Monday, September 14, 2009

Never Say Never

Hollywood is a small world... where you keep bumping into the same idiots again and again.

Now, I’m sure that many people see me as an absolute prick - I’m one of those writers who isn’t always easy to work with... and I tend to have a big mouth that is always flapping about how this director ruined this script. Problem is, I really believe just because a film is made as entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t also be good. Many of my favorite films are really great genre films, some of which were made on the cheap but still pack a punch. So I’m always fighting to make the film the *best* that it can possibly be... and that often makes me “difficult”. When someone wants to make some change to the script that will make it stupid, I’m going to argue against it. I’ll probably lose, but that’s not going to stop me from trying to stop them from making a bad film.

I believe my job as the screenwriter is to be the brains of the film. To keep the story on track, to make sure we are going to film the very best version of that story there is. Even if we are making a film on a limited budget for a producer who is more interested in explosions and boobs (but probably not exploding boobs) we can still make a great film. There are great genre films made all the time - hey, have you seen the Spanish film TIMECRIMES yet?

But this business is filled with people whose egos are bigger than their talent. People who want things changed “just because” and end up shooting themselves in the foot by making a terrible film. My advice is to avoid dealing with people like that... but Hollywood often seems to be *mostly* people like that. The note I always joke about - “Why can’t they be cowboys?” came from a *studio* based producer, and the reason why there is a pointles sex scene on a submarine in CRASH DIVE is due to a note from HBO. I’ve had meetings with that producer's company at Warner Bros who wants to put a giant mechanical spider in every screenplay - check out Kevin Smith’s rant about this guy. It doesn’t matter the size of the budget or the importance of the project, there are notes and ideas that will turn a good script into a stinker *everywhere*. If you wonder why so few good films get made, it’s because it’s difficult to put all of the pieces together.. and some of the pieces are idiots. A film is only as good as the stupidest person involved.... and there’s at least one idiot on every film.

Here’s one of the things that you never want to learn, but you do anyway: usually it’s better to work with a nice idiot than a complete prick who may also be an idiot. Oops - didn’t I say somewhere up there that I am often a prick when it comes to stupid script changes? Damn! I’m the bad guy in my own scenario! But the thing is - if you are going to be working with someone on a film, doing rewrites for a couple of months before they shoot, you want to work with someone who isn’t going to be a daily battle. People who believe you are in some sort of power struggle and they must control the script to win. Every day is a fight, and they go out of their way to sabotage you. I’ve worked with those people, and *never again*!

But even someone who is not a prick can be difficult to work with if their ego is so big it gets in the way of making a good film. And there is no shortage of people with massive egos in Hollywood. Many times I have been working on some film where a completely wrong turn is made, and everybody knows it, but the guy who made the wrong turn is completely unwilling to admit they made a mistake... so they insist on going in the wrong direction! Everybody knows we are about to drive off a cliff, but nobody can stop it because they guy who made the wrong turn is more powerful than anyone else on the project (or people think he or she is). The film ends up awful, and everybody knew that would happen halfway through Story Meeting #2 when they heard that bad note.

Here is what I find frustrating about this - if only that person with the massive ego had just listened to everyone around them, they would have made a better film that would have made more money and cost less and audiences would have liked it more. Of course, sometimes people with massive egos surround themselves with sycophants, so all they hear is “Genius idea!” and Bill saying “That will ruin the movie!” I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve worked on where someone in power (often the producer, director, or star) has a really bad idea that will sink the film *and* cost the producer more money, but has no logical explanation for why this change should be made. I ask what the reason for the change is, because sometimes there’s a “note under the note” - an actual problem, they just have the worst solution possible. I can come up with a better solution - often one that improves the entire script - and we can all be happy.

Hey, nothing is perfect including my scripts, and I just want to make everything better. If someone spots a problem that needs to be solved, I want to get it solved. If someone spots a weakness that needs to be made stronger - I want to fix that! My goal is always to make the script the best it can possibly be, so that the movie can be the best it can possibly be. Part of a good writer’s job is to ditch your ego and focus on making the script better. Bad writers never want to change a word - it’s all about their ego. Good writers want to make any changes that make the script better, even if it makes them look like an idiot in the process. I would rather look like an idiot in a story meeting and have my name on a good film... of course, so far the good film part hasn’t happened for me.

I am a commercial guy. I write the kinds of movies I regularly pay to see. I’m not trying to turn TRANSFORMERS 2 into an arthouse film, I just want to make the best popcorn film possible. You know, I really liked BATMAN BEGINS and that is a superhero movie... and I liked the PIRATES movies (yes, the first one is best) and those are based on a theme park ride. I am also a huge fan of SLITHER and THE HOWLING and the original PIRANHA and all kinds of sleazy little films that deliver the thrills without sacrificing the quality. I love action movies, and would never want to cut out the action part... I just want to make sure the story part is the best it can be as well. In fact, you would think that the reason why someone hires me (or you or whoever) is because they want an *expert* doing the writing, not some guy standing in front of Home Depot looking for work. They aren’t hiring a *typist* they are hiring a writer. You would think when it came to the writing part, they would at least listen to what we had to say. You hire an expert to get the expert’s knowledge and experience, right?

But often in Hollywood it seems like they hire the expert just to cover their butts. “Hey, we threw two Oscar Winners and the guy who wrote last year’s #1 movie at the script, so we had the writing part covered!” They don’t actually *listen* to those writers, they just order them to write the awful version of the script and try to make it work without removing what makes it awful. The best example of this is probably ARMAGEDDON - a film that probably every name writer in Hollywood worked on. In interviews, all of the writers *hated* the scene where the Mir Space Station explodes for no apparent reason, and they all fought (individually) to get that scene out of the script. What is it doing in there? It serves no purpose and makes zero sense - why would you need to refuel that close to Earth when we can fly to the moon and back without any problem? But when every writer fought against that scene, ego rather than logic won out. There was no reason for the scene - the director just wanted it, and the director is god... and many of them believe they are gods. You would think that after every name writer you hire says the same thing, you might stop to consider that all of them are right... but in Hollywood ego is stronger than anything. ARMAGEDDON isn’t the best movie ever made, but it was a hit. Many movies where ego is substituted for logic and quality aren’t as lucky... they stink and the audience can smell it from the trailer.

You’d think when you asked the egotistical producer why they think the modern day bank robbers should be cowboys, they’d have some logical answer. But often you get a “it just feels right that way” when it doesn’t make any sense at all to do it that way. Even if you are just going to spend $2-3 million on one of the little movies I’ve written, you don’t want to make a change on a hunch that makes no logical sense when what is already on the page makes complete sense. Yet that happens again and again - with the change torpedoing a perfectly sound script. And often these "hunch changes" add cast and locations to the budget, but take away the excitement or novelty or high concept. Sometimes the ego thing is so strong that a change is made because the great idea in the script didn’t come from the director or producer... so they remove the great idea and add... nothing! The film becomes complete crap, costs more and earns less, but at least that person’s ego is stroked! They got their way!

There are some stars out there who have a policy of never hiring any actor who is better than they are, so that *they* will be the actor who shines in the movie, not some other guy. No Morgan Freeman cameos in these star’s films! No role for Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman. These stars want to be the center of attention - even if that means they surround themselves with second string actors. They are afraid of being upstaged by someone better than they are. They *demand* that the producer only hire people they approve of - and as “stars” they have enough power to get away with this. But this is so short sighted! Just like anything else, when you work with people better than you are, it forces you to learn and grow and make those artistic leaps that make *you* better. I *want* to work with people better than myself - that challenge is what makes it fun and exciting for me. I don’t want to be surrounded by people who *don’t* challenge me - then it’s just the same old thing. I don’t want to ever work with directors or producers or stars who agree with everything I say. I want the kind of spirited intelligent debate that makes my scripts better than I could have ever written them. Film is collaborative - and I am interested in working *with* others in order to improve my script and make the best possible film.

But there are people who don’t want to work *with* you, they want to work *against* you - thinking that this is all some big competition that they need to win.

On one of my films, the director shows up at the first meeting so overly assertive I would like to punch him. Now, directors are assertive by nature - and I have worked with a whole bunch of them at this point, but this guy is pushing so hard it’s obvious he’s trying to break me. This guy, for whatever reason that might be solved by a product sold through e-mail spam, needs to smash down everyone around him so that he can be on top. He is so verbally abusive to me at our first meeting that I tell the producer he’d better be Orson effing Welles when he gets behind the camera. The producer thinks this is funny, and mentions it to the director, who shows up at our next meeting with a baseball cap that says “I AM Orson Effing Welles” - and tells me if I don’t shut up and treat him with respect (ie: as the god he believes he is) he will have me replaced (on my original script). Now, someone else might have told him to go eff himself, but I said nada - I did not kiss his ass nor call him an ass. I said, let’s get to work on the script. To me, it’s all about having the best script possible. I will work with anyone and put up with almost anything to make a good movie.

The director has this idea - why not add a boat! Have a whole scene take place on a boat! I mention that the cable network has given us a set budget - and transplanting a scene from the original location which is used several times in the screenplay (making it sort of amortized) to some boat that will only be used once will increase the budget without really giving us anything. The original location has some great production value (coastline overlooking the ocean - beautiful), why does he want to change it? Because he’s Orson Effing Welles and he says so, why do I need any other reason? He just “feels” it will be a better scene in a boat. I ask *why* he feels this - can he explain it to me, so that it will help me get his vision on screen (remember that line for when *you* are dealing with an egotistical idiot). The guy can not explain why - and it’s not because he isn’t articulate enough, it’s because there really is no reason - it’s all just some idea off the top of his head that he hasn’t really thought through.

I suspect these folks do not *want* to think too hard about these bad ideas, because then they will realize for themselves that they are bad ideas and will realize that the man behind the curtain is a fraud... and they really aren’t The Wizard Of Oz or a god or Orson Effing Welles. I suspect that everyone with an inflated ego is trying to hide their inabilities. You know what the problem with that is? The people with the biggest egos are the ones who should *never* be in change because they have the most inabilities. The squeakiest wheel should be replaced, not oiled.

So, I make the change, and a scene that worked well at the original location gets shoe-horned onto a boat and doesn’t work as well and will cost the production more. I turn in the script, there’s that long reading period - it takes them as long to read it as it took me to write it - and we have our big script meeting with the producer... And the very first thing the producer says is: “Bill - why is this scene on a boat? It worked better before... and where do you think the money is going to come from? You know how expensive it is to shoot anything on water.” And the director turned to the producer and said, “I told Bill it was a bad idea when he came up with it, but he insisted on writing it that way.” And I’m sure there was post-meeting discussion about replacing me with a writer who understood how to write for the budget limitations of pay-cable movies. I wanted to tell the producer it was not my idea, but that makes it look like *I’m* the one playing politics instead of the director.

Another thing I’ve learned is that the least competent people know all of the ways to blame others and get away with it - they have remained employed-while-incompetent because they know how to make it look like everyone else’s fault in such a way that the innocent who get blamed can’t complain without making themselves look guilty. They know how to play the political side of film making to cover up their lack of knowledge when it comes to the technical and artistic sides. So, I vowed never to work with that director again.

There are a handful of people I have vowed never to work with again. They can ruin any script... and seem to set out to do that very thing. They have made my Never Again List.

But here’s the problem - Hollywood is a small town. You keep bumping into the same people again and again. A couple of days ago I get a call from a guy I know who has read a few of my scripts - he knows of a new company looking for projects so that they can sell them at AFM. These guys have the money to make a couple of films, have the distribution experience to sell them, and have connections with actors and directors... only one problem - one of the guys in this new company is on my Never Again list. In fact, he’s on many people’s Never Again lists. He has an ego bigger than his talent, and has a way of turning a good script into crap by the time it hist the screen.

Okay, the big projects is slowly inching its way along - you know how some movies took ten years to get to the screen? I’m starting to worry. My last film was released 2 years ago... there are people who think I’m dead, like John Wayne in BIG JAKE. Do I have enough hair left to work with this guy again?

I always hope these guys learn some sort of lesson from the ego-driven flops, and that they’ll actually listen when you explain why their hunch idea will not only cost more, it will screw up the film so that it earns less. You know, I’m not fighting the bad idea so that I can be top dog or something - I’m still the writer, which puts me *beneath* the guy who gets the donuts - I just want this to be the best film possible so that the film makes a lot of money and people like it and the producer ends up making a lot of money and having people tell him how much they loved that movie they made from my script... and all of that may trickle down into the producer buying another script from me or hiring me to write their next project. I am a smart enough screenwriter to know that my ego isn’t as important as the film - if some scene I really love doesn’t work as well as some other scene that the idiot back-stabbing director comes up with, I am writing the director’s scene idea. The best work wins, not the best man (or the man with the most ego and power). If I can not explain why one scene works better than another, I have no right to complain or fight for my “hunch scene”. “I just feel that this scene is better” is just ego talking - not reason. It’s that Hollywood Brain Cloud from Terry Rossio’s column - that thing that attacks people who have lived in Hollywood for a while and makes them believe that their really really bad idea is a great idea. That they know what works because they’ve been doing this for years - and their *hunch*, their *feeling*, trumps any logical explanation anyone else might have for why it doesn’t work or why some other idea works better. It’s that raging ego telling them that they are always right - especially when they are wrong - and they should destroy anyone who does not agree with them... or who might be able to prove they are wrong.

So, did I tell my friend *not* to send this new company my scripts because at least one of them is a complete idiot who will probably let his ego get in the way of making a good movie? Did I tell him that I have vowed never to work with that one guy again in my life?

You know the joke about the guy who shovels elephant poop all day long at the Circus who was asked we he doesn’t quit his job?

Never say never.

Classes On CD - Recession Sale!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Writing Comedy - Many Jokes Are Required - and UNDERCOVER BROTHER.
Yesterday's Dinner: In & Out Double Double.
Bicycle: Medium bike ride - was going to do an epic on Sunday but had too much work to do and didn't want to burn myself out.
Movies: WHITEOUT - and I'll report on that tomorrow.
Pages: Working on a (late) article for Script Magazine, and prepping my London and Hong Kong Masterclasses... so not much screenwriting this week.

8 comments:

The Moviequill said...

On your deathbed make sure to publicly out all your Never Listers so that, barring my own premature demise, I can enjoy seeing who some of these "idiots" are.

Sam T. said...

Bill, this is a comment for today's tip titled "WRITING OVER 40" (tip207). Thanks for the sound and very inspirational advice. I think what you wrote in this tip applies to anyone who wants to make it in the film business not just fellows over 40.

Platon said...

Pretty good! Lol!

Nathan Shumate said...

If you do end up working with the dillwad on a project and the idiocy in the room is displacing all the oxygen, I give you permission to tell him off with the kind of cutting putdown that proves you're the best damned writer in town, walk out of the meeting, and go have a beer.

Ms Mitkova said...

Has it never occurred to you that the director's wife's brother owned a boat rental company and he's promised the director a kick-back on the fee he'll be charging the film company? Or that the director needed a boat for one night seduction of a hot actress? I mean come on, have you never watched Ab/Fab?

nico said...

Help me get your vision on the screen.

I fully plan on employing that gem.

Thank you.

wcmartell said...

There may have been some reason why the director needed a boat that was not related to the movie - that happens. I once had an old woman supporting role cast as a hot babe in her 20s... Um, I could figure out what happened there. But sometimes people get these crazy ideas and insist I use them because *they* thought of them. This is a strange business.

truegrit said...

I don't know if there was some sort of follow-up to the boat incident, but I don't see how you could refrain from calling out the director on his blatant bs then or later. Remaining silent seems to have been the worst choice.

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