Last week I attended a panel discussion at the LA Film Festival called Your Gun and Your Badge whose participants included:
Robert Crais (Writer, Cagney & Lacey, Baretta; author of the Elvis Cole mysteries)
David Milch (Writer, Hill Street Blues; creator NYPD Blue)
José Padilha (Director, Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)
Gerald Petievich (ex-Secret Service agent and author, To Live and Die in L.A.)
Moderated by Los Angeles Times contributor Mark Olsen
Full disclosure, I worked for David Milch more than 20 years ago and consider him not only one of the finest working writers today, but an immensely impactful teacher. I hadn’t heard him speak on the writing craft since I worked for him so long ago and arranged a series of lectures he gave, which carried forward the ethos he previously established when he taught creative writing at the university level.
Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times set the tone for the panel by noting our location downtown, the heart of so many noir tales and a reality base for police activity that defines many episodes from which fiction is derived. All of the writers shared varying perspectives from successful careers as storytellers, but what struck me most about the discussion was its common theme focusing on authenticity. This notion of establishing the set of norms that constitute a world view and then remaining true to them transcended police work in my mind, it even transcended the procedural staging of those norms in the form of entertainment. In approaching their craft, the writers universally noted the mandate for extensive research as a requirement of their approach, and a bottom line almost moral responsibility to understand the details of the world they would portray before they could begin interpreting it.
Gerald Petievich, a 20 year Secret Service agent turned novelist and later screenwriter, repeatedly used the term “verisimilitude” to describe the requirements of his characters. Jose Padilha, who was sued in Brazil for his portrayal of violence as commonality in the Elite Squad, referenced the suit as evidence he had achieved the authenticity he sought. Robert Crais, attempting to define process in his approach to character development, quoted the renowned author Joseph Wambaugh who wondered, “Does the cop work the case, or does the case work the cop?” David Milch talked in detail of how we watch characters struggle to overcome their failings, summing up his reflection with the powerful descriptor: “If there is a God he wants us to be honest; if there isn’t, it’s even more important.”
As I kept hearing these words become almost the foundations of a chorus – authenticity, verisimilitude, honesty — it occurred to me that so much of what we consume as popular showmanship is experienced in the form of escapism. Our hunger for Super Hero movies seems insatiable, and with occasional exceptions, the documentary film as a form of commercial entertainment has seen better days. Yet authenticity is a broader construct than a simple portrayal of reality — as was noted by the panel, Ziegfield was as committed to getting every stitch in every costume right, not because the audience could necessarily see it, but because whoever was wearing the costume had to know it was correct to convey the same notion of authenticity under that banner.
The consistency of this message of the artist’s commitment to authenticity was inspiring and thought-provoking. Anyone can pay lip service to the notion of honesty, but an audience can feel the writer’s dedication in the work when presented. But what about in the workplace, is our commitment to verisimilitude as profound as that of the author? Is it as pronounced as it should be? Is there a relevancy in this ethos to how we approach day to day business, the seriousness of our research, the authenticity of our value propositions and commitments to colleagues and customers?
It occurred to me that I had never heard a panel discussion at any business conference I ever attended even remotely like this one, certainly not with top dogs of equivalent stature in their respective fields who have earned the permission to delve in such expression. Thinking about the headlines of late — of homes with mortgages underwater, of securities backed by worthless collateral, of for profit schools leaving students in debt without marketable skills, of a once trusted giant of personal financial management now behind bars – I wonder where is the verisimilitude in all that. Surely a scam is born every few minutes, without them there would be much less to write about, but the creators of products and services might do well to see intrinsic value in the pride of authenticity, the self-knowledge and reflection that it is expected of us no differently from the creators of books, television shows, and movies. Just as we can abandon any form of media if the hard work of noble construction is not present, so can a brand be abandoned by customers in a world of choice.
The applicability of authentic commitment seems less metaphorical than an actual model of success, where the judge is first oneself, followed then by making the offer available to others. A scene depicted without requisite deliberation is a skit. A brand evangelized without a consistent promise is a logo. It’s not hard to see the distance, but it takes more than words to close the gap.
We all crave authenticity. We all crave verisimilitude. We all crave honesty. Imagine the power of unlocking the value in that inspiration in everything we do. The storyteller may lead, but we all can have a great deal of skin in this game if we hold ourselves accountable for the same level of commitment to detail, rigorous study, ongoing iteration, and a set of beliefs that reflects equal parts respect for the subject and the audience. That to me is a story worth telling, experiencing, and sharing.
It’s not just about police work, it’s about all work.