The Good, The Bad, The Screenwriter

screenwriter gladiatorTo 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?)

screenwriterIn 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?

 

Annelie Widholm is a screenwriter, blogger and freelance writer who is passionate about storytelling in general, but storytelling in film and television in particular. She is an avid tea drinker, aspiring globetrotter and a believer in the goodness of very dark chocolate.

14 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, The Screenwriter

  1. The saying goes – you can’t make a good film from a bad script but you can make a bad film from a good script – or something to that effect. So a good script is paramount I think everyone agrees but execution is everything is making a film as is good luck- which is probably more important truth be told. Oliver Stone said he read “Pulp Fiction” at script stage and hated it- he thought it was too wordy but having seen the finished film thought the QT had done a genius job directing it, not at all what he had expected. So in this case the Director made all the difference- so who or what is more important- the script as written never to be changed unless the Writer agrees or the Director- who goes in with an open mind to what might happen in front of the camera and goes with what he thinks works on the day- in other words the script is just a blueprint for the finished film. Woody Allen has been nominated 16 times for best screenplay winning 3 times- Alec Baldwin when working on “Blue Jasmine” said that Woody asked the cast to say as much or as little of the dialogue as they were comfortable with. So in his case Woody the Director trumps Woody the Writer and there hasn’t been a Writer as good as Woody Allen since Ben Hecht . Peter Weir cut a lot of dialogue from the “Witness” script before he started shooting- the Writers complained alot evidently- then they won the Academy Award for best screenplay- I hope they thanked Peter Weir for fixing their script- who did not win the Directing Oscar.

    I could go on but I think in general Writers think Directors wreck their scripts which is true sometimes but not always. Once you are on the set it’s different and Writers have to accept what they had in their head writing the script is just a starting point not the be-all and end-all. When Quentin Tarantino was shopping Reservoir Dogs around- he was asked to sell it but he said no this one is mine to screw up.

    In the end I think every film needs a bit of luck good script or not.

    • Hello! And – oh, my goodness – forgive the very belated response to this. I am not entirely sure if you are arguing with the angle of the article I wrote and my sense of a lack of appreciation for the screenwriter as an integral part of the movie making machinery, or if you simply wanted to offer a wider comment on one aspect of my complaint – how a director may take a script and bullocks it to hell. Either way, I have a comment on your comment. 🙂

      Firstly, as I mentioned in the article, I in no way wish to undermine the role of the director. I didn’t proceed to hail the directors I admire, and pull out examples of them doing their job in stellar ways, simply because that wasn’t what the article was about. It wasn’t about the director being hailed, it was about the lack of what seems to be a clear understanding throughout the film community (apart from the screenwriters’ side of it) of what a good, well-crafted and balanced script would mean for those films with directors at the helm who don’t seem to sweat the smaller details. Like clear character motivation, arc and growth.

      A good script is paramount, I would stress, but no, not everyone agrees with that. In fact, most might nod their head and go uh-huh, but movies that don’t even have a functioning script yet get greenlit because of name actors and directors attached to them. And this is standard practice. The story is an afterthought, as long as marketing is getting ideas on whose name will top the poster. I get it. It’s a game of cashback and these days original stories get buried because franchises promise a huge revenue flow opening weekend, but it’s just so depressing, then, that these franchises always begin so strong and then they disintegrate. Why? Because of a lack of attention to detail. Like clear character motivation, arc and growth.

      It’s interesting that you would choose Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen as your examples because, obviously, they are directors who not only direct, but also write their own movies. To my mind, they are also two of the world’s best character writers and deliver character driven plots that explore the human condition. Moreover, they have complete autonomy over their own work and, in their instance, the writer is not only integral to the outcome of their film, the writer works as closely with the director as any could ever hold any hope to. When not actually sharing the same body, mind and soul. Literally. 😉

      My point being that I am not saying that writers should sit in the director’s chair if they’re not, in fact, directors. The job of a director is vast and all-encompassing and absolutely momentously important for the film to be anything at all in the end. My point was simply to indicate that, quite possibly, there are productions that would fair well with the creative input of the writer. If more directors could open up to the idea of having an honest discussion of their vision with someone who has ultimately laid the foundation for that vision, and if these directors could then be willing to actually listen to council, then perhaps movies you feel sucked when there was no real reason for them to, could have been salvaged.

      And of course you are right in saying that a lot of scripts are changed for the better by directors who are truly savvy in the storytelling arena. They cut and slice and hack away at the unnecessary to get to the heart of the matter and they take the characters to new heights. I, in no way, meant to imply that this is not a real truth and I, too, have a whole bunch of directors whose movies I watch thanks to the fact that they directed them, usually (and to my shame) without knowing beforehand who actually wrote them. A great director will do credit to the title he/she holds and direct a small village of employees onto the right path and keep them there, steadily, while making sure all of them have the same ultimate destination in mind. This is no small feat to pull off and I understand that there is more to the task than anyone who hasn’t actually gone through it can fully comprehend, but being a director does not, for some reason, always mean that you are a storyteller.

      My article was more or less a cry for egos to diminish, beause who straps themselves to the directors chair if they don’t believe that they have what it takes to make a good movie without anyone else telling them what to do? Some are lucky enough to be part of the few who really don’t, but others might find that listening to that council might expand their understanding of what the script is trying to do and help make them a better filmmaker in the process. Everything should go both ways, is all I’m saying, and right now it seems we’re all stuck on a one way street.

      As far as luck goes, I’m not sure I believe that. I believe it takes a captivating story, hard work and, no question, the right crew. From the people who do the catering to the lighting department to the editor. Everyone matter and everyone’s job is equally important for the production to flow. For the movie to succeed – apart from a good, solid script, of course – I do think that casting is everything. Big name or no name doesn’t matter, as long as they’re believable in the part they’re playing.

      Right’o. I think that’s quite enough from me. 🙂 Thanks for commenting and hope you could bear with me through the length of this response.

      All my very best,
      Annelie.

  2. It’s been said that it takes three or four completed screenplays before the screenwriter gets it right. I agree that writing a screenplay is a lot of work but when you are passionate about writing, it isn’t work! James, thanks for visiting and following my blog…I will be back to read more of yours!

    • Hello! Not entirely sure how to respond because your comment could mean that you disagree with the part of my article stating that writing a screenplay is hard work, or it could simply be you expressing your joy of writing. I will comment thusly: I love to write. I mean, I adore it and always have. I can’t imagine my life without it and I am so incredibly grateful that I am able to think thoughts that form ideas that build characters and worlds and stuff like that. It’s amazing. I am one of those writers that absolutely write for the love of it and I don’t think I will ever become one of those writers that truly consider it a regular 9-5 job and don’t really enjoy it that much.

      However, writing a screenplay (or a novel) is hard work and it feels exactly like hard work no matter how much I love to write. There will be days when the words flow easily, as though some unseen hands are wearing my hands like gloves and are doing the writing for me. This – as mentioned in the article and despite the slightly unsettling undertone of that description- is why I love to write. Those days make all those other days completely worth it. Those other days of questioning that choice I made on page fifty or page seventy-five or, gasp, page eleven! This changes EVERYTHING! Cue: cold sweat.

      I love the editing process. I love feeling as though I am improving on what I’ve created. I love the truly and magnificently creative moments and I love the push it takes to conquer moments of sheer doubt. I do love it all, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, it’s f*ing hard work. 😉

      Thanks for the comment!
      All my very best,
      Annelie.

  3. could not agree more! Can I say ‘amen’ as a Scot? mmm..doesn’t quite work. But if I were American I so would 😀

    I would even go as far as to say that if the writer were treated with the importance they deserve we’d solve a good 90% of my issues with film as it stands. A pretty face and glossy production coat do not great cinema make. I can look past the dodgiest of effects if the story grips.

    • Hell, I say Aaaaamen as a Swede so you can damn well say it as a Scot. 🙂

      I am so on board with you regarding a gripping storyline. Sometimes I feel if they had just put in a few ounces of extra energy on creating a truly compelling character arc instead of something generically half-assed, the fifteen minute blow-shit-up parts wouldn’t annoy me so much. And hey, they only annoy me when they are so clearly the only thing that the creators of the movie have put any energy into at all. When the story is good then the action sets are thrilling. (Avengers, Iron Man, Transformers, Star Trek Into Darkness etc. etc.) An example of the really bad ones is the one with Gerald Butler. The one when he’s in the White House. The recent one. Yeah, that one.

  4. I was interested to read this Annelie, as I know zero about screenwriting. I did once write a short (30 minute) play for the theatre. I thought it was tight, relevant, and excellent. Everyone hated it! (Unsympathetic main character, apparently. That WAS the point…)
    Lesson learned…Your job is hard, and it is good to read about it.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete – and I feel for you. That sounds madly harsh. Those unsympathetics are some of the hardest characters to write, though. Lovely of you to leave a comment and you’re not writing anything now, then?

      All my very best!
      Annelie.

  5. Interesting perspective on a profession that–I agree–should be heralded more often. Things definitely change over the course of a production, and I think that can certainly seem frustrating to a screenwriter: I know one whose very concept was pretty much tweaked to the point of unrecognition, to his dismay. I do agree that it would be helpful for the screenwriter to be always present during production, but I also think it’s in the nature of group ensembles for ideas and texts to be transformed.

    • Hello!

      Oh, I am in absolute agreement that it’s totally the nature for the text to transform. If and when it’s for the better. I will respond at greater length in a reply above, but thanks so much for commenting and I hope I didn’t come off as a whiny screenwriter who is bitching about how her screenplay might be wrecked.

      Okay, I was kind of that because, dang it, it might be completely wrecked. 🙂

      But, seriously, my gripe is with the waste of insight that would be gained by including the screenwriter in the process rather than simply excluding them, it is not with the fact that a screenplay is a living thing as much as the production itself and it is inevitable that things will be changed, added and taken out during the process of going from a bunch of papers to full-on moving pictures.

      All my very best,
      Annelie.

  6. After several years of mostly unsuccessful attempts at writing screenplays, i wrote a short play for a 10 minute play festival. During rehearsals, the director called me to say the play was a little bit long and she had some ideas for very minor cuts. It was an amazing epiphany for me. I started to thank her for doing me the courtesy of informing me about what she was cutting. But she was waiting for me to approve changing even a single word. Writing for film had tamed me. It was thrilling to be briefly working in a medium where the writer was considered paramount. Then, idiot that I am, I went back to writing movies. BTW, Annelie, I watched Without last week. Lovely piece. Fine directing, acting, and cinematography. And EXCELLENT WRITING.

    • That sounds like an experience worth having, that’s for sure. Ah, the theatre. It’s also funny to think that theatre is where it all began, really, and still there is a chasm between how a writer is treated there vs. The Other Medium. Well, not always. Absolutely not always. But as close to it as you can bloody get.

      And wow, thank you for going to check out Without. And your kind words warm! Lovely to read, truly, thank you so much.

      All my very best!
      Annelie.

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