Hello friends, creatives, fellow screenwriters and merciless self-flagellators! Today we’re going to explore 4 questions that will answer the ever burning desire among all creatives to finally know “Screenwriter is me?” (Master’s of grammer we are not – that’s for “English Majors” – blechhh. English. Who needs it? Besides pilots, diplomats, actors, scientists, the one minority guy in Indiana Jones movies, engineers, hotel workers, those few phrases in Anime…)
I have learned from my wealth of experience as a screenwriter these past few months,(please read w/sartalics – are we EVER going to get those?) that being a screenwriter in Hollywood is just as easy as everyone says it is…
But some folks out there dreaming of all the fame, fortune, wealth and power that being a screenwriter is guaranteed to bring may STILL not be sure if the most direct route to total fulfilment is for them, so I threw together these 4 questions off the top of my head today because I was scrambling for something to fill a page with, to help you figure out if it’s TRULY for you. Let’s go to the board!
1) Do you want a job EVERYONE thinks they know how to do?
In my experience there are only three (ONLY THREE! Any other examples will be immediately rejected! The WRITER has SPOKEN!) jobs in the world where everyone, no matter how inexperienced, thinks they can have a (valued/respected) opinion on.
- Police Officer: Sure not everyone WANTS to do that job, but everyone sure as shit thinks they know HOW to do the job Police train strenuously and study for.* “Couldn’t he just shoot him in the leg?” – “It’s obvious he’s the bad guy, just arrest them already!” – “I don’t know sossiffer, how fast were YOU going when I killed old man Peabody’s pine tree?”
- Medical Doctor: A professional who spends the super valuable first eight years of their post-teenage lives in school being overworked, underpaid, overworked again, crapped on, and then taken for granted only to hear “I read online that seaweed/tumeric enema’s will cure my cancer, not your crazy drugs. You’re just another shill for big pharma!” when they try to do their jobs, saving someone’s life.
- Scientists (of all stripes, colours and creeds): Yeah whatever pal. I know you claim to gather ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ about atmospheric particulates, cellular permeability, environmental carbon absorption rates, tsunami related geologic stability and solar flares, have that information crossed checked and verified by a worldwide community of equally trained and informed individuals and then published using a language designed to maintain objectivity and remain as free of bias as humanly possible, but when I fly in a plane the horizon looks FLAT, so how do you explain THAT?
*(Writer’s Note: I am NOT opening up a conversational Pandora’s box regarding Police training, use of force, racial profiling or any other topic in those regards. Please find another blog to get mad at someone about.)
And then there’s ‘screenwriter’ (okay so there’s FOUR professions – the WRITER HAS EDITED!) What I mean is, since (most) everyone is literate, everyone thinks they can WRITE. Yes, in one sense if you understand the structure and symbols of the language you use to communicate you can indeed write, but being able to drive a transparent car doesn’t make you a mechanic.
Because people can string words together, they think they can ‘write’ in the manner needed to tell a convincing, compelling story. Wrong-O. For most folk this doesn’t matter, because MOST folk are smart enough to not try and become a screenwriter. For those
(dumb) intrepid enough to try their hand at screenwriting, it turns out the truth is much harder to swallow, like that damned artificial banana flavoured penicillin they used to give us as kids.
So you’ve just sent off your heart warming Space-Whale masterpiece and the notes you get back from the people on high start out with “We love it, but in the 3rd act when the Space-Whale flies our hero’s to the moon, can we instead have it fight The Rock (in this case they mean a DVD copy of the Michael Bay film and not Dwayne Johnson) in a Lithuanian prison for cigarettes? Keep the rest of the story the same, but just change that.”
Being a reliable, employable type with a good attitude you say “Okay, I’ll just have to find a way to change the climax then where the Space-Whale swallows the crystal monster to save the moon from imploding and destroying Earth.” And they say “No, keep that, just put it in a Lithuanian prison instead.” – Now you’re less thrilled: “Uhmmm, how do I do that?” – “You’re the writer, you’ll figure it out.”
Because screenwriting is easy, right? You can just change around 26 symbols any old way and have them mean whatever you want, to serve whatever purpose. If you think you can’t do that because “INTEGRITY” and “STORY” and “MAKING SENSE” pffft, then maybe you’re not the right writer for the job.
This commercial LITERALLY (I mean that literally) sums up how I think most producers/executives STILL think of screenwriting:
‘Death Slug’ The Movie! (In IMAX 3D) (seriously just click the link – I don’t want to have to recap a commercial)
Yes, screenwriting is a simple afterthought that requires at most a weekend to solve. Because they don’t have to really do the work, they just have to tell YOU to do the work, and since you’re (sometimes) paid to do that as a job, it should be freaking easy. It’s just words after all.
Yeah, everyone thinks they can do this job.
2) Do you want to start finding fault in things you LOVE?
I have made it a point in my life to NEVER, EVER work with food. I’m no chef and I don’t have the stellar abs/glutes of all those actors-turned-servers who keep our food flowing at local dining establishments, and I personally and shamefully LOVE fast food, so working there is also OUT.
(Gotta tag my homie Ling for showing me that clip, and my boy Andrew. He knows why.)
You see, it’s clear to me that I don’t want to know how the McNuggets are made. I just don’t. I love shovelling down those little poppler taste bundles and I don’t want anything to ruin that. Hearing the tales I have from people who worked fast food in high school I have serious reservations about learning the truth of my most destructive past-time.
Screenwriting is like that as you get better and better at it, because you start to see how the McNuggets are made when Lt. Stamets tells Capt. Lorca (‘Star Trek: Discovery’ people, please try and keep up) towards the end of ‘Into the Forest I Go’ that his next Spore Drive jump “will be his last ever” and then when we get “one more jump” repeated again we know what’s going to happen. The ship may as well be named the ‘USS Live Forever, NCC One Day From Retirement’ because we KNOW that things are not going to turn out hunky dory,. Nothing that’s written is an ‘accident’, so when someone says ‘It’s all gonna be okay’ , you know it isn’t.
I sat down to watch one of my most FAV films a few months ago, Michael Mann’s magnum opus ‘HEAT’, a thrilling, atmospheric tour through the high stakes professional crime world of 90’s LA and an examination of the flawed robbery/homicide detectives tasked with keeping a lid on it.
As I watched the languidly unfolding first act, you know what I realized? This movie I adored deeply needed a rewrite; The film is difficult to follow without repeated viewings, much of the dialogue is ham-fisted and without nuance, several scenes exist purely to brow-beat the viewer into feeling a certain way about a character (Vincent’s scene with the mother of the young prostitute Waingro just murdered, specifically. It seriously has no purpose to the plot other than being there for the mother to freak out over her dead child and for Vincent to be there at the right moment to comfort the screaming/grieving woman. The plot doesn’t move forward; the murder provides no clues that lead to the films conclusion. It’s there ONLY so we can see Vincent being ’empathetic’, and it’s pretty transparent in its purpose.)
Match this with the scene towards the end where Vincent comes home to find his ex-girlfriends daughter having slit her wrists in his bathtub, and you have a whole mess of clumsily constructed plot contrivances meant to make us feel the ‘tragedy’ of Vincent Hanna’s character. What’s worse is these elements aren’t needed as the finale with Vincent and Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro, duh) in the game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ at the airport is more powerful than anything concocted to manipulate us into feeling for these characters.
(And if you’re pissed that I just spoiled multiple elements of a movie that’s 20+ years old, I’ve got news for you: The Titanic sinks, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, turns out Charleton Heston was on Earth all along and David kills Dr Shaw and then poses as Walter.)
Yes I still enjoy watching the film and Mann’s thematic, stark directing are a wonder to see, but the actual story is VERY weak in some places. I loved this film when I was younger and more naive about story telling. Now that I have a much better grasp on what good screenwriting is though, I can’t enjoy the film the same way I used to.
This problem extends further though. Remember ‘Oblivion’? That Tom Cruise movie with an awesome soundtrack, terrifying droid bots, cool atmospheric fighter-plane thingies and not much else?
Well in Tom Cruise’s opening monologue (which wasn’t needed in the first place) he tells us that’s he’s feeling peachy since his last mysteriously necessary memory wipe. The screenwriter in me immediately cracked the code and went “Oh, we’re doing ‘Moon’ then? This is just gonna be ‘Moon’ with Tom Cruise?”
And it was. SPOILER:
“They’re clones” It becomes hard to surprise someone who works with the same toolbox that you do. So if you want to start to be disappointed by the things you love, screenwriting is for you!
3) Do you want your hard work to become completely irrelevant and pointless at the drop of a hat?
Everyone remember last years action extravaganza ‘Suicide Squad’ that stayed true to its source material and left every movie-goer who saw it satisfied beyond belief? I don’t either. But I DO remember another film also called ‘Suicide Squad’ that was a giant 3 day festival outhouse of wasted potential.
Yeah people remember everything about this film being awful, which is really difficult when you consider it has Will Smith, Margot Robbie as every ‘girl-who-doesn’t-read-comic-books’ favourite comic character Harley Quinn (Seriously I’m not trying to be sexist, but I cannot understand how anyone, male or female, who actually knows Harley Quinn’s STORY could idolize her. It’s like saying you really wish you could be Leslie Van Houten.) It also has Jai Courtney, so that’s just a win. Cara Delevingne as an undead god-queen, and the Joker (who cares who plays him? He’s the fucking joker) How is this movie not amazing?
Well there were stories, and I don’t want to spend any more time searching for them, that the studio played some kind of sick ‘Hunger Games’ with its screenwriters by commissioning five separate professionals to each write the first act of the film, and then they would somehow battle these versions together Thunderdome style to see who wins. It appears that NOBODY won that match and while those screenwriters DID get paid, they hard work that never saw the light of day.
The other great example is the epically original movie ‘Nottingham’. Don’t remember that one? That’s because what you ended up seeing was Russell Crowe and the guy from Great Big Sea doing ‘Gladiator – the 1200’s’
You see two very skilled screenwriters named Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris sold a screenplay called ‘Nottingham’ about the Sheriff of Nottingham investigating a series of murders using all the forensic techniques available to an era where people still burned witches at the stake and thought you could pay the Pope to sneak you in the back-door to heaven. These killings were of course blamed on Robin of Locksley until those two would encounter each other in the 2nd act break, and team up ’48 Hours’ style to find the REAL killer. How AWESOME was that movie going to be?
Once it was sold and Ridley Scott got his hands on it, we wound up with, you guessed it, SID 6.7 and the guy who sings ‘Run Run Away’ sitting in the mud for two and a half hours, because Ridley Scott really just wanted to do a Robin Hood movie and couldn’t be bothered with this thing called ‘originality’.
Is there a lesson in this? Even when you hit it big and make that epic sale, people will probably STILL ruin your film. Which is okay, again, as long as you get paid. (Make sure you get paid.)
There is a silver lining to this issue: People almost NEVER blame the screenwriter if a film is bad. Directors/Actors/Producers? Totally. But screenwriters? Nope. Because the idea is that a bad script should NEVER go to camera, it should be the very best story it can be before anyone ever thinks of dropping millions in coin on getting it made. So your challenge here is making something EXCELLENT for OTHERS to ruin.
4) Do you actually want to be writing?
Confession time: This point the was entire motivation for this weeks blog post, but I didn’t want to give you guys all the goods up front so I made you wade through a bunch of nonsense and funny pictures until I could bring you to the point:
I just spent the last 10ish days pretty much isolated in my hotel room writing ‘Titan’ – a soon to be indie darling and powerhouse on the film festival circuit (so it is written…) This includes a 6hr stint yesterday where I put more than 25 pages of text, dialogue, action, exposition and laughs to (digital) paper. To some that’s impressive. To others it’s “Why the fuck would you do that to yourself?”
I do it because I want to. Because screenwriting is MY thing, and when I have the chance to actually sit down and CREATE something with words and formatting, I WANT to do that.
This is the biggest thing to being a screenwriter. To do it, to be good at it, you NEED to want to write. Writers write, that’s how it works. And it’s not as simple as some think.
I know amazing directors who are actually ‘writer-directors’ because they buckle down, write their own scripts and put a ton of effort into getting them made. However these same writer-directors don’t produce material at anywhere near the rate I do, and often lament the fact that while I’ve finished two pilots and feature in the last quarter, they’ve barely scratched the surface of their next project.
The thing is, they’re writing because they want something that matters to them to direct. I write because I want to write. To them writing is a skill they have developed as a means to an end, to fill a place that is lacking – mainly material they want to work with. I write because WRITING is thing I want to do. They want to direct, and become forlorn when they can’t write at the pace a writer can.
I have designs to direct my latest feature ‘Titan’ because I’ve been cultivating a storytelling/screenwriting/filmmaking brand for a decade – Nichecore – (please give it some clicks, I’m pretty sure no-one’s ever looked at my brand intro) But I don’t have a need to be planning out a whole set of things I want to direct, because WRITING is my skill set.
It’s as simple as this: Writers write. Where other people sit in front of screens and wish they were somewhere else and then get lost in Facebook for forty minutes, writers write. It doesn’t make us ‘better’ or more accomplished than those who want to but don’t, it just means where some are totally fine planning and being behind the camera, writers are fine buckling down and getting the words out. I know so many people in the business who get down on themselves for ‘not writing’ when they feel they should, when in fact there are writers everywhere doing their shit and trying to find work.
When you get on an airplane, you don’t get upset that the pilot is flying the machine instead of you. People aren’t bummed that the pilot is doing all the work to get them there when they should be doing it themselves. The pilot is doing literally what a pilot wants to be doing, flying the damned plane. Writers are the same. What makes us different from directors, cinematographers, editors, actors, is that we WRITE. It’s in our blood, it comes from our brains, through our fingers (or weird Sci-Fi cerebro brain link rigs if you’re reading this article 30 years from now).
If sitting down behind a screen for 6 hours a day and just writing seems like torture to you, then maybe you’re not a writer. And that’s okay – because there ARE writers out there trying to get the work done, provide content and make everyone elses job easier by doing the HERO’S WORK (*cough*cough*) before anyone else does.
The ability to stare at a screen for hours on end and keep oneself focused on the typing task at hand isn’t for everyone, just like rocket surgery isn’t for everyone either. If you think you want to be a screenwriter but the idea of staying parked for hours/days at a time restructuring, reformatting and re-editing fills you with dread, you may really need to reconsider what you want to be doing.
But if it doesn’t – and if you’re like me and the prospect of having hours and hours of writing time ahead of you is exciting rather than nauseating, then screenwriting may very well be your bag. So get on it, start doing what you love and hate everything about yourself for it. It’s the screenwriters way!