Monday, June 01, 2009

When To Be A Dick?

I am a nice guy... and that probably hurts me in this business more than helps.

Since the statute of limitations on this one has probably expired by now, I can probably talk about it without getting kicked out of Hollywood... or being labeled “a dick”. Someone I’ve worked with before was looking for a screenwriter for a project and gave me a call. There was pay - this was a real guy who made real movies. The first thing he said at the meeting was that he really wanted to work with me, but this project was not financed by a foreign sales deal or home video deal - he needed the script and cast to get those deals. He had money - just not much. The deal would be back-loaded with minimum up front and the rest when the movie starts shooting. I don’t want to be a dick, so I say that’s okay. I mean, you don’t want to lose the job before you’ve even got it, right? I don’t want to be “difficult”.

For some reason, writers get labeled as “difficult” in the film business. No matter how many actors throw tantrums on set and scream at cinematographers, no mater how many directors threaten to quit the film unless they get their way; it’s *writers* who are known throughout the biz as difficult. I have no idea what we ever did to piss them off - I don’t think we deserve the reputation. Yes, some writers are snippy and fight script changes, but to get anywhere in this business you have to be “easy to work with” which is synonymous with being a typing monkey. I think the reason why writers end up being the ones who are “difficult” is that we know how to debate a story note and win - and that makes us a problem. If we have the ability to logically show the producer that his stupid idea is a stupid idea, we are people to be feared... and therefore dismissed. Dismissed as in fired, and bring in the typing monkey.

Now part of this is the fine art of diplomacy - if a writer wants to have a career they need to find the way to make the producer think that the writer’s better idea is their (producer's) idea. But there is a period early in the deal where anything you say as a writer is “being difficult” so you are best off waiting for that perfect moment to slip something in. You don’t want to start out defensive because then they either won’t buy your script or won’t hire you.

My problem is that I can never figure out when is the best time to stand up for my script and how tall I should stand.

Every time you are dealing with another person (like a producer or director or star) you will be dealing with someone who has a different idea of what the story should be. But if you start out fighting for your version, you are a pain in the butt. Mostly, because when you are starting out the differences are usually pretty small. In this case the producer was funding the first draft out of pocket and had specific needs for the screenplay. Not uncommon - most of the time when I pitch ideas it’s because the producer has Michael Dudkioff, a bunch of tank footage, and a facilities deal in Cosa Rica... how can I turn those elements into a story? So I come up with 5 stories using those elements and the producer picks one and I write up a treatment and/or screenplay. Early on, there are fewer details so fewer places where we see things differently. And big differences get hammered out before I go to script.

Often in the early stages I will go along with big changes that I may not completely agree with because I haven’t gone to script, yet, so the story is still pliable. Most of the changes in the early stages are things I can make work when we get to script... though sometimes the producer notes at this stage take a great original idea and make it less original. For whatever reason most notes seem to sand down the rough edges and make the story conform - which is usually a mistake. The reason why we like a movie is that it is different and original - but not so original that it’s hard to understand or relate to. Even though I might want to argue early on against these changes, and can probably prove that the producer’s changes will *cost* the producer ticket sales; I figure there’s a survival of the fittest thing going on here and the producer will note himself out of business eventually by making bland crappy films. I’m just an employee, here.

One of the things that I frequently don’t understand are notes that remove the high concept from the script and turn it into more of the same crap. It’s as if these producers are self destructive and *want* to fail. I always try to talk them out of those notes, even if it is early in the game and I may get labeled “difficult”.

But usually early on I am Mr. Cooperation. If the producer wants to put a donkey in the script because donkeys are always funny, I find the way to make the donkey an asset. I am the Beatles’ Paperback Writer. I save all of my “difficult” stuff for later in the game, when it is too late to fire me without paying me a bunch of money. I am afraid that this may be a problem, because later in the game when I do begin to argue against stupid notes, it seems to come out of the blue. I’m like one of those nice polite boys who suddenly are exposed as serial killers with a basement full of human elbows.

On this project, because it was the producer’s money, I was Mr. Cooperation and probably a little Mr. Kiss Your Butt. I didn’t want to argue over any of the small story stuff, because it was his money. Not some studio’s money and not some development fund money. He was paying for this script himself. You have to respect that.

By the way, much like Underdog, I also try to be humble and loveable. I figure with IMDB and every other resource a producer has, they should know who I am when I walk in the door. I know who they are. But I’ve had many cases where the producer never did a basic IMDB search on me, and thinks I just drove into town from the dustbowl with all of my belongings on the back of my truck because I heard there was good work out here in California as a screenwriter. On one project, maybe three meetings in, I brought a copy of CRASH DIVE and asked if I could pop it in the office VHS player (that dates the story) - and when the producer saw my name in the credits during a submarine diving into the Atlantic, his jaw dropped open like a cartoon character’s and he said, “You wrote this movie?” “Yes. It was an HBO World Premiere and it aired on March 28, 1997. It was an original script.” The producer had no idea I’d ever had a script made, let alone one that was about a million times bigger in scope than his cruddy little project. Guess what? I was “let go” from that project, probably because I had made the producer look like an idiot. Producers tend not to like that. Undermines their authority. So I no longer talk about my past credits - I just hope the producer has looked me up before the meeting.

That was not the case with this project.

I had worked with this producer before, early in my career... and for some reason he thought I had been frozen in carbonite since then. He had no idea I continued to sell scripts that were made into movies and that those movies may not have gotten any better but at least they have become more expensive. As it was, I was writing this script for this guy at a rate that I had not been paid in over a decade... actually probably 10 years. I liked the guy, it was his personal money, I was doing him a favor.

Now, here is the problem with doing people favors - if *they* don’t know it, it’s not a favor. My mom would tell me that is just plain wrong - you don’t announce to people that you are doing them a favor, you just do it. It’s about being a good person, not scoring points. But my mom doesn’t live in Hollywood, where it is all about what Seinfeld called “hand”. As in, who has the upper hand. So the producer has no idea that I have written other things over the past 10 years and has no idea what I was paid for them. No idea what my current “quote” (pay rate) is. He may even think that he’s doing me a favor by giving me a job. At the time, I could have easily turned down this job - I’d just banked a check on another job where I was paid my quote.

There were some notes on the first draft, including one that was a major problem. I calmly and reasonably discussed the notes with the producer, explained why I thought the one note was an issue - and he disagreed and wanted me to do it anyway. So I made that change and the other minor changes and turned in the second draft and we were supposed to go right into preproduction and cast the film and then crew up and make the sucker...

But something went wrong.

The producer gave the script to an actor - not a star, but a friend of the producer's who would be playing a minor role in the film... and this actor tore the script apart. You see, his role was all wrong, and the story was all wrong. The story should be more about *his* character, and his character should be more the kind of role this actor wanted to play, and...

Well, you might think that the producer would tell this actor to go to hell, but that’s not usually what happens. Instead, the producer regurgitated the actor’s notes at our next meeting and wanted the script completely changed to fit what this actor wanted. Oh, and I should mention that a couple of the actor’s notes were “script killers”. You know how the Death Star in STAR WARS is designed to kill a planet? Well, there are some notes that do the same thing with a screenplay. Seems like just a small thing, but it will cause a story implosion that will destroy Alderon. Why can’t the hero and villain put aside their differences at the end of Act 1 and be friends? Why can’t all of the characters act the same? Why does the hero have to have any emotional problem... or even any emotions? Why can’t the girl *instantly* be in love with the hero instead of having her not like him and grow to love him? I’ve heard those, variations on those, and a few dozen others over the years - each one will kill a script. They rob the script of drama and conflict and character... and turn it into mush. I have actually had a producer ask me why there needs to be a *conflict*? WTF? So when a couple of the notes were script killers, I debated them with the producer and became “difficult”.

Now, if you know me, you know I am a calm and reserved person. I don’t raise my voice and I don’t even argue unless someone is being incredibly stupid. Even then I am reasonable. Unfortunately, that often backfires. When you are the calm and reasonable one, the other guy often goes batshit crazy and loses their temper. So my calm discussion of why these notes would not work did not end well. I hate when people scream at me.

So this project was shelved those many years ago - one more script I wrote that I do not own or control. The producer is out his front money, I am out my back end money; and the film will never get made.

And I wonder if I had been a dick earlier - if I had put my foot down and stood up to full height and growled like a bear when the first silly notes were given to me (instead of working hard to make them work), would the producer have treated me differently later on? I’m sure one of the issues was that a character actor he knew had given him these notes - and compared that character actor’s knowledge of how a script works to the frozen in carbonite version of Bill he thought he was dealing with... hey, the over the hill character actor is the expert! I am just some writer he worked with on a low budget project 10 years ago. If I’d been a dick sooner, maybe he would have seen the character actor’s notes as what they were - a grab for more screen time at the expense of the film. Maybe he wouldn’t have treated me like some hack and realized that since we had last worked together I had written many movies with much bigger budgets (that still ended up crap, but that’s not my fault).

One of the interesting things about working in low budget and direct to video stuff is that the producers have no idea that this spec script you are offering them just got you a dozen studio meetings. I had a conversation with a fellow writer once about this - the low budget guys think everyone they talk to is at their level. They never even consider that some of the writers they are dealing with are slumming for cash or actual scripts on the screen. They read a script that got you meetings all over town and think it’s the same as some script the office boy wrote on his coffee breaks. It’s all just 110 pages of typing - the office boy’s script and your script are exactly the same.

Several times I’ve had scripts that got me meetings all over town, and maybe were even once optioned by some studio based producer, end up landing at some low budget place that was paying real money and would be actually making the script by the end of the year. A bird in the hand - I’d make the deal.... and then the low budget producer would come up with notes that removed everything from the script the studio guys liked. Character. Originality. Drama. Good dialogue. (I have a friend who once got a note to change all of the dialogue into cliches, because people understand cliches...) It was as if they were cutting the script down to their level. Instead of making a low budget film that was so good it might change the producer’s career, they’d turn it into the same old crap they’d been making in the past. Hey, I got paid, the film got made... and I’m bitching about it. I always hope the next time will be different...

But that script that opened studio doors is just a bunch of typing to these guys. Would it be better if I pulled some kind of snooty attitude right up front? If I really let them know that this script wasn’t interchangeable with the office boy's script? That, you know, the words that were typed were better words? Words put in a better order than that thing the office boy did on his coffee breaks? Or would that just make me “difficult”?

So the end result - a script that is forever shelved because I didn't know when to be a dick.

I’m never going to figure this business out. When is the best time to be a dick? Up front when they can easily fire you? Or later on, when both you and they are dug in too deep? Or should I just *always* be a dick?

Classes On CD - Recession Sale!

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Single Protagonist Theory and Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Bar menu at Daily Grill - the little meatloaf burgers were great.

Movies: I've seen UP (excellent) and plan to see DRAG ME TO HELL tonight... reviews to come.
DVDs: Saw TIME CRIMES - absolutely great film! Spanish. Guy keeps going back in time to fix his life, and just keeps makin things worse.

Sorry! Another attack on the UK via Sky's Movies 4 Men Network...

M4M2: 6/1 - 8:20 - Crash Dive - The crew of a nuclear submarine rescues supposed victims of a boat disaster, but the victims turn out to be terrorists intent on capturing nuclear weapons aboard the sub.

M4M: 6/3 - 17:30 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

My apologies to everyone in the UK.

- Bill

32 comments:

Morgan McKinnon said...

"When is the best time to be a dick?"

I really don't know how to answer this because you speak of "dick" as if it's a bad thing to be.

I personally think dick is good.

That said, I think you should always walk in (TALL) with the attitude of DICK.

Obviously, that is the only attitude these people understand.

They want to be "dicked" (you know what I mean). They need to be "dicked"...from the git-go.

So dick'em.

By the way: did you know that a 2009 tropical storm will be named "Bill".


Morgan

wcmartell said...

Please share your screenwriting success stories using this method.

- Bill

James said...

I always liked Tim Burton's approach.

He'd get notes. Agree to all of them. Yes, great ideas, Mr. Exec! And implement none of them.

wcmartell said...

Problem with that - they actually have someone taking notes about what the notes are... and if you haven't addressed them, you're outta there. They are also not happy with you, because you have wasted their time. Might work for Tim Burton, but I don't think that works for screenwriters.

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...

I'm beginning to get the impression that when my words are read they read like some foreign language that clearly professional writers *do not* understand.

Nonetheless...(when the time comes, and it will come) I will be honored to share my "screenwriting success stories" (using this method.)


Morgan

wcmartell said...

Have you considered, yet, that this lack of understanding is not the fault of all of the professional screenwriters you encounter?

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...

Alright. Let me try again. I'd like to suggest that professional writers are like most women (not me of course).

Most women will fall for the line that..."if you don't sleep with me then *she* will."

And he's right. *She* will sleep with him if she doesn't.

Most writers believe that if they don't bow down to these producers...then they'll be kicked out of their offices and some other writer will be happy to sit in that chair.

And sadly, some other writer would be happy to sit in that chair...

...just as *she*

well I don't need to go there again.

Somewhere on this planet someone has to take a stand. Someone has to become a "Writer's Producer".

wcmartell said...

But how has that worked for you in practice? Not in fantasy land, in reality? Because I wish I could fly like Superman, but that doesn't seem to work in the real world. Fantasy doesn't matter. Reality is all that matters.

Do you honestly think in the history of screenwriters no one has tried standing up to producers before? Guess what? They got fired. Right away. Joe Eszterhas - gets paid $3 million for a script, not a guy to back down... gets fired off the film. May have been a "pre-emptive fire", may have been something else. Too many screenwriters, not enough jobs... easy to fire you. And they will fire the most powerful screenwriter in town, so they sure as hell are going to fire you for being "difficult".

So you are talking fantasy land BS.

Even a theory needs hard facts to back it up. Where are your facts?

Perhaps the problem is you are talking in fantasy land and the pro writers tend to be living in the real world?

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...

ha ha.

Reality? Here's reality...

Hailed one of the most powerful moviemakers, Jeffrey Katzenberg travels to Arkansas monthly in order to settle business with Wal-Mart, WAL-MART concerning where in the super centers his DVD will be stocked.

Happen to notice how many Wal-Mart commercials you're seeing in the movie theaters.

How about the dialogue? How many times do actors mention Wal-Mart?

Fantasy? I think not.

Smarts. Belief. Confidence. Being better than the best.

Alex F. said...

I have your answer: writer-producer. Ha! They're few and far between right?

Emily Blake said...

Morgan, what the fuck are you talking about?

Morgan McKinnon said...

I have to go to my job now Emily, but when I get home...I'll be glad to enlighten you.


Morgan

Emily Blake said...

No need to enlighten. Just make some sense when you type.

LindaM said...

To get back on topic (ahem): I have the same problem in my "other" job. As a consultant who helps companies prepare business materials, I struggle to find the balance between pleasing my customers and telling them the whole thing is a cluster f*ck and they need to get a grip. I recently walked out of a review meeting where some business types proceeded to rewrite the first 4 pages of a document into complete garbage. I was the project "manager," but these types were in charge and I couldn't stop them. But I couldn't take it, either. So I left the room.

The thing is, bending over doesn't work real well, either. I once spent two months trying to make a hopeless situation work - it was a new client and I wanted to please - and at the end, after I finally, belatedly, threatened to quit, the client had the nerve to advise me that "the customer is always right."

I've since learned to distance myself emotionally. It's their money, and if they want to waste it, fine. It always amazes me that they pay good money to bring me in as a specialist, and then rarely ask for my opinion or listen to my advise.

I'm hoping all this is good practice for becoming a screenwriter.

English Dave said...

I know you're a dick. See you for beers at Raindance, you utter prick!

wcmartell said...

Good practice... but still heart breaking.

I wish I knew what the answer is. I experiment - and so far have not found the way that works. And what I don't understand is the same thing - they hire me (or buy the script) because they think I know what I'm doing... then they don't let me do it. And then the result crashes and burns or turns out almost unwatchable.

Long ago I did an experiment with the original version of one of my scripts and the rewritten (by others) version that they had filmed. I took off the title pages and gave both to a film critic I slightly knew. He told me they had *vastly* improved my original script - it was much much better. Of course, the "improved" version was my original. He could not believe that when I told him. I hoped he would give writers a break in reviews after that - didn't happen.

- Bill

Emily Blake said...

That's what blows my mind and scares me a little. You have been beaten up so many times by producers who don't know what they're doing, it's unreal.

laxel said...

Let me preface this by saying I do not know how the industry works at all except through what little I've read on it. But I got a question, Bill, when you say:

"So I come up with 5 stories using those elements and the producer picks one and I write up a treatment and/or screenplay."

I wonder, is that pretty standard practice? I remember in previous posts you talking about the 'write five pitches, they chose one or two', so I guess it'd be good to know if this is broadly how it's done with screenwriters...

About when to be a dick, I think that it might be comparable to any small businessman who has run into clients (or potential clients) who want to micromanage a project. It's a fine line between when to be notably assertive of your view, and when you should hew circumspect. The one thing I've learned in small business is that you must never be a pushover, or you'll get taken advantage of. Yes the client should be able to give their input, but they are not the one's with the craft, trimming that 2 by 4 down to the precise length necessary, so it'll hold the ceiling from falling on their head and all other sorts of catastrophic shit.

wcmartell said...

Different producers, and even different situations, work differently. Often an assignment has some existing story - book, comic book, etc. Usually when you are pitching something, it is one specific script that you want them to pay you to script.

I often end up "the idea guy" - and often I'm pitching to a company that has some specific needs. So, Hallmark might be looking for a mystery MOW, and I pitch several ideas. Or a producer who specializes in some genre, and I pitch ideas in that genre.

On my theatrical remake thing I pitched 3 different ways the movie could be remade - different "takes". They selected one, and I did a more detailed pitch later... then teatment... then script... now I'm waiting for them to sign a star and a director.

- Bill

The Moviequill said...

I guess we all tend to be Richards and need to start bandying around Dick once in a while for sure... awesome post

Morgan McKinnon said...

The Moviequill,

could it be that someone finally understands me?

Be a Dick (ie, Man-up to these producers).

If they fire you, then that should fire you up.

Why would you continue to allow someone that you perceive to be an idiot (according to so many of these posts) dictate how your scripts should be presented to the world?

Why would someone as brilliant as you allow that?

I will not allow ANY human being to slay my hard work with their stupidity.

I'd rather die with the music still inside of me...


Morgan

wcmartell said...

Once you are fired, they keep the script and do worse things to it than you can imagine. And you lose part of your pay - so they not only completely screw up your script, you lose a chunk of money when they do it (because you quit). Oh, and you lose a % of residuals - maybe a huge %... which is losing even more money. And you are labeled difficult, which means others don't buy your scripts or hire you... which means you eventually are out of the business. Nobody wants to work with a writer who is difficult.

Morgan McKinnon said...

Emily Blake says to Morgan:
"Just make some sense when you type".

Morgan says to wcmartell:
Just make some sense when you type.

Why would you even want to do business with people who are so insane?

It takes a real crazy to rip someone's work to shreds and do things to it that are worse than you can imagine...WHY because that someone voiced their opinion./?

Bill I know you're not going to listen to me...you're probably merely skimming these comments, but let me just say,

If I had even the tip of a thumbnail of the knowledge that you have of this business..."they" would be eating my dust.

What ever happened to the moviemaking project?

wcmartell said...

But this is why you don't make any sense at all, and are delusional.

That is not the way it works.

Here's the way it works: They fire you. Because there are a million other screenwriters. And most film have at least a half dozen screenwriters on them (probably more). That is reality.

Unless you have some other actual experience you can share, you have a fantasy that simply does not exist (and never has).

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...

John Milton: Don't ever let them see you coming. Stay small (ie, delusional).

My point (which doesn't penetrate your obviously "thick skull") concerning Wal-Mart...

Wal-Mart simply continued as this "country/hick 5 & dime hi'yall doing and have a nice day mentality", and now they have the powers-that-be in Hollywood racing to Hicktown USA hoping that they will be able to continue to peddle their DVD's.

You see..."how it works" today is not necessarily "how it works" as soon as tomorrow. Now THAT'S reality. Ask BLOCKBUSTER. Ask CIRCUIT CITY. Ask STARBUCKS(next time you're there). Ask GM. You're a sharp guy, I'm sure THAT makes sense to you.

Wouldn't it be something to see these Hollywood powerhouses sitting in the same (hot) seat that you've sat in?

Granted, I can't say that I have any of that "actual experience"(at this moment) that you spew about...

but just give me time big boy.



Morgan

wcmartell said...

Come back *after* you have had success with this method, tell us all about it.

Until then it is not reality, it is delusion.

*After* you have proved your method works, share.

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Morgan McKinnon said...

All due respect...but have you proven that your method works?

Is this the row that you would have aspiring writers hoe?

So that in twenty years we will be writing our very own "When To Be A Dick" blog?

Or are you just whining?

Nevertheless, I do believe that my method will work.

You'll see me one day.

I'll be the really good looking one with the fierce attitude.

wcmartell said...

You should be asking yourself why I am not deleting your comments.

It's not because they make you look sane and briliant.

- Bill

Morgan McKinnon said...

Since you've taken this down your nasty little road, let me explain a little something to you...fat gay boy, I honestly hung around all this time to lend *you* support.

Way back when someone from OTL kept going on and on about how you were down on your luck, not selling any scripts; how you couldn't manage to write a single hero with any character, and how your plethora of websites were more like "ghostsites".

As a favor to someone, I visited your sites...it takes no effort to be gone.

laxel said...

Thanks for the response Bill. Given the most charitable reading, maybe Morgan is just trying to provoke you into being a dick... OTOH, I'm also curious about short film you wrote about a while back.

nshumate said...

SHE is doing YOU a favor?

Holy effing cow.

And "fat gay boy"? Because you won't take her words as they were given to her on stone tablets on Mount Horeb, she thinks she has license to sling insults? Wow, what a wordsmith.

The good news, Bill, is that you usually get one of these "You peons will all know who I am and rue the day you mocked me!" pinheads on your sites once per year. If the law of averages holds, then the rest of 2009 should be clear.

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