| by Justin Thomas |
Parental Advisory: There’s blue language to follow. Fair warning.
Helpful road signs might read, “Danger: Obese Man-Eating Plants Ahead” or, “Danger: If You Go Around This Corner You Will Die.” Those are things I’d want to see before going ahead or going around the corner. Screenwriting has those road signs. There are plenty of horror stories to be found about how a screenplay or screenwriter gets manhandled and how things change to make the screenplay “better,” which is code for make the screenplay something other than the writer wrote. And all of the horror stories are true.
I cowrote a screenplay. I’m not a screenwriter nor am I in screenwriting. I didn’t even write a screenplay. I cowrote one and my writing partner and I had some success with it. A more accurate description would be we had tremendous success with it if you count tremendous success as everything up to actually having the movie made.
We won the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition in 2004. We had a production company take it for a year to see what they could do with it, which naturally meant we needed to rewrite it and watch nothing happen. We were finalists in the 2006 Austin Film Festival, got to have the “and the award goes to” be said before our names were read and even got to give a little speech. And Austin is where, as they say, the plot thickens.
A producer hooked up with us and loved, loved, loved the script. It’s perfect. Wow, how it harkens back to movies made in the 50s. “You guys are great. I’m starting a company and I want this to be one of my projects.”
The Bullshit Detectors™ should have been going off but in the whirlwind of Austin the bullshit detectors failed us. When we returned home and saw his Web site and how his mission statement confirmed what he’d told us, we thought we’d found the Promised Land. This guy believes in the vision of the writers! He stands behind the screenplays! He is the yin to fifteen writers on Spider-Man 4 Hollywood yang.
Of course we bought what he was selling. Of course we signed the option. Of course we thought one day the movie would be made by a guy who gets it.
Flash forward to 2010 and the ruin of the previous four years makes me want to hop in a time machine, travel back to October 2006 and take a baseball bat to our heads. “Wake up you fucking morons...” Anything to save the time and tears of the previous four years is something I’d do, right now, without a second thought.
What happened? How about the belief in the writer’s vision meaning a month to do a rewrite, being fired after the rewrite didn’t achieve the requested results, and being replaced by a guy who writes words for horses to speak? How about our vision being completely bastardized and changed and having the key components, the two conceits upon which the script gets noticed by everyone, be completely destroyed? How about being treated like sorry little ingrates when we dare question the direction the production is headed even though we were told we’d have say and are even contractually obligated to be credited as coproducers? The experience has been a complete 180 on every single point made to sell us at Austin. Fun times, no? And to allude, even slightly, one writer is more responsible for where the script is heading than the originators while maintaining it remains our vision is unforgivable.
There have been fun times through it. There was a table reading with real actors. There was a meeting with a director where at least one of us got to give thoughts as to where things were going. Now and again we get a phone call with tremendous news. Oh, hey, I’m shopping it to Actors A, B and C. Oh, hey, I landed a Hollywood Legend who worked with Hitchcock and Wilder. Oh, hey, I’ve landed a new director who knew Welles. These calls happen about once every three to four months with nothing in between and they always, always, include the reasons why the movie isn’t going to be made in the foreseeable future. So fun times, yes, but they’re always accompanied by the other side of the coin to the point I get filled with dread when I see the 310 area code on the caller ID. “What’s it going to be this time.”
It’s taking a while but I’m getting to the point. The road signs aren’t bullshit. The road signs are true. Everything you can take away about screenwriting from Sunset Blvd. is true. When a character in a movie says something akin to “what did he know, he’s just a writer,” it’s simply how things are. If a slick talking, “I’m not part of the problem” Web site mission statement guy happens your way, check what’s under that sheep’s skirt. There are sad things in this tale of woe including having a script be virtually destroyed but nothing is sadder than thinking things will be different but winding up in reality.
Oh, I know, all the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, cry boo, hoo, hoo. We should have been thinking just a little bit more. We signed the deal. We’ve taken the pittance. The movie still might get made. Shut up and get back to work. It’s easier said than done.
Back to the road signs. If you’re a writer, or aspire to be a writer, choose something other than screenwriting if your writing means anything to you. If you’re a poor dope who always wanted a pool, write a novel to get it. No form of writing is less respected than screenwriting. Everyone will get their hands into it and it’ll change. The writer is not the author of the finished film. Would a novelist have his debut changed by everyone who reads it before it goes to print? That’s a very simple no. Your guild card might say you’re a writer but you’re actually just a unionized eater of shit. Choose something else. Choose something a person will curl up to read when it’s time for bed and remember no one curls up with a good screenplay. No one.
If your vision means something to you, choose something that isn’t collaborative or find a way to control the entire process. If you still want to ignore the warning signs, still want to write for the screen and still want to fight for your vision the best advice I can give is don’t believe a word anyone says if they say they believe in the writer’s vision. It’s a lie.