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.