In his book The Lucifer Effect, about circumstances that can collude to drive ordinary, decent individuals to unacceptable behaviour, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo discusses ways to resist external influence.
Zimbardo strives to create a culture of everyday heroism through showing how to become aware of and resist social structures that can subtly convince you to do things you disagree with. He advocates teaching awareness, critical thinking and nurturing autonomy in order to avoid falling prey to social pressure and individual manipulators.
So what’s that got to do with screenwriters, you ask?
Except perhaps for the top ten A-list writers in Hollywood, the vast majority of screenwriters are under constant pressure to sell their work and acquire new assignments. The playing field is generally very uneven, with production companies traditionally able to dictate the rules because they hold the purse strings.
Taking notes from producers is an art unto itself. Even accepting notes which make sense, as that requires the screenwriter to acknowledge weak points in their script. But when it comes to dealing with unacceptable, amateurish or plain bullying demands, what’s a screenwriter to do?
The moral dilemma goes like this: If I don’t accept the changes these people are asking of me, I’ll never be able to pay the rent. But if I go along with their demands, I’ll ruin my script.
I’ve been in these situations, and I’ve always done my best to try and divorce my need to earn a living from my vision for the screenplay. It can be very difficult, and it’s very tempting to compromise in order to get the cheque. Here’s one suggestion from Zimbardo’s website, which might be helpful (there are lots more, so go and visit it!):
Keep a temporal perspective in mind. Don’t let the heat of the present moment (= the meeting) blot out the personal values you’ve established for yourself in the past and the goals you have for your future. As Zimbardo writes:
Situational power is weakened when past and future combine to contain the excesses of the present.
Resisting influence means being able to separate what’s going on around you from what you as an individual stand for. Then you can take a wise and informed decision. That may lead to a compromise, but at least then it’s your conscious decision.
It may also lead to you being a bit of a hero, and surprising the authority you’re dealing with by politely turning them down, despite the fact that you need the money ...