“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” – quote attributed to various people
If someone is offering only the unacceptable, compromised, neutered version of what you plan, they aren’t offering anything.
A person can turn over what was said and left unsaid in a meeting or other interaction for years until they break the code and find out the truth under all of the imagined negotiation and clarity and timing they could have summoned to keep imagined support for a project.
One collaborator might have a pattern you choose to ignore. That might be giving out a different message than your own so there is built in disaster down the line. It might be as simple as your own stated plan being specific and his or hers being more general. Your associate’s goal might be, “Let’s make a movie for me to star in.” Your goal as a writer-director might be, “Let’s make a movie that follows my script and my directorial designs.”
An investor or actor may give an ultimatum like, “I can only be involved in this if you cut this line or joke or image I find problematic.” Or, “I will only be involved if you let the actors ad lib and don’t insist they learn dialogue or rehearse.” Or, “I will only be involved if you hire a cinematographer and let that person call your shots.” In each of those cases, compliance will only result in a compromised version of your film. It might even open the door to a clusterf**k and a cacophony of nonsense that has to be reigned in and that replaces what you had intended. If your most satisfying writing is problematic, and you are going to be responsible as a writer director for the finished product anyway, it may as well be your own instincts and whimsy that is judged and not something imposed on you.
The potential collaborator negotiating or offering or imposing something is not offering to help realize your vision, the version of the project that is worth whatever time you have spend developing and refining it and whatever work remains to actually shoot it. They are offering to control your work.
The expected response to such a statement is that it is naive or amateurish to worry about such things. But especially in a politically charged climate, it would be easy for someone to wind up credited for something that no longer represents his or her judgement or taste or point of view on the world while at the same time not even catering to any mainstream sensibility. Remember the moment in Ed Wood where he claims, “Everybody likes” his script or project and his girlfriend tells him he has surrounded himself with freaks.
If someone offers to be a producer and that person has not read the script, that’s a red flag. If they are offering to talk to some unnamed “whale” about financing, their heart might be in the right place but it is best to make sure the project is not misrepresented and have the conflict right there. Your only control or leverage is that the other person doesn’t really have leverage.
If you get them acting in your movie or bringing some support but only on condition that the movie is diluted, even the smallest disagreement or compromise might be like one small hole in the bottom of a boat; instead of rowing and making progress you will then be spending time bailing water just as an improvisation based cast might use up precious time on a location trying to fix something that is not broken – the script. If you can’t use story-boarded shots motivated by the dynamics and psychology of each beat in a scene because the dialogue is in flux, then you are forced to cross-shoot basic close-ups of the whole thing in the kind of coverage anyone could do and there is no directorial stamp. So as credited writer-director you will be generating “pictures of people talking” instead of your carefully considered use of the frame and the words being spoken will not be your own so both writing and directing have been subverted by the imposition of compromise.
The vision of the finished movie – imperfect though it may be – that comes from following your latest draft of the script and your story-boarded shot plan is in your mind’s eye at the end of the tunnel and worth the journey and sleepless nights to come. You can honestly take responsibility for it. But being thrown off balance or demoralized by a perspective that is not compatible makes that vision dissolve into a jumble. Some will argue that as long as you are getting paid you may as well play along and be professional, but in micro-budget movies and your first features it is worth being mindful that even in a small pond there could be leeches. Your project might look like a forum for an art form someone else values over cinema, and you may only need performers who have utility and skill to breathe life into the dialogue you have already prepared. You don’t want to pass the buck and blame anyone if a movie turns out mediocre. Better to dig your heels in early on and drill down into any point of disagreement. Let everyone make informed choices. They might not all want to read 100 pages just to say no. But it is better to make no movie at all than to make the wrong movie that will stand as a mockery of what was intended. Make your own mistakes and not someone else’s.