A screenwriter’s pursuit for respect in a disrespectful town…
November 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
Respect is a fickle mistress in Hollywood. Many times you give it to those who don’t deserve it and you don’t get any in return. It’s a business of money and power and sometimes the size of one’s salary or trailer garners respect. There’s always a pecking order from above the line, to below the line and all the way down to the production assistant. Everyone should be treated with respect, but as in the real world, that’s not always the case—especially for screenwriters.
As a screenwriter, I’ve been lucky to have worked with amazing producers and directors along the way who have treated me with respect. If you have a “team player” mentality and fantastic work ethic where you deliver the goods on time, they will work with you again. Your professional attitude will bring you respect. Being difficult does not make anyone in the film business want to work with you again. There are only so many jobs and they’ll go with someone who is easy and they like, and not a pain in the ass. Bruce Lee used to say, “be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves… be water my friend.” That’s not to say when the time comes you don’t fight your battles for the script, but you walk a fine line and know your place in the bigger picture. It’s always best to have a harmonious and successful working experience.
People ask me all the time, “Do you get upset when they change your words.” I laugh as if it was a personal vendetta and they were “my words” and say, “No, how could I get upset? I’ve been paid, the film is produced, I’m sitting on the set and watching these amazing actors say my lines. Oh, and they’re serving seared Ahi for lunch. How could I get upset?” Seriously. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. I’m lucky as one of the people “above the line” and the architect of the story. Once the cameras start to roll, it’s the director’s movie and I respect that. I’ve been lucky to work with directors who also respect me as the writer. After we discuss the changes, they allow me to go off and craft the work and return as an equal partner and contributor.
It could be so much worse. Screenwriters have their scripts taken away all the time and are treated with disrespect and even contempt. I’ve never been rewritten and have always remained the sole writer on the projects that weren’t co-written with someone else. I’ve also been a “script doctor” several times on scripts where the original writer couldn’t execute notes, so the producer had to bring me in to fix the script. That’s an entire other ability to master as you won’t always get assignment work or sell a spec screenplay, so it’s good to have many abilities in your arsenal.
I’ve also been lucky to have been a welcomed visitor to every set of my produced movies. Usually, the producers or directors don’t want the writer around because of the very fact that many changes happen on the set, and writers go insane watching that happen in front of them. You must stay fluid. My directors always seem to want me around to make quick changes or just as an extra ear to keep the story intact. Many times small changes on set seem to work, but the writer can remind them of the chain reaction ramifications of tearing down setups that pay off. “Do we really need him to have a sled?” The writer scrambles to save the important plot device, “Well, if you remember in the opening of the script, the sled was named “Rosebud” and it was given to him as a child by his father. It’s the only thing he cherishes throughout his life.” “Oh, that’s right, he says Rosebud when he dies.” Scene saved! Screenwriter to the rescue of the material!
I remember being on set and watching the star of my movie crossing out lines of dialogue and rewriting them on the script right in front of me. The actor knows the character better than I do, right? I excused myself and went to the craft service table. I couldn’t stomach being subjected to it, but again many things are out of a writer’s control. So, like Bruce Lee said, “be like water, always fluid” and find a way to meet the goal. The most important thing once a film starts production is to complete a successful film on schedule. Anything that stands in the way must be dealt with in a timely manner. What’s a few pesky words of dialogue in the larger context? Once you take EGO out of the equation, the experience becomes about what can you do to best serve the story, not yourself.
I love when crew members come up and say, “Hey, are you the writer?” Now, this could be a loaded question, but I respond with a comedic, “Yes, guilty as charged.” I can’t tell you how many crew members on different sets come up and tell me they’ve worked on dozens of films and a lot of crap, and how much they enjoyed the script. That means a lot because the crew doesn’t have to say anything, especially to the writer. It’s not like the writer is going to hire them on their next movie. We have no such power. The writer in many eyes is the lower person on the rung of power. We are the unsung heroes and many people have no clue what we do. I’ve had people ask me, “So… you just write the dialogue, right?” I stare at them blankly and reply, “Uh, no… the story including everything you see, hear and what they do on the screen is what I’ve written.” Then I start with the, “Exterior house, day… the place is a cluttered mess, Jason enters with a gun in his hand…” They don’t really get it until they actually read a script.
Respect is hard to get in Hollywood. Be that artist people want to work with again because of your talent and professionalism. This will garner you well-deserved respect faster than anything else. Always come from a place of self-respect first and only respect those who deserve it and treat you well. Always do your best work, meet your deadlines, live honestly and with integrity, never lose your inner wide-eyed child—and be water my friend.
“They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.” — 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
“Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot – the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.” —Billy Wilder
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