Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to be Successful as a Screenwriter

When you’re learning to write a screenplay, or you’re writing your first or your whatever, and you have no experience or contacts in the movie world but you’re passionate about your work and you have a powerful dream, you’re pretty vulnerable. You tend to believe anything anybody tells you so long as they do it convincingly.

You’re easy pickings for self-styled authorities who earn a grand living with books or lectures or seminars on how to write the perfect screenplay, how to avoid the mistakes that amateurs make. Who tell you that unless you write the perfect screenplay you won’t be able to sell it. And they of course know how to identify that perfection and formularize it. They make it sound so cut and dried.

You think – right! All I have to do is do what they tell me and I’ll be able to write the perfect screenplay and I’ll be made. QED, Quite Easily Done, as a mad Maths teacher once told me with a scary giggle. Better get onto that Oscar speech.

The vulnerability of scriptwriters not confident in their own judgment, humble enough and willing to learn and desperate to succeed has made for a giant sector within the movie industry. There’s everything right and nothing wrong with learning from pros, but it’s the gurus who believe they have plumbed the depths of the success formula and who seamlessly forge a connection between what they can teach you at a goodly price – or simply for their ego trip - and you being able to sell your screenplay that gets my goat.

If they’ve so got their finger on the success pulse, why are so many terrible scripts made into films? Here’s the reality: there’s no formula to success in selling your screenplay.

Take this scenario: you write a screenplay, you hand it to an editor. They tell you to throw it in the dumpster, there’s nothing of any value in it. You follow their advice. Well that’s the end of that, isn’t it? The next day you retrieve it and show it to another editor. They think it has merit but you need to change the sex of your protagonist. You don’t want to, so you show it to another editor, who says the sex of the protagonist is fine, but you need to change the storyline and they tell you how.

If you were to follow their advice you’d of course be ghostwriting their screenplay. But you follow it anyway, because you’re a novice and they know what they’re talking about. Or that’s what you believe. Eventually you write something that pleases this editor. You don’t feel as passionately about it as you did your original story. But you get to show it to a producer. Who doesn’t like it, says the story doesn’t feel authentic. You take a risk and say actually it’s not. The producer asks what you mean. You tell them, you originally wrote a different storyline altogether. The producer says what was it? You tell them. They like it.

As it happens, this is a true story. The writer was a South African, the producer from New York. The writer had attended a very prescriptive course and was told unless he changed his screenplay completely he didn’t have a chance in hell of it ever being read by a producer. He’d be lucky if it ever made it to the pile of reading matter in any producer’s toilet.

You can’t formularize why somebody succeeds and somebody doesn’t. You can read screenplays that you think are brilliant – and that probably somebody else thinks are dreadful – and learn what you can from them. You can study the craft, and structure that goes back to Greek plays. You can study people in depth so that your work reflects your insight. But, some people want that in films, some people don’t get it and don’t care. Or you can not understand people at all, and write something childish and shallow. Some will love it, some will hate it. You can please some but you can’t please all, no matter what you do.

Robert de Niro said once about auditioning that it’s pointless trying to impress the director. The best you can do is forget about impressing anybody, but just do the best you can. Be as authentically you as possible, because that’s where your greatest strength lies. I thought it was pretty good advice for any kind of creative enterprise.

Once you’ve done your best with a screenplay, you can show what you’ve written to anybody you want, but how do you know that any suggestions they make will make your work better or more marketable? You don’t. The impact of art in any form is totally subjective; there is no ultimate good or bad, especially with movies. Personally, I think it makes sense to do the best you can, then set about doing the best you can to sell it to a producer. If one says yes, I’ll buy it and here’s the money but I want you to change something, then if you want the money you can say fine, I’ll change it, when the money’s in my bank account.

Otherwise, you’re kind of pissing into the wind by changing things because other people think you should. You could spend your whole life trying to ‘perfect’ one screenplay. Better to write a score of less than perfect and try and sell them, and learn by your own experience how to be more powerful in what you want to say in your writing and in pitching to producers. Whether that power actually creates success or not I can’t say, but I do know it impacts on people. It’s kind of an animal thing.

Here’s what else I know; writing a screenplay is a huge amount of work. I can’t imagine anything worse than spending my whole life writing to try and please somebody else but never pleasing myself. And imagine if I never sold anything anyway. What a total waste of a life that would be.