Monthly Archives: March 2014

So… you wanna be a screenwriter. Ok. Do you like torture? Do you have endless patience? Are you a team player? After you’ve created a story, fallen in love with your characters, and spent endless hours, days, weeks, and months struggling to get it as perfect as it can be, can you stand watching a group of people tear it apart and reassemble it to fit their needs? Can you help them do it? Even if by the time they’re through with it doesn’t resemble what you originally wrote at all?

Then welcome. C’mon in. Grab a chair, put your feet up, and now let me tell you about the bad parts.

This blog is partly in response to a question a young writer asked on DoneDealPro (if you don’t know this website, it’s a solid screenwriter’s source.)

The writer wanted to know how much say he/she would have on set for a film he/she wrote. Would it be possible to be involved and have input in every single aspect of production from photography to post production etc.? Wanted to know if the writer was involved in casting or choosing the director. To his/her credit he/she acknowledged that it probably was a long shot, but still wanted to know.

It’s not too complex an answer either:

For new writers, it’s no. You don’t have a say in casting. You don’t have a say who’s directing. You have no say on the music or editing or the rest of postproduction. You have no say on set. In fact, there are quite a few directors who don’t want the writer anywhere near the set.

Luckily for writers, the last part seems to be changing. There are some directors who like having the writer on set, for dialogue or story questions, or just for another set of eyes from someone who knows the project well.

But… those circumstances are brought about when a director and writer have a great relationship, built on trust, working well together, and the writer realizing the director is the boss and has the final say.

Film is a director’s medium. They call the shots and it’s their vision you see on the screen. Directing a film well is a gargantuan job. The buck stops with you. Everyone on set works for you. A director has spent the better part of a year or more, sometimes years, prepping for the shoot. Developing the script to fit his/her vision with the writer or without the writer if the writer won’t or can’t cooperate.

Every aspect of what is seen and heard in a film is in the director’s hand. Good directors are endlessly creative, good delegators, and confident in what they want. A psychologist for the actors. A strong leader for the crew. And responsible to the producers. It a pressure cooker.

The script, as important as it is to a film, is only part of what a director has to worry about.

As a writer, it’s really your responsibility to understand where you are on the film foodchain and keep reminding yourself. Or you will go insane. It’s not your film. It’s your script. It’s not your film. And you have to keep saying that to yourself.

And if you’ve gotten yourself to the point where your script is getting made, you’re in a pretty special club. There are hundreds of thousands of scripts floating around out there looking to land where you are. True, you worked for it and earned it, but hey, you’re still a minority in the screenwriting field. You’re a produced writer.

I’ve been fortunate. Of the four films I’m a credited writer on, only one is unrecognizable as my script. Was I happy? Well, no. They trashed it. Was I angry when I watched it? Yeah, I threw stuff at the screen. But afterward I thought, hey, it’s the business I chose. I’m already past it. The other three films are my scripts, almost word for word, and when I watched them for the first time, it was a feeling you can’t imagine. Would I have directed the films the way they were? In one case, yes. I wouldn’t change a thing. The others?  You always see things that weren’t the way you envisioned them when you wrote them. But then… I WASN’T THE DIRECTOR.

I have what some people think is a life changing, for me, film shooting in the summer this year. I’ve been working with this director for the last eight years on it. We’ve developed an amazing working relationship and a friendship that will far outlast this film. He’s become one of my closest friends. It’s a relationship I cherish.

He’s been a guiding hand in developing the script. He knows what his vision is (damn close to mine, thank You God) and has given me the freedom to do all the creative writing to make that happen. He calls me and tells me his ideas and sometimes I love them and sometimes I argue with him and he’s open enough to listen. Sometimes I get my way. But he always has the final say. He’s the director. I get it.

And guess what? The script is now better than it has ever been. I am so proud of it and proud to have done it with this director.

I’ve been invited to be on set for the film. He wants me there. But I know what I need to do. Keep my damn mouth shut and let him do his job. The job he’s spent the last eight years working his ass off toward.

So to the young writer, NO, you won’t have a say. Can you be influential? If you play your cards right and understand what your role is in making a film, and develop relationships and trust, yes, maybe you can.

One of the most frustrating things about screenwriting is the time it takes for anything to happen. Anything. It takes time to figure out what to write. It takes time to research it. It takes time to write it, always longer than you think. Then come your rewrites. Time. More time.

Now you want someone to read it. It takes time to build a network of writers and trusted people in the industry to vet your work before you try to get it out to be optioned or sold. And then it takes time for them to read it and get back to you because they’re busy, too. This is if you want to do it right.

This doesn’t take in the time you need to write a bunch of scripts to get good enough to be able to maybe sell one. That’s a long time, too.

Now… You can write a script in two days and be done, have no one but your friends and family read it and then try to send it out. The chances it will not be complete crap are infinitesimally low, but you still have to sell it. And that’s where time really slows down.

And here we get to the most frustrating thing about dealing with new writers. Most expect instant gratification. They have no idea about the reality of film and TV production or they think their script is so good, that even knowing how long might take, they will be the exception to the rule. Nope. Not going to happen. Not. Going. To. Happen. Either way, their thought is: I will write this script. It will sell. I will be on the red carpet at the premiere in six months. Ok, three months.

Sounds like an exaggeration, right? Yeah. Ok. It’s a pretty harsh assessment. But it's what I hear. All the time. It's the expectation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard writers complain they haven’t heard anything from a reader and it’s been a WHOLE WEEK. Or the manager who requested it hasn't gotten back to them in a month. Or why can’t they get anyone to read their script right now? Why do I have to wait? Why is it so unfair that you can’t send an unsolicited script to anyone you want and have them read it the next day? Ok… I’m exaggerating again… but not by much.

The system is set up the way it is so that producers, production companies, agents, and managers are not so overwhelmed with product that they can’t read anything. There are hundreds of thousands of scripts out there looking for a home. And every writer of each of these believes they have the next hit film. That includes me. You should believe in your work. It’s essential to success. But the industry doesn’t believe you. Thus all the checks and balances and brick walls put up by the people in the film and TV business. It’s self protection from the avalanche of scripts that would engulf them.

And… getting through those checks and balances and brick walls takes time. A lot of time.

Want to know how long? It’s not weeks or months. It’s years. Mostly years and years. Yeah. That much time.

As a new writer who’s trying to get read by a manager or agent, if you're lucky enough to get a request based on your query, you need to know it could take weeks or months to get to the top of their pile. If you get read sooner, it’s a bonus. Once you have a manager or agent and they send your work out, it can still take weeks or months to get read. And longer after all the passes, because you have to do it all over again. I heard hundreds of no’s. Still do. You have to be patient. It hurts, but you have to.

Yes, there are fabulous sites like the Blacklist that may speed up the process, but nothing is guaranteed and it's a tough process to get through them, too. Still, I wish they'd been around when I started, but hey… c’est la vie.

But now, you hear yes. And you’ve optioned a script. Congrats.

Once you option something, even if it’s shortcutting time on the Blacklist?  Time? TIme slows to a crawl. You have no idea.

Someone has finally said, “YES”. Well, it’s not a real yes. It’s a qualified yes. They have notes and you need to rewrite your script to satisfy those. Whoops. Nice try. We need a second rewrite. More notes. Now another year has passed, good thing you gave them a renewal for another year. We might get Denzel, you need to rewrite it for him. More notes. Another three months. We didn’t get Denzel. But we have more notes. Another six months.

We have a director. He has notes and is going to do the rewrite himself. You sit and hear nothing for another six months. You email and call and they tell you to be patient. If you email and call too much, they’ll shut you out completely so you have to be careful. Then they hire another writer to rewrite it. And then they renew for the last yearly option. You’re in your third year. They tell you that they’re close to having financing. And another year passes and they say, “Sorry, we tried”. You get the rights back. To your original script. They still own all the changes you made based on their notes. You can sell the original again. And process starts once more.

This is the norm. A small percentage of scripts optioned actually get made. I optioned multiple scripts multiple times to Studios and BIG and small production companies for eighteen years and never got one film made. Made some good money, but never had an original script of mine made.

That changes this year, but that’s another blog. And yes, I have a bunch of credited films to my name. By the end of this year, I’ll have eight. Most of them are films where I rewrote the original writers so drastically that I got credited as a writer with them.

Getting a green light on a film is an amazing experience. You don’t believe it when it happens, even if it’s a script you rewrote. Seeing your storyline and characters and dialogue on screen is surreal. Why is it surreal? Lots of reasons, not the least of which is all the time it took.

There is NO instant gratification. There are no overnight successes. Everyone spent time becoming an overnight success. More time than you think.