Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Elitism & Experience

From the beginning of 2011...

A few weeks ago John August had a post on his blog that got a rise out of me.

John wondered if the blog had become too advanced for a beginning writer, so he decided to read through his mail to see if he was too “inside baseball”... and printed a note from a writer that asked all kinds of stupid questions and then made fun of the writer. Ridiculed the dude. I posted in the comments section that I thought that even though many of the guy's questions could have been answered by spending some time searching John's site – at least the guy was asking questions, right?

And on Done Deal Pro I said basically the same thing: Lots of new writers don't know where to begin, they Google “How do I write a screenplay” and find a website and don't know the first thing about screenwriting so they don't know what to search for – they don't even know what a screenplay consists of.




In one of my favorite films IN A LONELY PLACE, a screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart says that people don't know screenwriters exist – they think actors just make up their lines... and when they become stars, they do. And that's where a lot of new writers are – what's on the page? Everything? If you just have a great idea – can you sell that? If you need an agent, can you tell me where to find one? On Done Deal Pro we regularly see new writers ask these questions and many more. And people on DDP ridicule them and make fun of how naive they are... but they also answer the questions and point them to places where they can read real screenplays and explain how the whole agent thing works. My theory is help them... then make fun of them.

Here's the thing – to me all of these questions sound silly. They sound like things people should just be able to figure out on their own, right? Things they could just find online, right? But when they land at someplace like John's site or DDP – they *have* looked online and ended up there asking questions. Things that we see as obvious. But that's because we forgot when we were them. Now that we know stuff, we think everyone else does!

Plus, there's that pecking order thing – I did a blog entry on that, and I think it's going to come up in this one, too. Nobody knows everything, and all of us are still learning and have things that we need to learn. Now, we can look at those who know less than us and make fun of them, or we can give them the information they need and send them in the right direction.

Or both.

The thing about writers is that many of us are smart asses and are just waiting for someone to say something that's a set up for our joke. I know I am. Yes, this makes me a partial asshole, but I also answer the questions so I figure I kind of earn my assholiness. But, if you just trash the person without helping them, you're building up some negative karma and eventually you will be the person who doesn't know something and someone will make fun of you. All of us are stupid about something.

AM I AN ELITIST?




One of the interesting things in life is how various different things happen at the same time... and all seem to add up to something larger. These random things are connected – which is just plain weird. Plate of shrimp. If I were crazy, I would imagine a giant conspiracy out to get me. But instead, it's just life.

Before the John August blog post, two other things happened back-to-back that connect to the concept of know-it-alls and know-nothings and screenwriting.

There's a message board I frequent that is filled with new writers – and many of them suffer from being overly artsie. This is a common thing. Many new writers think that Hollywood makes all of those remakes and sequels and comic books movies because there is a shortage of quality original screenplays... and *they* have the ability to write those brilliant screenplays!

In fact, when they compare the kind of crap Hollywood makes to what they are capable of, it's obvious that they are geniuses and the people who work in Hollywood now are all morons. Many of these folks believe that film is art, and Hollywood would make nothing but art movies if they had enough great artsie screenplays. Every film would be TREE OF LIFE, if they had a couple hundred similar (genius) (artistic) screenplays.

This is not true.

Hollywood makes movies that will attract a mass audience. That mass audience is more interested in being entertained than seeing some great piece of art... check out the grosses for this year's Oscar winner... and TREE OF LIFE while you're at it. There was a recent article on how the general public no longer goes to see the Best Picture Winner – they don't care about it and don't relate to it anymore. The “Oscar bounce” is gone! They've worked all week long and this film is their escape from all of the crap of real life – they may want to laugh so hard they pass out. What makes them laugh that hard may be the bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER.




That makes that bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER great screenwriting. I know that makes some of you think I'm crazy or a massive hack – but do you know how hard it is to find something that makes 60 million people around the world laugh? That is the art of screenwriting – making 60 million people around the world feel something. Some emotion. That may be fear from a horror movie or love from a romance or excitement from an action film – but finding that universal thing... and 110 minutes of those universal things – is so difficult that Hollywood pays great money if you can do that. They pay lots of money if you can entertain lots of people. The fewer people you entertain, the less money you get. Kind of trickle down.

Now, that doesn't mean that art films are bad, or TREE OF LIFE is bad, or THE ARTIST or HURT LOCKER are bad... just that they may be really tough screenplays to get anyone to read, let alone buy and produce.

Well, on this message board full of artsie new writers a few people posted some stuff that was completely naive... and someone posted a well thought out reasoned response explaining why their theory of how Hollywood worked was incorrect and something an outsider might believe. Here's the amazing thing – this guy who posted has been nominated for awards, wrote a great critically acclaimed film which you have all seen, that got him a gig writing a couple of big Hollywood films you have also seen, and recently wrote critically acclaimed film that I really love and own on DVD. Dude is a great writer. He was lurking. He de-lurked to help this writer...

And got crapped on.
And argued with.

Nobody knew who he was. They thought he was just some other idiot hack like me who was defending Hollywood films. They trashed whatever he said. Now, I knew who he was from another board, but none of these jokers even tried to figure out who he was... or just respect what he said. The guy was using logic and reason and the people fighting him were defending their position without ever acutally *thinking*. They were too busy arguing with him.

For me, the amusing thing about this was that this guy *was* a legitimate artist as a screenwriter. And he was explaining that *in his experience* commerce was still a major issue and you will have to find the way to sell your screenplay. To businessmen. Who want to make money.




Okay, everyone on this board knows who I am – I do not lurk. I jump in to the discussion, with a different side than the famous writer. Based on my actual experience in the business – I used some real examples both from my stuff and some other well known and easy to Google examples. And my experiences lead me to very similar conclusions as the other writer. Because that's kind of the way things are. From the outside you might think "If only Hollywood had 200 TREE OF LIFE scripts they would make 200 films like TREE OF LIFE." From the inside, you know that a film like TREE OF LIFE is hell to get off the ground... and no one in Hollywood really wants a screenplay like that. In fact, TREE OF LIFE was not made by Hollywood!

If you were to take a hundred professional writers, we would all have similar experiences with slight differences. If you take 100 people who have gone to the DMV and taken a driving test, the main points will all be the same but there may be some individual differences due to that handful of variables there are. So I jump in and basically agree with the other writer – and so do the handful of other pros on the boards...

THEM AND US




And now we have an interesting dichotomy – those who earn a living writing screenplays vs. those who do not. Those with experience in the business and those who do not have experience in the business. The working writers are saying “this is the way it really works” and the new writers are saying “no – it doesn't work that way”. When I say, “Hey, I've been doing this for a while, that really is the way it works.” And the professionals are branded “elitists” for saying that “our way” is the one that works and “their way” doesn't work.

This confused me.

I thought elitists were all about having power over others and excluding them... when the reason we were there giving this advice was to *include* these folks – to show them the secret way into the business. To help them. “You know that wall? There's a doorway through it over here!” But it seems that knowing what you are talking about, having actual experience, is a big negative thing.

Who knew?

The issue becomes facts vs. opinions – and that's crazy. But this seems to be something that isn't just on screenwriting messageboards, the whole country seems to think that a fact is the same as an opinion. That they are equal. If 99% of scientists think the world is round and 1% think it's flat – those 1% are “equal” to the 99%. Crazy! That 1% are the lunatic fringe. In science as in anything else there are always a couple of nutjobs... but the *majority* of people who know what they are talking about agree with each other... and 1% is *not* equal to 99%. Those are *not* two equally valid viewpoints – because at the end of the day the majority rules.

Except, when you are in that 1% you'd much rather believe that it's equally valid to believe the Earth is flat and the space program is a conspiracy and they put something in our milk as children to make us see that curve on the horizon...

And that's *science* - when you're discussing screenwriting and there's an art component and as many different definitions of “good movie” as there are people? More difficult to even agree on what is a “fact”!

But add to this – screenwriting is strange in that it is both art and commerce wrapped into one. Sure – there are arthouse indie films, but even those get some form of distribution because someone thinks they will make money. They are more of a niche thing – and aimed at being popular with that niche. If you plan on *selling* a screenplay then it is a commercial endeavor – not just for you but for who you sell the screenplay to... and for the screenplay itself. There are so many elements of the *craft* of writing that tie into the commercial aspects that you can't really talk art and craft without at least touching on the commercial part. And, on a messageboard filled with artsie types, bringing up the money part brands you a sell out.

On another board there is an intelligent, articulate, artsie screenwriter guy who makes great arguments in favor of seeing screenwriting as an art. I often argue with him, but I also encourage him to keep making his case - because he isn't one of those just fighting for his point - he also *thinks* and *considers the other side* and argues with facts rather than opinions. I like this guy. We need this guy in teh business. The funny thing about my art vs. commerce arguments is that if you drop me in a room full of artists I argue on the commerce side... but if you drop me in a room full of mercanaries I fight for art. Screenwriting is both.




The problem is – two people can write screenplays of equal artistic quality, but if one is about a farm boy in Ohio who dreams of moving to Cleveland and getting a job in a shoe store, and the other is about a farm boy on Tatooine who dreams of being a Jedi Knight and starfighter pilot and rescuing a hot Princess from an evil Black Knight... well, you can guess which screenplay is going to have an easier chance of selling.

There are commercial considerations involved with every screenplay that is bought – and that becomes part of the conversation on the experienced screenwriter side. It's not elitism, it's another danged lesson that most of learned the hard way – and we're trying to help others. Though everyone learns at their own rate, the biggest problem with many of these debates is that some people DO NOT WANT TO LEARN. Not just the commercial stuff (I mean, who really wants to learn that? I fought it) but much of the story stuff that's important. The artsie folks don't want there to be any elements that they can be judged by – so the concept of one script being better *even artistically* than another is some form of elitism.

Huh?

The real problem with this whole “Elitist” thing is that it makes people with experience and actual knowledge, and brands them with a negative for *trying to help*. That does not make them want to stick around on some messageboard and continue helping when they really should be writing. It also demonizes education and intelligence and experience – which seems crazy to me. It guarantees that those folks on messageboards will stay exactly where they are – because the *do not want to learn*. Knowledge is a negative - ignorance is bliss - stupidity is art.

They often seem to think they know everything – which I don't think this famous writer or myself or any of the other working pros who these folks argued against believe about themselves. I believe there are tons of things that I don't know – and a large part of my life and my website and my blog are trying to figure out how things work and share that knowledge... but mostly trying to figure it out because there are things I don't know.

Do you think you know everything?

WINO THEORY




I think for most of us, the more we know the more we realize we don't know... and need to learn. Writing screenplays is incredibly complicated, and requires that you get a bunch of different ingredients in the proper mix.

The problem on some messageboards (and with some executives) is they think that one 110 pages of typing is the same as another 110 pages of typing. That writing the pages is the hard part. And there are plenty of screenplays that get so damaged in development that their 110 pages of writing *is* equal to just about any other 110 pages of typing. But those scripts die a quick death – and if they are made into films due to some mistake, the films die a quick death.

The key is to write something that people think about a decade later... because it will be good (art!) *and* because a decade later you'll want them to call you and hire you for some project. If they read your 110 pages of typing and instantly forget it, you have a problem. Though scripts can be developed into crap, you don't want them to start out that way. My belief (hope) is that even when a script gets mangled there's enough good stuff left to hint that there was a great version they bought. Though, I have no idea what that good stuff might be in the filmed version of CROOKED.

Of course, even if they screw up your screenplay on the way to the screen, your actual screenplay still exists as a sample - and I get all kinds of calls years later based on someone reading a screenplay before it got ruined. I have also used those screenplays as samples. In fact, I have some people interested in hiring me now based on a screenplay they read in the past... which they remembered.




You see - art is involved in screenwriting. Even in popular screenwriting. It's not just "write a 110 page action script", it's writing a 110 page action script that is better than the other hundreds of scripts they have read and will turn out an okay movie once it goes through the meatgrinder. If anything, a popular commercial film really needs to be *artistic* and great more than the art film - since if the art film ever gets made it is most likely to be written and directed and produced by the same person (no meatgrinder). The martial arts star lead isn't going to rewrite all of his lines... so that the actions end up being the thing that carries the story and theme and emotional conflict.

There are great commercial scripts and stinkers. Some screenplays are better than others. Some writers have learned more than others - and that is reflected in the quality of their writing. Doesn't mean those other writers can't learn as much and write scripts of equal quality eventually. Just means *at this point in time* the more experienced writer is, well, more experienced. They've done it many more times and learned more.

I think one of the issues with those who think all 110 pages are equal is what I call the WINO THEORY. I once dated a woman who worked in the wine biz, and know some people in the biz (one guy who gets paid to drink!) and a sommelier – and wrote a script called ROUGH FINISH that was James Bond as a wine taster.

Wine ends up being a lot like screenwriting.

The average person can drink two different glasses of wine and think one tastes good and the other does not – but that's about it. If you give that average person two different glasses of *good* wine, they may not be able to tell which is better. Both are equal to them.




But “educate their palates” and teach them a little about wine, and they can easily tell a cabernet from a merlot from a zinfandel from a pinot noir. They may prefer one over the other. They also know what a cabernet is supposed to taste like (basically) and whether it tastes strange or even has been cut with some other grape. At this stage they can also probably tell you whether the wine was fermented in oak or steel or even redwood or acacia or pine.

The next step might be to refine their palates so that they can tell which region the grapes were grown in – each soil leaves a mark. And maybe even make a good guess at the year due to the amount of tanic acid in the wine. Now they can take a dozen “good” glasses of wine and tell you more about each one – and maybe even taste minor defects in some wine that the average drinker never knew were there. They “have better taste”.

And with each increase in education, with each piece of knowledge, they can taste little details that the average drinker may not even know exist.

My character in ROUGH FINISH was a “private palate” who would break into a winery and taste the wine “before its time” to help investors and wine connoisseurs know which Bordeauxs to buy. He tastes something in the wine that only a handful of people in the world would even notice – and becomes the man who knows too much. Fun idea for a chase action script – but it's based on the (real) idea that an expert wine taster would be able to denote things no one else could... is that Elitism or Experience and Education?

My theory is that the new screenwriter might think the difficult part is getting to FADE OUT – and that *is* difficult. But a hundred thousand people a year get to FADE OUT... and the more you know, the more you can see what is just a bit off on one script and right on the money in another – and the more you know how to write that better screenplay.

You don't just give every character a unique voice and vocabulary and world view and attitude... you realize that all of those different elements are connected in some way to theme... and theme is connected to universal truths that connect to the audience. It just gets more and more complicated! And I don't think you ever reach some point where you know it all. There is always something to learn.

But if you think just writing 110 pages is all there is to it, you have failed.

If you think you don't need to learn anything more, you have failed.

If you think that the 1% who believe the Earth is flat are just as correct as the 99% who believe it is round, you aren't thinking and are not trying to learn and better yourself.

If you think someone who has learned more than you know at this point in time and is trying to help you is an elitist, you have failed.

And, if you know more than someone else – help them. Costs you nothing.

I've found that most established screenwriters want to help new writers – they empathize. They were that new writer at one time, and want to help you avoid all of the pitfalls they stumbled through. So, on a messageboard or in person or whatever – thank them for the help and don't fight them until they just give up on *everybody* and leave. I think it's all about learning - and continuing to learn. Any writer who is giving you advice - even if you don't like what they are saying - is trying to help you. they don't have to do that. They don't get paid to do that. They have many other things they can do that either pay more or are more enjoyable.

Experience and knowledge are not elitism.

If people are trying to *help you* - that's the opposite of elitism.

And DAYS OF HEAVEN is one of my favorite movies... along with AIRPLANE!

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: EMOTIONAL OPENINGS - you don't need to start with a bang, you need to start by involving the audience.
Dinner: Subway - Teriyaki Chicken.
Movies: Have seen both CHRONICLE and THIS MEANS WAR - loved one and hated the other.

4 comments:

Rusty James said...

No, no, no, you're wrong Bill.

The Hurt Locker was bad.

Richard J. McKenzie said...

Bill,
I thank you for what you do. You have made things possible in my life that I would otherwise be without.

A buddy gave me IN A LONELY PLACE - he thought that was funny to do.

If you were an elitist, you wouldn't be helping others as much as you do.
Unless you want to be an elitist, in which case I agree with you.

I cannot judge wine - I am physically incapable of it, because I have a really poor sense of smell.

Art versus commerce - some people want to ignore one or the other aspect.
As you have pointed out, people can always make their movies themselves, just as painters paint and musicians...ah... musicate? Making/writing movies and selling them to Hollywood are two very different kettles of fish.

CASABLANCA is about to be re-re-re-released, apparently. Would you be interested in hearing some of the many, many things that I have to say about this movie?
Let me know how I can contribute my knowledge.

And now, back to the movie that I am making by myself, and for myself, and to hell with all the rest.

ZOMBIE WITHIN
tagline - Guess what's coming to dinner.

"...to hell with all the rest."
That's a cool line for some horror flick, if anyone wants to use it.

Richard J. McKenzie said...

- the space program is a conspiracy -

Bill, I can't let this comment go uncommented-upon. I just can't.

The plans for the Saturn 5 rocket (that 'got us to the Moon') were destroyed. We have no more space Shuttles. We can't get back to the Moon - 40 years later.
Apollo 13, which apparently suffered a near-fatal catastrophe (touching the heart-strings, of course), was on schedule to land in the dark. Landing on the Moon in the dark? Really?
We can go to Mars, but not to the Moon.
We have telescopes that can read a license plate on Earth through hundreds of miles of atmosphere, but nobody has ever seen the debris and flags that we supposedly left on the Moon. Nobody even looks. Why is that?

Our space program is getting farther away from the Moon, not closer.
Newt Gringrich recently called for a return to the Moon, and he was immediately, almost hysterically, eviscerated for that.

I do not believe in anything, and especially when it comes from a government.

I will agree that mankind has been to the Moon when I am given evidence - what our government tells us does not constitute evidence. Photos and films provided by the US government are as reliable as Nazi propaganda films (see "AN UNFINISHED FILM"). All the astronauts were military men, through and through. They are unreliable witnesses. Moon rocks could have come from Antarctica, where it just so happens that von Braun (a Nazi) and NASA and a huge military team spent months looking for something.

'We went to the Moon' touches all those jingoistic buttons that make us feel superior and altruistic.

Our government lies to us, yes?
But not this time?
Show me evidence that does not come from the government and NAZI-led NASA and I will agree that we were there.

Tom Chandler said...

I read the John August post, and didn't have the same reaction you did.

My blog shows up on Google's first page for "copywriter," which means I get a dozen emails a week about breaking into the copywriting business.

A small handful have a little knowledge and honestly want to know what to do. These I answer.

Many can't write a coherent email (not a great start for a writer), and a truly embarrassing percentage ask a question they could answer in eight seconds if they simply Googled it.

It's this last group that frankly *should* be held up for ridicule, which is what I got from the John August thing.

I hear what you're saying about helping people with questions, but I'm wholly uninterested in helping those who don't realize that formulating questions is only half the exercise.

If someone shows up without writing skills or an apparent inclination to do anything but ask people to climb the learning curve for them, perhaps a little ridicule is in order; they'll either crawl away to another job, or realize they'd better take more responsibility for their own actions.

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