Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Are You Flexible?

From five years ago!

No, that isn’t my best pick up line... we aren’t talking about being *physically* flexible, but *mentally* flexible.

Recently, one of my stalled projects started up again... without me.

Some other writer was hired and wrote a script completely different than the draft I was paid to write. It was an assignment based on the producer’s idea... which had some problems. One of the reasons why I dislike writing on assignment is that you often get stuck with the producer’s bad ideas, and no matter how much you explain that the idea is not the best possible idea for this story, the producer is the one writing the checks. In this case, the producer had a specific market he was aiming for - and his idea missed that market. His idea *did* fit a different market, and I explained this to him and used some other films as examples, and said that there were two ways to take the project - towards the market the producer was aiming for, or for the market that best fit the specifics of the idea he had. I also pitched some different versions of his core idea that *would* appeal to the market he was aiming for.

Hmm, that may all be confusing to you... let me use some examples if I’ve lost you. Imagine the producer wants to make a film aimed at the SAW audience about a group of college students on summer vacation in Mexico who run into some folks who want them to be organ donors... by force. But he wants to make it like one of those old AIP beach party movies, with a couple of musical numbers by this hot band he knows, and a major romantic subplot. Okay, the whole beach party thing is at odds with the SAW thing. You *can* make a light horror movie with beach party elements - actually, AIP did some DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE movies with Vincent Price back in the 60s. You could also tone down the beach party aspect and have the hot band perform in some smokey illegal rave held in a closed factory and make it more HOSTEL-like. But the producer has this image of college kids dancing on the bright sunny beach in bikinis, and he wants that in the movie. So the script goes off in that direction, with more focus on the romance and fun aspects, and the horror elements in some kind of Scooby-Doo world rather than torture porn. You know when you write it that the torture porn audience is not going to like it, but you have already pleaded your case with the producer and he has stuck by what he wants. And there *is* an audience for a “fun” horror romp like those Scooby-Doo movies.

I was flexible, and wrote the best version of the story the way the producer wanted it.

When I finished the script, some stuff happened, and the producer discovered *before making the film* that the SAW audience isn’t going to dig all of that dancing in the sand. So the project got shelved...

Except, in this case, the project returns with a page one rewrite by some other writer that is straight-forward HOSTEL-like torture porn. Hmm, exactly what I suggested before I wrote my draft.

Hey, I don’t blame the producer for having the script rewritten into something that he can sell once he’s made the film (or find the funding to make the film in the first place), but I *do* blame him for not listening when I told him this a couple of years ago. For being so stuck on his idea that he was blind to every example or piece of information I provided. If he had opened his mind to other possibilities back then, he wouldn’t have had to pay that other writer. And this is a problem for both producers *and* screenwriters...

Often *we* don’t open our mind to other possibilities and charge ahead with a version of the story we want to tell that just doesn’t work, or there is no market for.


One of my frequent bitches here is about writers who ask me for advice and then completely ignore it and then end up with projects they can not sell. I don’t understand why you ask for my advice if you plan to ignore it... or why a producer hires me because I have some screenwriting skills and then undermines everything I do to make the screenplay good. Though ego is always a factor, the other factor is some kind of weird artistic tunnel vision - they don’t *want* to see other possible ways for their story to work.

I bumped into a guy at AFM who had this problem. He wrote a genre script that no one wanted to buy. The reason why was that it completely crapped on the genre audience. It ridiculed the people who would want to buy tickets to the film or rent it on DVD. After just about everyone turned down the script, I bumped into him at Starbucks and he pitched me the script and asked why he was having trouble with it. I thought it was obvious, told him how he could change a couple of elements (and the over-all tone) and have himself a saleable script. He said he was thinking of making the film himself... and I suggested that he make those changes whether he was going to sell the script or make it. The audience is exactly the same either way, and they are not going to like being made fun of whether you make it or someone else does. But he had his vision... and now he has a film that every distributor has turned down. I have not seen it, but I don’t think he made any of the changes that would have made it something that didn’t insult the viewer. He had his vision for the story... and now he’s stuck with it.

Another friend, on a screenwriting board, posted his scenario for a script... and everyone pointed out the same basic problem. And he has fought everybody. He has his vision of the story, and his vision includes this basic story problem. What’s strange about this guy is that the story problem can be easily solved, and solving it would make the story *work*. But he’d rather fight everyone and maintain his story the way he wants to tell it.

And that is fine.

You are free to write whatever you want to write however you want to write it.

But when you write it your way and it doesn’t work, it’s not our problem.


I’ll bet you can find a half dozen blog posts where I complain about something that is *my fault* - I don’t want to make some change in my life that would make things a lot easier for myself. So, once again, I am the villain in my own story. I acknowledge this. This post is bitching about people who are doing the same thing that I sometimes do. There are some things that take me a long time to learn, and other things that I refuse to learn. But I have opened my mind enough to actually consider changes in my personal life - and many things I am working on. I don’t want to be some bitter old man bitching about how life screwed me over (unless I already am).

Hey, I started this post bitching about some producer. I should just stop my bitching and accept that this is the way things work. Producers have some crazy ideas, they are often bull-headed about those ideas, and screenwriters often have to write a bunch of drafts that don’t work before the producer realizes that the idea may not be working. As a screenwriter I can see that that idea isn’t going to work, and think they should be able to see it, too. But they don’t. So I bitch.

But when it comes to creative stuff? Instead of bitching I want to write the best screenplays possible and I also want to not only sell those screenplays but have them actually made into movies. So if someone has a better idea, I want to hear it! If someone thinks I zigged left in the script when I should have zigged right - I will consider that. One of the tips that recently ran was on “Challenging The Elements” in your screenplay, and I do that. Just today I was talking to a colleague about a script and decided a role written as a crusty old guy would be better for the project if it were a women in her late 30s to early 40s. Not only would that make it easier to cast with a name that still means something, it would add some sexual tension to a scene or two that would improve the story. That change was not *their* idea, it was *mine* - to improve the project. My original idea that it would be this crusty old guy wasn’t as good as making it a woman of a certain age. The goal is to make the story better, not stick by my guns trying to defend some not-quite-as-good version because it was the first version I came up with. You know, the first version of anything I come up with is a “first draft” - I expect to find some way to make it better.


On a message board recently I was giving some advice on how to avoid hitting those creative walls in Act 2, and warned against casting the details of your idea in stone. If you do *not* allow yourself to consider other possibilities, somewhere in act 2 your idea in its current form may just stop working. Though some other form of the idea might work, if you stick to your guns and try to force it to work... it may just crash and burn, leaving you with a 52 page screenplay. If your story *MUST* be about a 79 year old woman - that’s the only way you see your protagonist - when you hit some scene in the middle of your script where that character just doesn’t work, you never think "I’ll change the character". You have gone so far with it being *this* character that you can’t imagine it being anyone else. Except it *must* be someone else for the story to work. So you have written yourself into a corner, and will not back up. You have to be flexible enough to throw away the things that don't work in your script and creative enough to find the things that will work.

A friend of mine has a stalled script where the problem is the specific character he wants to have as his lead can not be the lead - they are a peripheral character and not involved in the conflict. He keeps trying to force them into the conflict, resulting in a bunch of contrived scenes that do not work. The real solution is to start from scratch and find the character who is actually involved in the conflict, or to start with a character and find a great conflict that explores their character. But just trying to push forward isn’t the answer. He has created limits on his screenplay, and that is why his screenplay has stalled. Problem is - he doesn’t want to open his eyes, be flexible and remove the limits.

I am a strong believer in outlines, which help you find these problems ahead of time. Brainstorming all kinds of possibilities up front, rather than get so far along that you don't want to start from scratch. You don't want to limit your story, especially if those limits run it into a wall on page 52.

What you discover when you brainstorm is that there are hundreds of possibilities for your story and if you challenge yourself to keep going - possibilities that you never knew existed. The story doesn’t have to work one way, it can work hundreds of different ways. To find the way that works best, you need to open your mind to *every* possibility. I'm a big believer in using both sides of the noggin - create like hell with no censor, then look at what you have and make intelligent choices. I know this is a generalization, but one of the things that always seems strange to me is that the “craftsmen” type of screenwriters often seem more likely to consider other possibilities and make changes to their story when it isn’t working than the “artist” type of screenwriter. The “artists” often seem so married to the details that they fight changing that 79 year old woman character into a character who actually fits the story they are trying to tell. They keep banging their heads against the wall, when there is a door only a few feet away. But they just feel the door should be here. They side with “creative instinct” instead of using logic and reason when the story isn’t working. If it isn’t working, *why* isn’t it working? Okay, now how do you fix that?

Screenwriting is often problem solving. But you must be willing to solve the problems. To look at your screenplay objectively, and realize that even though you love the idea of kids dancing on the beach, that may not fit the dark and violent horror story you are trying to tell. Instead of fighting for your “vision” when it doesn’t work, fight for *the screenplay* and make sure it works. Be flexible enough to see when something doesn’t work - even if it is something that you love. A script that you love but doesn’t work at all (or stalls out at page 52 and you never get to Fade Out) isn’t a good script. You want to make that script work, and make it work all the way down the line so that it can be made into a movie and be seen by an audience. Hey, that might mean the crusty old guy you originally envisioned ends up being a woman in her early 40s. If that makes the script better, you make the change.


And if you thought making your script work to get past page 52 requires flexibility, wait until you get to development and production. That 92 year old woman lead? Who are the 92 year old women who can open a movie? Who are the 92 year old women stars? The very first note you will get is to change that character to a castable lead - a character who can be played by a current movie star like Will Smith or Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie. And because getting a star to sign on is not easy - everyone has a film that needs a star - you will have to re-imagine your story with a lead character who is like whichever star they end up signing. Twice I have had the “old retired gunslinger who comes back for one last job” played by young stars nowhere near retirement age. Okay, there goes that story trope! Time to rethink why the guy is no longer in the biz! You need to be flexible enough to solve the problem and come up with that new version of your story that works for the star...

And heaven forbid they hire Jessica Alba.

Things are always changing, and you need to be ready and able - and in the right mind set - to solve these problems and protect the core of your screenplay. Your 79 year old woman may be played by Will Smith, but your screenplay still needs to work - and you need to rethink the story so that it works just as well and maybe even better. You know that great scene in your screenplay when she’s in the lighthouse and sees the man that she loves in a boat that crashes into the rocks and sinks... and then she hears the lighthouse door open and someone trudging up the stairs... sure it is the villain... but it is HIM and they embrace? Yeah, well we are shooting the film in New Mexico because of the tax credits and they have no lighthouses and no rocky shores for ships to run aground on. Are you flexible enough to rethink that scene and find a way to make it work just as well in New Mexico? Is your mind open to the change and ready for the challenge? Or is your script set in stone and unchangeable?

If you can't imagine your story working any other way than how your originally wrote it, you have a problem.

This stuff makes that hurdle on page 52 look like something you can hop over! You have to be able to see your story working in many different ways, not just so that you can deal with production and stars and actors who don’t believe in screenplays, but so you can find the very best way to tell your story in the first place. Not get trapped in some dead end version of your story, or some version of your story that nobody wants to see, or some version that is just not very good.

If you fight for the bad version of your screenplay, that’s what you will end up with.

If you allow yourself to think of all of the possibilities, you can find the best way for your screenplay to work.

Be flexible.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Why the MATRIX sequels sucked.
Dinner: China Wall in Concord: All you can eat Chinese Food.
Pages: Hey, halfway done with this treatment I should be 2/3rds of the way done with.
Bicycle: Nope, in my home town.
Movies: Nope, working.


Emily Blake said...

Well said. That is one of the toughest lessons to learn.

Todd said...

Excellent stuff

Anonymous said...

Jessica Alba. Oy.

I'm doing rewrites with a producer on one of his projects. So far, he let me take out several things that were getting in the way of the story, and really pared it down.

But he refuses to budge on the ending. It's wrong. It's really wrong. Words cannot describe the wrongness.

*bangs head on desk*

So, I'm writing it, and hating it. I think he'll figure it out when people tell him how much the ending sucks and refuse to make it.

The Fundamentalist said...

weird, most of your films are produced by Ashok. He's raised a US$75m fund from Singapore and Dubai dumb money.

Harlan said...

I've been struggling with the execution of a great basic idea for a while now, like about a year and a half. Based on the basic premise of a short that I made but didn't like, but the actors and crew were just as sold as me on the fundamental heart of it. Their support has been wonderful while I wrassle with this thing.

I have killed a lot of my darlings. Trying to keep concepts from one draft to the next that weren't working because I wouldn't change their particular function this time around. It's only recently that I found a version that I really like, that's really exciting and dramatic, but it took a rework of a lot of how the characters relate to one another. Instead of a "buddy cop" vibe, I found that taking one of the "buddies" and making him a sympathetic obstacle for the protag., killing another character entirely to set that up... it *thrust* everyone forward on parallel thematic paths. Changed everything. Gave me a movie, not a concept.

The part about trying to force characters or ideas into situations that don't work made me think of this. It's been a deeply frustrating journey, and there's a lot of work left to be done in the writing, but knowing its working in your gut is energizing.

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