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.