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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Monday, August 07, 2006

When to Cut and Run, When to Stay and Fight

A very real problem for every screenwriter on any project. You've sold your spec, or handed in your first draft on an assignment, and you're handed a sheaf of notes a mile high that are either constructive and exhaustive, or pig-headed and ignorant. The instinctive response to both is to cut and run, of course. Not that you necessarily do - it's just the fight or flight response. But it's much easier to fly away from a fight. That's survival. You just spent months (years) putting a script together, they bought it and now want to change it. So you want to cry. I know I do.

But the real question posted from the previous post:

"But I'm still looking for that elusive 'rule' that would explain when to cut bait and run vs when to stay in the mix and fight. Both can be painful, and rewarding, in their own ways.

The most frustrating and confusing thing about this process for me is that sometimes, even the ideas that seem like total crap at first look sometimes aren't, and sometimes spawn new directions that couldn't have been anticipated had the crap not been waded through. Ugh!

So, it seems the battle for me is between instinct, belief, and 'stinking thinking.' Which is a roundabout way of coming full circle, because I still have NO IDEA where to draw the line and when to back away. Hope is a funny thing - sometimes, in certain situations, it can be a disastrous come-on leading to wasted energy and time. And sometimes the challenge of applying a new set of ideas can be much too tempting."
The problem is, there is no qualitative rule to give you the exact guideline, no warning sign that is exactly ever the same, and most frustrating - a rosy ending may start in the muck at the bottom of a swamp (and a swampy ending can begin with a dozen roses).

Point of fact: Many years ago a friend of mine is wooed by a big director as his script is so great, he's promised a great creative relationship. Friend sells script to studio with this director. Director then abuses and tortures the hell out of him trying to get him off the script, telling him it's crap, smells like shit, on and on - (because the director wanted him to quit and re-write himself and take credit.) My friend didn't walk, stuck it out, delivered a great re-write the studio loved it and it went into production. The script didn't only do well, but received four academy award nominations - and my friend had an immediate A list career.

I was on a project at Paramount, wrote an original adaptation, and for three years wrote about nine drafts, with two different directors who came on and off the project, in various different step deals. The project is still at Paramount and now, though a great script still exists, there are other less good versions as well, all in the history of this project, and the project is now asleep.

I've never walked from a project. I'm not saying I wouldn't, I'm just saying I haven't hit that moment when my inner 'knowing' says:'bail, now!'

For me the rule would have to be this: You don't write when you are faced with a change of direction you know that you couldn't write well.

Notice I'm not saying a change you don't agree with. As mentioned before, I've had a friend on a project for eight years - countless drafts, finally taking him down roads he not only disagreed with, but wound up taking out every special bit of story that he liked about the project to begin with. Nevertheless, he stuck it out anyway. It was finally greenlit last year because he gave them exactly what they wanted, and the film just finished principle photography in Van Couver. He knew he could still write what they were asking him too - and write it well. He realized it was just good business. And I agree. Part of the gig is craft. And sometimes you're bringing that wholly to a project.

In the Bhagavad Gita, it tells the story of Prince Arjuna, born into the life of a warrior, filled with doubt on the battlefield as he's about to enter a climactic war. He has some beloved relatives and teachers on the enemy side, who he has to head into battle and kill. He balks at this idea. And he's told by his God that in this life he must play out its part. What frees him is a glimpse by the divine of the divine truth, that once we release our attachment to the ego and desire here, we re-join the oneness of God - as does everyone on this battlefield, and beyond there is no suffering.

The teaching, of course, is meant to guide the reader to release his attachment to everything here right now and see the divine in everything, and live a life free of suffering here, whatever walk of life they travel in, well before they are crushed by an army of charioteers.

Good writing can only happen when we release our own attachment to what 'should' be, even in our spec. scripts, and let through what 'has to' be. When you're handed notes and have to re-shape along lines you disagree with - you're merely constructing a new house so that the inspiration of what 'has to' be can flow in the new form.

So we too are offered a path to play out. Re-writing from the notes of others may feel as repulsive as heading into battle to fight your relatives, but somehow we've attracted this life, and the sword in our hand is our pen. If you release your attachment, and release your resistance, you have a good shot of writing well.

And in the end, that's what we're here to do. Good writing will always generate more work, if not on the project you're on, then on another. Bad writing is a dead end.

I always vote to stay in the game as long as you can write it well.

caveat: You may have a conscious objection to the turn of a story. It introduces violence to a character or group you feel is morally repugnant, etc, or it may bring in a darkness of storytelling that you don't want to bring into the world. I've actually made that choice myself. I think that's a healthy choice.


Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

I'm not at the point in my career where I've ever been in this situation, but I like to think I would stick it out as long as they'd let me. Even if they want to take it in a totally different direction, at least with me there writing it, it has a better chance of being something I can be proud of.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006  

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