Thursday, February 07, 2013

Another One Bites the Dust

I have been involved the last few months with a spec screen project. I can't get specific about it, signed an NDA and all, but I can say it has just ... gone away. 

Actually, I shooed it away. I didn't really want to, but I had one of those come-to-realize moments, and there I was.

Basically, I met with a budding  producer who had a treatment for a movie, and, he said, some interest in it, but he needed a script. I liked the material, it was intriguing and interesting, right up my alley, and I was willing to take a shot. The notion was, he thought he could sell it, and we'd both make out pretty well if that happened.

Yes, it's all smoke-and-mirrors down in LaLaLand, and I've hiked along this road before, so I didn't have any great expectations; still, it's like playing the Lottery–can't win if you don't buy a ticket, so I started cranking. 

Because the project was near and dear to his heart, he wanted to stay in the creative loop and I thought that wasn't a bad idea. You normally don't want anybody looking over your shoulder, but sometimes, it is better to find out before you get too far on the trek and realize you've taken the wrong route. Been there.

I wrote and sent a few pages. Got back a lot of notes. Addressed them,  yea and nay, went on. Sent more pages, got more notes. Same-same. And like Luke in the Millennium Falcon, I started to get a bad feeling about it ...

Far into the draft, I sent another chunk along, and got a long set of notes that finally gave me the sigh-and-headshake-realization: Nothing I wanted to do was going to be what he wanted. Because he had a vision of what it was going to look like, some favorite darlings–quite a few of them–and he wouldn't let me kill any of 'em off. 

No, that's crucial! Got to keep that in!

Wait, wait, that over there? That's crucial, too! Can't lose it.

Hang on a second, those sequences? Gotta keep 'em in, it all falls apart without 'em! In fact, why don't we go back and pump that up, make it longer?

Why not? Because you can't stuff ten pounds of rice in a two-pound package, I said. 

Here's the problem, I realized. He didn't understand that to keep all this stuff in would make the script 250 pp long, and nobody would read it. He said he did, but he really didn't. A studio would look at the manuscript, heft it, and toss it. Yeah, if he was Jim Cameron, they'd snatch it up, but he isn't. (Whatever you think of Cameron and his work, he has, um, a track record: The #1 and #2 highest-grossing movies of all time. If he wanted to do the Chicago Phone Book as his next project, investors would beat each other to death with sacks of money to get a chance to invest in it.)

Some of the darlings with which I was dealing didn't make sense; the don't move the story forward, and can't be shown or explained in dialog that wouldn't run for several pages. You can't, I said, do that. A studio won't stand for it, and if they did, viewers wouldn't come to see it. 

Could I give him what he wanted? Sure. But I wouldn't, because in good conscience, I'd be wasting everybody's time, and frankly, I wouldn't want my name on the title page of a script that just stood there and gobble-gobbled.

I liked this guy. He is smart, well-educated, knew what he wanted, and we got along great personally. The core idea is great. But the movie he had in his head wouldn't work on the screen, and wouldn't get that far anyhow. Even if he wrote it himself, and had the screenwriting chops to pull off a decent script, it still wouldn't be the movie in his head. I learned that one a long time ago: what I put on the page was never as good as what I saw in my mind's eye. How it works.

I saw it coming. I tried to soldier on, hoping it wouldn't go the way I thought it would, but it did. More often than not, if you get a bad feeling about something, you should listen to it.

Sometimes, you have to cut your losses and move along. 

Not the droids either of us were looking for ...


Kris said...

So, let's say that this guy shops it around, gets the same reply, and realizes that his first choice (incidentally, the one with a lot of draft already completed) knew what he was talking about. Would you still be game? Also wondering, do you have any control over the existing content that you created (as in, can someone else take it and run with it)? That one has always had me curious. It seems like there is potential for bad feelings all around, in such situations.

Steve Perry said...

Truth is, I think this guy needs something other than a theatrical script. What he really wants is a long-form, a miniseries or even an open-ended TV series. There are a lot of writers who could give him a clean theatrical screenplay, but two hours isn't enough to tell the story he wants to tell. He'd be better off going that route, not having to cut it so drastically.

I have no experience with the eight- or nine-act long form running multiple two-hour episodes, so it ain't me.

In this case, the script is mine, we didn't get to a contact and assorted rights. If he wants to use it, he can, but he'd have to pay for it. Since the story is his, it would be easier just to toss what I did and start over, that way it doesn't cost him anything.

Depending on how much he might use, if he did, there would be a screen credit issue, and the WGAw has that all neatly laid out.

Because of the arcane ways deals get made in Hollywood, it not-infrequently happens that a producer will hire a writer, knowing in advance he isn't going to use the script. (Some writers have deals wherein a producer owes them multiple scripts; they'll give them one, even if they don't think they are right for it, to satisfy the deal. Writer gets paid, the script goes straight into the round file. Nuts, but there you go ...)

Jim said...

Is that, perhaps, one of the main creative hurdles to overcome? That whatever you produce won't be what you imagined or believed it would be when it finally gets published?

Kris said...

Yikes. That sounds like an emotional roller-coaster, until you get used to it (and, perhaps, even after. Thanks for the feedback.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, it can be distressing. Lot of screenwriters do some other kind of writing when they want to feel creative and in control. Or they paint or play a musical instrument or make pottery.

I wrote a novel once, a game tie-in. Got paid really well for it. They were gonna ship a copy with every game, which could have been a million units. Then the company got gobbled up by a bigger company, then later *that* company got taken over by an even bigger one. The book got lost in the shuffle. I can't complain, I made more for it than I did for most of my novels. But it still bothers me a little when I think about it.

I've known some writers who have written half a dozen screenplays, gotten paid well, but none of the scripts made it to the silver screen. How frustrating must that feel? I don't think you can get used to that and keep your soul.

Be kind of like being a carpenter who builds a nice house, gets paid, and then gets to stand there and watch a guy with a wrecking ball take it down before the paint dries ...

As for the creative hurdle? You always go into it thinking it will come out like you hope. The goal goes from achieving that to see how close you can come. Kind of like pitching a perfect game. Might not happen, but it surely won't if you don't try.

Writers get cynical sometimes, but most of the ones I know still think the next project will be the perfect game. Got to think it is possible.

Kris said...

"Writers get cynical sometimes, but most of the ones I know still think the next project will be the perfect game. Got to think it is possible."

To be honest, I can't imagine Matadora getting any tighter. It still amazes me, what, a quarter of a century later (which, itself, seems crazy), that you fit so much story and memorable character development into so few pages.

Justin said...

I find this tale surprising, Steve. Even young bucks like me know that everyone and their mother's dog has a great idea for a movie, but they want someone with writing chops (ie not them) to write it.
Guy must have talked a really good game for you to see it through as long as you did. Though I have faith you didn't invest much more time/effort than you wanted.

I got a treatment for a screenplay on a very popular video game whose studio says it wants to do a movie in 2016. I have no idea how to get it to them, and so far I've drawn no response from screenwriting agents. Thought the hot property with clear intent would be a point of interest for some agency. I hasn't been for any of the agents I've emailed...

Steve Perry said...

Justin --

The newb producer came through a company with whom I've done biz in the past, he'd done some work with them. And I really liked his idea, he had back story, model sheets, a lot of material for a story I thought would be boffo. Plus he had some interest from agencies and/or a studio, at least to the extent they were willing to look at a script.

If the stars weren't exactly aligned, they seemed to be moving in that direction.

The problem was that he had no experience in the screenplay format and the limitations thereof. He had so much material he couldn't let go of, there wasn't room for it, and he was really attached to stuff that couldn't be explained in quick visuals or dialog.

There are only so many flashbacks you can do to lay in backstory.

In a book, you have the space. In a miniseries, yes; in a theatrical, two hours is pushing the limits, and it simply wouldn't fit.

Shot descriptions are for the director and actors, but the audience can't see nor hear those. Too many piss off the director and actors anyhow.

I kept thinking I could teach him what he needed to know and we could get past it. He made the right noises, but I had a sense that he was saying what he thought I wanted to hear, and as we got further down the line, that became apparent -- the rewrite would have been a giant can of worms, and it wouldn't make him happy. When you get to that point, you realize you were too optimistic. It happens, since every project you go into, you expect you'll be able to make it work, else you wouldn't go.

Treatments aren't the best calling card. They are sketchy versions of the script and a lot of folks can't visualize a movie from them. Even if you have a script, getting it read by somebody who can green light a project is exceedingly difficult. Who you know matters more than what in this regard, and even then, a lot of Big Name Actors and Directors have pet projects they can't get off the ground. Nature of the biz.

Justin said...

Those all seem like good reasons to give him some time; I expected no less. It's a shame he didn't do the research to find out what makes good scripts the way they are. It's quite a bit different than novels -- present tense, everything showing up on the screen. I've enjoyed reading some screenplays; it's a great learning experience.

And then there's the Barnum quote: Leave them wanting more. You can expand upon those first 120 pages if you're fortunate enough to get a sequel. Every idea you have doesn't need to make the draft. Sme of it may just be reference for the actors -- a character bible, if you will. It can color what happens or motivation without ever being shown to the audience.

Went to a Syd Field crash course recently. In the Q&A, he basically said he hated the idea of camera direction in screenplays. I want to disagree, but he's got a hell of a pedigree.

Steve Perry said...

Somewhere gathering dust I have Syd Field's course in a box, on audio tape cassettes, I believe.

Better way to study is to read scripts that made it to the screen and as many rewrites of those you can find. A lot happens between first draft and coming attractions.

When you write animation, you do camera direction, angles, kinds of shots, because you are essentially the director, so you have to tell them what it looks like. They do storyboards based on your script. Animation scripts thus play a lot faster because they are twice as long but say half as much. (Thus 22-minute animated TV show might run 38-40 pp.)

Live-action directors don't much care for writers telling them how to direct. You can cheat this a little by using the a description in such a way that to get the shot yoy have to set the camera here instead of there and point it at THE HERO, but when you get into TWO SHOT - ANGLE FAVORS THE HERO or MACRO - THE HERO'S LEFT EYE, director's get pissy.

You tell them the story, they say, and they'll figure out how to get the shots.

If you stay on the project and it gets ot a shooting script, or a director's script, then you can help put in shot direction.

And you can get away with the kind of transition you want, CUT TO: or DISSOLVE TO or such like.

At least that's how it was last script I read.

Steve Perry said...

Plus, if you don't know how to do something and you want it done, you can hire somebody who knows how. Which was supposed to be my role. Thing is, if you hire somebody who knows, you need to let them *do* it.

Everybody thinks they can write. They really do, and the old Hollywood joke is that if you stop ten people on the street and ask them how their script is going, they'll all tell you.

So if you as a working pro write something, there are all kinds of folks who think nothing of stepping in and telling you how to do it, even though they don't have a clue. Guys who would never think of putting a brush on a painting they commissioned won't think twice about cutting a word here or adding graph there.

Again, nature of the game. You shake your head, and if you want to keep playing, shrug it off an move along ...

Justin said...

Interesting re: animation scripts. Never thought about that.

I find transitions kind of odd. I don't particularly care how one would go from one scene to another, so long as I don't see too many star-wipes. I all but ignore them in my screenplays.

I have read some scripts. Luckily, some site allowed access to a bunch of for-consideration screenplays from the Academy awards. Reading through Snow White & the Huntsman, I felt like I'd seen the movie. Though from the mixed reviews, maybe the one going on in my head was better than what made the screen.