Word San Diego
(or Why Shit Don't Stink When it Atleast Oughta Smell!) .
by MICHAEL STEVEN GREGORY
Attitude is everything. Compared to writing novels, short stories or narrative nonfiction, say, spinning screenplays for a living is an utterly different, tumultuous beast. In fact, many writers who don’t write scripts, those who prefer instead to remain ensconced in the stuffy comfort writing books and magazine pieces allows, tend to raise their noses at the whoring, professional screenwriter, the one writer who so often remains unmemorable among the credited many who’ve contributed so mightily to the most recent of inexcusable travesties soiling both big screens and small.
“Of what ilk are my brethren,” so often it is asked, “that would allow themselves to sink so very, very low?”
Good question, yo. Let me tell you.
Beyond being the writers who seemingly get paid obscene amounts of money for drafting mediocrity marketed as majesty, screenwriters of merit are the Samurai of storytellers. We are the special forces of the creative writing world. On our backs we shoulder the significant weight of myriad expectations placed on a calculated stake of millions, sometime tens of millions, of dollars in an industry valued in the billions. From the studio exec who greenlights a picture to the actors, craftspeople and technicians whose cumulative efforts create it, from the theater chains and television networks that show it to the audiences that will be the ultimate judge, everybody, for whatever personal reasons, wants only one simple thing when it comes down to the screening: don’t suck.
While no screenwriter I know sets out to write crap, the fact remains a lot of crap seems to get written. Or is it just that lots of crap gets made?
In fact, all three of the above statements are true.
Screenplays are like haiku. The constraints within which screenwriters work are so clearly delineated in terms of formatting and space limitations that the density of every word rendered on the page must constantly be measured. There’s no room for excess on the precious white real estate that comprises the bulk of the average screenplay. Whereas novelists routinely get upwards of 100,000 words or more to tell a meaningful tale of substantive depth, the feature-length screenwriter must communicate the same vivid, viscerally gratifying experience to the reader, then finally, the watcher, in roughly 80,000 words less. That is to say, in about 20,000 words.
Oh, and on time. And on budget.
Whether to distill the considerable breadth of a robust book or build from scratch a story that will deliver on the expectations roused in an unsuspecting reader the same experience as that of a book, to do so in 90 to 110 pages, now that requires some uniquely honed skills.
Beyond merely writing a good, rewarding read, the screenwriter must also throw into the mix several layers of practical obstacles and arbiters that inevitably bridge completion of the script to completion of the movie on which it is based. With the impact and influence of interpretive elements intrinsic to the movie’s evolution, in the form of producers, directors, talent, special effects artists, editors et al, the odds of actually realizing the movie first seen in the screenwriter’s mind, the movie that so many others are now vested fully into – or at least into the version of the movie that plays in their head – are pretty slim. On a bad day, the movie that results from the noble intentions of the consciences screenwriter is some hideously disfigured thing baring no resemblance whatsoever to the beautiful baby the screenwriter delivered. On a good day, the movie is often better than the writer had envisioned. Truly, that is the benefit of the great collaborative art movie making is. But this being the screenwriting business, there are good days and bad years.
Over my 20 good and bad years of writing screenplays professionally, the crap factor has figured heavily in my work. I’ve written crap I was convinced at the time of its execution was anything but. I’ve written scripts I’m very proud of that, somewhere in the process after leaving my fingers, became crap. I’ve re-written many other writers’ crap. And I’ve been re-written by writers whose crap was no crappier than my crap. I constantly consider what constitutes crap, because crap has never once been something I’ve aspired to write, and certainly never want to be accused of having knowingly written. Mediocrity should never be anyone’s goal, let alone the standard of acceptability.
So, given the incalculable odds against getting a movie made that accurately reflects the writer’s great, shining ambition of purposeful being, why even bother trying? Why not write novels, even stage plays, where the author’s vision remains in the control of the writer – where the validation of being a writer lies in the prose of the finished manuscript itself? Why choose a career path rife with heartache, disappointments, frustration and often excruciating anonymity? Where finishing the script is only the beginning of a likely long, arduous journey on which you may never embark?
In part, answering these questions and understanding the person behind them is what I set out to do when deciding to make the documentary, or “doculogue,” as I call it, We, The Screenwriter. In retrospect, I think also my intent for making it was to understand why, after all these years of selling or optioning feature after feature, being paid to do uncredited re-writes of other writer’s scripts, periodically writing under pseudonyms to get paid some money at least, though less than the Writer’s Guild of America demands, having been a staff writer on TV series for Fox, UPN and HBO, yet still be required to turn in spec scripts of shows I don’t watch in order to get an assignment on one that I do, after having come so very, very close time and time again to seeing my latest-most-beloved-project brought to the screen – then not – why am I still writing this crap? Why the hell did I ever start?
Rediscovering Me, The Screenwriter
Similar to We, The Writer, my 1996 film dealing mostly with San Diego authors in the publishing world, We, The Screenwriter (Vol. 1) presents a frenetic, fast-paced portrait of the person, process and profession of screenwriting in today’s Hollywood. Specifically, sixteen screenwriters are included in this first of two pictures. Together their credits span features and television, including Air Bud, Any Given Sunday, Battlestar Galactica, Cleopatra, Constantine, Hill Street Blues, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Land of Oz, Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, Mission Impossible: 2, Moby Dick, Pacific Heights, Perfect Romance, Resurrecting the Champ, Roswell, The Role of a Lifetime, The Silver Surfer, Spawn, Spider-Man Unlimited, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Sum of All Fears, Tales from the Crypt, Timeline, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, and more.
With the titles and soundtrack now being married to the movie, it was only during the writing of this article that I discovered that I actually began working on WTS three and a half years ago. There was a lull in my career back then, my career, like many, being filled with interminable periods of unfathomable depression punctuated by fits of productivity. Well, I was having no such fits, no new ideas, no enthusiasm to work on whatever was being offered, so figured I should start making a movie. Boredom is as good a reason to make a movie as any. The day after scratching the cornea of one of my eyeballs in a Morley Field disc golfing accident (a totally other story) as badly as a cornea can be scratched without going blind (or so the optometrist who scalded me a week later said), I was in L.A. to begin shooting the first four interviews for We, The Screenwriter. My cameraman would ask me to check a shot and I’d look into the view finder. Was it in focus, out of focus? I really couldn’t tell you. That’s how badly my eyeball was scratched.
Anyhow, as with the first film, there are no on-screen questions or interviewers. It’s just rapid-fire cross-cutting from one subject to the next, often discussing multiple topics simultaneously – like some boozy, late-night confab between a bunch of garrulous storytellers gathered around a few tables telling stories. But the stories to be told, the questions and issues addressed, weren’t really known when first going in.
See, when it comes to docs, it’s very easy for the writer/director to shape the path of the show by going in with an agenda or pre-conceived notions of what it should be and where it will take the audience. Michael Moore, for example, is a master at this approach. With me, at least on the We Write films, I prefer to let the conversation dictate the shape and direction of the story. It’s very much an organic experience that I trust will materially reveal itself as we move along. Maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction from my plot-point driven early years as a screenwriter, I don’t know. Regardless, each writer profiled is interviewed separately at a different location. The primary reason for doing only four interviews at a time is so I can then get into the editing room and listen to what was discussed afterward in effort to discover what possible new topics might prove fodder to delve into deeper come the next round of interviews. After each four interviews, the process repeated until, at length, all sixteen interviews were completed, several hundred pages of conversation transcribed, and a structure formulated in which to best communicate the often complex, multi-faceted perspectives that have caused the creation of arguably some great, sometimes mediocre, other times absolutely crappy entertainment.
But that’s all boring, so let’s get back to me. Suddenly, the phone rang. As it so often goes in the writing business, in life in general, it only requires one person to place his or her faith in your potential and dial the phone to change your life’s course. Where We, The Screenwriter was funded exclusively through my company, Random Cove, without negotiating any deals that would’ve resulted in production funding from other entities that had pinged interest, and which I believe would have affected my approach to the movie’s overall content, when the phone started ringing, too many other projects afforded the revenue stream and opportunities to conveniently prolong its completion. Given that many were screenwriting projects that ultimately only time will tell whether the efforts were worth it or not, through them what I was reminded me of, likewise by every single screenwriter appearing in WTS, is the fundamental, most important reason of why.
Why do I and roughly 13,000 other WGA screenwriters – about one-third of which actually make a living writing screenplays – and all the other aspiring screenwriters out there who, collectively, registered around 50,000 screenplays, treatments and general ideas for movies and TV shows with the Guild last year for an American industry that pumps out only around 300 movies annually, do this to ourselves? Why do we bother to aspire, to dream, to desire to be a part of a medium that systematically sabotages our ideals and efforts, and which too often clearly regards our contributions with such disdain?
Why do we write this crap?!
Because it ain’t. Not really. In my estimate, every word on every page is infused with my belief and conviction of its potential. Like Fox Moulder in The X-Files, I want to believe. Now more than ever, in fact, I do believe. That’s what I recovered in making We, The Screenwriter, the confidence of putting my faith in the abilities of craft to execute a story that will engage and inspire and evoke and inform a stranger whom I’ll never meet, seated elsewhere in the world before a brightly lit screen in which s/he’s placed her trust and hope that what is about to be revealed on it will touch and entertain, possibly even move, with mere words.
Is that copping an attitude? Damn straight. Pictures, after all, begin with words.
Copyright © 2005 Michael Steven Gregory