Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Psychological Role of the Screenwriter

About a year after graduating from film school I won a screenwriting contest sponsored by the Scriptwriters Network. One of the prizes was a mug with a quote from Carl Sautter (after whom the contest was named). The quote is:

“Be happy…there are enough miserable people in this business. We don’t need any more!”

Unfortunately it’s true. There are way too many unhappy screenwriters. Part of that is the lack of respect screenwriters get in the business. Anybody who’s been doing this for more than a few months can undoubtedly relate several stories of incredible rude treatment at the hands of producers or executives. I have a small networking group that meets monthly. We have a “no bitching” policy that usually gets violated within the first five minutes.

It’s okay to get upset when someone treats you badly, but if you’re going to pursue screenwriting as a career you have to figure out a way to cope with it. Because it’s going to happen a lot. Most screenwriters who cope with it well use humor as their salve.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re part of a business – a business with tens of millions of dollars at risk on unpredictable products whose quality is subjective – a business which compensates us insanely well when something we do is successful…and often even when it’s not. Stress and tension run high in the halls of the studios. We have to develop a thick skin when that bubbles over into mistreatment of writers.

And though few non-writers will admit it, writers have enormous power in this business. Nothing happens without us. Nobody else – not producer, not director, not movie star, not studio president – can do anything until a writer writes a script. A good, marketable script is gold. I think a lot of the mistreatment writers receive is the result of subconscious jealousy at how much everyone desperately needs us.

I think just as often, though, writers are the cause of their own misery because they have difficulty accepting their role in the filmmaking process.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but the writing process is solitary. Even writers who work in teams still have to face that blank page essentially alone. This causes screenwriters existential tension.

We have the best and worst of the filmmaking collaboration due to our role as the first on and first off in the filmmaking process.

On the one hand we get to create something that is completely ours – the screenplay. It reflects exactly how we see the final film. Yes, we are influenced by underlying material, previous drafts and the directions of producers and others. But we take those things and shape something that is uniquely our vision of the film the team is trying to make. Nobody else has that opportunity – not even the director.

On the other hand we then give our unique, personal vision to a whole cadre of people who are charged with turning our words-on-paper into a film. The results of the process by necessity will be different from our vision. We have no control as to how well or even if our ideas are executed. And I’m not even getting into the common situation where other writers rewrite our words!

If we are to be happy we must embrace this process. We must celebrate the opportunity to put our best vision forward, then let go of that vision when we hand it to other talented people. If the results are disappointing then we must remember that we are in a collaborative medium where success and failure are shared. A screenplay is meant to be turned into a film. The best unproduced screenplay is just a pile of paper as far as the world at large and the history of film is concerned.

If you want the audience to read your words then write books or short stories or poems.

And guess what? Sometimes different is better. Sometimes we benefit from the tremendous work of all those talented people. Sometimes the movie is actually greater than the script. That is a wonderful experience as long as you let yourself recognize it when it happens. If only it were always so…

If you’re going to be a writer in the film business my advice is to embrace your role and be happy!

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