Letting a Screenplay Go

Had a recent phone conversation with a local independent film producer I know, and it involved his anecdote about a writer he had met who wanted him to produce a film he had written but not to direct it.  The writer, despite having no directing credits, intended to direct.  “So,” my friend told this guy, “You want me to do the work of producing while you jerk off directing?”  I didn’t comment on that characterization and I think I only suggested maybe the writer should make some shorts and become confident about his directing and maybe put people at ease with samples of work.

What I didn’t think to say until after he conversation had wrapped was that  I can identify with the writer.  I also only want a producer to produce.  The right person should be in the right position.  Someone business oriented and who is a born producer is ideal to produce.  If that person gets the money and resources together, often times that person will install himself/herself as director whether or not there is a knack for the psychology of the frame and the displacement impact of a cut or the progression of shots in a sequence.  The craft of movie directing is under constant attack from the “coverage” sensibility that makes recording of a scene something rote and generic.

A producer with more contacts than the writer can also get away with using that leverage for arbitrary changes.  Too often what the “buyer” of a script (which may as well just be called the receiver in low budget filmmaking, where the value of a script might be more than the total budget of the film so there is no chance of getting that figure) might only want to see that the heavy lifting is there in terms of story and continuity.  But as much work as a writer puts into that, much of it is about adhering to formats of storytelling that are long established. The dialogue might be where the writer’s voice or style comes in, and filmmakers as well as actors might often feel free to trade out the written word for a paraphrasing or eliminate it all together.

If that happens, the originally intended writer-director has dropped a notch to screenwriter without getting a huge pay out and will not see the writing brought to life because now it is changed often arbitrarily and if enough has been changed (on whomever’s whim) the credit itself may now be shared with someone else.  The dangers would be greater if the screenwriter came onto a project embellishing someone else’s initial blurb or TV Guide summary.  A year can be spent contributing to fleshing out someone else’s idea, and in the end someone else gets credit and someone else gets paid.

If you have a fear about story ideas being stolen, the cold comfort you will get from far too many low budget directors and more experienced filmmakers is, “Well there are no original ideas.”  This is another reason to guard your dialogue and other quirks that make the script uniquely your own.  A filmmaker might look at a script as something that should just lay out the foundations and it should be straight line so that the performances and presentation can be the fun or wavy-line element.  This is the same principle of casting improvisation actors or live comedy actors who want to deviate and embellish rather than learn and rehearse dialogue, but even a comedy needs a grounded foundation and a sea level from most performers so the unusual element can stand out.

A writer can spend more time than anyone on a project and require the most personal connection and stamina to really bring something to it.  But as long as it is a buyer’s market, the most appropriate fit for the script might not be found.  The director should be the right fit, as should the casting.  If the wrong person makes an offer, and a desperate writer accepts it, the script will no longer be interpreted but instead it will be imposed upon and made to conform something that is not built into it.  An inexperienced writer with the right crew can realistically direct a movie as well as – if not better than – someone experienced who might have had a rote or “coverage” approach.  Not that I want to take the off-ramp to a tedious argument about what coverage is and how common it is.  (Wide establishing shot, close-ups of each character, “overs” or “dirty”  over-shoulder of each, maybe a cut-away shot, the goal being for the producer and editors to shape the scene according to their own whim and to not be limited by what the director wanted to emphasize.)

My own writing is typically “wavy line.”  That dictates a more subdued performance. And I might have something to offend everybody i one of my scripts, so if I work with someone who wants to play it safe the result will be luke warm and pointless.  Others might not have that purist sensibility.  And it might not apply to every script.  But people usually respect something to the extent that they paid for it.  If a writer is a pushover, differing to everybody else’s opinion, maybe their script didn’t stand for anything in the first place.  In  my case, I just want my gut impulses to be vindicated and I will not be vindicated if my decisions and my dialogue are traded out.  If a choice is six of one, half dozen of the other, then I want my own six to see the light of day and have its day in court.  Once I have a screenplay the way I want it, I now consider how to novelize it.  This doesn’t get the control issues out of my system.  It is just to flesh things out and serve notice that there is a version that can be enjoyed on its own. Screenwriting can be excellent but it is so common a challenge to take on that it gets little respect.  A stage play or a novel is given more credence.

A screenplay is really only worth writing to make money or to direct it.  You have to screen people, friends or strangers alike, to make sure they don’t need to piss in the soup.  If they don’t like your writing then you don’t have a leg to stand on with them other than floating the idea that you are savvy enough that simply stealing an idea can get their own variation slapped with a restraining order and their own reputation with investors destroyed.  You may record a table reading of your script, but KEEP THE DIRECTIONS, even if dialogue ends up taking over a reading.  Make sure it is not a cold reading , because it DOESN’T MATTER if the actors are bored.  They should not have phones out texting or answering messages while waiting for a line and then letting the rhythm die because of a pause as cures are missed.  They have to comb through the script for speed bumps and identify them so what you record and what listeners experience is a decent and lively presentation of the script, not a lot of stumbling over lines that give the impression there was something wrong with the words. A good actor can dance trippingly through mediocre words and a personality can come across that makes the whole seem of a piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing for Free

While in college, I contacted a filmmaker from my hometown and showed him some writing samples for the hell of it.  I had only met him as an extra on a feature he did, and that scene didn’t make the final cut.  I had written a couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation spec episodes because that show accepted submissions from fans, and I had written an original feature called Crotch, about a pornographer who has to retire as a condition of his pending marriage. They were, for good or ill, writing samples.  He invited me over to see an idea he might want me to work on.  When I got there and he pointed to the title and couple of paragraphs, I had a sinking feeling and had to say no because it seemed too exploitative.  I didn’t like the title and the two paragraphs seemed to represent two different stories.

A short time later, he called saying that he had to show an investor a four page outline and could I help by knocking one off in the next couple of days.  Back then I had a naive can-do attitude and felt I should try to meet the challenge, even while I was a full time student.  I went to the school’s Mac lab and knocked off four pages from handwritten notes I had made in my travels.  I sent this off, either as an e-mail or maybe he picked it up where I was living in second year. He made his deadline and next began to write a partial draft which was mostly a first act and a few other scenes.  He wanted to know if in a couple of weeks I could build that into a full draft.  I actually recognized at least one line from my Crotch script.  But I again took the challenge to name that tune in a short space of time.  He was acting in one of my short films, so at a rehearsal I handed him a 123 page draft. I could get into detail with character names and which elements I introduced, but I don’t want to open old wounds by naming the project.  One of the paradoxes of movie-making is that you may have a bad experience with people you otherwise like.

He showed the long draft to various unnamed people and then gave me their notes, a few of which were contradictory and many of which were against the use of overt “jokes.”  Ultimately, the next few drafts were about 100 pages.

Then between semesters he had me bus down to Toronto for a couple of weeks to stay with him and his family in a guest room and generate a final draft.  He presented me with something to sign and which he also signed a copy of, with his wife as witness that stated story by him and screenplay by himself and me as an agreement that this was how the credit would read.  At that point in the process, I had already contributed enough to justify this. There was a table reading, and then several days of pulling the script apart and putting the pages on a wall of the office and scrutinizing the flow of it.  Another writer strolled in one day to look at what we had done and he ostensibly had been hired to do a “step outline” which seemed like a step backward.  It turned out that what he had brought was a sample of his own start on an actual draft.  His approach for the opening had an entirely different gimmick. I don’t believe any of his work ended up in the draft but it gave me a strong gut sense of how when someone is being paid for work their output is given more consideration than the grind of ideas that come from the underpaid or free writer.

When I returned home, after a week or so he also visited our mutual home town and presented me with the latest draft.  It threw me because it had material from the earliest version and it seemed like a huge regression. I likely said some things in anger.  Then he said that our work on his home computer had gotten deleted and apparently even the floppy back-up we had used over those two weeks had a problem and he had to revert back to the older incomplete version.  It seemed implausible and I was depressed about it.  I mean how could both the computer and the back up floppy have been corrupted?

Today I might e-mail a back-up, which has its own drawbacks.  You might have a collaborator or friend with a huge archive of drafts you don’t want anyone to see.

Then two big movies came out with a similar premise or setting to the one we had been writing.  This director/producer decided to shelve his project and focus on something else.  None of his investors were interested now.

Eighteen years later, give or take, I happen to be chatting with this person while I am working at a security guard post and he mentions that he has only a few more days left shooting this film and names the title.  And this is the first I have heard that he got someone to finance the movie all those years later.  I might have wanted to set foot in the home of the protagonists and meet them.  But then the question might come up about why I might be so interested. When there was a screening, I was invited. I brought a friend who had been familiar with the background and recognized my sense of humor that had survived in certain scenes. I left a comment alluding to my only credit being in the special thanks list and wondering what the answer would be if someone asked what I was thanked for.  Shortly after that screening there were things going on in his personal life that made it impossible to broach the subject.  I also had an aneurysm by then.  But another screening eventually happened and this time three people asked about the writing in the Q & A and each time there was a version of the story that did not mention my involvement.  I was tempted to stand up and field those questions.

Eventually, I sent him a Facebook message with my concerns and reminding him of some contributions right down to spelling the word Valentine backward to create a character name which he then shortened a bit.  He agreed to meet, gave me a copy of the movie and a very small check for $200 which was what had been due for the two weeks I had written at his place nearly two decades before. I agreed to a small credit on imdb which I won’t disclose here but it was not co-writer which was indeed the truth.

My only conclusion from this is that it is generally unwise to start with someone else’s idea, which causes you as writer to have to get “right” the vision the person claims to have.  Your own unconscious will be working on that person’s story for months or years and it can take a toll. If you are getting paid up front and going through an agent so these agreements can’t be swept under the carpet, great.  There may have been positive aspects to this kind of collaboration, because someone else cares about it being done.  But it should be done with eyes open and also not over the internet.  I remember also jumping at the chance to write some radio dramas for someone only to discover it was a project that fell apart and the call had gone out to many writers anyway so it was all the more speculative.  Better to put your passion into something you control, and then direct it yourself.  If that is an option.