Thursday, March 17, 2011

Screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.

Right after the Oscars, cyberspace was buzzing with tweets from screenwriters ragging on Natalie Portman for not thanking the writer during her speech. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: screenwriters need to get over themselves. No one cares about a screenwriter’s feelings and their precious words but screenwriters. Sometimes. I’ve never heard of an editor bitching and complaining about not being thanked in an acceptance speech. And you know what? Editors are the ones that should be thanked by actors. The magic happens in the editing room.

When you decide to hand over your screenplay to the people that will make it a movie, you must know that you are giving up all rights to your creation. Isn’t that what you want? For those 120 pieces of paper to become a movie? You cannot know what kind of movie your script will become and you have no say in it. For you the writer, that’s the end of the road unless get called in for rewrites.

I can say this without any concern for what other screenwriters might think of me because I’ve been there. I used to be attached to my precious words and sentences. When it comes to screenwriting, this attitude is quite delusional, idiotic and amateurish. (Hate me if you must, but it’s the truth you will learn soon enough.) If you understand and are familiar with every aspect of filmmaking, you know that a script is just words on paper. A film is a combination of lot of things. A lot of things. A director’s greatest fear is that one misstep or bad decision can ruin her movie. You don’t know what fear is until you’ve directed a movie. More specifically, until you’ve been through the casting process. The most traumatic thing to a writer/director is making the journey from her imagination to committing to an actor. You are constantly asking yourself “Can this person be that character and can I trust them to make this film the best it can be?”

With the exception of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ films were heavily scripted. However, he often started filming without having a complete script; sometimes even with just a few pages. He’d work out the story during rehearsals and filming and he would stay up all night writing the next day’s scenes. Like Mike Leigh and a handful of other directors that work in a similar way, Cassavetes understood what is required to get at the truth and make the best film possible.

I’ve been attending the John Cassavetes retrospective this month at Cinefamily and earlier this week I saw Minnie & Moskowitz. I had seen it once before years ago and it wasn’t the film I remembered. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it then but I sure did this time. It is in Cassavete's films that you can see clearly how all the work and dedication to the final product pays off; from story inception, to allowing actors freedom, to getting the best out of every performance in the editing room. What follows illustrates this beautifully.

One particular sequence that shook me to the core is at the beginning of the film when we first meet Minnie (Gena Rowlands). The sequence is below and it runs to about 5:50.

I’m in awe of this sequence. It’s as if Minnie is speaking to me and through me, especially when she says “you know, quotes feminine.” I wondered how Cassavetes knew something only a woman could know. My admiration for him grew even more. The next day I consulted the shooting script, particularly the first 30 pages. It was fascinating to see exactly what made it to the screen and what was added during the performance and changed during the editing. I’ve posted two pages from that sequence below. As you can see, Cassavetes didn’t write that line, Gena added it during shooting. I knew it. A man would never know what that was about, let alone think it.

If you compare the sequence with the pages, you’ll see that quite a bit was improvised, especially on Florence’s part. (Florence, a non-actor, was Seymour Cassel’s mother-in-law by the way.) You will also note how the scene ends abruptly, almost cutting off Minnie’s line. That’s pure Cassavetes. (There are quite a few pages in the script that were shot that didn’t make it into the final cut.) He hated structure, rules and all that bullshit.

Can you imagine a screenwriter bitching and complaining about that scene, that the actors went off script and were not faithful to his carefully calculated words? Such a writer is not completely committed to making the film the best it can be. Filmmaking at its best happens when a daring group of people have the freedom and passion to create. So yea, screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.

So you see, this whole business of giving credit, taking credit, awards, thanks and acceptance speeches is pure idiocy. The way we thank each other is by looking at the finished product and knowing we all did the best we could and being proud of it. And by doing it again.

The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to direct, or at least, produce a film of any length. Not only will you learn about the process, but you will discover things about yourself you didn’t know. It will help you get over yourself, I guarantee it. It will free you from those things that do not matter. Precious words on paper are only a small part of the equation.


Liz said...

That scene is poignant. It feels like it can get more meaningful at each re-watch, a few years from one another, till the age arc drawn by Minnie and Florence is covered.

dizzydent said...

Ha ha. You have to see the movie. It has a happy ending. Well, you have to figure out if it's happy or not.

Insomniacdee said...

Funny that you think the attitude is amateurish, because the people I heard proposing the idea were professionals.

The thing is, it all starts with the script. Even if the finished movie bears little resemblance to it, the script is what gets everyone to buy into this painful, often tedious, ulcer-inducing process. Without the writer, nothing else happens. So if we're going to make a show of thanking everyone from the director to the milkman, why not include the writer? (And the editor?)

That said, when I was doing student films, I enjoyed working with the actors and treated them as collaborators. I even enjoyed the casting process. I also did quite a bit of "rewriting" in the editing room. I never considered myself, as the writer or director, the final "author" of the film.

dizzydent said...

I know exactly which professionals you are talking about. It doesn't matter. Screenwriters are always complaining, at the highest levels. The highest paid. Just go to any WGA event. That doc, Tales from the Script, is a PSA for not becoming a screenwriter.

But I've also heard plenty of the great ones echo what I've said here. If you want to be adulated for your writing, then write plays, novels, poems...anything but screenplays.

Kim Nunley said...

Great post... absolutely agree. Screenwriters overall are pretty damn big pansies.

I'm embarrassed to say I've never even heard of 'Minnie & Moskowitz.' That scene is ridiculous...

... and I'll be heading over to Netflix now.

Insomniacdee said...

Not going to name names.

Also not going to argue the reality. If you want to be a screenwriter, expect to work in the dark, in the background, with little reward. (Except the paycheck, if you're higher up the food chain.)

But even if I must accept that reality, I don't necessarily have to agree with it. Either everyone in the biz needs to get over themselves or no one does. What we do is not critical--to most people anyway. The world will not end if we go away, stop writing, stop directing, stop playing dress-up. None of this is really that important to anyone but us.

dizzydent said...

Yes, the reality is that the business is cruel at its worst and rude at its best. All you need to do is read what Faulkner, Parker, Fitzgerald have to say about their experiences in Hollywood.

But this post is not about that. It's about screenwriters realizing there is more to filmmaking than sitting in front of the computer crafting dramatic masterpieces. It's about learning to embrace the process, and knowing what their place is in it.

Insomniacdee said...

I think there's one big disconnect here, though. And that's that the lack of respect for the screenwriter, the lack of respect for STORYTELLING, dooms so many Hollywood films and turns them into schlock. We've all heard those nightmare tales of projects that take on 3, 4, 5, sometimes upwards of 10 or 20 writers and as many rewrites, leaving the final product a hollow shell of its former self. I've read a couple of screenplays now that apparently got completely gutted - when the original material was solid.

No, the screenwriter is not the final author of the film, but the highest respect you can pay a writer is creating a film that reflects the best of the written word, hides the flaws, and adds a few beautiful grace notes.

beingbrad said...

I'll tell you what I think and I'm always right.

First. It's hard to pour yourself into something and then not only not be credited, but to feel like in some way your desrie [sic] for some recognition is seen as a pitiful cry for attention.

Second. Suck it up.

Insomniacdee said...

If anything, this post strikes me less as an argument for the screenwriter "sucking it up" than as an argument for the screenwriter becoming a writer-director -- protecting your vision from start to finish, like Billy Wilder learned to do.

In fact, I think the examples cited in this blog completely undermine the thesis. What really jumps out at me here are not those little touches the actors added, or the last-minute changes from script to screen, but the fact that the writer got a chance to guide that process from start to finish. The screenwriter didn't simply "suck it up" and "learn his place," he stepped up and protected his work.

dizzydent said...

My point was this: why make yourself miserable over something that you cannot change and will never change, when you can get involved, first by understanding the process and then by embracing it?

I know you’ve been involved in filmmaking, but most aspiring screenwriters have not and don’t really know the reality of filmmaking. But I guess we all have to learn the hard way. I sure did.

ByronDesignProd said...

My 2 cents...

If you love every line you write and you want to marry it, then you should be a novelist and not a screenwriter. And you have to edit your own novel and may as well just self publish too.

Filmmaking is a colaborative effort. Making a movie is, at best, organized chaos. You assemble a team of talented people who share a similar vision and you hope for the best. A lighting guy may say "look at this light, let's try this" a DP may say "lets put the actors here and the camera there" an actor may say "I'm feeling these emotions thinking about this character and I want to try this" The director yells "action" and "cut" but is really only hearding cats, both in front of, beside, and behind the camera. It all really comes down to editing. The best written lines can be glorified or destroyed by a few mis-timed frames here or there in the cutting room.

As a screenwriter you really have to accept that you are only planting a seed. That seed can grow into a magical creative achievent with help and input from a lot of talented, dedicated people. You can't control the way or direction that every branch will grow or the shape of every leaf or flower blossom. That is the magic of movie making.