Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Too Big To Talk

The Pillars of the EarthThis is the time of year Emmy voters like me get barraged with screener "For Your Consideration" DVDs. Sometimes I'm grateful: a chance to catch up with the terrific British period miniseries Downton Abbey. Sometimes I'm tickled: Wow, they're hoping to snag a nomination for Gene Simmons' Family Jewels. And sometimes I'm just baffled: when did I miss the "epic eight-part miniseries" The Pillars of the Earth (right) with Ian McShane and Donald Sutherland? 

Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and ThemselvesBut no DVD was more welcome in my mailbox this year than HBO's Too Big To Fail. Not just because of the mind-boggling all-star cast, including William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup, James Woods, and Cynthia Nixon. Not just because I work for Eliot Spitzer, who foretold, and tried to stem, the burgeoning Wall Street calamity. Not even just because the book it's based on (left) is written by yet another writer alumnus of my high school named Sorkin.  

But because I had my own history of writing lines for a few of these characters -- the real-life Chairman Richard Fuld Jr. (played on HBO by James Woods) and President Joe Gregory (played by John Heard) -- back in 2005, three years before their empire would collapse like a house of cards. It's a tale that is funny, sad, and more than a little telling. So I'm going to tell it.

In 2005, I had just finished mastering another new skill set -- writing for TelePrompters and anchor "reads" -- for the syndicated Jane Pauley Show, a job I had moved back to New York for because it had a "guaranteed two-year" contract.

Long story short, it ended after only seven months, and I was once again cast upon the freelance waters. I found some work at CNN, writing copy for NewsNight with Aaron Brown.

Then a friend called with an intriguing possibility. The folks at marketing at Lehman Brothers -- actually the department was called "Marketing Solutions" -- wanted to make an Orientation Video to welcome the new young turks they recruited each spring.

Though I knew little about banking, my resume and some sample work earned a meeting in the sleek Lehman Times Square building (above) with its wraparound tickers modestly broadcasting things like "WHERE VISION GETS BUILT." I soon learned they would be providing me with a ton of written and video material, including:

  • a MESSAGE DOCUMENT to give me "an idea of how LB talks" about the important issues I should include; 
  • several documents about the company's culture, including a DIVERSITY BROCHURE and a LIFE BALANCE BROCHURE spearheaded by Joe Gregory;
  • Transcripts of rambling speeches Fuld had given to new recruits earlier in 2005; 
  • and lastly, a PHILANTHROPY NEWSLETTER -- which I was soon told to "disregard."

They hired me, at a figure that was about 10 times higher than I would have gotten for a similar amount of effort on a magazine article. I got 50% up front.

But here was the rub: I had to write an entire video -- start to finish -- putting words in the mouths of Fuld, Gregory and Chief Strategy Officer Dave Goldfarb about their own company. And the materials they gave me were full of corporate gobbledy gook like this:
We don't want to be the biggest. But we do want to be the best. We are achieving all that by building creative, focused operations that work closely together to make the most of the firm's capital, both human and financial. 
Now this kind of stuff might work on paper, or from a professional announcer, but it certainly doesn't sound good if you're the CEO speaking it aloud off a TelePrompter. So, being a journalist,  I asked, couldn't I get just five minutes with the executives, to at least hear them read the copy aloud and go over it to put it in their own voices?

The women in marketing solutions got very nervous. They said they'd get back to me. But they acted like I'd asked to see the Wizard.

It turned out they themselves had hardly ever been in the same room with these guys, and had no intention of asking them for any more of their time than the few minutes of filming. In other words, these guys were Too Big To Talk To -- even for a project that seemed crucial to defining their company's face to its employees.

Fine. I did what I could. I just dug up the script on my computer, and I will spare you most of it. I tried to show how Lehman had survived through so many historical changes...my slogan was "Lehman was there, and now YOU are here." (Hold your applause.)

THEIR slogan, on the other hand, was "ONE FIRM," which frankly I couldn't quite wrap my head around, but I did what I could. Here are my closing lines for Fuld. Looking back at what happened in the next three years, I'm not sure who should be more embarrassed :
The future just got even brighter – because you’re here. You’re going to be the next generation of leaders keeping this firm on top. And the good guys do win. Welcome aboard.
Of course, the whole project ended up being killed without ever being filmed -- the way things often go in Hollywood, but at least I was spared multiple rewrites. It's foggy now but I remember having the impression that the concept had never been run up the flagpole with the higher-ups, and that my work wasn't rejected on its merits but rather the whole idea was scuttled.

Don't worry, I got paid in full. The banks back then, they were printing money.


Robert said...

Wonderful story, David! I don't recall knowing this about you.

Carl said...

Is that Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke?

David Handelman said...

Why yes, Carl. He's good -- a whole different energy and voice than usual. But Hurt steals it.