Are we on the Same Page?

Many years ago, I was writing a script for one of the major studios. In advance of a phone conference, I sent a draft of the script to the junior producer. He was my point man on the project, my supposed ally in the campaign to get the script green-lighted by his bosses and the studio. He got back to me with a number of very specific suggestions, with which I disagreed. I protested a bit, but it became clear that these were changes I needed to make if he was going to be enthusiastic as he put the script on his boss’s desk.  I made the changes.

Later, in a conference call with the producers and the studio exec, the higher-ups in the room pointed to a number of things they thought needed to go from the screenplay. They were talking about the very changes that this assistant producer had insisted I make. He was in the room with the others, and I waited on my end of the phone for him to take some responsibility, or disagree.  But he just piled on, adding his voice to the chorus of negativity. I could have said something at that point, but I didn’t.

Today he has the top job at an important place in the industry. I'm sure that the details of our first encounter and hundreds like it have dissolved into the far depths of his memory. I'd like to think that he recalls our time working together fondly.

Tom Benedek's thoughts on screenwriting

I’d like to say that there are positive lessons a beginning screenwriter could learn from this story, changes in behavior or strategy that would ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. But there are no lessons. There are no lessons because this is simply the way it is. Within the system there are many masters that need to be served, many disparate voices that can bombard you with bits of contradictory advice and requests and then end the meeting looking for assurance that “we’re all on the same page.”

The writer gets off the phone and is left alone in a room with the impossible task of sorting it all out, the need to please various people with differing agendas. So, like a lab rat,  I learned to respond by producing not the best scripts I could, but the ones most likely to make producers and executives happy.

On a number of occasions I’ve handed a script over to an author whose book I adapted or to someone who’s portrayed in the script with this caveat: This is not the script I think should be shot. This is the script that I think will get the executives’ attention, or make the investors happy.  I’ve added some scenes that shouldn’t be in there, that we can’t afford to shoot, or that simply can’t be shot.  In other words, this is an extension of the pitch, not a real script. It's a waste of time and effort and, even more than that,  it’s soul crushing for the writer.

Which is why writing A Short History of Decay (Can I just call it ASHOD?) was so liberating. I thought only of the film that could be made from it. There were no voices of execs in my mind.  I was the only audience for the script; the standards I held it to were only my own.  And then I found a producing partner who loved the script and whose primary goal is to help me realize my vision of the film that can be made from it.
The producer I’m working with is perfectly ready to move ahead with the script I’ve got.  Like anyone who’s hands-on in the biz he’s considering the fact that the what’s on the page is a long way from what we’ll end up shooting, no matter how many changes I end up making. In his mind, we’re making a movie, not perfecting a document.

This puts me in a very different position than I’ve ever been in before. What I’ve been used to is producers and executives sending me back for endless rewrites on scripts that I think are pretty damn done.  They do this because they’re not really sure what it is they want, and because they can, despite the fact that it’s against WGA regulations.  All writers know that they’re asked to do free rewrites, yet those who complain about it are labeled troublemakers and will have a harder time finding work next time out.

I’m doing a rewrite anyway because I’m not entirely satisfied with all of my characters. I’m doing a rewrite so I can better define some of those characters for myself.  I need to be careful, as I’m the king of the kind of  painstaking, time-sucking script fiddling that rapidly reaches a point of diminishing return. As I alluded to in the previous post, I spent a month — almost as much time as it took me to write the entire script — making the small changes suggested to me by some readers. Like Penelope, taking apart the tapestry she spent the day weaving, I endlessly wrote, unwrote and rewrote scenes and dialogue until… until nothing. There’s no end to that, and I needed to once and for all get the thing off my desk before I grew to hate it.

So I’m determined to hand the script with production breakdowns over to the producer this week so he can get to work on a budget and pass it along to a casting director.  I have a rough idea of what the budget should be, and some very specific ideas about which actors I want to approach. Those two variables are of course inextricably linked. But this is material for many future posts.

See the first post in this series.

See the next post in this series.

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