration. Even though Evan Almighty proved to be a quasi-kid’s movie made to pander to the Judiao-Christian market, I’ve always wondered what the original version of the script could have been.
Why do I bring any of this up? Because I was thinking about that original script this morning, after going through the process of resetting my blog password (I’d locked myself out—how cheeky of me), I decided to search online for information about it. I found this critique of the original script, The Passion of the Ark, and I shuttered after reading it. If the critique is correct, and I have no way of knowing as I have never read the script, my idealistic nation that The Passion of the Ark fetched such a high payday because of innovative, well-written storytelling has thoroughly been shattered. Hollywood is a right place, right time kind of town, after all. Kinda like Silicon Valley. Kinda like Wall Street. Kinda like the California Gold Rush of the 1890s.
Obviously, The Passion of the Ark wasn’t all bad. Florsheim and Stolberg have gone on to do well for themselves. I’ve never met them and probably never will, but their story still inspires me.
The most interesting part of the critique, to me, wasn’t the step-by-step deconstruction of everything the reviewer found wrong with The Passion of the Ark. It was the last line of the critique:
One of the biggest mistakes young writers make is cherry picking bad movies and bad scripts and using them as the mental bar for how good their script needs to be to sell. Instead of picking the worst stuff as your bar, pick the best. As tempting as it is to think otherwise, and despite evidence occasionally suggesting the contrary, nobody goes searching for that really mediocre script for their next splashy 1 million plus dollar purchase.
Translation? Never. Stop. Learning.
Like the famous Supreme Court ruling about pornography—I know art when I experience it. In coming to see myself as an artist, I began to realize that I’ve been surrounded by artists all my life. I’ve got artists pegged into two categories: those who learn and those who don’t.
What I’ve found with the those who don’t category is that I don’t like being around them. They drain energy. They waste time. Their work may be good, but most often it’s a sloppy regurgitation of undeveloped ideas. Their unspoken philosophy is as Sean Young’s character Rachel said in Blade Runner: “I am the business.”
The flip side of that coin? Artists who approach their work with childlike wonder, who want to teach anyone who truly wants to learn and is willing to listen to anyone who has anything to say. These are artists whose work may not be technically perfect, but their passion is evident in what they do. And no matter what they do, they want to get better. Always. There’s never a point at which they stop and say, “I’m as good as I’ll ever need to be.” Collaborating with them is like taking a masterclass. You learn so much, yet if you ask them, they’ll say you were the teacher because they learned so much from you.
Where do you fall on this spectrum? Are you ready to learn? Do you want to grow as an artist? As artists, we all have a tendency to fall in different spectrums at different times in our lives and, sometimes, at different times of the day.
I’m convinced that the most important thing any artist can do is never stop learning. Once you decide you don’t need to learn, you’re finished.
If you’re a screenwriter, read awards nominated screenplays—there’s no reason not to, the studios post them for free every year before the Academy Awards. If you’re a novelist, read the best novels you can get your hands on—Graham Greene and Shirley Jackson come to mind, novels that have survived for reasons other than a movie franchise marketing campaign. If you’re an abstract painter, start painting realism and if you’re a realistic painter, start painting abstract.
Expand. Grow. Collaborate. Always.
Never let your talent die because your ego decided things are good they way they are.