Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Film Courage: Writing From Desperation.

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. There were 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?

WRITING FROM DESPERATION

So you have quit your day job and given yourself a year or two years or whatever is in your bank account to make it as a professional screenwriter... and as that deadline gets closer and closer and you haven’t sold anything, panic and desperation begins to set in... and you realize that low budget horror always sells, and even though you absolutely hate horror, you decide to write a horror screenplay so that you can make enough money to avoid having to work for a living... Good idea?

Terrible idea.



One of the unwritten rules in screenwriting is to never write about screenwriters or writers or Hollywood - it’s incestuous and the general film audience usually can’t relate to the characters... and being a screenwriter is not a common fantasy, like being a superhero or being a tough guy or falling in love or any of the other things that are part of the “dream fulfillment” of the movies. But every once in a while, a Hollywood insider does a “tell all” movie about their experiences in the business (carefully turned into fiction) and sometimes those films are successful... like the great SUNSET BLVD () directed by Billy Wilder (a screenwriter) and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. It’s one of the handful of Film Noirs about screenwriters, and a great example of what can happen to you when you are writing from desperation.

In the opening scene, screenwriter Joe Gillis is dead in the swimming pool of a decaying Hollywood mansion, then we flashback to how he came to be in this pool... A crappy Hollywood apartment where he is 3 months behind in his rent and about to be evicted, when there is a knock at the door - a couple of guys from the collection agency who have come to reposes his car, and would like him to hand over the keys. Joe tells them that he loaned his car to a friend who drove it to Palm Springs, sorry. Check the apartment garage if they don’t believe him. After they leave, he goes to the parking lot where he has hidden his car, and heads to the Paramount Lot where he has a meeting with a producer named Sheldrake, who might buy his script and get him out of this financial mess... He pitches the script to Sheldrake, who is skeptical - it doesn’t sound very good. Gillis lies, and says that 20th Century Fox is also interested in it. Sheldrake buzzes his Development Girl, who comes in with the coverage. “I covered it, but I wouldn’t bother. It’s from hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” (That’s about 6 minutes into the movie - it doesn’t waste any time.) Gillis pleads with Sheldrake for any kind of assignment, he needs the money. But he is sent on his way...

Because when you write from desperation, it shows.

When you just hack out something for a buck, it shows.

When your heart isn’t in it, it shows.

One of those things that producers often say that they are looking for in a screenplay is “passion” - they want this to be the story that you have to tell (not just for money), the story that is a part of you, that has soul. All of the things that tend to disappear when you are writing from desperation, when you are writing from panic. Though the cliche of the serious writer in their garret with only beans to eat while they complete their masterpiece is romantic, in real life that’s no way to write anything that’s actually good. I have a Script Tip called “Projectors” about how whatever we write can’t help but show our feelings and attitude and emotions - our writing *is* who we are - so if you are a bitter angry person, you will be writing bitter angry stories that are probably not going to be entertaining.

After I sold COURTING DEATH to a company at Paramount and moved to Los Angeles, I had 2 years worth of rent and expenses plus a production bonus when they made the film. Except they didn’t make the film. I spent two years like Joe Gillis - holed up in my apartment writing screenplays - and had done absolutely no networking or work to get some other screenplay sold. I could have written all of those screenplays in my hometown of Concord, CA and saved a bundle! Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live. So when my two years of rent and expenses was almost spent, I went into panic mode and tried to figure out how to sell a screenplay. But I was trying to sell the screenplays that I had written from my heart and soul (even though they contained explosions) before I realized that I was running out of money. And I sold one, that managed to get made. And there were others that got me studio meetings and a couple that ended up optioned. I realized that I needed to spend more time on the business side of the screenwriting business and from that point on I actually became a professional screenwriter (as in, I continued to sell screenplays and land assignments).

Another writer I knew was not as successful, and called me in the middle of the night asking if he could crash at my apartment because he’d just been evicted and everyone else he’d called had turned him down. I didn’t know this guy very well, and was probably at the bottom of his list of people to call, and I turned him down as well. I realized that I never wanted to be in that position, and decided that if I was getting close to running out of money again, I would just get a day job. And at one point back in those early years, I had one - working in a wine shop in the Brentwood district, a few blocks from where O.J. Simpson would later murder his wife and her friend. Allegedly. But I realized that it was better for me to write with confidence and heart and soul instead of writing from panic and desperation.

Better for you to do that, too.

So if you give yourself some arbitrary deadline like 5 Years Until I Make It or whatever, don’t quit that day job! You can write 1 page a day and have 3 first drafts in a year... which is what I did when I was working at the warehouse. That’s how I wrote COURTING DEATH (which sold and got me to Los Angeles) and a bunch of other screenplays, some that sold, some that got me assignments, and some that nothing happened with. Lots that nothing happened with! That’s how screenwriting works - you will write a stack of screenplays in order to sell one or land one assignment. So you need something to pay the bills in the meantime.

DAY JOBS FOR SCREENWRITERS

You don’t want to be writing from desperation. It’s difficult to write when you are worried about financial problems, so it’s best to have an income while trying to break in. What you want is a “disposable job” rather than a career. A career will get in the way of your career! I always picked jobs that I wouldn’t want to do for the rest of my life, as an incentive to write and not do it for the rest of my life. If I got too comfortable at my day job, it became my real job. So I looked for jobs that would pay the rent, didn’t require me to think much (so that I could be figuring out scenes at work) and had regular hours so that I could plan my writing around it. I know people who work in advertizing and do other things that are writing based day jobs and that’s good news and bad news; the good news is that you are writing and getting paid for it, the bad news is that you might use all of your creative energy writing ad copy for a toilet cleaner. But if you have a steady and stable job that is paying the bills, keep it until you have made enough money to survive for at least a year...

And then don’t be afraid to go back to work. There’s no shame in not being evicted and panic calling some guy you know in the middle of the night to see if you can crash at his place, you know, just until you sell something.

But once you get to Los Angeles, there are some day jobs that put you into contact with peopel in the business, and are better than working in a warehouse. In the “Breaking In Bluer Book” I have 15 ways to make connections in Los Angeles, and some of them are day jobs like working as an Office Production Assistant, Reader, Writer’s Assistant or Personal Assistant, and a bunch of others. But jobs that put you in contact with people in the business can be helpful - I know a limousine driver who takes people back and forth to the airport (and other places) and often has celebrities in the back of his limo... and became a Film Producer because he managed to option a screenplay and sign some second tier movie stars from the back of his limo, and then give the package to a few investors and producers and distributors in the back of his limo. Only in Hollywood! But the kind of job that puts you in contact with upscale clients that is in that “disposable” classification is a great way to make connections while you are paying the rent, and because it’s disposable you can quit when you sell a screenplay and then come back to it later if you need to. That was part of the reason why I choose working in the wine shop in Brentwood - celebrities and producers buy wine and I might meet them. That was the plan. I learned that movie stars and producers had personal assistants that did all of their shopping for them... so that’s maybe a better job choice.

But aside from the “disposable jobs” that put you in contact with people in the business, there are also disposable jobs that you can just pick up and drop whenever you want, and those are also good if you have moved to Los Angeles and suddenly find yourself in need of a job to keep from worrying about paying the bills so that you can concentrate on your screenplay and put your heart and soul into it. Scott Frank, writer-director of QUEEN’S GAMBIT (based on the Walter Tevis novel), told me that he trained to be a bartender because that was a job that you could do anywhere and there was always someone hiring. Lots of actors and actresses wait tables between acting gigs, and Kathleen Turner went back to waiting tables after filming her star-making role in BODY HEAT... she has talked about waiting tables when the posters with her picture started going up around town. If you ask any waiter in Los Angeles what they are auditioning for, they will have an answer!

IT’S GOTTA HAVE HEART!

But the main thing to do is find a way to be able to focus on your writing, and not be worried about looming eviction like that writer who wanted to crash at my place just, you know, until he sold something. He never had another film credit, so maybe he never sold anything? He might have become like Joe Gillis in SUNSET BLVD - just writing ‘From hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with,” and being so desperate and panicked that they are unable to put your heart and soul into your work.

You don’t want to just hack out what you think they want, because they don’t want hack work - they want something that you care about, that you are passionate about... that is also wildly commercial and will sell a bunch of tickets. What you write from hunger and desperation is going to smell of hunger and desperation - it’s not going to be that story that you needed to needed to tell. Later in SUNSET BLVD Joe Gillis bumps into that studio reader who trashed his script at a New Year’s Eve party, and she tells him that she read over all of the scripts he had submitted to the studio and found one with a great supporting character that she thought should have been the main character. Joe says that he knew someone like that character, and that subplot was personal and emotional to him... and the reader said that showed, and he should break off that character and write a new script about them... and he does. And that’s also what you need to do - find the stories that you are passionate about that also have commercial appeal and write those. Write the kind of movies that you regularly pay to see every week in the cinema - that you would stand in line to see! And you can’t write those from desperation! As writers, we are our “instrument” - we create from within, and it’s difficult to do that if you are worried about something else... so find the ways to be comfortable enough that you *can* create.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill



BREAKING IN?
bluebook

405 Pages!

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Should really be called the BUSINESS BLUE BOOK because it covers almost everything you will need to know for your screenwriting career: from thinking like a producer and learning to speak their language, to query letters and finding a manager or agent, to making connections (at home and in Hollywood) and networking, to the different kinds of meetings you are will have at Studios, to the difference between a producer and a studio, to landing an assignment at that meeting and what is required of you when you are working under contract, to contracts and options and lawyers and... when to run from a deal! Information you can use *now* to move your career forward! It's all here in the Biggest Blue Book yet!

Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 400 pages!

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Thank you to everyone!

Bill

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