To write a screenplay means dedicating yourself to hard, arduous and often frustrating work, as well as hour upon hour of pen-gnawing, wall-staring and creeping self-doubt. And when the first version is finally ready, you, as the writer, know that the editing process will inevitably take at least as many hours of dedication. Your screenplay is, in this first version, barely more finished than if you were to sit down and start from scratch. But this burdensome fact is lightened by moments of absolute clarity during the writing process, when pieces click themselves into place, and details that you were barely conscious of gain a new and significant meaning. In those moments, the world around you seems to come into focus in a way that few get to experience, and it is simply marvellous.
As a screenwriter, I am deeply satisfied occupying a space behind the camera. I have no need whatsoever for public recognition, applause in the movie theatres (though, admittedly, that would be all kinds of fantastic), or any desire for my name to be top-billed on the movie poster. But there is something that astonishes me about the community I wish to join: the screenwriter is not considered a cornerstone of every production and, instead, the tendency is to not even have the screenwriter present for the shoot.
How can this be so? How can the person, whose inner-thoughts made it possible for the film to even exist, simply get a handshake, a pay-check and be expected to hand over the reigns completely to the holiest of the holy: the director? I don’t mean to undermine the role of the director; some of them take a script and elevate it to new heights. But then again, others don’t seem to grasp the concept of a character arc, or how the building blocks of the screenplay have been strategically placed together for very specific reasons – and when one of these building blocks is removed it will result in changing the very core of the script (read Gladiatora and watch the film and you’ll understand what I mean. Why, Ridley Scott? Why?)
In the Scriptnotes podcast, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discuss this reality for professional screenwriters, and both agree that the decision to exclude the person/persons from the production who, like no other, know the details of the world about to be realised and recorded, is something close to madness. The screenwriter has spent years of his or her life nursing their idea and understand each and every moment, every beat of their script, and is also fully aware of the choices that were made along the way in order to realise the final draft. The screenwriter, for this reason, is well positioned to argue against making any changes that may harm the finished product. To not keep the writer on hand as a script advisor, throughout the different stages of production, seems a poor decision from an investor’s point of view.
Unfortunately the reality is what it is, and the screenwriter’s role in the spinning wheel that is the film community is continuously taken for granted (no wonder so many screenwriters are also directors). The hard, arduous and often frustrating work of the screenwriter is easily overlooked, and the prevailing attitude seems to be that anyone with a strong enough idea can sit down and write a screenplay. Fair enough. I could probably hammer together a bridge if I wanted to. The question is, would anyone choose to cross it? And how would it stand the test of time?