“Okay, if not a death — how about an illness?” How to save your protagonist from a producer’s notes.
January 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
The hilarious but true request from a producer who suggested my then writing partner and I make changes to our script that involved killing one of our lead characters. We should have seen this coming when he asked us a question about the script and it was painfully obvious that he didn’t completely read it. Even if he only read the coverage, he would have the answer to his question. My writing partner and I traded a knowing glance and could only buckle up for yet another bumpy ride. Forget it Jake — it’s Hollywood.
Our story was about four older friends who go on an adventure to reclaim their youth and the producer wanted one character to die, “because they are of that age when people die.” We told him it wasn’t a story about death, and having one of the lead characters die would really muck up the works. The overall tone would change and it would become a radically different story. He thought about it for a minute and then replied, “Okay, if not a death, how about an illness? One of the guys becomes really sick. What I need is either an illness or a death.” He REALLY couldn’t get past the fact our characters were older guys, so we agreed to an illness, but something our character could recover from and LIVE! I felt like asking him, “How about the flu? A serious head cold? Would you believe he had a stomach bug?”
We decided to split the difference between death and an illness and made it a “health scare.” We crafted a perfect diagnosis: “agida” or heatburn. Our lead character had chest pains and was rushed to the hospital for observation. It’s touch and go, right? Who knows what will happen? The tests came back and it wasn’t a heart attack, but only heartburn or gas from eating his favorite “peppers and eggs” sandwiches. We gained precious bonus points from the producer for making his age related changes, but we didn’t radically alter the tone of the story and our lead character lived.
As we continued making the rounds with this screenplay, we continually tinkered with the story, as the age of our lead characters became a real issue. Various producers were fearful of the older demographic and would chirp, “Who wants to see a movie with four old guys?“ We rewrote a draft where it was just one older guy and his younger son-in-law and I recall even another draft with two older guys and the younger son-in-law. We dreaded the inevitable notes to “forget the old guys and make them all twenty-somethings.” Luckily, those changes never happened, but we felt like it was edging closer and closer to this fate with each successive draft. The changes always felt forced and the later drafts never felt true to our original story. We never went back to our original draft again, but kept changing the story and chasing notes to fit the mold of the various interested producers or executives. We found ourselves in the trap of chasing notes.
Ultimately, we encountered these story issues because we didn’t consider the implications of the Hollywood business model before we started the screenplay. During this period no films were being produced with four older characters as the leads. No matter how much we pushed our giant boulder up the mountain we encountered resistance with every step. We ended up with a mess because we tried to please everyone with an idea that no one wanted to produce. As a screenwriter you need be mindful of this important lesson about the marketplace before you write your screenplay. Our script never sold but garnered a few weeks of meetings and introduced us to a dozen production companies, so I guess it served its purpose. Whenever you go out with a new screenplay in this crazy business prepare yourself for a wild ride. Remember, you’re the last line of defense for your screenplay. Of course you’ll need to be a team player and ultimate collaborator, but don’t kill your good story with lame notes. It’s hard to escape many of the pitfalls while in the trenches of Hollywood, but the death of your screenplay just may give you “agida” but don’t let it kill you.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.
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“Some are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floorwalker with delusions of grandeur.” — Raymond Chandler
“I’ll give you my theory. One of the reasons that screenwriters are never going to get what they should is because people who write about the entertainment business want to be in the movie business. They believe that screenwriters don’t do anything, so they can do it too. The director is in charge of all visuals and the stars write all the classy dialogue. So what does a screenwriter do? His position is very small in the public’s mind. And I don’t think that’s going to change.”—William Goldman
“You have to understand that people feel threatened by a writer. It’s very curious. He knows something they don’t know. He knows how to write, and that’s a subtle, disturbing quality he has. Some directors without even knowing it, resent the writer in the same way Bob Hope might resent the fact he ain’t funny without twelve guys writing the jokes. The director knows the script he is carrying around on the set every day was written by someone, and that’s just not something that all directors easily digest.” —Ernest Lehman
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