Noted auteur David Fincher once reportedly remarked that the Hollywood studio system's angle on creativity could be summed up thus: "It's great! Can you make it less great?" My experiences as a Hollywood writer/director certainly bear that out and my watchword for any writer hoping to get his or her screenplay produced is Tenacity. Or Determination. Grit. Make sure you have a very thick skin.
Here's how it goes down: you write a script. It's original, it's authentic. You get a bite. Why? Because your script is original and authentic. Then you get an agent and a meeting and the suits love your script because it's original and authentic. Then you make a deal. You sell your script for scale. You have another meeting. Now your script is too original and authentic. Someone high up in the corporation thinks it should be just a little... "safer."
What happens next? Will you watch your baby get gutted, quartered, dismembered and thwarted or will you fight, goddamn it!? Take them down if that's what it takes?
You'll fight but you'll lose. Because that's how it goes down. They're spending the cash. You'll fight but you'll totally lose.
Unless you're clever. Then you'll stay in the game with heartfelt rewrites, sensible compromises and an arms-length posture that protects your artist's psyche. What am I talking about? Here's some elaboration:
Heartfelt rewrites. Don't do it unless you feel it, even if you have to walk away. The point is that you ought not to write what you hate. No one wants that. Not even the system. So listen to what they want and then ask yourself honestly "can I really do that?" And if you can't, walk away. It's just a script. You got paid. Take a break, then write another script.
Sensible compromises. Remember always that the movie business is a business about movies. No one goes to the multiplex to watch a script. And you're a writer, right? So take your joy in writing. Are you smarting yet? Fine. Then how about this: any film made from your script is going to cost at least one million dollars. Or more. Lots more. Ten million. A hundred million. And that's someone else's money, from which you will be paid. Still feel entitled to your artistic druthers? When those high-stakes risk-taking financiers ask you to make it shorter or funnier or sexier or stupider, it's generally not because they're idiots, it's because they're seasoned businessmen who know the market. They've done this before and they don't want to lose their shirts. So if you want to make art, write something that will cost ten cents. Anything else, be prepared to compromise.
An arms-length posture. Sleep at night. Have other projects going on, nothing to do with screenwriting. Live your life. Consider screenwriting your cool portable job. Clock off at six. Have dinner with friends. That's not say you shouldn't enjoy writing as much as anything else but don't put all your hopes and dreams in those hundred pages. That way, when you get a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, it will come as a very pleasant surprise.
I was going to end with a bunch of trenchant examples of tenacity and determination - industry vignettes that might have demonstrated how my advices have worked. But in the end nothing seemed to show, with greater clarity, the level of persistence required to make things happen than the series of emails I received from Chris Baty, founder of Script Frenzy, as he hounded me to write this Cameo. Here's a sample:
Hi LA Man! Back to hounding you about Script Frenzy! Okay! Would you be willing to contribute something to the Script Frenzy site? Maybe? You could go through your life knowing you did a huge amount of good for a tiny nonprofit struggling to bring light into a world of darkness. Also, I would totally buy you a bagel. What do you think?
And some months later:
Going for my ninth "no". Are you ready to give in and offer some advice yet? Come on! You're an opinionated guy! Don't keep those opinions to yourself any longer! I tell you what: What if I work on your Burning Man costume for the two hours it would take you to write this thing? I EASILY passed wood shop in seventh grade, and know my way around a band saw, a router, and a planer. I would be a great asset to your costume. Besides, the writers of Script Frenzy need your encouragement! Boasting a newly reinvigorated harassment campaign, Chris.
See? Tenacity. That's what it takes. Browbeat your opponent. But nicely. And have a labor-of-love novel in the works to keep you sane.
Writer: Death Machine, Speeder, Snakeskin, Silver Surfer, The Last Minute
Director: Death Machine, The Last Minute, Blade, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Clash of the Titans
Winner: Script Frenzy, 2008