Don’t blame people

My first job out of college was in Los Angeles, working as the second assistant to a movie producer. She was kind of a big shot. If I listed her credits—which I won’t—you’d probably have heard of them all and seen at least half (some are legit blockbusters). And, true to the movie producer stereotype, she was…shall we say…colorfully demanding. She never threw any solid objects at me, or threatened me physically, but she did routinely ask if I had a (expletive) brain. Once right in front of Whoopi Goldberg—who, incidentally, came up to me afterward and asked if I was okay. That says a lot about Whoopi.

It’s not that I didn’t deserve some form of reproach. I screwed up all the time. I was young, unfocused and constantly nervous. I made mistakes every day, and at first I’d try and maneuver my way out of them, usually by blaming someone else. If I forgot to make an appointment with her masseuse or hair stylist, I’d pin the scheduling mishap on them—even though I was asked to confirm twice. If the Xerox machine ate 10 pages of a script while I was copying it, and I failed to notice because I never counted the pages afterward like I was instructed, I’d blame the writer’s agent who sent it, or even the writer themself, suggesting that maybe they forgot to write pages 8-15 of their manuscript.

Oddly, the cover-ups didn’t cushion the blow. The producer still needed to unleash her fury at somebody, and my squirming and cajoling only prolonged the mystery and the agony. And soon I learned that it didn’t matter; even the mistakes that truly weren’t my fault would send her into the same kind of uproar. Whether I was guilty or innocent, punishment needed to be meted out and balance restored, and until it was, I would bear the brunt of her rage.

So one day I tried a different tack. I had just made my daily mistake—probably a blown lunch reservation or tennis lesson—and was anticipating the fallout. The phone rang, and I knew it was the producer, calling to unload on me. “Danny, what the _____ happened?” is I’m sure how she greeted me. Instead of playing dumb or acting equally irate, I said, “I’m sorry (producer’s name). I screwed up. It’s my fault.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. I could tell this took her by surprise, and I could also tell there was a perverse satisfaction on her part—because she found the culprit, yes, but also because I took the blame, because the buck stopped with me, and I think in that moment, just maybe, I gained a little something from her: respect.

“Fix it,” she snarled, and then let out a long sigh. “So, what do you expect me to do now?”
“Let’s run calls,” I said, staying professional. And I began to list off her morning calls: agents, production designers, location scouts, studio execs, etc. She picked one, I connected them, and we moved on with the day’s adventure.

I learned a few things in my two years as a producer’s assistant. I learned my way around L.A. (this was long before Google maps); I learned how to make the perfect cup of coffee; and I learned that movie stars are often total jerks (I won’t name names) but some are actually very kind people (I will name their names: Whoopi is one; Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in Happy Days, is another). But the most important lesson that has stayed with me ever since is this: don’t blame people. Even when it’s their fault. Take the hit if you can. It’s the quickest way to resolve a conflict. The fallout and pain will be temporary, but the dignity, courage and character gained will last a lifetime.