“I’m not green-lighting anything I don’t understand,” says Barry Lapidus, a studio executive at Paramount Pictures. “We’re going to stop developing these rarefied flights of fancy and start applying some good business sense to what we do here.”
This dialogue is from a scene in The Offer, the recent TV dramatisation of the making of The Godfather. Lapidus is on the verge of canning Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This would have been quite the blunder: Chinatown went on to be a commercial and critical triumph. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and is now considered one of the greatest American films of all time.
When it comes to the creative arts it has always been Mammon, rather than the Muse, who calls the shots. The artist’s vision is almost always contingent on the whims of the man with the pocketbook. Sometimes the producers and commissioning editors are visionaries, as integral to the project as the writers themselves. At other times, they make demands which would drive any self-respecting artist to despair.
One thinks of David Shayne, the ambitious young playwright played by John Cusack in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, whose funding for his latest drama is granted on the condition that he casts his benefactor’s talentless girlfriend in a leading role. Waking up one night in a sweaty panic, aware that he has bastardised his masterpiece in order to see it brought to life, he rushes over to the window and screams desperately into the night: “I’m a whore!”
Perhaps we’re all whores to an extent. And some of our most notable artists are those who have understood that, however noble it is to remain faithful to one’s vision, the ability to compromise is often the key to success. Shakespeare’s two narrative poems — Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece — are preceded by sycophantic dedications to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Even Shakespeare understood that his career would depend on the support of wealthy men.
In his later life, Shakespeare’s acting company was dependent on the patronage of James I. We can see this acknowledged in Macbeth, in which liberties are taken with the historical sources specifically to please the King. James was obsessed with witchcraft, which almost certainly accounts for the prominence of the “weird sisters”. Shakespeare’s transformation of Banquo — from the co-conspirator of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles into the innocent victim whose ghost reproachfully shakes his “gory locks” at Macbeth — is also significant. James believed himself to be a descendant of Banquo through eight generations, accounting for the spectral “show of eight kings” summoned by the witches in Act Four.
This tightrope between creative freedom and the follies of the moneyed elites is one that most artists will have walked at some point or another. In her memoir Resistance, Tori Amos recounts how her breakthrough album, Little Earthquakes, was almost wrecked by bosses at her label who insisted she should “replace all the pianos with guitars”. She faced a choice of walking away and retaining her artistic integrity, or sullying the album with a sound that was not authentically hers. Instead, she found a third way. She submitted new songs which retained her original style but showed a willingness to adapt. To satisfy her muse, she first had to play the game.
It’s the same in the comedy industry. There’s an excruciating scene in the sitcom W1A in which aspiring writer Dan Shepherd (played by Tom Basden) meets with the BBC’s “Head of Generic Comedy Drama”. The feedback is beyond vague. Shepherd is told that his script “feels a bit long” and might need more “narrative heft”, possibly by “starting in the middle instead of the beginning”. Most comedy writers I know have had similar meetings with television executives who don’t quite seem to know what it is they are suggesting. Sometimes it feels as though their input is simply a means to justify their own inflated salaries.
Ricky Gervais lampooned this common experience in Extras, in which his character Andy Millman is forced to re-engineer his sitcom, When the Whistle Blows, into a catchphrase-laden car-crash that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys look like Ibsen. The show is a failure because Millman lacks the strength of character to stand his ground. One wonders how many television executives have ruined potentially classic comedies through their intervention over the years.
I recall an interview with Dennis Potter in which he described the making of Pennies from Heaven, and how he had to defend his decision to have the characters lip-synch to popular songs. This conceit was essential to the effectiveness of the drama, but the executives tried to dissuade him. Potter had already suffered the indignity of having his play Brimstone and Treacle withdrawn in the days before the scheduled broadcast because the then director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, found it “nauseating”. Perhaps it was this experience that taught him to stand his ground.
For all that, there are few things more likely to stimulate a creative mind than collaboration. Dramaturgs who are in harmony with the writer’s vision can often be essential to its realisation. This is a far cry from the “sensitivity readers” now so common in the publishing industry who, rather than offer constructive criticism during the writing process, merely vandalise the work according to their priggish sensibilities.
A novelist friend of mine recently told me that his editors have urged him to change his work in accordance with the new religion of group identity, to the extent of “calling out” some of the problematic opinions expressed by villainous characters. Kate Clanchy has written about her experience with sensitivity readers who failed to understand the poeticism of a “disfigured” landscape; hampered by their literal-mindedness, they could only see an ableist slur.
For a culture to thrive it needs its artists, and for artists to survive they need their patrons. The delight of watching The Offer is that we enjoy the benefit of hindsight. The executives thought they were preventing The Godfather from turning into another flop, but we have seen the vision that Ruddy and Coppola were fighting for, and can thereby share in their frustration. The lesson to the moneymen is clear. Deciding which artists to patronise is a matter of taste, but also trust. Once your choice is made, let them get on with it.