I’m currently in the early stages of putting together an independent film that I would direct. I have a script and a producer and we’re beginning to approach stars and financiers. I know the draft of the script I finished last fall, draft nine, works. I’ve shown the various drafts to a lot of fellow writers and directors for feedback. In earlier drafts people pointed out several problems so I did rewrites. But draft nine has been universally praised by people I respect. And the producer chose it as her primary project out of all the possible scripts she could have chosen.
For the lead we’re going after one of my favorite actresses. A few weeks ago I reread the script and was struck with terror that the character wasn’t rich enough for someone of that caliber. “She’s never going to do this,” I thought. “She’ll think I’m a lame writer!” I immediately dove into a two week rewrite to beef up the character. I can’t have one of my favorite actresses thinking I’m lame!
It occurred to me as I was doing this that I should have had this realization earlier. But it took the prospect of this specific actresses reading the script to really motivate me to make the character as good as I possibly could, and then make her even a little better.
The fear of embarrassment is a powerful tool.
I’ve seen this in my screenwriting classes. During scene exercises, many students write in-your-face comedy because it gets a laugh from the class. They often do this even if they dream of writing arty adult dramas. Impressing their fellow students is a bigger motivator than getting a good grade or learning to be a better writer. Hey, I’m not complaining…whatever pushes them to work hard!
Back to my screenplay, the experience made me wonder how often I’ve written something solid enough to please my agent and the producers and development execs that will be reading it, but with a character that will need work to land a major actor. I’m aware that my initial audience is producers and development execs so I try to view the script through their eyes before it gets turned in or sent out. And that’s smart.
But now I’ve realized that I should also consider the next step – every script I write, I should imagine being read by my favorite director and actors. Would they be impressed with my writing? If not, back to work. (Of course once a director and/or star is attached to the project, this process happens naturally as you tailor it specifically to them.)
Wherever you are in your career, I’d suggest you also try this approach. If you’re looking for an agent, think of a writer who you really admire. Then imagine their agent reading your script. Are they going to be impressed enough to spend time out of their busy day to represent you when they could be focusing on that other great writer? Any agent worth anything has at least a couple of very talented clients.
I find this is one of the hardest things to impress upon students. You can’t just write a script that works. You have to write something that’s better than almost everything out there. You’re not just competing against other students or the people in your writers’ group. You’re competing against the best writers in the business.
Of course the fear of embarrassment can freeze you up, too. It often depends on your personality. Most great writers harbor deep doubts about their own ability. At some point you do have to risk embarrassment. In fact, embarrassment in the form of rejection is a big part of this job. You have to grow a pretty thick skin to survive psychologically as a professional writer.
Even with the last rewrite I don’t know if the actress we’re approaching will like the script enough to sign on. If she doesn’t I can’t let that destroy my confidence that this will ultimately be a great movie. After all, no matter how talented she is, she’s still just one person with one opinion.
The film business requires having both arrogance and enormous self-doubt. One keeps you going in the face of tremendous odds, the other pushes you to do your absolute best work. The trick is to balance them.
Man, it’s no wonder there are so many crazy people in this business.