When I asked about his career, he told me his big job had been playing a character on the infamous and campy soap opera, Sunset Beach. Good for him, I thought. I'd never seen the show, but as it turned out, it was running in the UK, and my mother was a huge fan. When we next spoke I told her that one of my new friends had appeared on her favourite show. Understandably she was excited to know which character he'd played, I told her, and that was that. Or so I thought.
My mother did a bit more research on my friend and didn't recognise him from the show. The IMDb listing showed two actors playing the role he'd claimed to: Him and the one my mother recognised as actually being on the show. I rationalised that he'd probably been replaced, or that he'd replaced someone else. Such things happen all the time in Hollywood, but my mother wasn't convinced.
Nobody else, she insisted, had ever played that role. She was a die-hard fan. I decided to do some research of my own. As much as I couldn't believe it, the more I looked, the less his story added up. No Sunset Beach fan sites mentioned him. There was no mentioned of the character ever being replaced. Everything pointed to the person my mother knew as being the only person to play that role. I looked into my friend's other credits, and they seemed even more dubious, not appearing anywhere else online.
I was too embarrassed to confront him, but one day I asked him again about his role on the show, just to see his reaction, and if he would add a caveat about being fired. Instead he was just as earnest and sure as he'd ever been. There were no caveats, he'd played that role. I couldn't quite believe it (and still can't), but it appeared my new friend was lying to my face. Why?
I never said anything about it to him about what I'd discovered. He was always extremely nice to me, and was otherwise an incredibly warm and genuine person. I wished I was wrong (and still do). I always felt that he was such a nice guy that he really didn't need to lie about his achievements. I liked him for who he was, not for anything he'd supposedly been in, but it was a lesson learned.
Cut to ten years later. Having a continuing interest in the writing process, I decided listen to the TV Writer Podcast. I'm always on the lookout for quality advice from successful writers in the industry, and this looked somewhat promising.
Having listened to countless episodes of the Creative Screenwriting Podcast (now The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith), The Nerdist Writers Panel, and reading Ken Levine and Jane Espenson's amazing blogs, I know what good advice sounds like.
The TV Writer Podcast video blog was an interview with someone I'd never heard of, but the host was extremely enthusiastic about his scriptwriter guest:
"[Name withheld] is back! In an interview that is sure to change the path of your career, [Name withheld] relates in great depth how and why some artists fail, and others succeed."
I'm usually very wary of taking advice from people whose work I'm not a fan of, let alone someone I don't know, and especially of bold claims like the above, but the interviewee was "Emmy nominated" with "20 years of experience", so I decided to give it a whirl.
As I watched the video podcast, my bullshit-o-meter registered something immediately -- things seemed a little off. I made it 15 minutes before I stopped the interview and deleted the episode. I couldn't believe what I'd heard.
The writer had just wandered into "positive affirmation" territory, claiming the "biggest step" in becoming a writer is really believing you're a writer, and not being ashamed of it. The biggest step. OK. There may be some truth in the power of truly committing yourself to something, and there's no reason to feel ashamed of anything, so you should try and get over them if it's hindering you. Maybe that's what he meant, but then he came out with this doozy:
"The next step is saying it out loud. Whether you like to believe it or not, things you say, whether good or bad, probably will come true."
Wait, what? As way of proof of this bold claim, he had this sage observation:
"A good example: I would say that 99.99999% of all divorces start with the word 'divorce'. Someone brings it up and, lo and behold, that's what happens."
Hmm. It's pretty difficult to ask someone for a divorce without using the "D word"!
To be fair to him, that’s still an accomplishment, certainly more than most, and maybe the podcast host had simply got his facts wrong when introducing him.
I delved a little deeper and discovered that his personal website had a stack of projects which don't appear to exist anywhere else on the internet. Not even on trade magazine sites. And then I came across the following sentence: "[Name Witheld] is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of more than 20 years."
There it was on his personal website. He was definitely making the claim about himself, but nothing backed it up. Not the IMDb or the Emmy website. Uh oh.
I was suddenly reminded of my old friend back in LA. Was this guy cut from the same cloth? Was he lying about what he'd done and, in this case, actually becoming a successful scriptwriting "guru" because of it?
I can't say for sure what's true and what's not. Maybe he's the innocent victim of some terrible computer error. Several terrible computer errors, that all conspire to make him look less than honest. Maybe there's some way his claims can be true, but not appear online. Maybe lots of TV movies are never properly documented. Maybe he was an uncredited writer on an Emmy nominated script and felt justified in making that claim. Either way he appears on TV and radio interviews about his career, has been featured on other sites offering advice to up-and-coming writers, and (if his website is to be believed) "often guest lectures and panels on screenwriting at film schools and festivals across the country."
What's more, he's also written two books on scriptwriting and created his own consulting firm which promises "professional script consultants with real Hollywood film and television credits and experience".
I don't know what to believe. Surely it must be true if he's got this going for him... but, as with my friend, all the available evidence doesn't add up.
These alternate versions of reality persist today:
My friend's IMDb credits are today filled with even more dubious claims (including things that surpass his Sunset Beach credit from before I knew him, which he surely would have mentioned at the time I'd known him if they were true) and new credits which (having checked) don't actually exist in the film's credits themselves.
The screenwriting "guru" no longer claims to be Emmy nominated anymore, but instead claims to have three Image Award nominations. (Guess what, I found record of one nomination, but there's no record of two of them.) His website still has lots of credits, and most of them still don't appear on the IMDb.
Are both of these guys the same? Is it the norm in Hollywood to lie? Or am I unfairly maligning an innocent and successful man, just because many of his scriptwriting gigs never went into production, or aren't properly documented?
I still don't know what to make of either of them. I still want to believe my friend was telling the truth (I know, I know), and I also want to believe the scriptwriter isn't carving a career as an "expert" by spinning lies that no-one has bothered to check. But how can it be? Is this the norm in LA?