113 – April 23
“You can say no and smile only when you have a bigger yes burning inside of you.”—Unknown
I once worked for two titans of the motion picture industry, Edgar Scherick and Scott Rudin. Edgar was the older, more experienced mogul and Scott was the up-and-coming young counterpart. At the time, I was pursuing a career behind the camera in the motion picture industry and was Edgar’s Executive Assistant.
One day, they fired the office gofer (you know, “go fer” this and “go fer” that). They weren’t going to hire a new one, and the rest of us in the office were anxious about who was going to get the schlepping assignments from then on.
I decided that it wasn’t going to be me. I was reading a great book at the time, When I Say “No” I Feel Guilty by Manuel Smith. Smith gave wonderful tools for being more assertive and less of a people-pleaser. I knew that if I started doing some of the gofer’s tasks, I would be doomed to that position and respect for me would disappear along with any dreams of advancement. I realized that if I was asked to do this work and refused, I might get fired. But if the price of working there was that I had to be in the lowest dead-end job, then I shouldn’t be there anyway.
Several days later, Scott and Edgar had a meeting at MGM. Scott always drove the two of them to these meetings, and the gofer would pick up Edgar after the meeting and take him to his next appointment. Edgar knew someone new had to be given this assignment, but didn’t choose anyone. He just walked out of the office saying, “Somebody’s going to have to pick me up at five o’clock at MGM.” The entire staff froze.
Scott knew then that he had to pick the new gofer. He turned around, saw me and said, “Chellie, pick Edgar up at five o’clock at MGM.”
My heart pounding, my throat dry, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “No.” Nothing else, just “no.” (The book said not to give your reasons for saying no, or the conversation would degenerate into an argument over the validity of your reasons.)
He was totally taken aback by this and laughed. He said, “You have to! Pick Edgar up at 5:00!”
I said, “No” again. (Smith calls this technique “broken record”—just repeat your position.)
He stared at me for a long moment. I could see the wheels turning in his mind. I held my breath. Was I going to be fired?
Then Scott turned to the young man seated near him and said, “Fine. Then you do it.” He said, “Okay.” And became the office gofer from then on.
We have more power of “no” than we know. Two-year-olds know this instinctively, but some adults have forgotten. Find a two-year-old and remember. Then practice.
“I make choices that make me happy.”
Edgar Scherick is no longer with us, but Scott Rudin, who was rather the “boy wonder” in his early 20s when I knew him, has come a very long way up to the top of the Hollywood food chain. Producer of many top-of-the-line films including The Hours, The Addams Family, The Queen, and The Social Network, he has won many honors, including the Academy Award for Best Picture for No Country for Old Men.
He’s also been awarded the dubious title of one of “New York’s Worst Bosses” on gawker.com in 2007 and was profiled in a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Boss-Zilla”. Shudder. One account mentions he once went through 250 assistants in five years (although he claimed he could only count 119) – he was reputed to be the model for the evil producer played by Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks.
Oh, dear. He wasn’t quite that bad when I worked for him – I’m sure it was fortunate for me that he was in New York most of the time. Actually, I liked and admired him – he was brilliant and creative and quick, and we got along.
Edgar was the scary one to me. He would scream at the top of his lungs and turn red in the face. Once he yelled at a production assistant who hadn’t accomplished a task, jumped up on my desk and pounded the ceiling until plaster rained down on us. Picture Chellie as a small animal who freezes in place because motion attracts the predator. When he jumped off the table and looked at me, I just said, “So do you want to call Freddie Fields now?” They told me later he said I was “unflappable.” Nope, frozen stiff is what I was, but redirection was a tool I found handy for survival.
BTW, Carlton Cuse, who grew up to become the executive producer and screenwriter of Lost worked in our office, as did Michael Barnathan, who later was one of the producers of the Harry Potter movies, and Donna Smith who was Associate Producer on The Terminator and became the first female President in charge of Production at a major studio. There was a lot of talent in that office!
I had taken the job with Scott because I wanted to be a producer’s assistant. I figured I would get an overview of all the jobs in the film industry and then I could decide if there was a job I wanted on the other side of the camera.
But the two years I spent with Scott and Edgar convinced me that it was no place for me. There was too much yelling. I felt I’d have to become used to that, or become a screamer myself, and I just didn’t have it in me to do either. I remember the day I opened up the want ads and prayed, “Please God, please – send me a nice little bookkeeping job with nice, normal people like I had before.”
And soon enough, off I went. Pretty good move, too, as it turned out. I love my life!
And there’s no yelling.