May 12, 2004

real life in the dream factory

Someone asked me in email why I think scriptwriting isnít for me. Itís a huge question and I thought Iíd try to answer it here. (And by the way, feel free to do the same. If I like the question, Iíll try to answer it. I always welcome blog fodder.)

There are three parts to the answer. My personal reasons, what it's like to be a writer in Hollywood, and what it's like to try and break in.

First: me. Iím not congenitally suited to the screenplay form. I imagine stories in images, yes, and that sounds like it makes me an ideal candidate to jot down those pictures and turn them into movies. But not really because I want to capture all the images, write down every bit of what I see. You canít do that in a script. Spare is the operative word there. The way the room looks? Thatís production design. The way the street looks? Location scout. The way the light slants through the window? Gaffer working with cinematographer. The expressions that flit across the main characterís face? Acting and editing choices. Your only tools in a script are dialogue, plot and overall structure. Your palette is as much what you leave out as what you put in. Subtext is everything, but please for godís sake donít spell it out in parenthetical notes. And language? If you can add a fillip to a spare description, great. But thatís all. A script, as writing teachers will never tire of telling you, is a blueprint, not the final edifice.

Itís not for me. I want to wallow in prose. I want to enjoy language, creating mood and color with it like a weaver at her loom. Beyond that, I want to be God. I want to describe and describe and describe. I want to create the complete experience. I want you to close the book with a sigh and a smile. I want to give you that. Me. On my own, with the help of a few editors perhaps, but mostly me. Itís not arrogance, itís a need. And Iíve seen what happens to screenwriters in Hollywood.

Which brings me to the second issue. Hollywood is not about the words. Screenwriters do not own their work. They usually donít even stay on their movies through the entire development process, and they consider themselves fortunate Ė the creators of these characters, the spinners of these words, consider themselves fortunate Ė to be allowed onto the set, to sit quietly in a corner and observe. If theyíre given that much. If theyíre lucky enough. I think it goes back to the origin of film. Silent movies. Short silents. Screenwriting back then consisted of ďHey, I have an idea!Ē and an ďAnd then he can do that and that and the other thing too!Ē and a ďYeah, cool!Ē to wrap it up. Then they went off and shot the notes scribbled on a commissary napkin. Writers like this didnít take themselves seriously, they didnít push for co-authorship with the studios and directors. After all, they were just scribbling simple little scenarios on napkins, right? Thus it began. Now we have films written by committee. One writer comes up with the idea, pitches it, gets a little money (or maybe a lot) and writes a draft, hoping beyond hope that she stays on the project. But then she turns it in to the studio. ďWe want wittier dialogue.Ē On to the next writer for a dialogue polish. Another writer is good at action set pieces. A third is good at long monologues that set up character. And on it goes. The real author? The studio executive giving notes. Maybe the director. The star, who wants to beef up his part and definitely get rid of all shades of gray, his audience must only see him doing macho hero type things. The writer? Um, which writer was that again?

Working screenwriters are not a terribly happy group.

Aspiring screenwriters are an even more unhappy lot. Well, if theyíve been around for a while trying to break in and failing time and time again, always hoping against hope. This meeting, this connection, this agent, this contest, this opportunity, thatíll be the answer, thatís how Iíll finally get past the gatekeepers and make it into the magic kingdom. (That magic kingdom? See above. Not so magic.)

Six thousand would-be screenwriters apply for the Nicholl Fellowship every year, which is probably an infinitesimal percentage of the total number of writers struggling to break in. But letís just take those six thousand for now. And letís take another number. Last time I looked, twelve spec scripts by brand new (ie: previously unsold) writers were bought by studios to make into movies per year. Twelve. In the course of a year. If the six thousand were the only aspiring writers (and you know theyíre not), the odds against any one of them seeing a check for their efforts would be 500:1. And we know the odds are actually far worse.

Odds aside, though, I saw it myself. I had an agent. She sent a script of mine out. Producers and development executives liked it. One wanted to option it, the others wanted to meet me. So I went on a round of what they call meet-and-greet meetings wherein production company folk told me why they hadnít bought my script and why they wouldnít be hiring me to write an adaptation or a rewrite of someone elseís idea. Why they couldnít do business with me. It all boiled down to: ďI canít sell you to the studio. You have no track record.Ē

In other words, you canít make it till you make it. Itís not the idea, they say. Itís the execution. The script. Itís not the script, they say, the script can be rewritten. Itís the idea, that perfect high concept logline. Itís not any of that, they say. Itís whether you can get a star attached. Preferably male. Preferably young. Itís not that, they say, stars are too expensive, thatíll sink your movie. Itís the special effects; is this a summer tentpole movie?

As an aspiring wannabe, you run in circles second and third guessing yourself and your writing, getting closer to getting past that door but never getting through as you get older and grayer and therefore less desirable in this youth-obsessed Angelino culture.

Oh, there are other ways in. You can write an independent movie, raise the money yourself from a conglomerate of dentists and realtors, then direct it on hi-def video. That has the plus of being a lot of fun and the bigger plus that you have something to show for your work at the end of the day. After all, you canít sit down with a bowl of popcorn and watch a script. And if you make enough of these baby movies, you might get some festival attention which leads to some industry attention which leads toÖ? Maybe. Yes. It can. Though the competition in the low budget indie world can be fierce too. You have to do it as an end in itself, I think. Not a means to an end.

Or you can move to LA and get a low paying job as a TV writerís assistant. Lots of down time to write your own scripts, lots of professional writers around to give you feedback and help you improve your craft, and most of all, a gaping maw of need for twenty two scripts per season including at least one or two from freelancers (as mandated by the WGA) and you, the friendly neighborhood aspiring writer, are right there. Smiling and eager and oh so nice. After a few freelance scripts here and there around town, you can get a staff job on a series. After a few of those, maybe you can produce a series of your own (the best place for a writer in Hollywood is series creator) or branch out into feature films. And youíre in.

So there are indeed ways into the jungle. If this is in fact your heartís desire. But most people donít choose those methods. Most people do what I did: they write feature scripts from their own ideas, figuring if itís good enough, itíll find its way in. Thatís what all the script writing books say, what all the gurus teach. Quality wins in the end. So they all hope and pray and write their hearts out and it rarely, if ever, works.

I have more to say on this, on why so many people try to write scripts despite the almost inevitable heartbreak involved, but thatís for another day. Maybe tomorrow.

Posted by Tamar at May 12, 2004 09:33 PM

OK, I see an op-ed piece for the LA Times in the making here. Or a commentary for P&W. T, I know you've sworn off freelance writing as an avocation, but once you add your second set of insights, I'd deeply consider it if I were you!

-- Chris, who actually took some time from endless teaching to do some journalism myself this week

Posted by: Chris at May 13, 2004 05:05 AM

I know you are so right about screenwriting. I gave up on sending into contests like Nicholl about 10 years ago. I know it's near impossible to be "discovered" here in NJ but still I keep writing and writing. I swear it is a compulsion. I think part of the reason some of us keep doing it (even knowing the odds of success) is that we imagine it is like hitting the lottery, only we have a bit of control over the outcome and instead of being a million to one odds, it's only 1000 to one, so we think those odds are pretty good. We also believe that our ambition and talent will help us rise above. And we try not to think about the fact that there are tons of really smart, ambitious, talented writers out there with better connections than us.

I've chosen the "independent" route anyway. So far, it has been personally satisfying. It would simply be nice if there was a way to make a living doing it this way.

Posted by: Lizbeth at May 13, 2004 05:25 AM

Wow... that was very eye-opening. I'd wanted to be a television script writer when I was a teenager, but never saw any way to really get started. It sounds like I'd have had a better chance than trying to break into movies, but still not much fun.
I guess situations like Fran Walsh working on writing the screen play for the Lord of the Rings are fairly few and far between.

Posted by: darby at May 13, 2004 09:00 AM

You're oh so right. But there's more to it. There's the people around you, and how they're impacted by your dreams and/or obsessions. (Says the woman who has to work full-time despite yearning to be a freelancer or SAHM, all because my husband is a writer/actor in LA.)


Posted by: Tiny Coconut at May 13, 2004 01:48 PM

Wow! I needed this perspective on things. There are the magazines, web-sites, classes, etc. . . telling you what is needed except they have left bits of information, that you have projected to us, off. Interesting - hmmmph. They don't tend to tell you how difficult things really can be. It wouldn't sell. I could've seen myself two years into this project for the wrong reasons. Now, if I do attempt the script or book, it's for my pleasure of seeing my g-grandfather's story out there because I believe it's big enough for people to get excited about and not because it could've - would've - made millions.
Two points to you Tamar, your blogs are making me think about the real reason behind things. It's difficult to face sometimes!

Posted by: CC Bowden at May 14, 2004 08:37 AM

Well said. And you didn't even mention that sad face that for so many of us who won't see 40 or 50 again, age and experience is not exactly highly regarded in Hollywood.

Posted by: Joy at May 29, 2004 10:21 AM