Monday, April 22, 2013

Optimistic Disappointment

Another old blog entry re-run... from 2008.

Tuesday I ran the Romeo-to-Rambo Script Tip, which is always good for a few messages and some spirited debate. The responses are always: "Why are you so pessimistic?" "Why would anyone want to be a screenwriter if your stuff is just going to get screwed up?" "Why do they always screw stuff up?" "How can I make sure they don't change a single word of my script?" and "How often can Bill name drop in a single blog entry?"

First - no matter who you are, no matter how many Oscars you have on your mantle, no matter how many #1 hit movies you'd written... you will be rewritten. It's just the way the business works. Hollywood goes through screewriters the way screenwriters go through toner cartridges. They are constantly replacing them. Not for any logical reason - the excuse you hear is often "We think you've given it your best shot, but it's time to move on" or "We're thinking about taking it in a new direction, and need a new screenwriter to take it there" or "We've used all of your contracted rewrites." Love him or hate him, when Joe Eszterhas was the top screenwriter in Hollywood, they paid him $3 million for BASIC INSTINCT... then fired him the next day and brought in another writer. That was the most anyone had ever paid for a screenplay, so you'd think they must have liked it; but replacing writers is business as usual in Hollywood. One of the amusing things about this business is that sometimes - after a parade of writers has ruined your screenplay - sometimes they hire you back to rewrite whatever mess they ended up with. Of course, you aren't rewriting your *original* script, you're rewriting the crappy messed up rewritten by an army of damned dirty apes version.

And often you are the one who ruins your script. They own it, and if your contract includes 2 rewrites and a polish (as mine always do) they will order you to make all kinds of stupid changes. When you and I think of rewrites, we think of *improving* our screenplays, but producers think rewrites are to *change* your script. Change it completely. Change the genre, the protagonist, the arena, the locations... hey, can they be cowboys? As Joe Gillis says in SUNSET BLVD. "The last one I wrote was about Okies in the dust bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat." You know, a writer wrote that line.

Even if you fund the film yourself (so that you’re the boss) things will get changed by the time they hit the screen. As directors will tell you, film is a director’s medium... so whatever weird idea the director comes up with goes in the film. And you can’t sell a film without a star - which gives the star all kinds of power over the film. On one of my movies the actor (who was being paid a cool million) decided that his character should recite some poetry in the film, to show his sensitive side. And he *must* wear his lucky leather jacket - even though it didn’t fit the character he was playing at all. You know what the answer to that was? Change the character! Plus, there were some things he wanted in the story that made no sense - but without this guy there was no movie. So I did the rewrites... hating every minute of it. I’ve had directors who had me change *researched facts* to be what the director thought was true. And this blog’s name comes from a really silly note I got from HBO on CRASH DIVE - they wanted a sex scene in a film that takes place on a submarine manned by 110 *men*. No women allowed. “A *gay* sex scene?” I asked. “No! No! With a woman!” (Today they’d *want* the gay sex scene.) “How do I get a woman on the submarine?” “You’re the writer - be creative!” Next thing you know, there’s some hot woman having wild monkey sex on a submarine for no apparent reason.

Even if you were the director, star, producer, writer, prop guy and everything else; you need to bend the script to fit the locations and shooting schedule - and that often means major changes. Things go wrong on every movie... and that means you’ll need to make changes on the fly to get things back on track. It rains, so that big outdoor scene now takes place in the warehouse where you store your equipment. When you make a film there are hundreds of people involved and hundreds of things that can go wrong. Everything seems to be conspiring against you. You never really get your vision up in screen. You have to compromise with real life and hope what ends up on screen is close to what you wrote.

I was at Frank Darabont's house once, and across from his desk he had a bookcase filled with his own scripts. I thought that was kind of odd (and maybe a little vain), so I asked him about it. He told me those were *his* screenplays the way *he wrote them*. I liked that idea so much, I now have a bookcase in my office with *my* scripts the way I wrote them. You know, I wonder what Frank's Indiana Jones was like? (Actually, I think I have the PDF in my “to read” pile along with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (hey - spellcheck flagged that!)

The only thing we control is our scripts... so we have to be happy with what's on the page, not what ended up on the screen. If it's all about what ended up on the screen, it's a lifetime of heartbreak...

Which is why a screenwriter needs to be optimistic. You must have hope that some day you will end up with the right combination of director and actors and producers who all want to make the script you've written. Usually everyone wants to make a different story, and the whole thing goes to hell.

I’ve had a couple of films that got close to what I wanted. HARD EVIDENCE is probably closest to what I wrote (although the rewrites for location had the horrors of spending your life in a Canadian prison *instead of* a Mexican prison and much more sex than the spec script had), and it’s also my most financially successful films. You’d think that would be a compelling reason not to completely screw up my scripts - but Hollywood is all about changing a silk purse into a sow’s ear. On CYBERZONE the director and I were on the same page - but it was not a page that lead to Oscar nominations. The producer wanted a film about robot hookers from outer space... so that’s what we made. The director and I were both making the same movie - a comedy - but the distrib wanted a *serious* movie about robot hookers from outer space. So the jokes were cut out as well as some of the character stuff and we ended up with a silly movie instead of a funny one... but most of what I wrote is still there on screen, though. It’s a miracle.

And on every film (except CROOKED) something I wrote ends uo on screen. Usually a handful of scenes in each film remain more or less intact - and I can be happy about them. I used to *hate* BLACK THUNDER and CRASH DIVE, but both films have grown on me. The parts that I wrote now overshadow the parts that got messed up on the way to the screen. And I’m always hoping that the next script makes it to the screen the way I wrote it... or maybe even *better* - I would really love to work with a director with a vision and a cast with real talent who make *positive* contributions to the film. I don’t mind changes that improve the script - I *welcome them*. I have had some *good* notes on scripts in the past - and would love to get more of those! It’s the silly ones that change the script into crap I could live without. Every new script sale is another chance to have a great movie made!

I was on a panel once with Robert Roy Pool who wrote the spec script that became ARMAGEDDON a couple of years ago. His original script was about a guy in the government whose job was to write reports about reports. He'd read dozens of reports and condense them into a paragraph each for the Presidential briefing. He came across a bunch of different things in different reports that seemed to be connected - the most amusing one was an Indian tribe that wanted to move their reservation because their shaman had forseen a giant asteroid hitting Earth where their reservation was now. He discovers that there really is a giant asteroid heading toward Earth, but the government covers it up. So he goes about grabbing his estranged wife and everyone he loves and finding a safe place for them - some caverns he knows about from reading reports. They find safety... and the asteroid strikes. Okay, about a dozen writers were hired - one after another - to change that into ARMAGEDDON. One of the things that *every* writer hated was the scene where the Mir space station blows up for no reason. Now, some of these writers were being paid huge amounts of money to do these rewrites - there were Oscar winners - and every single one of them *lost* the argument and had to have the Mir space station blow up for no reason. The film is *nothing* like Robert's original script, and I don't think any of those dozen rewriters liked it much.

But Robert and none of those writers quit the business because the script was ruined by bad notes... instead, they went on to write other things. Because every script is a chance to have it all come together (by some miracle) or maybe just get pretty close. Good films *do* get made. Great films *do* get made. Sometimes it all comes together. You just have to have faith that it will happen sometime... and until then, you still have that bookshelf of scripts the way you wrote them.

You have to be optimistic in this business. You have to believe that the next script will end up on screen even better than the way you wrote it - that the producer and director and cast will come up with some amazing ideas that you never thought of and turn a great script into a completely fantastic amazing script. And even if that deal doesn’t work out and results in another disappointment... there’s the deal after that!

Somewhere down there, there’s a pony!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character Conservation and ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Subway Black Forest Ham.
Bicycle: Sunday they closed off some major streets in downtown LA so that cyclists could ride from downtown to the sea... but I'm on the other side of the hill, so I just rode west.

5 comments:

Bryan said...

What happened to Batman? Did I miss something?

Morgan McKinnon said...

"And this blog’s name comes from a really silly note I got from HBO on CRASH DIVE - they wanted a sex scene in a film that takes place on a submarine manned by 110 *men*. No women allowed. “A *gay* sex scene?” I asked. “No! No! With a woman!” (Today they’d *want* the gay sex scene.) “How do I get a woman on the submarine?” “You’re the writer - be creative!” Next thing you know, there’s some hot woman having wild monkey sex on a submarine for no apparent reason."


Everytime I read this I'm screaming with laughter because my imagination is just wild and sometimes heads out of this world..."for no apparent reason"(ha ha).

As a new writer I'm very attached to these characters. What will cut the unbilical cord?
This will sound cold and uncaring of me but the truth is...CASH!

And I'll take a few bucks and buy me a cedar trunk to make a shrine for my original work.

Morgan McKinnon said...

Oh yeah, bryan said...
"What happened to Batman? Did I miss something?"

Really? What happened?


Morgan

Richard McNally said...

Ever give any thought to becoming a producer? How would one go about that? With your encyclopedic knowledge of the industry and film history, you would be more than qualified. One way to escape receiving notes would be to be the person giving them. Would that be a realistic or desirable career move? I've been given to understand that the way one becomes a director is to write a hit, then in selling one's next script add a condition in the contract that you direct it, or the deal is off. But how does a person become a producer, aside from having a motherlode of disposable cash? What's the career path?

Today's SS advising that one never write a line of dialogue that's been used in another film sets a high standard but I agree it's a meaningful goal to pursue. Though I was surprised when near the end of IRON MAN that black character said as Iron Man suited up and lifted off: "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!" Despite being a cliché it struck me as perfect. An exception to the rule I guess.

wcmartell said...

Hey! Where's today's blog entry>

From Google: "On behalf of the robots, we apologize for locking your non-spam blog. Please be patient while we take a look at your blog and verify that it is not spam."

The SkyNet War has begun!

- Bill

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