Scott Shafer could learn a lot from the guy who wrote Saw.
In 2004, I was putting my Syracuse University marketing degree to good work as a publicity coordinator for Lionsgate Films. Whatever you may think of the Saw movie franchise now (and you are certainly allowed to think it), there was an authentic buzz for the original film that year when we decided to release it. According to legend or who you ask, what was supposed to be a straight-to-DVD release turned into a theatrical release when the film received the highest test scores the company had ever seen. This low-budget horror film made by a couple of Australian guys nobody ever heard of starring Wesley from The Princess Bride somehow crossed over into the promised land.
If you think sports press conferences are exercises in futility, they've got nothing on film press junkets. At least there's the promise of meaty questions and acerbic responses at coach pressers or player interviews. By design, press junkets are sapped of just about any sense of unpredictability through a series of behind-the-scenes demands and power-plays between studios, talent and their reps. What you're usually left with is a collection of generic interviews that might as well have all been done once.
Like most studio press junkets, the Saw junket took place in a swanky hotel. We had taken over an entire floor and each room was then taken over by a TV crew or an interviewer or, for the Internet folks, roundtables that they were supposed to feel lucky to be apart of.
While my bosses were charged with handling Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter and the other talent, my job was to hover around director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell all day and make sure they had what they needed and weren't accosted by any nutjobs.
The duo have since gone on to bigger and brighter things. You probably know Wan as the director of Insidious, The Conjuring and Furious 7, to name a few. You may recognize Whannell as "Adam" from the Saw movies or "Specs" in the Insidious movies, both of which he wrote amongst other things. You still probably wouldn't recognize them on the street but they're both officially "doing very well."
Back then, however, they were Hollywood noobs. They'd had some individual success but this whole experience and the hype surrounding the film was constant. It's the kind of thing that can make anyone wilt and run away. That kind of fame and spotlight is something you're either able to deal with or you're not.
So at the end of the junket, with dozens of TV interviews, radio interviews, one-on-one interviews and roundtable interviews in the books, I asked the two of them how they planned on dealing with all of the hype and expectations that were rushing into their life.
Leigh paused for a second and then said, "We just have to remember to get out of the car every once in a while." He didn't come up with this particular piece of advice, it was something he had either been told by another actor or overheard somewhere, but it's still the best piece of advice I've ever heard when it comes to anyone who is going to spend time in the spotlight.
I'm paraphrasing here but Leigh began asking, have you ever been in your car and you've got the music up really loud and you're singing along and everything sounds great? Then, you get out of your car. Maybe you stop at the store to buy food or you run into your house to grab something you forgot. You get back in the car, turn the keys and OH MY GOD the music is so loud! Your ears are bleeding! How is that possible? It sounded normal just a minute ago.
When you were in the car with the noise and the music, that became your normal. It only stopped being normal when you got out and got back in and realized how loud it actually was. And that's what happens to people in Hollywood. They're surrounded by others telling them how great they are. They're sheltered in this bubble where news and messages are filtered for them. They only see the world through the lens they've put themselves behind.
So, Leigh said, you always have to remember to get out of the car every once in a while.
It's true. Whatever film I worked on, I could always tell which people never got out of the car. The ones who seemed to operate in a way that wasn't quite human or as if we were the ones who weren't quite human. They saw us and everything around them from inside the bubble and acted accordingly. Think about that the next time Tom Cruise says or does something and you think to yourself, "What is wrong with that guy?"
Tom Cruise never gets out of the car.
That piece of advice was the first thing I thought of as I watched Scott Shafer's strange post-victory press conference on Saturday. Shafer came into the presser guns blazing, reiterating the team's 3-0 record and how long it had been since Syracuse had been 3-0 ("24 years") multiple times. He also scolded reporters in advance, warning "let's not lose that with our questions...let's not twist it, turn it, let's give these kids credit." From there he was testy and often answered questions while emphatically jutting the pen in his right hand towards reporters like a pointer.
There was no missing Shafer's tone or attitude. The media were the enemy and he was there to set them straight.
In and of itself, this press conference wasn't revelatory. Practically every Jim Boeheim press conference is like this. However, there's two things that made it feel like a kind-of flashpoint for Shafer.
Number one, he's been testy with the media since before the season even began. Coming off of a 3-9 campaign with whispers of hot seats on the wind, it's mostly understandable. Go back and watch some of those preseason press conferences and you won't miss the undercurrent of contempt and lack of patience for local media members.
Number two, as Shafer was keen to point out multiple times, this press conference was coming off of a win that moved SU's record to 3-0 overall. In theory, it should have been a fairly positive experience even given the fact that SU had to go to overtime to beat Central Michigan. Eric Dungey had been lost to a UBI, Steve Ishmael had gotten injured and there were many other valid reasons as to why the game ended up as close as it had. If Shafer had taken a positive or even a neutral vibe into the presser, it probably would have gone smoothly.
Shafer seems to have decided that the local media is his enemy and needs to be death with accordingly. Yes, there's always going to be discourse between media and the subject they cover. It's built into the job descriptions. As the Daily Orange's Matt Schneidman deftly puts it, "the media’s job isn’t to help a team’s cause. It’s to provide as much information as possible to gain credibility in a specific business field. Just like it’s Shafer’s job to win football games to gain credibility in his profession."
So while it's understandable why Shafer might not like the process of dealing with the media, it remains unclear why he's deemed turning this into a highly-visible battle as the best solution.
Saw was not the most well-reviewed movie ever made. There were plenty of critics out there who found it humdrum, generic horror fare. Lots of media members put the film down or, even worse, said it was "fine." It would have been very easy for James and Leigh to zero in on those negative reviews and get angry. They could have penned responses to individual critics and explained to them why they were wrong. They could have taken jabs at Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman and gloated over the $103 million it made at the box office (let alone the franchise it spawned). They could have made it personal and struck back very easily.
But, they didn't (in part because James Wan, oddly like so many horror people I've met, is one of the nicest guys in the world). They didn't need to. The critics did their jobs and voiced their opinions. Audiences made a decision for themselves. The movie made bank in spite of any negative press. The world kept spinning.
I'm left wondering where Scott Shafer goes from here. If he's this worked up and bothered when the team is winning games, how is he going to be in that press room on Saturday if LSU beats Syracuse by 40? If he has to suffer through an embarrassing home loss in front of the biggest crowd of the year and then he takes all of these negative expectations with him to meet the press...what the hell happens? We've seen him punch podiums and kick visors for much less.
I get why Scott Shafer's emotions are heightened right now. His livelihood is on the line. His current job is the one he's been working his whole life for and there's a chance it could be taken away from him if things don't turn out right. Ask anyone who's been in that position before and I bet they tell you it's terrifying.
But if that's the way this all goes, if Scott Shafer does in fact lose his job after this or another season, it won't be because of something Chris Carlson wrote. It won't be because of a Bud Poliquin column or a Daily Orange editorial or a Niko Tamurian story.
It'll be because the team didn't perform to some kind of expectation or standard, be it Mark Coyle's or someone above Mark Coyle. You can blame the local media if you like, shut them out and belittle them for doing their job, but everyone knows that it doesn't work that way.
They say that if you're offended by something someone else has said, it's probably because on some level you believe it too. Maybe that's why Scott Shafer scolded the media on Saturday over things they hadn't even done yet. He knew deep down that the things he was accusing them of potentially doing would be fair of them to do. On some level, probably closer to the surface than he would admit, he knows that all 3-0's are not created equal. It's easier to blame Brent Axe for that hard truth, but it's still a hard truth.
Being the head coach of a P5 football program is a demanding task. It's a seven-day-a-week job that requires countless hours of hard work. I just hope that somewhere in the midst of all that Scott Shafer has a chance to get out of the car. Even if it's just for a few minutes. Just step outside, close the door and be one of us for the briefest of moments.
Then, when he gets back in the car, he can see just how loud he's been.