I have worked on many writing projects in my brief career as a writer. Many of them were wonderful, positive experiences. But two in particular that didn’t work out stand as an interesting contrast.
One was many years ago. It was a long, 40-episode project that we had spent close to a year developing, but the powers-that-be decided we needed a new producer. This person came in on day one, announced they hated everything we had done and promptly threw away all our work and told us how it should be done.
The other was more recent. This was an ambitious project to make a show distinctly different to what we see on Malaysian TV. The first version took months to outline, but when we finally handed in the first scripts, they were rejected by the channel. My producer decided to try to go back to basics and we bulldozed through a second version, in the process throwing out everything we did before then.
Despite having my work rejected by both producers, I was miserable throughout the first one, but trying to be optimistic (despite also being frustrated) in the second one. What was the difference?
Trying to figure out the fine line to produce work where both employee and employer are happy with the results is a challenge in any environment. At least I don’t have to contend with unwanted sexual advances.
Because if you believe the press, that’s everything that’s happening in Hollywood at the moment. A few months ago I wrote about writer and director Joss Whedon and the alleged abuse of his wife. Then stories about Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct blew up, and it grew to include stars like Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, and C.K. Louis among others.
But of all the exposes, perhaps the one name that struck me most, both in the heart and the gut, was John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studio and Pixar Animation Studios.
Whereas my celebration of Joss Whedon was because of his creative dialogue and progressive characters (ironic now given the accusations of him twisting words to hurt women), Lasseter was the one who managed to eke out the heart and soul from some of the best movies over the last decade, including Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, Zootopia and Coco, the Disney film currently in cinemas right now.
Each of these films showed that cartoons could carry mature, complex messages enveloped in fun entertainment that even a child could understand. Because of Lasseter, tears are more likely to well up for me when watching animated movies made under his watch than any of the Oscar winners this century.
He has shown such sensitivity when crafting stories, and yet allegedly that sensitivity was nowhere to be seen when at the workplace. He was famous for trying to promote a fun atmosphere, but it seems it was at the expense of respecting his colleagues, especially the female ones.
Allegedly, he would hug women and then force them to accept his kisses. He would reach out and under for seated women at meetings so often that those who worked with him learned to move their legs away in a particular way to avoid his handsy affections.
More recently, Rashida Jones, a writer and actress, left the Toy Story 4 project, citing that Pixar had a “culture where women and people of colour do not have an equal creative voice”.
As a result, Lasseter has taken a six-month leave of absence, and Disney has been quick to say absolutely nothing about whether investigations will be carried out or whether charges will be pressed.
Although what Lasseter did at the workplace was despicable, I don’t want to hate Pixar and Disney films. I don’t want to think that Coco was somehow made under this atmosphere of fear and disrespect. That film doesn’t make me feel that way.
But, for all the good things that came out in the past, for the past glories that were brought forth, I don’t think you can easily condone this behaviour, even if you know what they will produce in the future may still be good.
Should people of influence be judged to a higher standard? Perhaps, if they publicly admit to want to be a role-model for others. Otherwise maybe we should accept that humans are not perfect.
Regardless, a line must be drawn between when a long hug is a quirk of character or over-salacious behaviour. Or when a lie is in service of a greater good or some selfish agenda.
It’s a line I learned about when friends were talking about somebody’s significant other: “Sure, he may love you – but does he respect you?” I feel that there is the same dichotomy here. “Sure, he may be talented – but does he respect you?”
This is the question to ask about Whedon and Lasseter. Do they respect the people they work with? If the answer is “yes”, then I believe their past transgressions can be overcome. It may take time, they have to be shown the right way forward. Otherwise I would say, never work with them again.
That was fundamentally the difference between the two producers I talked about at the start of the story. The first one talked down to us and didn’t accept any input. The other talked with us, and we had a chance to give feedback.
In the end, the boss makes the decisions of course, and with luck, the story is better despite our protestations. But whether I would work with them again or not depends on the person, not the project.