I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been allowed to participate in the collaborative process beyond the printed page on my 3 films, but that is certainly the exception and not the rule. For most screenwriters it’s a case where you come up with the idea, spend months or even years to develop it (usually on spec, i.e. free), write it (another long period of time) and hopefully sell it – after that your services are usually no longer required. It’s like being a surrogate mother: “Thanks for being inseminated and carrying the baby for 9 months but now that it’s born, well, we’ll take it from here.” But being allowed into the collaborative process isn’t just a bottle of beer either. It can be painful and disappointing and, sometimes, infuriating.
Directors like to think that they are auteurs, and nothing tickles their egos more than to have a “film by” credit, as if the entire story sprang fully-formed from their own fetid minds. It all started with Chaplin and, for some few, it is well-deserved: Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, the Polish Brothers, Gilliam, Woody Allen, Guy Ritchie, Tarantino… Even directors who didn’t necessarily write the script (Hitchcock, Polanski) can claim the title simply because of their unique vision of the film. They are the exceptions, as the majority of director “film by” credits today owe more to the power of their agents than the power of their prose and for writers to be relegated to an after-thought (or after-birth, to continue the insemination scenario) is usually the lot of the average screenwriter. “You took the money now take a hike,” say the producers and directors, acting as if you’re some stripper who can be slipped a twenty for the thrill and all will be forgotten after the lap-dance. I’ll jerk-off by myself. Okay, fair enough I suppose – I’m a whore – but there’s still a problem that’s not solved by throwing dollars at me: the movie in my mind.
I doubt there’s a screenwriter alive out there (produced or not) who doesn’t have a movie memory that you’ll never see. That’s because it exists only in their minds. It’s the curse of the screenwriter. In theatre the writer is king: what they write on the page is what is seen on the stage. In books, generally the same, and also, for the most part, in TV. But movies are a different kettle of fish. There’s too much money involved, too may egos – too much collaboration and politics – so that what the writer “saw” in their mind when they wrote the script is usually very different than what the movie-goer sees. You wrote a thriller for Brad Pitt about an ex-CIA operative who learns he was the subject of a black-bag mind-control experiment so he steals government secrets and sells them to the Chinese? It’s not unusual to see it end-up as a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez who steals a guy’s heart and leaves him in Chinatown. Would it surprise you if I told you that the original story of Star Wars was a Western? Well, it should because it’s complete bullshit but you see what I mean (you believed it for a moment didn’t you?). All is grist for the mill, and the screenwriter is the grist.
Boo-hoo-hoo the screenwriter you may be saying, but seeing your precious dialog being mangled, mauled and rewritten on-set and on-the-fly by actors who are more concerned about their own ego than their character’s ergo, or by producers who consider your work to be nothing more that “product to be delivered” can be frustrating, to say the least. The fact that we’re (fairly) well-compensated (when we actually get paid) for our troubles does not really erase the (better) movie in your mind, or the fact that the final product is never as good as the one that played nightly in your brain all the years that you gave birth to the screenplay (besides, your credit was always bigger in your head). Alas collaboration, alas compensation, alas a better agent!
So in the end what am I talking about here? Better compensation and more representation? Yes, but no (however nice that’d be). I’m talking about respect. Respect for the writers out there (of all genres) who work – usually alone, in a vacuum and on spec – to create an engrossing story with interesting, vibrant, characters and a satisfying resolution. We writers live in our heads, usually to the detriment of relationships, our own well-being and our family, to provide entertainment to others – and to quiet the voices in our heads who wake us up at 3 a.m. demanding we write down their thoughts, stories and dialog. I never set-out to write a “product to be delivered” in my life (although product it’s become), I wrote what I felt was interesting. At least to me. If it became interesting to others then, well, that’s a bonus I suppose. It’s just that the movie in my head has always been better than the one on the screen. Don’t misunderstand, I thank God that the scripts I’ve written which were produced were produced, but every time I watch them I keep hitting “erase” in my mind – and nothing ever happens. Maybe I need a better agent.
(c) 2010 Jim Yoakum
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