Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Mormon Bites the Dust

Richard Raddon has resigned as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival. He's a Mormon, and he donated to the "Yes on 8" campaign. So of course, he must be punished.

To their credit, the board of directors for the festival's parent organization refused to accept his first resignation. In their words, "Our organization does not police the personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker."

The "No on 8" activists feel otherwise. In their minds, apparently, the way to bring about legalized gay marriage is by destroying the livelihood of individuals who disagree with us on this issue. First, their protests and threats of boycotts drove Scott Eckern from his position. Now, they've claimed Richard Raddon. I'm sure both men have learned a valuable lesson in the promotion of tolerance and diversity.

Some people can look at this and know that what's happening is wrong. It's easy to know this intellectually—or at least, it should be—but some of us also feel it in our gut. I know that I do, because I did my time as an up-and-coming screenwriter. Some years I was more up-and-coming than others, but I sat through enough meetings, pitched and developed enough projects, and climbed up enough rungs on the ladder to know how things tend to work in this town.

That's why, much as I want to believe the board first refused Raddon's resignation out of some principled stand, I think it had as much to do with public relations as with anything else. Nobody wants to look like they're bowing to outside political pressure, or that they're policing the "personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker." Officially, that just doesn't happen in this industry, but unofficially, it's sometimes a very different story.

The thing to understand is that everything out here runs on meetings and personal relationships, and these meetings always begin with small talk. At first, it's a way to measure you. Are you someone who seems relatively sane and won't pull a gun on the set? Are you someone who will meet your deadlines and not flake out on an unexpected, two-year vacation in some remote locale? Are you on the same creative wavelength as they are, and won't turn in a comedy if they sign you to write a drama? These concerns make absolute sense when someone is meeting an unknown writer for the first time. (And in fairness, the writer is measuring them as well. After all, what's the point of pushing a script in the vein of Pitch Black if what they really want is another Transformers?)

I learned quickly enough, though, that these little conversations were also often a way of gauging whether you were the right kind of person. I count myself lucky that I started my Hollywood odyssey in the mid-1990s. Even though I was no longer officially a Democrat at that point, I was still close enough for Hollywood work. And that was important, because even then, the small talk generally included politics.

I'd started developing a good relationship, for example, with one middle-tier production company. I could pick up the phone and get a meeting with them. We were kicking around two potential projects that seemed to have some promise. And the obligatory small talk before we reached the working part of the meeting was always pleasant—or was until the day Bill Clinton came up.

That day, the smart, hip, younger-than-me guy I was meeting with made four separate comments in a row about President Clinton and his policies. I agreed whole-heartedly with three of them, so no problem there. But the fourth? That was about Medicare, and I had spent some time working in a small-town medical practice. We had a heavy load of geriatric patients there, so we dealt with Medicare on a daily basis. And I made the mistake of letting myself get comfortable enough in that room to actually speak my mind.

"Well," I said, "it does seem a little disingenuous of him to say that the problem with Medicare is doctors charging too much. From what I remember, Medicare itself actually sets the fee schedule."

I realized my mistake before I had even reached From what I remember...

You could see the change in the hip guy's eyes, and in how he held his younger-than-me shoulders. You could even feel the temperature in the room drop by several degrees (Fahrenheit, fortunately). The meeting went on, of course, and we talked about those two projects, but we were both only going through the motions. We both knew it, too. And after I left, I never heard from him or anyone at that company again. (If my agent at the time ever heard anything, she was kind enough not to pass those comments along.)

I learned to keep my mouth shut after that. Which was good, because things only got worse once George W. Bush took office—and especially in the months and years after 9/11. Before, it had often seemed more like talking to people who lived in a bubble. Like it was simply inconceivable to them that I or anyone else in the room could possibly not agree with what they were saying. Now, though, the small talk and the comments often turned mean, and sometimes downright vicious. Sometimes it was about Bush personally, and sometimes it was even about Laura, or their daughters. And I learned to laugh at the off-color jokes, nod at the conspiracy theories I knew wouldn't hold up even in whatever potential movie we were talking about, and just voice my rote, perfunctory agreement with their criticisms. I learned how to pass during those first few minutes of most meetings. I wanted to work, after all.

It wasn't every meeting, of course. And it wasn't everyone I dealt with. But it was enough that you always had your guard up for the next conversational minefield. It was enough that you often caught yourself watching your words even around those people who probably wouldn't mind your disagreement, or who even might agree with you. It was enough to learn that for all the talk in so many of those rooms about freedom of thought and the crushing of dissent in this country, there was an unspoken party line that needed to be toed if you were on the creative side but not already established and successful.

So I feel for Richard Raddon, and for Scott Eckern, even though I disagree with their stand on Prop 8. But I can't say that I'm surprised, or that I don't wonder if, on some level, either man knew something like this would be coming. Because all the "No on 8" activists have done here is bring out into the open the kind of thing so many of us have already dealt with in one fashion or another, only quietly and beneath the radar.

That's a very bad thing, too. Because in the past, this had to be done without any acknowledgement of what was really happening. Even the people who quietly removed a budding writer or actor or director from their rolodexes because of politics and not lack of talent seemed to know, somewhere, that it was wrong. They seemed to know that it was hypocritical. And that's why it was something that could never be admitted to, and something that had to be denied whenever anyone brought the issue up.

Now, though, the "No on 8" activists are bringing it out in the open. They're apparently proud of what they're doing, and they apparently see nothing hypocritical in it.

They're setting back the cause of gay marriage by several years with each new "victory," of course. And they're further alienating other supporters of gay marriage, like me. But they're also giving cover to more of the same in Hollywood. With each new Mormon they drive out of his or her job, they make policing the "personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker" a bit more acceptable. They're helping move Hollywood from "There is no party line" to "Well, yes, there is a party line, but..."

They're also giving me one more reason to be glad I'm out of that Hollywood thing for good now.

Well done, guys. See you for dinner down at El Coyote.