8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting

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(This is the last post in my series on professional screenwriting.)

So you sell your screenplay, and then what?

You get that first professional job and all those dreams of becoming rich, famous, and respected for your cinematic brilliance are about to come true.

Until the alarm clock rudely wakes you up.

Because you, my dear friend, are definitely dreaming.  Never lose sight that those visions of greatness that brought you to Hollywood have nothing to do with a real-life screenwriting career.  The true work of the professional is being able to take a punch below the belt and to keep going.

I don’t know how Astrid Cruz knows this about screenwriting, but she does.  When we traded emails last month, and she asked me what it was like to be a professional screenwriter, I was amazed to see such a keen understanding about the most difficult part of the job: surviving.

“What you write will be taken to pieces by a director, rewritten and reshaped, ” Astrid wrote me, with a sophisticated savvy of filmmaking well beyond her years.  “Does it bother you?” she wanted to know. “Does it hurt you that some of your writing may never make it to the screen?”

Does surgery hurt without an anesthetic?

“But how do you let go?” was what Astrid really wanted to know.

Reading this last question that this young screenwriter/filmmaker/student sent me made me realize this is what they don’t teach you in film schools: the truth about Hollywood, and how to survive it.

So here’s what I’ve learned along the way…

Tips They Won’t Teach You At Film School

The first rule in screenwriting is:

#1: Don’t take it personally. 

The biggest problem about Hollywood is that everyone will seem like your friend.  Remember:  They’re not.  If you think your agent, manager, producer, director, or studio executive really cares about you, you should get back on the bus right now and go home.  I don’t care how many parties they invite you to, or how many muffin baskets they send you, Hollywood is a business and screenwriters are simply part of the machinery.  And machinery can be replaced.  No one ever takes a machine personally.

#2: Yes, you will get screwed (or rewritten) eventually. 

If you’re asking “Why?” you need to re-read Rule #1.

#3 Getting paid definitely soothes the pain, especially in the “letting go” stage of screenwriting.

I don’t want to sound like some creative whore, but getting paid for the job helps you to move on to the next job (which hopefully you’ve already started writing – more on that later). When you’re able to pay your rent, clothe your children (or yourself), buy a car, and have something left over for unnecessary baubles, over-indulgent vacations, and the next generation of Apple products, you’re able to say to yourself, “Okay, so this is why I go through all the pain.”

As a screenwriter you have to come to terms with the fact that the only draft that you own is your first draft. You learn to put all of your unbridled passion, brilliance, and hope into that first set of 110 pages. Of course, you will be certain that no one will ever change a word because it’s so brilliant, and of course you will be lying to yourself. But screenwriting is like giving birth – you eventually forget the pain and go on to conceive again, only to go through the grunting, bloody, painful event once more (if you’re lucky) at some later date. That brings me to the fourth rule of screenwriting:

#4 Nothing you write is perfect.

As soon as you put your story down on paper and turn it in you will begin to get notes from everyone. And not just the director. (NOTE: Usually a director isn’t hired until the script is “green lighted” by the studio. Unless the director is developing the script through his own company, but that’s another story completely.) If you’re a professional screenwriter and lucky enough to have your script “green lighted” and a director is hired that means the cocoon stage of your story is about to end and an entire new creature is about to be born. You can only hope it emerges beautiful and looking somewhat like what you imagined: a beautiful butterfly – and not some blood-sucking parasite. But a screenwriter must live in a constant state of denial and always expect the most beautiful of butterflies to be born from our well-crafted cocoons. Yes, and that brings us to the fifth rule of screenwriting:

# 5: Keep your head down, working on your next screenplay.

Forget about that script you spent a year and a half writing that is now in the middle of its transformation into a film. Just separate from it as quickly as possible. Literally, take the money and run because as brilliant as you felt on that day when your agent/producer/studio executive called to say, “We’ve got a go!” you will feel like a total failure when the “production polishes” begin.

Why?

Chances are they won’t be coming to you for those polishes. Every director wants to leave his imprint on the screen – like a dog pissing on a tree. Yes, I’m using the male pronoun because in spite of Kathryn Bigelow, chances are the director will be a guy. Please check out this link: http://www.thewrap.com/music/article/sexist-hollywood-women-still-struggle-find-film-jobs-study-finds-74076 , and if you’re a woman in the film industry, try not to sob too much while reading it.

No director ever takes a film job and sets out to do what the screenwriter has written. Suddenly, this very perfect piece of writing that was so great, so exciting, so promising that people wanted to invest millions of dollars into making it, has morphed into a flawed, terribly-executed, lackluster piece-of-shit that only the brilliance of (fill in here with the name of a current director) can save. And how does the director do this?

By bringing in another screenwriter.

Depending on how prestigious this director is, this can be a name screenwriter that commands more money than you received for writing the story in the first place. When this happens, you can kiss your solo writing credit goodbye. Especially if the new screenwriter has time to do a total rewrite. When that happens, you’ll be lucky to even end up with a “story by” credit.

Rule # 6: It’s all about the credits.

When you get a credit for writing a screenplay you get paid every time that film plays somewhere – on television, on a DVD, or as a download. Also, when you get a credit you automatically join an elite club of professionals.  Production credits are what get film professionals more jobs. Whether the film sucks or not will determine what kind of jobs you’ll get in the future. But if your agent is smart you’ll have at least a year and a half to two years to line up as many jobs as possible (hopefully, good ones) until the film is released and dies a quick death either in reviews or (more importantly) at the box office.

As if you couldn’t tell by now: Going through the screenwriting process hurts like hell. Most of the time you can rant and scream in private, or throw things at home (I had a black walnut tree in my backyard where on more than one occasion I would hurl a recently emptied cocktail glass against its massive trunk, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces while imagining it to be the head of some producer, director, or studio executive). But the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle (and ability to develop a poker face) is during a “notes session” at a production office. To understand how this works, you have to know how a screenplay is developed.

Understanding Your Deal

There are two ways a script is developed and a screenwriter gets a job: 1) Write your own screenplay based on your own story and sell it. 2) Get hired to write a screenplay based on someone else’s story, idea, book, play, comic, or video game. Originals can sometimes bring in more money, especially if it’s a hot topic, or a unique premise. Sometimes there are “bidding wars” among the studios and that can really push a script price up. The problem with selling an original script is that it’s your own little baby, and it’ll be much more difficult not to take all the shit you’re about to go through as personal (See Screenwriting Rule #1).

Once you’re hired, your agent (or lawyer) will negotiate a contract. Every screenwriting contract makes clear how many drafts are expected from the writer. Typically, there are two drafts, and then a couple of polishes. Hopefully, your agent (or lawyer) will be a good one and you won’t end up with a “cut off” deal. That means that they can say buh-bye to you after any one of those steps, including the oftentimes dreaded “treatment” first step. The other steps listed are just “wishful thinking” and will be worded as “optional” But let’s say that you are guaranteed two drafts and a polish – You will have “reading times” in-between those drafts. You’ll also have time built in when you develop the story. That means that once the deal memo has been signed you can go off and do research or start stepping out your story beats. You may or may not be required to include the development team (studio executives, and/or producer) in this step. If you go in and tell them the story it just gives them another opportunity to try to shape their own story and not yours. Ideally, you want to just sign the deal memo, and go off to write your first draft. You don’t want to develop the story and then go in and get permission to write the first draft you want to write. They can really screw you up creatively by giving you bad ideas, and you’ll have to rebuild your story (taking more time out of your writing schedule) to incorporate their ideas. Nevertheless, that might happen. So deal with it – you’re getting paid and that should help heal the pain.

Usually, you’ll get 10–12 weeks to write your first draft. Once you turn it in you might have a reading period of four weeks and this is when you work hard at letting go. That’s easier said than done because when you finish your first draft you begin this euphoric high for having completed the script and you feel like a genius.  But trust me, let go of that perfect script the moment you finish typing, “Fade Out.”  Here are some ways you can do that:

Say Goodbye To That Brilliant First Draft

TIPS FOR LETTING GO

1) Be already working on another screenplay. Just like a love affair that’s falling apart, it helps if you have another lover lined up waiting in the wings. The more creatively promiscuous you are as a screenwriter, the better you can protect your heart from breaking.  I was always a loyal lover and I learned the hard way that it hurts to “stand by your man” because sometimes that man likes to sleep around with other screenwriters for rewrites.

2) Use the reading period (in-between drafts) to separate emotionally from your work. Go on a vacation. Do research for another project. Distance yourself, move as far away from your current project as possible. You probably will have three or four weeks (maybe longer if it’s near a holiday period) before you meet with the development team, and this is your separation period so use it to clear your mind and to rest your body. You will need as much energy and objectivity as possible for the next hell you are about to enter. And trust me, it will be hell. Because the seventh rule in screenwriting is:

#7: No matter how much they tell you they love your first draft, they’ll still want to change it. 

And you will sit in an office and have to take it without crying or throwing things.

If you play poker, you know the importance of having a poker face. Get good at this because you will be asked to sit in many meetings when you will hear the most asinine suggestions for improving your script. Just remember Rule #1 and don’t take it personally. This is one of the jobs of a film industry executive/ producer/director/development person: to give notes. If a non-creative doesn’t give notes he/she (Yes, there are women development people) is not doing his/her job so he/she comes up sometimes with ridiculous notes, notes that make no sense, that only show he/she didn’t really read the script or read it too quickly (usually while sitting in traffic). These people are paid to make suggestions (no matter how ill-informed or stupid) and you are being paid to write them down as notes in these sweat-inducing next-draft meetings. My advice to you is to keep your mouth shut, your head down, and your hands busy scribbling notes (even if your notes are simply creative ways for the people to f&!# themselves). Remember – You can always have your nervous breakdown in the comfort of your own home, and not in some over-air-conditioned Hollywood office.

You’re Not The Only Member On The Team

Now begins one of the biggest challenges you will face as a screenwriter: Do I make the changes they give me and possibly ruin my brilliant story, or do I refuse to do the changes and possibly risk being replaced by another writer who will whore his/her services and make the changes themselves? That is a very personal, moral decision that every screenwriter faces, and I would never suggest to you what your choice should be. Just remember that making films is a collaborative effort, and if you’re unwilling to play with the team, there are thousands of players on the bench more than willing to take your place.

The best advice I was ever given about how to deal with notes was from David Jacobs – the creator of “Dallas” and “Knott’s Landing” – who told me: “Don’t argue with them, just take the notes. Use the ones that make sense, and don’t do the ones that are stupid. Chances are they won’t even remember what they told you to fix. But sometimes they DO give good notes and those are the ones you want to use.”

I will also share with you something written about Sonya Levien – an amazing screenwriter who first started out in the industry by doing scenarios for silent films, became one of the big screenwriters in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and won the Academy Award in 1956 for Interrupted Melody:

“Levien possessed a certain plot cleverness or dexterity and an editor’s willingness to cut and paste. She succeeded as a screenwriter because she knew how to adapt stories, plays, and novels into “entertaining,” filmable movie scripts, wrote quickly, and made, without argument, whatever script changes her supervisors directed. In addition, she willingly doctored other writers’ problem scripts, never missed a deadline, and worked as many hours as necessary to solve script problems. Seemingly without ego investment in the words she wrote, she rarely complained, and she helped anyone who asked.”

from “A Great Lady” by Larry Ceplair

In my book, that about sums up what it takes to be a successful screenwriter. It worked for Sonya, it can work for you.

The key to doing Hollywood is to be the best damn screenwriter in the business.  Know that in your heart, keep improving and learning, get yourself an agent who can do all the battles (and negotiations), and just keep writing, writing, and writing.

And then direct.  Or produce.

A screenwriter has no power in Hollywood, and Hollywood is all about the power. When Disney wanted me to write a specific screenplay and I said no, they sweetened the deal by offering me the director position.  I was extremely agoraphobic at the time and just getting to the damn note meetings was difficult so I turned down the opportunity to direct.  For me, that was the right decision to make (I hate bossing people around), but for anyone wanting to be a filmmaker, you have to move up to a power position – directing (for films) and producing (for television).

And that leads us to the eighth rule for surviving professional screenwriting:

# 8:  Be flexible

You will make decisions you won’t like, but you will have to make them anyway.  You will have to work with people you don’t like (you don’t respect), but you will have to work with them anyway.  You will get hurt, but you must never show it.  There’s a saying in show business:  Never forget what they’ve done to you.  But never let them know that you know.

Smile big. Look confident. Be prepared. Work harder than anyone else.

And enjoy the adventure.

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 (Read the other posts in this series: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter? It All Begins With A Screenwriter, Emails To A Young Screenwriter, If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)