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Dennis Palumbo
Dennis Palumbo

The "Buddy System"

Everybody needs a buddy---especially in Hollywood.

At the end of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, Dr. Watson announces to Sherlock Holmes that he's decided to get married.

"Honestly, I cannot congratulate you," Holmes replies, in his usual sharp-edged manner. He then tells Watson quite bluntly that all the marriage means to him is that he's losing a partner.

I'm reminded of that scene from the novel because of something similar that happened recently to one of my screenwriter patients. His best friend, also a Hollywood writer, had just announced that he was moving back East to work in the family business. As he told my patient, he'd "just had enough of the bullshit."

Though these two were not writing partners, they'd met out here years ago, become friends, and had taken turns supporting each other's careers. For my patient, his friend's decision to leave town---and screenwriting---was a devastating loss.

"He was that one guy I could call up in the middle of the night," my patient explained. "The one you could bitch to about anything in this crazy business, and he'd know exactly what you were talking about. The one you could always count on to be on your side, who never lied to you---except those times when you needed a comforting lie, if you know what I mean."

I know exactly what he means. It's what every writer, actor and director in Hollywood really needs---maybe more than an agent, a manager, or even a shrink. What every creative person needs is a buddy.

Remember the "buddy system?" When we were kids in swimming class, we were always advised to "swim with a buddy." When teachers had to lead school kids across the street, wasn't each child instructed to hold hands with another child?

The "buddy system" recognized the need for support in navigating new developmental stages, or mastering new physical skills. Even as adults, we acknowledge the need for this kind of help when learning a new task. For example, Scuba instructors require that students dive with a buddy. The same goes for learning to rock-climb, sky-dive, a whole range of sports.

Even when it's not officially named as such, the buddy system helps us get through the thornier patches in life. In high school, what is double-dating but an excuse to do a new, frightening social event with the security of a friend having to go through it with you?

Think about it: Even while attempting to reach the highest office in the land, every presidential candidate has a running mate. A constitutional requirement? Maybe. I say it's the buddy system in action.

In Hollywood---perhaps, next to politics, the thorniest patch of all---the creative types I know seem to gravitate naturally toward a buddy. This is usually, but not always, another person pursuing the same creative endeavor. Writers tend to buddy-up with another writer, directors seem to feel that only another director understands their concerns. The same seems to hold true for actors, composers, designers, whatever.

The point is, what most creative people seek in a buddy is someone who understands the vocabulary of the town. Who's experienced the particular joys and pains of pitch meetings or auditions. Who themselves have suffered through endless re-writes, humiliating call-backs, and the pain of having a treasured years-in-development project suddenly go from being green-lit to a bright, blinking red.

Someone who, to put it simply, gets it. And, perhaps more importantly, gets you.

When I was a screenwriter, many years ago, my best friend---a talented indie filmmaker---performed this service for me. As I did for him. We'd call each other after bad meetings, replaying the events and offering encouragement.

He was the only one I'd let read an unfinished script I was struggling with, confident that he'd be incisive and supportive in just the right measures. He knew my writing style and sensibilities so well, he'd realize clearly where I was trying to go with the script---often, before I knew. And, according to him, this was something I was able to provide him as well.

Though they may not think of it in terms of a "buddy system," most of my creative patients have this same kind of relationship with at least one other person in their lives. The one friend who offers clarity in difficult, confusing situations. The one person who tells you when you're "‘way outta line." The one whose "bullshit indicator" you trust completely.

In other words, as my patient put it, the one you can call up in the middle of the night. The one person in an often wrenching, contradictory, heart-breaking business that helps you feel less alone.

Trust me on this: Agents come and go. So do assignments, good ideas, flush times and lean times. But for a creative person in Hollywood, the "buddy system"---the long-term, on-going relationship with that one intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic "soul mate"---is a treasured constant.

So ask yourself the question: do you have a buddy? As Woody the Cowboy says in Toy Story, "If you don't have one, get one!"

I couldn't have said it better myself.

About the Author
Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

Dennis Palumbo
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