Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Film Courage: Are Writers Damned?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

And the first segment...

I had done a full day of classes at Story Expo, it was the hottest day on record in Los Angeles (since broken a few times), I was seriously dehydrated after running from class to class all day, and the first question they ask me is...

A softball questions to start out with, like...

"Are Writers Damned?"

How the hell do you answer that?

Well, yes.

In Woody Allen’s Oscar Winning ANNIE HALL, there’s a great scene where Alvy Singer, who’s perfect relationship has fallen apart, sees the perfect couple walking down the street and decides to ask them the secret to the success of their relationship, and their response is: “I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And the woman responds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

Writers are not shallow and empty, and we have something to say. Where “civilians” move through life not thinking about other people’s secret motivations and hidden agendas and all of the other things that your Mom might be *really* thinking when she says that you could use some new shirts, writers can’t help but think about these things. We know 57 ways to kill someone with a ripe tomato, thanks to research on that screenplay, and when we are in the produce section of the grocery store and see the seemingly nice little old lady trying to find the perfect tomato... we wonder just who she is planning to kill. Is it me? I don’t even know her! But what if this is some sort of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN club, where a hundred people swap murders so that there is no way for any of them to be a suspect, and she ended up doing the murder for some long forgotten person who considers me their enemy? Someone like that guy from SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE who has spent his life tracking down Billy Pilgrim for splashing mud on his trousers decades ago? I once spilled a drink on a guy in a suit in a bar, and that guy had been hitting on this woman, and maybe I ruined his love life forever and now he was part of this Murder Tanda and had given my name to that nice little old lady in the supermarket who was going to kill me with that tomato that she has just selected? As a writer I am constantly thinking about stuff like that - which is probably why I have insomnia - not only is my mind still working and I wish that I could shut it off, but I am a little worried that tonight might be the night that the nice little old lady strikes. I don’t really want to sleep through getting murdered with a tomato.

So we tend to look at the world a bit differently than most people, and over-think things and we can be a little bit paranoid because we know what evil can lurk in the hearts of men... and nice little old ladies. So we are probably damned.

But what about the writing part, Bill?


The other way that we are damned is that nobody knows that screenwriters exist. There’s that line from IN A LONELY PLACE about how the audience thinks that movie stars make up the dialogue themselves, and if they become big enough stars - they do. Heck, even screenwriters don’t know who screenwriters are! A few years ago, for fun, I made up a quiz about who wrote what famous film and posted it on my website... and none of the screenwriters who frequent the site could get all of the answers right (without looking them up). Lots of “I didn’t know that writer wrote that!” Heck, if screenwriters don’t know who wrote the screenplays for movies that they have seen and loved, why would civilians, let alone hot underwear models (you may choose whatever sex you want - they will not be choosing you in return). So screenwriters are never famous. If you subtract the famous *playwrights* who became screenwriters, and writer-directors and famous novelists who became screenwriters, you probably don’t know the single name of a screenwriter who just *writes screenplays*. Like you want to.

So your plans to become a famous screenwriter?

The other common fantasy that goes along with famous is rich, and we have all seen those deals in the trades where some new writer’s screenplay was in a bidding war and sold for $1.2 million. Hey, I can write 3 screenplays a year if all I do is write one page a day, that’s $3.6 million a year... that ought to attract the underwear models! I can buy a Lamborghini every year! I can live in a mansion! I can eat my weight in lobster twice a day! I will be rich! Except, that’s not really how it works. Because that $1.2 million works like this: The $1 million is when and if they make the film - and only around 10% of the screenplays they buy or develop ever get made. So the odds are against you ever making that $1 million. The $200k is what you will be paid - for the screenplay and all of the rewrites, and these days they sometimes decide not to do the rewrites (great! until you realize that you won't be paid that part if the $200k)and you might end up with just over $100k total. That still sounds pretty good, right? But that’s for a screenplay that sold for $1.2 million - which is a huge sale that makes the trades. And a sale - you see, most screenplays don’t ever sell. There are around 1 million screenplays in circulation in any given year and fewer than 100 sell to studios. Okay, there are screenplays that sell to low budget genre companies and companies that make films for Lifetime and SyFy Channel and Hallmark... for much much less. A friend of mine sold a screenplay to a company that makes SyFy Channel movies... for $2k. I didn’t leave out any zeros. This is a tough business to make a living in! Most of the professional screenwriters I know make an okay living... But I often joke that if I had kept my job at Safeway Grocery I would probably be making more now (as a District Manager or something).

So your plans to become a rich screenwriter?

And if you are looking at those million screenplays and fewer than a hundred sell, that means that a whole bunch do not sell. The writers wrote them for nothing!

Or did they?

And that is the key to avoiding being damned.

The writing itself needs to be its own reward.


If you're having a problem getting your scripts finished it may be tied to your motivation - maybe you aren't writing because you want to tell a story, perhaps you're writing because you want fame and glory. Guess what? There is no fame and glory in the screenwriting world - name the three Oscar winning writers of CASABLANCA. You probably can't, and you're the MOST LIKELY person who could do that (you want to be an Oscar winning screenwriter). So if your motivation is fame, is having people acknowledge and love you... you're in the wrong business. Screenwriters are either ignored or blamed or crapped on.

If your motivation is "I like to write" or "I need to write" then it's all about writing and writing is what you should be doing (actually, you'll already be doing it). This is the motivation you want to have - the need or desire to tell stories. That way your motivation is all about the work - not the rewards. I hate to be a cold blanket, but this is a business where the rewards are few and far between and usually out of our control. The only thing really in our control is doing the work. So writing needs to be its own reward!

If your motivation is "I want to write to prove I'm somebody important" or "I want to write to prove my enemies were wrong" then it's not about the writing - it's about your personal problems. If you are writing to solve personal problems (and trying to solve them by changing OTHERS) your focus isn't going to be on writing, so you WILL have trouble finishing scripts or starting them or anything else that has to do with WRITING. If your motivation for writing is anything other than "to write", you're going to run into problems because those other motivations will get in the way of your writing.

If you aren't in the biz because you have to tell your stories, because you're PASSIONATE about writing, you're in for a future of heartache. You don't see screenwriters on eitherr of the Jimmys or Colbert. You don't see them interviewed on ET or Access Hollywood or any other TV version of National Enquirer. Screenwriters just toil away in obscurity... we write because we have stories inside of us that they have no choice but to tell. We are writers.

A writer writes.

I have a stack of unsold screenplays that I am now planning on adapting into novels. I also have a stack of unread screenplays - no one ever requested them. Many of those are from early in my screenwriting "careeer" where I was writing typical genre screenplays instead of focusing on an amazing high concept that could attract producers from the logline alone. Those unread screenplays are good - just not interesting enough. Some I have rewritten with a “high concept injection”, others I have figured out how to adapt into novels with a more interesting central idea. Everything that I have written, from my very first screenplay, is written. It is not just some idea bouncing around in my head, it is something that was fleshed out and set on paper or floppy or whatever. It actually exists. And that is the key to being a successful writer - actually writing.

A writer writes.

A sure fire way to be damned as a writer is to focus on the things that you do not control, instead of the things that you do control. If you focus on the prestige or the money or the respect or anything else that is completely outside of our control... you are going to end up damned disappointed. Even if you are a successful screenwriter, not everything you write will end up on screen, and I guarantee that what ends up on screen isn’t going to be the way you wrote it. Probably mentioned the huge list of unsold and unproduced screenplays by multiple Oscar winner Robert Bolt, and even Oscar winners will get rewritten by a string of other writers. That’s just how it works - out of our control. If you focus on the stuff that you can’t control, you will go crazy. But there is one thing that you control 100% - that is the actual writing. Getting pages done every day. Writing a stack of screenplays that may or may not sell - but they are accomplishments! You wrote that screenplay! You got to Fade Out!

So you probably aren’t ever going to become rich and famous and respected and have your choice of underwear models to fly to Europe with for a weekend with The Countess, but you are going to actually accomplish something that very few do - you will have a growing stack of screenplays or short stories or novels. So if you want to be a writer, you need to enjoy (in some way) the writing part.

Writing needs to be its own reward.

That’s the way to avoid being damned.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill

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