Immanuel Kant + Bugs Bunny = Winston J. Perez? Now, there’s a “concept.” Or maybe not. The only way to be sure, as Winston Perez views a term that has come to define his professional life in Hollywood, is to take a close look at Perez’s latest work, an upcoming book with an imposing title: Concerning the Nature and Structure of Concept.
Some of it is heavier reading than the average entertainment executive has done since pulling a C+ in that sophomore philosophy class. “Concept is the nature and abstract-essence of absolutely everything,” Perez writes in the opening of one vaguely Kantian chapter, which wrestles with, dare we say it, the metaphysical underpinnings of concept and idea (not at all the same thing, warns Perez).
But the rest is intellectual fun, designed with an eye toward the filmmakers and executives who have sometimes turned to Perez for what he calls “concept modeling,” a method for getting to the core of a film, a script, or almost any sort of pitch or product. That’s where Bugs Bunny comes in. Warner Bros once hired Perez to provide a concept model of its favorite cartoon rabbit. As explained at length in Part 2, Chapter 10, “Conceptive Reality,” Perez burrowed into Bugs through what has become his most famous line, “Eh, what’s up, Doc?” After mapping the ins and outs for some time, Perez came to the conclusion that the bunny’s core trait turns on a relationship with fear. The enduring catch-phrase, and everything about Bugs Bunny, said Perez, is actually about “teaching us to overcome fear using attitude.” Take that away, and you’d still have a big-eyed, big-mouthed rabbit. But you wouldn’t have an enduring animated character who has made his creators hundreds of millions of dollars through the years.
That insight, and many others advanced by Perez, can seem obvious. But, as Perez explains in Part 2, Chapter 3, of his forthcoming bible: “Everything is obvious in hindsight.” The challenge is to understand the essence of a script or a show before stepping in potholes that should have been apparent in advance, but weren’t.
In one of its more charming idiosyncrasies, Concerning the Nature and Structure of Concept has six color-coded introductions, each designed to be read with a different portion of the book. The Red Introduction, for instance, uses notions from the Matrix films to illustrate lessons found later in Part 4, Chapter 1, in which we are taught to think about your average, work-a-day living room table as, conceptually, an “anti-gravity machine.” The Orange Introduction, about a caveman who finds the concept of a bonfire shortly before dying in one, pairs well with a chapter about getting things wrong.
In another idiosyncrasy, Perez—after spending the better part of 10 years on his book—plans to self-publish the first edition with Amazon in January, rather than tailoring it to the needs of commercial publishers. He worked for a time, he says, with Random House; but Random wanted a more conventional business book, and Perez, an independent-minded sort, was more interested in getting to the bottom of his own thinking (which was shaped without much formal philosophical training).
Now 59 years old, he has been probing hidden structure since the late 1980s, when he first recognized in the abstract art of Piet Mondrian a concept for the layout of an experimental newspaper he was then trying to publish for high-school students. The Marriott Corp. nearly became a backer, but pulled out in the middle of a corporate transition. Perez—descended from an old East Coast family on his mother’s side, from Venezuelan forebears on his father’s—moved West, where among other things he tried his hand at screenwriting, before realizing he was less interested in the words on a page than in the concepts beneath them. That led to consulting work, including assignments for Warners, Paramount, NBCUniversal, and more recently Relativity Media and Legendary Entertainment.
Other than his book, said Perez, his great passion is a long-delayed film based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. At one point, he did a concept model for the project, which Legendary put aside in 2012. While the picture hasn’t yet happened, Perez got deep enough to believe that something big was hiding inside. “Every movie, every story has its roots in that film,” he said. “It is the very first story of all time.”