The Tools Is Slick and Savvy—Like a Hollywood Remake

Hollywood therapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz reveal their tricks, but Alec Nevala-Lee says the result is vague and unoriginal.

Consider the successful screenwriter: At first glance, he’s in an enviable position. He—and it’s overwhelmingly a he—got where he is through talent and luck, and he’s handsomely compensated in a field that countless others have tried to enter in vain. At the same time, he has no real power or creative control. He’s at the mercy of studio executives eager to take credit for what works and lay blame for what doesn’t, and of stars who think they know how to write after a weekend with Robert McKee. On a big movie, he can be the 10th of 12 writers hired in succession, and if he refuses to butcher his own pages, he can always be replaced. Even if he makes it to the end, his name may not appear in the credits—and he certainly won’t be mentioned in the reviews. Perhaps worst of all, he’s smart and articulate enough both to see his predicament and to rationalize much of it away. In short, he’s a therapist’s nightmare.

Much of the appeal of The Tools, the slick new book from psychotherapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, is the impression it creates that it was formed in the crucible of a screenwriter’s neuroses. Many of us first heard of Michels and Stutz through a 2011 profile in The New Yorker, which portrayed them as a pair of rogue Jungians whose patient list had become the most exclusive club in Hollywood, with such clients as the director Adam McKay, the novelist Bret Easton Ellis, and a host of unnamed luminaries who collectively account for “12 or 13” Oscars. Their methods have been used to treat writer’s block, stage fright, and the standard trifecta of insecurity, envy, and fear. Not surprisingly, they’re in huge demand: an hour with Michels starts at three hundred and sixty dollars, while Stutz no longer takes on new clients at all.

The New Yorker profile led to a book deal—its author, Dana Goodyear, is thanked in the acknowledgments—but those looking for Hollywood dirt here will be disappointed, notwithstanding a blurb from screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana). With a few exceptions, The Tools sticks to stories about ordinary men and women, a strategy evidently designed to broaden its appeal, although its pitch could hardly be more seductive. Most therapists talk around their clients’ problems, the authors claim, but Michels and Stutz promise us immediate, practical solutions, as well as a connection to the higher forces around us, notably a power called the Source, which has created all things and is beyond human understanding, leaving its true nature conveniently vague.

“Can I think of the Source as God?” they write.

“The answer is that you can, but you don’t have to.”

Most readers of The Tools will be less interested in its spirituality—which often comes across as Joseph Campbell by way of George Lucas—than in the tools themselves. A “tool,” we’re told, is “a specific procedure to use at a specific time to combat a specific problem,” and indeed, Michels and Stutz’s tools are so specific as to seem startlingly simple. Faced with emotions like fear or hate, we’re instructed to go through a set of steps, built around a visualization exercise, to put us in touch with a higher force. In the case of fear, we’re told to imagine a cloud of pain, and to pass through it while mentally screaming,“Bring it on!” When faced with someone who makes us angry, we’re taught to send them a beam of liquid love from our hearts.

Once these responses become instinctive, the authors say, we’ll be more creative, content, and ready to shape our own futures.

The Tools doesn’t talk much about its Hollywood origins—although they’re all over the ads—but they aren’t hard to detect. At times, the book reads like a series of strategies for surviving a studio pitch meeting, an exercise in humiliation that has taught more than one writer the meaning of pain. Michels likes to say he refined the tools in collaboration with his clients, approaching therapy as a sort of spitballing session, and it shows. The shared lore of screenwriting, after all, is a set of tricks that have been proven over time to work: you enter the story as late as possible, put the star in every scene, make sure the inciting incident occurs by page 10. And there are moments when this shrewdly structured book feels like an attempt to devise a similar bag of tricks for the false dawns and third-act crises of life itself. Whenever we’re attacked by negative thoughts, for instance, we’re told to imagine five things that make us grateful, until we feel our hearts fill with gratitude … which in turn will connect us to the Source.

It’s easy to make fun of Michels and Stutz, with their earnest manner, matching goatees, and occasionally cringeworthy prose. (A client abandoning his training is described as “the equivalent of the Lone Ranger shooting his faithful horse, Silver,” while a section on consumerism warns us against “the dark, inner sanctum of its power, the shopping mall.”) The book is sprinkled with little sketches, like storyboards, meant to illustrate the points under discussion, but the effect is often unintentionally silly: for the power of gratitude, for example, we’re shown a smiling stick figure projecting radiance through a black cloud, with an arrow labeled “Gratefulness” pointing toward the light.

And while the authors say that they aren’t trying to get converts or followers, the book’s spiritual claims, with the promise of higher forces poised to bring mankind to its next stage of evolutionary development, are enough to give pause to any reader acquainted with the peculiar forms such ideas have often assumed in Hollywood.

Yet even if we don’t buy into the book’s cosmology, it’s hard to argue with its message. Beneath its fashionable trappings, The Tools is asking us to love our enemies, be grateful for what we have, and remember our mortality, which is advice we could all stand to take. If we sense our willpower fading, we’re told to imagine ourselves on the point of death, shouting at our present selves not to waste our lives—which is another way of saying that many of our most important decisions arise from the urge to avoid a few seconds of deathbed regret. The book’s attempt to repackage these principles in an easily recollected form is just the latest version of a familiar promise: that we can enter into a relationship with a higher power by repeatedly focusing on the right images or words. To put it mildly, this isn’t exactly a new idea.

In the end, The Tools represents one of the most venerable Hollywood traditions: the remake. But the fact that it consists of a reboot of old ideas doesn’t mean that it can’t change lives. Every generation gets the mantras it deserves, and while screaming “Bring it on!” at a cloud of pain may not have quite the same ring as saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," the underlying principle isn’t entirely different. Sometimes the oldest answers are still the best, even if we need to convince ourselves that we’ve come up with them anew. It’s like the story of the screenwriter who woke up one night with what seemed like the best movie idea of all time. He got out of bed, wrote down a few words, and went back to sleep. The next morning, when he remembered what had happened, he ran excitedly to see what he’d written on the page. The words were "boy meets girl."