Directing is a trust fund baby’s game. Are you a trust fund baby? If so, good for you. Couldn’t happen to a better person. Seriously. Furthermore, go fuck yourself. While you yourself may be talented and friendly, your kind, with its consequence-free paradigm, dilutes the talent pool in the entertainment industry and has an undue influence on the American narrative — which is why, in the 1970’s, movies were about urban, interesting looking, colorful people, and today, they’re about suburban, dead-souled superheroes. And thanks to “unpaid internships,” your ilk will maintain its stranglehold on the industry for generations to come.
I am not so fortunate. I had three strikes against me as I embarked on this profession. Number one, I am publicly educated. Number two, I am Irish Catholic by heritage, meaning one look at me and every person thinks, “I’m going to colonize and oppress the living shamrock out of that people-pleasing leprechaun, just for the hell of it.” Number three, I am interested in the happiness of others. Numbers two and three are related, baked into my motherboard, and problems I’ll contend with for life.
Number one, on the other hand, could have gone another way.
My high school was extremely traditional. How traditional? It was founded in 1635. Six years of Latin. A strict adherence to 17th century educational principals of discipline, rigor and gratuitous suffering. If you raised your hand, you had better have the right answer or you get the hose again. In the hall? Where’s your lavatory pass (that’s right, lavatory)? Hard work was king. Colorful complexity, as a desirable trait, was, in the eyes of my instructors, a notch below rabies. Lunch break was 19 minutes long. Lollygag time did not exist.
And here’s the lesson one takes away from this. If you speak, spit out the right answer fast and get out of the line of fire. Go along. Do not be noticeable for fear of a misdemeanor mark. This is, obviously, fantastic training for the bottom of any number of executive food chains.
My wife, on the other hand, went to a private boarding high school only 25 miles, yet several centuries, north of my own. At her school, probing complexity was the name of the game. An interesting and deep answer was prized higher than a correct one. Students probably rode around in golf carts or were carried on sedan chairs by lower classmen. All enjoying the overwhelming message: I am a complex person and my complexity has value.
At dinner parties, when you find yourself bored to tears by a person’s long-winded answer to “how are you?” chances are they went to private school. That other guest, who got everyone else talking but left without divulging so much as their last name? Public. And it bears mentioning, the one who snuck off to go to the bathroom but really was doing all the dishes? Parochial. God bless those poor bastards.
To be a director, in this industry that is now overrun by Thad Claddingtons the Thirds, who only feel comfortable hiring their own, we must learn to pass. All the blonde, white-slacked, yacht-treading villains from 1980’s John Cusack sex comedies grew up to become agents and development executives and we, the John Cusacks of the world, only too excited to be granted the right to work, have been tossed outside the gates.
Luckily there is a way back in. A secret body language taught to and understood by only the privileged. And here I am to blow the whistle on it. I humbly present: Six Ways to Pass as Privately Educated, or… Six Secrets to High Status Body Language, or… Six Methods to Put Peasants in Their Heads…
1. Never touch your face
Ever. Don’t touch your face. Dead give away. Don’t rest your head on your hand. Don’t pick your teeth or wipe your mouth. Don’t check your nose for bats in the cave. All of these motions are dead giveaways that you care a little too much about the impression you’re leaving on the person with whom you are in conversation. Did I say the person with whom you are in conversation? I meant the plebeian upon whom you are briefly bestowing your glorious presence. And if they must stare at some particulate matter in the corner of your mouth, SO BE IT, it is a small price to pay for the attention they are receiving from you.
2. Delay your reactions
If you laugh right away at something funny said by this plebeian, you lose at the game of status. If however, they say something undeniably funny (a sure sign they need to impress you, and how gauche is that?) and you pause one Mississippi, and then meaningfully blink while firing a quick breathe from your nostrils, indicating you get it, but are too important to truly laugh, you win. And you have just committed what is known as a status attack. Let silence into your exchanges and watch your opponents begin to tap dance. Get comfortable in this silence. It is the sound of power draining from your conversation partner. Now, for the love of god, keep them on the ropes.
3. Freeze! Now move in slow motion
Confidence, it has been said, is the absence of insecurity. Insecurity is demonstrated through energy leaks. If you cannot manage your voltage, or if you are generating more than is appropriate for a situation, it will leak out of you any way it can: through excessive blinking, leg-thumping, weight-shifting, over-sharing of autobiography, looking to see what a loud noise was, manic changes of subject, and worst of all, the overt seeking of validation. Meanwhile, in science, temperature is the measure of how much undirected energy is in something. Therefore: cool down, direct your energy to the task at hand. Have slow, powerful thoughts. Focus on the present. Don’t stir. You’re fine where you are. Success will seek you out. Be still. People lose their minds over the quietest, stillest person in the room. Be that person.
4. Don’t acknowledge the new person
This makes me insane. I should pause here and say I don’t ethically condone any of these tactics. In fact I find them repulsive, BUT they work, especially when your status is under attack, or when you need to impress someone who falls for this bullshit. So, this next one is a sadly ubiquitous anti-greeting among the highly statured. When you greet a group of people you know, and it contains a stranger, take forever to acknowledge them. Start long, endless conversations with those you already know and make the new person awkwardly wait, hand half-mobilized for a shake. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been on the business end of this adorable little maneuver. *** This neutralizes any potential status attack within the other person, and gets in the first lick while they are vulnerable. It’s also heartless. I can’t bring myself to do it. Ergo, I will never succeed.
5. Consider your eye contact a gift
Have you ever Facebook-cruised your buddy’s new girlfriend (or boyfriend) prior to meeting in person, and thought to yourself, “uh-oh, those are crazy eyes.” The muscles around our eyes are one hundred times too strong for their intended purpose, i.e. dragging our eyeballs around their sockets to look at stuff. Why do we have all that extra brawn? To convey meaning. To give away how we feel. To reveal we are, in fact, crazy. We are transmitting all sorts of sensitive information when we make eye contact with another. And we all, although we don’t realize it, have the capacity to interpret these cues. Therefore, don’t give away the store. When you look at someone, you essentially say, this is me, this is what I’m actually thinking and feeling. So bestow this information only on those with whom it can be trusted. (I have to stop here again to say these six tactics are dick moves. Make no mistake, I have a hard time relating to people who do this stuff, but, then again, I am not high status. I am not successful. So if it is success among the successful that you seek, here you are.)
6. Withhold intimacy
I am a compulsive hugger. When in doubt, hug it out, that’s what I say. The amount of hands I’ve swatted away, in favor of going in, is innumerable. And I therefore remain, in the hearts and minds of all who know me, utterly harmless. In probably a bad way. Got an intense project that needs a strong leader who’ll guide us out of the chop? Don’t give it to Hughes! He’ll just make everyone feel good. This concept even works in relationships. The more you withhold intimacy, the more you gain power over the other person, who will then have to give something up to get it back. This is also useful when blocking scenes. Point is, don’t be me. Don’t offer your hand first, don’t offer a hug first, be totally fine and intact and privately educated, and someone will slip up and offer you their hand. Or at the very least, wonder what you think of them.
* * *
With these dastardly and effective tools, you’ll be able to move through cocktail parties with the upwardly mobile. New people will seek your approval. You’ll be sought after for projects and social engagements. You’ll even be able to detect other in cognito charlatans. And you can give them the slow Renaissance Fair nod as if you’re both wearing cloaks. But remember, we only visit the privately educated world to accomplish the mission of being successful. We do not take up residence. We do not forget where we come from.
Godspeed, and happy rejecting, you successful, privately educated so and so. With any luck, and some crafty en masse infiltration, we can put an end to plutocratic warping of the collective American autobiography.
*** If I ALSO had a nickel for every time, after someone ignored me for two-thirds of an evening because I was the new guy, only to suddenly open up without warning once I was wholly off balance, and then have had it later explained to me that this person is in fact “shy,” I would be a very rich man. Attention “shy” people: boo-mother-scratching-hoo. It costs us outgoing types just as much as it would you to extend ourselves and save a dinner party from the yawning abyss of awkward silence, but the only difference is we bother to do it. Why should we feel bad for shy kids on the playground? We should really feel bad for the outgoing kids who get rejected by the shy kids. The shy kids, as my good friend Mozhan Marnó recently pointed out to me, do the rejecting. The outgoing kids (like my smiley baby son, all indications seem to suggest) offer the overtures. Down with the shy! Up with the community builders!