I’ve been ignoring my Blog the last few weeks. Not because I had nothing to write about, but because it’s been kind of a whirlwind last six weeks. Busy doesn’t begin to describe it. I am thankful and grateful for the work (a massive last minute rewrite job) and the amazing opportunities whose timing, without them all knowing it, couldn’t be better right now for a lot of reasons. So thank You God and let’s hope it keeps up.
Today I want to talk about understanding what it’s like to be a screenwriter. I know that sounds simple and you all probably know or have an idea what it means anyway, but damn, lately I’ve watched some good people give themselves some self inflicted wounds they didn’t have to because they didn’t understand how movies and TV happen and the writer’s role in it.
Let me be clear. Yes, a writer writes. That’s the primary role. But in order to get to the place where your role is writing for money by optioning or selling or getting an assignment job, there are some non self-destructive things you need to think about.
If you want all control over your intellectual property from start to finish, make the films yourself. And finance them yourself. That’s the only way. Otherwise, don’t look like someone who doesn’t understand the process and ask for control or approval of any script changes. No matter how good your script is, producers will walk away and not return your calls if you do this. Development of your work is going to happen and more than one person is going to have a voice and none of them is you.
Just this week I heard more than a few stories from some Producers about writers who just don’t understand. It’s not a rare thing.
There’s a guy I know who is just about to find out how this works. He’s said he’s going to hold out for creative control over his script. Script approval. The people who want to produce this film couldn’t care less what he wants. They know in the real world of filmmaking this is a deal breaker. I’m not sure he understands they are completely prepared to walk away and put their money into another project tomorrow if he insists on this today. And they will. And they won’t look back. Unless you’ve written another Harry Potter with millions of built in fans, you aren’t getting any kind of script approval.
I hear writers on forums talking about how unfair this is and how stupid this is and how writers should band together to stop the practice, but the fact is there are too many factors to list here as to why scripts need to change in order to get made and they’re not always easy to understand. It’s different for every project, but as I have said before, every script gets changed before it hits the screen. Every single one of them. And the people who put up the money and hire the director (and give him or HER power to change it along with them) get to make the decisions.
Listen, it can be hard to take. Some of my films are almost exactly how I wrote the last version (that I got notes from directors and producers on) and a couple, well, I don’t understand why my name is on them because nothing, as in ZERO, I wrote is on the screen. That’s the lot of a screenwriter. It happens to everyone. Did I like the films? One of them is ok and one of them is so bad it’s kind of embarrassing. Mystery Science Theater 3000 bad.
I was at a meeting and one of the people I was meeting with had watched that film to get an idea of what I do. Why they chose that one is beyond me. I could see in their face they were wondering why the hell I was in the room if my work was so putrid. Why they just didn’t read the writing samples I sent is another question I ask myself, but I’m glad the others did.
I also explained to the group that I actually didn’t write the film it ended up being. Every single one of them understood because it happens every day. Hey, they were looking for someone to rewrite a film for them. But I didn’t get that job.
The job I just finished was a rewrite of another writer’s script. I think I may have been the 5th or 6th writer on this project. I never even saw the original writer’s script at all. I worked off of the last version written. And using notes from all kinds of executives (five, to be exact) and my own, I rewrote the script and changed 95% of the dialogue (killing the mounds of exposition), eliminated characters, changed character’s personalities, jobs, and relationships. I eliminated subplots, added different subplots, layered and added depth to character. My guess is the only thing standing from the original is some character names and the premise, which is quite good.
Do I feel badly for the original writer? Sure. I’ve been there. I’ve been rewritten. It’s what happens. But his name is going to be on it as the writer and everybody involved thinks it’s going to be pretty good. Including me. Doesn’t mean it will be, because there are so many factors still to come by the time it hits a screen. But I think this one has a chance of being very good and I mean that. It’s nice because you don’t always feel that way.
Part of this profession is the understanding of your role in the much bigger machine. Not that it isn’t important, because hey, try making a film without a writer, but that machine has so many more moving parts that need to fit and work together and need to be oiled that what you wrote, that they optioned or bought, is always going to need to be modified or changed to make it work as a whole. And it’s self destructive to not acknowledge that, understand that, and get yourself into a mindset where you’ll be happy to try to work under those conditions.
Knowing these things going in helps in being able to listen to and comprehend the notes you WILL be given to change your script and to blunt the pain sometimes of having to kill things in your script you love. But know that if you can’t or won’t do these things they’ll hire people like me or many of my friends to do it.
Don’t be self-destructive when trying to option/sell a script. Don’t ask for things that they can’t or won’t give you or they would have no problem walking away from you forever because of. Don’t ask for creative control. Don’t ask for casting approval. Don’t ask for an acting role. That’s NOT what they want from you. They want your script, so they can use it to build a film. If during the process you develop a relationship with them based on your cooperation and their trust and reliance on you to be a team player, there’s no telling what decisions or opportunities you could be in on. I’ve been there and it’s fun. But not until it’s clear you understand how it all works.
Asking for these things going in also make it easier for them to make a decision to jettison you from the project faster if you do end up optioning your script (without your demands).
Believe me, the more you understand how film production operates at every level and your role, the better a writer you’ll be and the more valuable you’ll become to production companies.