The Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts

One thing likely to go wrong making movie is that it can turn into a money pit. The other danger is that it can be for the writer-director especially a death of a thousand cuts, if a collaborator is not in sync or there is a dispute over the tone and content of a screenplay.

Personally, although I understand this and how common the principle can be, and that I have dodged a few bullets by avoiding or cancelling a project when it was clear that something was afoot, I have spun my wheels for three years imagining what kind of pep talk or statement could have been made earlier on to eliminate even the idea of a power struggle or the project being co-opted by someone else.

The mantra must be “we want the same result or we don’t.” To begin with the end in mind means to see the finished movie in your mind’s eye, even if the idea of a vision sounds pretentious. It is either worth the journey or it isn’t. Your work will be vindicated or it can’t because it is no longer your work. I know that I have no interest in recording improvisations as a replacement for the writing I have tweaked and fine tuned over a long stretch. To open the floodgates on that would be a problem. To allow someone who left the project over a problematic joke to sneak back in under someone else’s say-so and instead have that line or idea cut from the script would be a grating trade-off.

Those who may have an advantage are people who just have outlines and place-holder dialogue they expect to be “improved” by a cast. Such a project would be about building a community and offering a forum for actors to do what they want and to be a leader by association. That is potentially the successful route, and I have seen it happen. Actually knowing how you want your movie to go and fine-tuning your dialogue might set you up for a longer road and more obstacles. The more specific your goal and the more objectives within it, the harder it is to achieve. If your goal is just to have your credit on something, regardless of how much of it came from you, doors open more easily.

Getting people to watch a finished movie, let alone pay to see it, is almost as hard as getting them to read a script. From this point forward I may even complicate it further by novelizing any script I do, or at least making a prose short story that can be absorbed as its own thing and that can be a more digestible introduction to a concept or plot or characters than the simple screenplay which just seems to be asking for financing. But in the end, you don’t want bigger personalities to get into a pissing contest and have more A-type personalities and Beta you to death as each line or scene or shot becomes a hill to die on. Better to say up front that it is okay if someone doesn’t want to do the project and the priority is that they trust the material and yourself otherwise it will be months or years of psychological abuse and only the superficial appearance of accomplishment and a monument to your own lack of influence or debate skill.

Best to keep your team small and focused rather than be drawn and quartered by opposing goals pulling you and the project in every direction. In the past I have let things go from specific to general and the overall impact has been weak. Better to keep the tension in the cut and fuss over the little things that add up. And serve fair notice at the start that this is the way it has to go. Just recording something is not enough.

Leverage and Support

“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.

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.