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Saturday, January 3, 2009

What it's Worth

The other day I took a meeting at the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel. In the Polo Lounge, to be exact. The type of place I used to frequent in my past (married) life. All white gloves, caps, red carpets and deferential greetings. It's not that the food at a place such is this really is that much better - some of my favorite eateries in San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the funky neighborhoods - no, it's the service. The unmitigated, all out attentiveness. That's what you have to pay more for and that's what you get at high end establishments. And you know what? It's pretty darn nice to be treated as though you are important and your needs and comfort matter.

That's how I felt when the Mini-W and I saw THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood yesterday. The movie clocks in at something like two hours and 45 minutes but for us, it was two hours and 45 minutes of white glove, tip capping, door opening "good morning, ma'am." Every detail of the movie was designed for your viewing pleasure and satisfaction. From the clever button CGI Paramount logo at the beginning, to the lush soundtrack, gorgeous set design with fastidious period detail, to the exacting makeup and beautiful cinematography to the stellar acting, resonant theme and satisfying ending.

Now, when you're writing a script and if you should get so lucky as to sell it and if you should be so spectacularly fortunate to see it produced, the production values and budget are totally out of your hands. But you want to write a script that is so fantastic that the producers of the subsequent movie are so passionate about it that there is a beautiful collaboration in bringing your story to life. But the most wonderful production values in the world cannot elevate a hollow story. So the lowest paid, least glamorous, generally unknown writer of a movie really does play the most important part. Because without the heart and skill you pour onto your pages, nothing else really matters.

Most aspiring screenwriters think they have to please an agent or manager with their writing. And they do. But you want to write a script that not only gets an agent or manager excited, but also gets a production company excited as well. And not just one guy at the production company but several. A great number of people have to get on board in order to push your project forward. That any movie ever gets produced is a miracle. When that movie is good, it is a major miracle. When it is great - well, that's some kind of magic.

Your script has to generate a viral excitement. No matter what the budget is, you are writing something that needs to fuel the passion of a cinematographer to do her best work, for a director to get excited with his or her vision for the movie, for a set designer to pull out the stops, for costume designers, makeup artists and grips to do their best work. Because when everybody is passionate about your script, when they really GET IT and LOVE IT, then movie magic can happen.

The amount of collaboration on a movie is staggering. If you've ever visited the set of a major motion picture, you know that it takes a small city to make a movie. The number of people on a set is absolutely mind-blowing to me. Every time. I don't get over my awe.

A good friend of mine who has worked in production for over 20 years now likens film production to launching a small, highly organized army for an offensive. Every single day. For weeks. Walkie talkies buzz, people ride by on bicycles, trucks pull in and out loaded with lighting and equipment, assistants scurry, stars rehearse their lines, extras await direction, caterers provide a never-ending supply of hot food, directors sit behind the camera, brows furrowed, having long conversations with producers and the DP over this or that scene or shot. Booms raise and lower and huge cables snake everywhere. It is another day at work for many, but to me, it is mindboggling how this organized chaos coalesces into a movie.

Everyone is working on making your story come to life. They're happy for the work and happy for the opportunity to have a credit that highlights their respective technical or creative skills. Everybody wants the movie to do well - of course.

But it all starts with you. One line of thinking is that you should write what YOU are passionate about. Period. Don't try to second guess the market, this line of reasoning continues, just write your heart out. Don't worry about what is "hot" right now or what feedback you might get from a producer - just write what totally ignites and inspires you.

And I do subscribe to that philosophy, very much. But something begins to happen over time, as your screenwriting skill and intuition sharpens - there is an intersection of what makes you passionate and what makes others passionate as well. The more you write, the more you begin to intuit universal resonance in film.

This is what usually happens for screenwriters*

Write semi-autobiographical, dramatic, fairly dull script with your very low, newbie skill set.

Write a derivative riff on some movie (or movies) you really personally liked - but fall short.

Write about three more of those.

Have some kind of existential crisis and write a slasher when you hate slashers.

Write a script that you like and that others like too but that is not commercial enough.

Write about three more of those.

*I say generally because by and large this is the pattern. But there are always exceptions, so stuff it, Anonymous.

Then, one day, after having written about 10 scripts that went nowhere, you have a flash of insight. It's almost a religious experience, this insight. You get an idea to write something you really love and you have a very rebellious "screw it" attitude. But you smile to yourself while writing it because you have a weird feeling deep in your gut that you have in some way arrived at the creative crossroads of writing what YOU love but with an understanding of what audiences love too. And it is usually THIS script that finally gets you repped, optioned or sold. Because you simultaneously don't give a good god damn what anybody else thinks and know that this is exactly the attitude that's going to show on the pages and make them sing. You've stopped being so careful about your writing. You've stopped second-guessing every idea, every page, every character. You're finally in the zone. You feel confident. You've found your voice.

Now, there are no guarantees that that script really will sell or be produced. But now you are a real contender because you can replicate this experience into your next script and your next.

You can't go around it, you can't go over it, you have to go through it. Which is why screenwriters don't generally skip crappy scripts one through ten and just write a great one. Because there is a learning curve. It's repetition and frustration and learning. It's wax on, wax off. One day, everything just clicks. But scripts one through ten were important too. They were part of the learning curve.

We'd all like to hit the fast forward button and just arrive at total balance, abundance, wisdom and maturity. We'd all rather have skipped the painful, acne prone high school years or the bad marriage entered into too young or the unfortunate incident at the margarita mixer party. But we become the sum of our experiences and if we hadn't had them - the good and the bad - we wouldn't be who we are today. It's the same with writing. How could it not be?

Well then, how does one start off screenwriting with the knowledge that your first few scripts are going to be terrible? You can't. You have to believe each one will be great - just like you really believed that electric blue suit you wore to the prom was really great. But when the script falls short because you get no read requests, or you get a set of notes with global notes advocating a total page one rewrite, you simply have to shrug your shoulders and go for it. Again. Writing is not a destination, it's a journey. A pretty long one. Know that now and embrace it. Nothing worth having comes easy. But tell you one thing, when you slid into that electric blue suit for prom, you looked in the mirror and you thought - damn. Right? Am I right? You had to. Else you never would have gotten out the door.

Now here's a truth difficult to hear: Only a few writers will write 10 scripts and then experience success by way of a sale. A tiny fraction of all aspiring writers, in fact. I know. It's depressing. But it's the case. Because we have an unknowable, unquantifable quality at play here - talent. Do you have it? If you could know that now, with certainty, the game wouldn't be very fun to play, would it? You knew before you started writing scripts that there is absolutely no guarantee of anything, right?

And yet - there's pleasure to be had in the undertaking. Because like all those dancers, musicians, sculptors, poets and writers that came before you - the unsung and the successful - you are driven to create. So that's what you should be doing. Regardless of the outcome.

That's my wish for you in 2009: Enjoy this journey of creation. Keep it real, keep your eyes wide open, but when you open up your computer to write, do it with all your heart. No matter what the outcome of your writing is, you're doing something that is in my view pretty mystical - you are creating something from nothing. And there's nothing more meaningful and worthwhile than that.

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Theresa said...

Wonderful and inspiring as usual, Miss Julie! As an artist, we always say that there are thousands of bad drawings that have to come out of your hand before you can start making good ones. Same with writing, it seems. And I LOVED Benjamin Button too. Yay for greatness!

Anonymous said...

Julie T, you've got chops. As in major CHOPS. That you can create and coalesce meaning, in prose that sings, every day, is at once astonishing, comforting and inspiring. Today's effort was/is Astair and Rogers, Baryshnikov and Charisse, F. Scott and Nabokov, with a dash of Mike Royko and Raymond Carver, all rolled into one. Thank you, for every day you're able to reach out and give, like this.

JPS said...

A brilliant piece, Julie. You hit it right out of the ballpark. This, people, is the absolute truth of this business. Print it out, tack it up. It's stuff you only learn after years of hard work.

Julie Gray said...

Gosh, thank you, you three. That means a lot. Chops come to those who write bad crap for years. :)

Christina said...

Someone asked Blake Snyder how many scripts he'd written at one of his workshops and it was something crazy, like 60 or 70. Puts it in perspective when you're complaining about script #7.

Gerry Hayes said...

I love it and hate it, in equal measure, when you tell it like it is. I hate remembering how it is.

That said, I (we) need to hear it. Damn 'how it is', damn it to hell!

Julie Gray said...

@Gerry - LOL - well, my motto is that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It is what it is. Nothing comes easy. But if you knew, at age 18, the heartbreak and disappointment that lies ahead of you, would you have made the choices you made? Of course not. We can't know. We can be told but we have to experience it ourselves. So for all those aspiring screenwriters out there on script number two, which they are certain will sell - have at it. Hold onto that passion and belief. It will get you to script number 13. Without that belief tempered with the advice and thoughts of others, you'd give up now. And if you give up, we might not get to enjoy the next ORDINARY PEOPLE or RAGING BULL or JUNO. So keep writing. Do it for me. Do it for all of us.

JPS said...

Just a personal note: as a novelist, I had to write twelve books before my thirteenth was published as my first novel. Twelve attempts in as many years. And I don't regret a minute of it, because that long apprenticeship taught me discipline, craft and how to develop my artistry as a prose writer.

Nothing is ever wasted when you're striving to become a writer.

Christina said...

Juno was a first script. It's a bad example - it was written by someone who was way more naturally talented than most of us; a writer who didn't have to go through the 10-script process you're talking about. I know someone who has worked with Diablo Cody and he told me she's like this mental bright light - that she'd be successful at whatever she tried.

A better example is Little Miss Sunshine. That author admitted somewhere that he wrote like a 100 drafts before it was ready.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Screenwriting is like having a small business.

Run it like one then you will know if it's worth it.

One's imagination is very experimental and without a map. It's not designed for screenwriters but for experimental artists.

One's heart is not designed for screenwriting. It's hungry for the stuff others have. Writers who are living comfortably, do so because writing comes easy to them and they don't treat it like art, but like a business. Just like my buddy PHD Math professor. He does not try, just does it. And I'm not going to compete with him, because I'm a very average Math guy.

So it's only worth it, if you know what your are good at.

Compare your best script with the pros. If after 5 years of your best and you havn't
sold a script. I think its time you find something you are good at.

We all have potential...find yours.

Then it will be worth it.


Julie Gray said...

@Anonymous - aka - "K" - great comment. I run a small business (TSD) and I'm a screenwriter - you couldn't be more correct. It's not for everyone, and absolutely not everyone (by far) will find success doing it, but I advocate for joyfulness in the process of discovery. Without a joyful, playful attitude, nothing is worth doing at all.

A Who said...

I opened my latest file/story/script after reading this post and realized that even knowing all the pitfalls before me -- it doesn't matter how often I am told (warned) about the difficulties of the process, I have to do it. I can't plan it. I can't decide: after ten scripts, THEN I'll be ready. I just have to do it, come what may. I'll do what I can to get better and then... I don't really know. I am a Newbie. I've only written three full length scripts and a half-dozen or so shorts, so I guess I do indeed have a long road ahead.
S'alright, 'cause sitting down here is the one time in my day that I feel like things are "happening" and that I am not just a slave to errands, chores and the whims of fate.

Julie, I loved this post and will read it often to remind myself of the why and way.

p.s. Happy New Year

Julie Gray said...

@A Who - that's a great comment! Hey, eyes wide open and heart full of passion, that's the way to go. Being that I own a script coverage company, I find it important and ethical to remind writers that there are no guarantees. But if you can have fun while you write, if the very act brings you joy, the outcome won't matter as much. And ironically, when you can let go of the outcome, you're more likely to succeed. Stupid ironies of life! :)