Ah, the romanticized life of a working screenwriter…
August 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Sure, it can be torture at times—a hellish rewrite on a screenplay can make you question your decision to become a screenwriter when you curse the day you typed “FADE IN.” Other times it’s easy breezy and brings you great creative satisfaction, a credit and the bonus of getting paid as a professional screenwriter. As with life, you deal with the good and the bad, and learn how to survive and weather the storms to stay in the game. Late last year I wrapped up a paid screenwriting assignment and it’s was a fantastic six months working on this gig. I’m blessed to have worked with a talented people who were spot on during the development process. The best part was—I was on a short list of writers considered and I beat them out to secure the job.
Sometimes you get lucky and the alchemy just works and you produce a great script and build new working relationships. I joke about the cliché of the ideal “romanticized life” of a working Hollywood screenwriter, but many times I find aspirants who work with total freedom on their specs, believe it will be the same experience when they get hired to write a screenplay assignment. It’s not all about premieres, parties and huge paydays. Once you land the gig, it becomes your job with the same expectations, responsibilities, pressures and deadlines of many jobs—all while working with a contract. If you’re blessed enough to secure the gig, you must be the ultimate team player and collaborator. Sure, you scored the job, but never fool yourself into believing you’re the only screenwriter who could do the job. There is always someone out there equally or more talented and maybe hundreds of eager aspirants who would even write it for free just for the break. The important thing is that you landed the job. It’s yours to screw up or succeed. Show them why you were the right pick on that short list of other writers.
The year before last, I completed my contracted first draft in twenty-five days and turned it in five days early. What followed was a first set of notes and then my second draft. This was followed by a second set of notes and turning in the second draft. The production executives went over my second draft and contacted the producer with only polish notes (always a good sign rather than another rewrite). The producer contacted me on a Thursday and asked if I could complete my polish by the following Monday per the production company’s request. I replied, “Of course!” I worked the next three days executing the polish and wrapped it up at 3:30 A.M. in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. I wanted to give the producer a full day to review the script before he sent it along to the production company as my official third draft. It eventually went on to four drafts and two polishes in total.
CUT TO: On a Monday morning, I received an e-mail from the producer with a short list of production tweaks issues to be fixed: a line of dialogue changed, a slight action added to a scene, a few lines of dialogue added… nothing that wouldn’t take me but a few hours of work. It’s always good to take another look before you send in the final draft as even down to the last minute—it can always be made better. The dozens of tiny changes were all to push the script closer to a production ready draft, to attract a director, name actors—and GET IT PRODUCED.
DISSOLVE TO: Meeting the deadlines and delivering a production ready script as promised. The film was produced and post-production has been completed. The film is done and was released to great ratings and was sold internationally. Always remember, meeting your deadlines is vital to your reputation and your career. During that entire six-month process on this assignment, I always followed through with my promises, turned in my drafts early, and was building my working relationship with the producer and the production company. As I pushed myself to always do my best writing to date, I also kept my eye on the bigger picture and not just this one job with them. Doing my best work to date on this script could set the wheels in motion for them to hire me for another project.
So, what’s all this I continually hear about the romanticized and exciting image of working screenwriters? It’s a false image and not reality. Most of the time it’s not fun or exciting, it’s the hard work of pleasing your producers and executives, filled with rewrites, polishes, and the pressure of deadlines. You’ll feel the pressure when you hit a creative wall and begin to stare at the calendar and spend more time calculating your daily page count then doing the actual writing. It will always be about the work. If you’re a true screenwriter, you thrive on process and getting the job done no matter what it takes. You’ll go above and beyond every time to show your producers and executives that you are the right person for the job. Screenwriters are craftsmen and craftswomen, the ones up at 3:30 A.M. chipping away, fixing the scenes, working on the structure, putting the puzzle together, building the characters and their arcs, and executing the notes to meet a deadline.
Sure, you might come up short on praise and validation, but even when you do receive praise, it might be a let down from what you’d expect. The longer you’re in the screenwriting game, you’ll learn that screenwriting can be a thankless and lonely job as you slog away sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning. But don’t lose heart, realize that it’s a job and it’s hard work at all levels of the business. It was your choice to pursue the journey of a master crafts person, working away in your workshop, crafting a new story to unleash upon the world. It’s a lonely process with no parties, no champagne, no red carpets, no fame and rarely fortune, but your praise and validation comes from the satisfaction knowing that you’re working at the top of your game. How do you know? You’ve just moved your last draft from the development process into the important pre-production stage—that’s a major step to success.
The end of my story? During those wee small hours of that morning before the dawn, I closed the script, hit “send” and finally closed my eyes to sleep. I was at peace knowing that I did my best work to date and successfully wrote a genre that was not in my usual wheelhouse. No fame, no fortune, no glory… just a master craftsman in his workshop, finishing up his twenty-seventh screenplay and twelfth paid assignment, blowing out the candle to return another day on another project.
I never take any of it for granted and know the long slog and decades of experience that it’s taken me to get here. It’s work—hard work and I’m happy and humbled to have had another chance up to the plate and made sure to knock it out of the park. On to the next one!
P.S. The film was produced and premiered on a HBO Canada and then premiered in the United States on LMN and was distributed globally. The “next script assignments” followed and another of my films premiered on Lifetime in March of 2016 to the highest ratings of any acquisition film in over a year and a half. I just completed two back-to-back writing jobs, my 30th and 31st screenplays, with one script going into production in March.
You just have to be the writer that doesn’t give up. Keep writing because if you stop you are guaranteed never to have ANY shot at success. You create new opportunities with every screenplay you create and hopefully it best represents your talent and ability.
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“… the payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.” – Hemingway “Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capacity to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
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“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.” —Rod Serling