In ancient Greek theatre, there was a convention known as the deus ex machina, literally “the god from the machine.” This deus was a guy who, at a critical moment near the end of the play, would be lowered via crane onto the stage where he would fix everything up, righting all wrongs, bringing the action to a nice, neat conclusion.
How quaint, you say. How convenient. Yet, if you’ve spent any time traversing the business world, chances are you’ve encountered the deus ex machina’s perverse descendant.
The demon ex machina.
This is the all-powerful decision maker who appears on the scene just as a project is hurtling towards its conclusion… and screws everything up. In meetings you might’ve heard this person’s name mentioned, but since he or she has never ventured guidance or an opinion at any stop along the way, this entity has been relegated to the furthest recesses of your psyche, the place where you keep Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, and Bigfoot.
My first and most dramatic tango with this phenomenon came early in my freelance writing career, about twenty years ago, around the time when the mobile phone industry was just beginning to reach critical mass. I’d been retained by a cell phone company (no longer in existence) to create a script—a comedy script—that would help them sidestep a potentially dangerous situation. It seems that legislators were getting their knickers in a bunch over people’s boorish, inappropriate, and sometimes dangerous use of phones in their cars and in public places (a refrain, by the way, that just never seems to grow old).
This company thought, correctly, that going on the offensive and educating their customers about socially acceptable ways to use their phones might forestall governmental regulations. So they wanted something lighthearted and funny to get this serious message across.
I pitched several ideas and they were quick with their decision; they fell in love with “The Cellular Soothsayer.” The premise was simple. Our hero Jack is experiencing a severe midlife crisis, so for spiritual guidance he heads to the Himalayas to meet with a world-renowned swami. He climbs a mountain and finds the swami, who is unsurprised to encounter this geeky traveler in a pith helmet.
“I have journeyed all this way,” says Jack, “to learn the meaning of life.”
Says the swami, “I cannot tell you the meaning of life, but I can tell you the correct way to use your cellular phone.”
And so Jack, the poor schmuck, having spent God knows how much money and time, is subjected to a high-altitude lecture on phone etiquette, not exactly what he expected.
Yep, I know: It’s pretty simple and innocuous, but I was able to put some clever dialogue and funny situations at the service of the client’s key messages.
I delivered draft one. The client, who I’ll call Denise, absolutely loved it. She took the script, circulated it through company channels, and returned the script with a few minor corrections. Excellent!
I was feeling mighty proud of myself as the video production company swung into pre-production, bringing my brilliant comedic vision to life: casting the roles, and securing equipment, crew and locations.
At last, shooting commenced. For the scene in which we were to illustrate phone etiquette in a movie theatre, the production company had rented the Aladdin Theatre in southeast Portland.
That morning, like Patton proudly inspecting his troops, I marched through the Aladdin, shaking hands with the cast, director, Joe, and the producer, Kevin. Everything was under control and rolling was about to begin, so back I went to my home office to continue work on another project.
I hadn’t been there very long when the phone rang. It was Kevin, distressed.
“We’re pulling the plug.”
“Barbara wants us to stop and regroup.”
Cue the crane operator! Here comes Barbara, The Demon ex Machina.
Seems that the local newspaper, The Oregonian, had run a feature story that very morning bemoaning racial stereotypes. Evidently those stereotypes were running amok in Portland. Everywhere you turned, the article implied, you encountered a demeaning example of the way we portrayed people of different nationalities or religions. These insults were in the media, in signage, all around us.
Barbara read the article. To this point in time, evidently, the notion of our script being “racist” had not occurred to her. For good reason: It simply wasn’t. But now it seemed that our innocuous soothsayer, with his Indian accent, was mocking every minority in the world. And the implied fact that he had some kind of religious affiliation just exacerbated the crisis.
So production was temporarily halted and we began a new and seemingly never-ending series of script meetings. This was early summer of 1994. Since a number of the scenes with the Soothsayer took place outdoors, production was timed to take advantage of the sunny Northwest summer.
For the role of the Soothsayer, we had cast Ted Roisum, a fine actor we felt lucky to have lassoed into our little project.
But as summer blended into autumn then into winter, and script development inched laboriously towards a final draft, we lost Ted; he was in high demand and was cast in a stage production. And the famous Northwest rainy season kicked in, so shooting outdoors became problematic. We were losing cast members, losing the sun and losing enthusiasm. The project was in shambles.
On the one hand, I had nothing to complain about; I was being paid by the draft, so (frankly) there was money to be made. But my patience and professional integrity were being severely tested. During one meeting late in the process, we actually had a debate about whether the Soothsayer should be seated on an Oriental rug, because wouldn’t that be promulgating a stereotype?
In addition to my sparkling wit and uncanny intelligence, I am known for my calm demeanor. But I had to restrain myself from walking out of that particular meeting. Afterwards, in front of the office building, Joe and Kevin remarked on my demeanor during the meeting.
“Your face turned kinda red,” commented Joe. “And your jaw was kind of hanging open.”
And so, “The Cellular Soothsayer” never saw the light of day. Eventually, Kevin cobbled together some of the footage, but all the energy and humor had been drained from the project, leaving a hunk of tape and the feeling that Political Correctness had crushed the poor oracle’s windpipe.
This is where I’m supposed to draw on my extensive experience to advise you how to avoid being blindsided by this surprise and intrusive guest.
Truthfully, the best you can do is inquire during the initial meeting if there’s any higher-up who’ll need to sign off on your project; if the account people don’t ask this question, you should be the one who does. Unfortunately, even if the answer to this question is “no,” don’t be surprised if the clouds part and a demon ex machina is lowered onto the playing field. Hopefully yours won’t be as whimsical as mine was. And if you’ve mentally prepared yourself, this will be just another speed bump on the road to the brilliant completion of your project.