Saturday, July 23, 2005

Crap + 1


I have a screenwriting friend who, when he sees a great movie, gets quite depressed. There's such a gap, he feels, between the work he does and what's up there on screen, how could he feel anything but inadequate and terrible? Then he goes and sees an awful film, and emerges from the theater ebullient. "I can't believe that thing got made," he says, "but it gives me hope."

It's a sentiment often echoed by screenwriters trying to break in when they self-assess their work. "It's not the greatest," they'll say, "But it's better than half the junk I see out there that sells."
My writing partner, Ted Elliott, points out the fallacy of this thinking. "To look at the crap that's out there, and aim for just better than that, isn't much of a goal," he says. "'Crap-plus-one' isn't really worth aspiring to. And it's not much of a career strategy." Better to be inspired by the classics and aim for that level, he says, even if it's never reached.

I agree, but for another, more practical reason: a film you see in the theater tells you nothing about the original screenplay that propelled that film into production.

People (including critics) who speak about a screenplay based on the film in theaters are demonstrating their ignorance of the business. You think the script to WATERWORLD sucked? Maybe it did, maybe not. I don't know, I haven't read it. LAST ACTION HERO? I heard the original script was actually quite decent, but I couldn't tell you for sure. Again -- I haven't read it.

This flies in the face of common practice, I know. People see a film and say, "The cinematography was nice, but the script sucked" and we know what they mean -- the story didn't work, and the story is the province of the writer, right? Critics will watch a film and comment, "Director Smithee struggles valiantly trying to elevate mediocre material into something worth watching." Even film pros talk about unsatisfying endings and muddled Act Twos as if the films we see are faithful visual realizations of the written screenplay.

If only it were so. It's become one of the mantras of the Wordplay site: you can't tell anything about the screenplay of a film until you've actually read the screenplay.
This holds especially true for bad films. Farfetched analogy time: If a dinner entrée or desert is fabulous, it makes sense to assume the recipe was good. But when an entrée arrives from the kitchen burnt into a smoking charcoal lump, would your first thought be to blame the recipe? Only if you're a film critic, it seems. When the food is great, the cook is a star, but when the dish is served cold and underdone, the poor chef 'struggled valiantly trying to elevate a mediocre recipe into something worth eating.'

It's not just directors who mess up screenplays. Studio executives, stars, and producers can all play a part.
Some first-hand examples...

Thank God the studio pulled the plug, or there would have been another horrible film out there to mislead writers into thinking they could do better.


Ted and I wrote an adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel "A Princess of Mars." You know, John Carter of Virginia, swordfights with four-armed Martian Tharks, love across the gulf between planets, that sort of thing. The studio was quite pleased with the draft, sent it out to directors, and landed an A-list guy: John McTiernan.

McTiernan met with us... and barely spoke. He spent the whole time with his head down, sketching out plans to reassemble parcels of his grandparents' farm back east. Clearly our meeting was a formality, and he'd decided to 'go in another direction,' as they say. It wasn't a surprise to find out later that Bob Gale had been hired to do his rewrite.

Turned out McTiernan wasn't interested in doing an elegant science-fiction swashbuckler at all -- he wanted a blood-and-guts action film. Under his direction, John Carter became a washed-up alcoholic, and for humor, the Tharks made jokes about "John Carter of Vagina."

Thank God the studio pulled the plug, or there would have been another horrible film out there to mislead writers into thinking they could do better. It's scary to think -- due to McTiernan's clout -- how close the studio came to green-lighting a picture even they knew was terrible.

But the director got the story he wanted... and if the film had made it to theaters, you know the critics would have sympathized with his valiant efforts to elevate all that weak material. And aspiring writers across the country would be encouraged.
Another example, this time a film that got made:

Ted and I spent two years working on various drafts of an adaptation of Robert Heinlein's novel "The Puppet Masters." Screenwriter David Goyer then did several drafts, and the studio gave the picture a green light.

British director Steward Orme was signed. Two weeks before principal photography was to begin, he sat down with his hand-picked writers, and set about deciding what to film. All the work, all the story meetings, all the studio notes, the original novel, all the drafts done by four or five different writers and writing teams with various executives and producers over the previous two years -- all of it was thrown out the window. A draft would be written in two weeks, and that would be the movie that hit the screens.

This isn't as rare an occurrence as we'd all like to hope. Studio folk, those people who fight like Rottweilers over the smallest story bone and bit of dialogue gristle during the development process, turn into lap-dogs when faced with the momentum of actual production and the charismatic power of a director. They cower down and whimper and thump their little tails while the Alpha-dog feasts.

On THE PUPPET MASTERS, Stewart had 14 days to rework the entire story from square one -- characters, dialogue, setting, everything. The results were not impressive. In this case, after the revised draft was delivered, Jeffrey Katzenberg forced the production team to go back to an earlier draft. Of course the film that eventually emerged from that process was abysmal. (For a more detailed version of this experience, check out Column #15, Building the Bomb).

Another example (gee, they get more painful as I go along):

In 1989, film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel dubbed LITTLE MONSTERS one of the ten worst films of the year. It starred Howie Mandel and Fred Savage. "How could Fred Savage's people let him get involved in such a mess?" Ebert complained, "Didn't they even read the script?"

Shame on you, Roger. Yes, they did read the script -- the original screenplay Ted and I wrote, the one that got the studio interested in making the movie in the first place. Then the Writer's Guild strike hit, and the producer and director took the opportunity (with a scab writer) to re-write the film into a piece of dreck -- AFTER Fred Savage had committed to it. The studio wasn't happy, but as usual, didn't want to 'tie the hands' of the director they'd hired.

So the film comes out, it's terrible, and Siskel and Ebert rail on and on about the dreadful screenplay. Without ever having bothered to read the screenplay, of course. To this day we have executives from that company tell us they mourn the film that could have been made -- the film they bought, green lit, and never got to see.
Okay, last example:

Ted and I wrote a draft of GODZILLA which attracted the involvement of Director Jan De Bont. (This, by the way, is the best way writers have of getting a good reputation in Hollywood -- if your screenplay can attract talent to it, they love you. It makes sense... studio people don't know how to make films. That's why they need directors and producers, and stars. If your script can draw those elements, as a screenwriter, you've truly done your job.)
So, the studio loves the script, and they dive into pre-production. But alas, budget differences and other issues force De Bont and the studio to part ways.
Enter writer-producer-directors Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. They are very polite and complimentary about the existing screenplay, and very politely go down to Mexico to write their own draft over a two-week period.

So the studio, TriStar pictures, denounces this tactic, supports the original script, and boots them from the production --
Oops, sorry. Meant to say -- so the studio folk roll over and wriggle happily while Dean and Roland rub their collective tummy. And that's how the world was given the abysmal GODZILLA film of '98, where the big green lizard actually runs and hides when shot at (ah, but that's another story... and a future column).
What the non-Hollywood writer needs to know is this: they can have the obviously better version sitting on their desk right in front of them. And they can have paid a lot of money for it. And still they won't use it.

There are very few writers who are so naturally gifted that they can knock it out of the park on their first script (or second, or third).


So what does all this mean -- other than you're reading advice from someone who's managed to get his name on several terrible movies? Just this: a screenwriter looking at just the finished product can get a skewed idea of the quality of writing necessary to get attention in Hollywood.
The standards applied to the first-time writer are actually quite high.

Ironically -- and frustratingly -- the standards might even be higher for a first-time writer than for an established pro. I believe it's human nature for quality to be 'read into' the work of a big name writer, and for problems to be 'read into' the work of a beginner. And a big name writer can survive one or two mediocre drafts, whereas a first-time writer will never get another chance. This seems unfair, but in a way it's not. Time to roll out another analogy: you could watch Ken Griffey Jr. strike out a dozen times in a row, and say, "Hell, I could do that bad." But he's not getting paid for those strikeouts, he's getting paid for the 40 home runs he hit the year before.

Dean and Roland got their GODZILLA draft made because they had the number one film two years earlier with INDEPENDENCE DAY.

So despite all appearances to the contrary, there are standards in Hollywood, and they could even be described as 'lofty.' And if you're going to write to those standards, the first thing you have to do is be able to recognize them.

In fact, the two abilities are related. It's a bit like that old saw about wondering if you're crazy -- if you're really worried about being nuts, chances are you're not. So go ahead, yes, worry about the quality of your script -- that's a good thing, it can only help the quality of your work.
Quite often even pro writers complete their screenplays with some trepidation, an anxious, "What did you think of it?" feeling, even if they suspect they've nailed it. There are very few writers who are so naturally gifted that they can knock it out of the park on their first script (or second, or third). And yet, there are many pre-pros who not only believe they can, but believe they have. "I came up with it" is like great cinematography; it makes the scene more attractive, the story more compelling -- if only to an audience of one.

This lack of objectivity is a bad thing -- in many ways:

It causes writers to put their work out into the world too quickly, and garner confidence-eroding rejections.
It creates garbage dump piles of screenplays that clog the entire system.
It makes getting a script read ten times harder; so many scripts are bad, nobody wants to read anything.

It means even good scripts will be poorly read; the expectation of problems, based on years of reading dreck, causes people to look for problems and find them.
And it can lead to an obstinate, hooves-dug-in "it's not me, it's Hollywood" mindset among new writers. The thinking goes -- "Since Hollywood rejects me -- a great writer -- it's clear that Hollywood has some other requisites for becoming a screenwriter than great writing." (Odd thing: this attitude can manifest even before the theoretical pre-pro has had any contact with Hollywood at all.)

The solution?


Objectivity is your friend.
All writers should try this test -- take a copy of a great script (Say, BODY HEAT or THE SIXTH SENSE) and lay it down side-by-side with your own script. Read page one of the great script. Read your page one. Do the same for page two. Count the great descriptive lines, the compelling lines of dialogue, the interesting character bits, the compelling situations. Actually count them, and compare. If they're not comparable, figure out why.

You need to be able to see the difference.
You need to be able to judge your work against other great work.

Objectivity is one of the single most important qualities that an aspiring screenwriter must acquire -- and we think it's the attitude that marks the real difference between the writer who has a chance to become a professional, and one who has no chance.

Because writing is ultimately about communication. And communication is a learned skill. And any skill, when assessed objectively, can be improved.
In the heat of creation, the writer is the writing -- until you type The End on that first draft. From that point forward, the script is an attempt to communicate to others who you are. And that's how it's judged by others -- and should be judged by yourself. You go from author, to audience. Not: this is 'who I am.' Rather: this is an effort on the part of a writer to communicate 'who I am.'

If others judge the writing as 'poor,' they are not judging you as 'poor' -- they are judging this one specific attempt to communicate as 'poor.' But the good news is: since communication is a learned intellectual construct -- you can learn to do it better.

If someone says your characters are weak, you can learn to make your characters stronger.

If someone say your dialogue is wooden, you can learn to make your dialogue more natural.

If someone says your story does not move them, you can learn to make your stories more compelling.

If someone says "Your script is not suitable to our present needs," you can learn to make your next script exactly what they need -- but didn't know they needed.

But if you assume 'not suitable' means they only want family members' scripts, or they only want bad scripts, or they don't have the aesthetic ability to recognize a good script, or Hollywood is plotting against you -- then there's little chance that you'll learn anything.

When you think about it, that's the whole reason why particular writers get hired, and re-hired: they're selling their targets.


Bad writers are bad because they stop too soon.
In fact, let's take a step back. The only quality, I think, that marks the writer as different from everyone else is simply an unwillingness to quit. Others give up when they learn writing is hard; the writer struggles on.

When I sit down in front of the blank page, it's no easier for me to fill it than anyone else. The non-writer looks at the blank page and -- quite sensibly -- says, 'forget it, I'm outta here.' But if they had to, they could put a few words down there -- just like I do.

Only the words wouldn't be any good. So the non-writer gets frustrated, gives up and leaves. Me, too, I get frustrated... but I sit there, and work to make it better.
Anybody who's willing to struggle, I think, can write.

But can they write well?
The bad writer finishes a first draft, dubs it gold, and sends it out. There's the problem, right there -- they stop writing too soon. They aren't willing to do the real work, the hard work, of telling the story. The work that the story demands. They dash off the parts that are easy, and develop an odd kind of blindness toward the rest. Consider this quote from M. Night Shyamalan, regarding THE SIXTH SENSE:

"It wasn't until about the fifth draft that I really began to figure it out. It was then that I realized he's dead. It took me five more drafts to execute it right."

You have to do the work, not avoid it.
You have to find the promise of the story, and fulfill it.
A bad writer is satisfied at coming close, at just finishing the first stab. At executing the vision that was in their head. They know the scene is supposed to be funny, or scary, or exciting... so they'll sketch out a faint image of the scene, that points to what it should be, and figure that's enough.
It's not enough.

That's like saying you're a long distance runner... but you never leave the couch, remote control in hand, bag of potato chips on your belly.

The real work is to stick at it until you find the gold. To get to that funny line. To do the hard work no one else wants to do, but everyone wants to have done. To discover the great character bit, the clever story turn. Until you have it, you don't have it. Until it's there, it's not there -- and you need to stick at it until it is there.

That's what aiming higher than crap-plus-one is all about.
That's your target.

Another quote from Shyamalan:

"I didn't want [critic] Steven Holden of the "New York Times" to hold my destiny, and he does with a lot of small films. So I decided I was going to write the greatest script, and everything was going to change. It's going to be mine, and they'll have to let me direct it because they won't get it any other way."

When you think about it, that's the whole reason why particular writers get hired, and re-hired: they're selling their targets. The spec script is like the high water mark of the tide coming in: evidence that you've been there, and can get back there again. Or at least, that's what you'll aim for. You sell your high standards, and then hope to hell you can live up to them.

William Goldman points out in his book "Which Lie Did I Tell?" that every great film runs neck and neck with the bad version of itself... and often a bad film runs neck and neck with its good counterpart.

Sometimes the great version of the film pulls away and wins by 20 lengths.
Sometimes the bad verson of the film wins by a nose.

The next time you have to sit through a film where the bad version came out ahead, consider that, quite likely, there's a script sitting somewhere that's possibly quite brilliant, and inspired the whole race.

Yes, true, films get made for many reasons, and not always because of a great script. As Ted says -- each film produced is a unique event, the forces involved distinct from every other film ever made.
Sure, sometimes a bad script does get plucked out of the pile, just to fill a release date.
You can't count on that.

Sometimes a star needs to be in a movie -- any movie, to fulfill a contractual obligation. And so a bad script gets green-lit.

You can't count on that.

Sometimes a screenplay with a great premise gets put into production, in the hopes that the director or star writer or star can pull it out during the process.
You can't count on that, either.

The only thing you can count on is the quality of your work. The surest bet is to be the best -- because over time, talent will out. It's commonly believed and commonly true. Great screenplays will get attention. It may take a while, but they will.

Not crap-plus-one, but brilliance, absolute perfection, that's your goal... and if you should fall one tick short of that, you'll still be in pretty good shape.
You have to be inspired by the best, in order to do your best.Nothing less will do.
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