Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Five Terrible Reasons To Be A Screenwriter

A frank examination, based on traumatic, first-hand experience, of some potentially disastrous motives for being a screenwriter.

One of the staples of being a screenwriter, especially if you’re not on anyone’s A-list, is that you often work without knowing whether your material will ever be seen on a screen. To persevere under these circumstances, it pays to know why you’re doing it. Perhaps even more importantly, it makes sense to be aware when you’re setting yourself up for disappointments, by motivating yourself with unrealistic expectations. Here are five of my favourite wrong-headed motivations to persevere as a screenwriter. If they make you blush or fume, good. If you’re so past this already—like I clearly am, really I am, honestly—even better. Each terrible reason potentially points to a complementary, uplifting motive (the bright side). The trick is to redirect the emotions which are fuelling your misguided ambitions.

I Can Do Better Than That
This refers to the feeling you get when you’ve sat through, or zapped away from, yet another piece of generic, derivative, overly predictable filmmaking. The notion that you could do better, isn’t necessarily a bad place to start from, but it’s not necessarily true, either. The more I get to know about how films are written and produced, the less it surprises me that quite a lot of what gets made isn’t really that original. It’s not because there aren’t a lot of extremely talented people working in films and TV. Rather it’s because films and TV programmes are products made by commercial enterprises who are averse to taking risks and so prefer to go for the familiar. They are projects managed by people whose first priority is to keep their well-paid jobs. Oh, and I guess there are some talentless nitwits out there too, but they’re not the screenwriters…

The bright side: You don’t really know how your material will look once produced. So don’t moan about films you don’t like, rather, learn from them. It’s often much easier to pinpoint why a bad film doesn’t work than why a brilliant one does. Just articulating in as much detail as possible why a scene or story irks you, can give you some great screenwriting insights. There will always be lots more mediocre productions than amazing ones, so look at it as an abundant and free educational resource!

I Love Watching Movies
Because you’re a movie buff, doesn’t mean you know how to construct one yourself, even though that’s what it may feel like. Movies are deliberately and methodically constructed so they will appeal to as many people as possible, all over the world. Millions of people enjoy watching movies as much as you do, but only a handful of people can write great screenplays. Just because you feel you intuitively “get” how movies are written, doesn’t mean it’s true. Really well-made movies seem completely effortless and intuitive, precisely because of the talent and craft that has gone into keeping the structure invisible.

The bright side: If you’re serious about screenwriting, not only do you have to read a lot of screenplays, but you have to watch a lot of movies too. The more you learn about how screenplays are written, the deeper your appreciation becomes for great films. You not only get to watch your favourite films over and over (it’s called ‘research’), but you also come to realize what a special and privileged profession screenwriting is.

I Want To Get Rich
It’s amazing how prevalent and enduring the myths are about people selling screenplays to Hollywood for vast sums of money. It does happen, of course, but the majority of screenwriters around the world earn their living from a combination of gigs other than writing feature films, including writing for TV, theatre, corporate films, teaching screenwriting, script editing, and so on. My day job at the moment is translating subtitles… Yes, you can make small fortune in screenwriting, provided you start with a big fortune.

The bright side: Rich people are often miserable. But, joking aside, don’t give up the day job too hastily. If you’re not dependent for your livelihood on convincing someone to pay you for your screenplay, you’re much more at liberty to find and express your voice by writing what really fascinates you. A screenwriter desperate to be paid, is not necessarily a great creative sparring partner.

I Want The World To Know How Clever I Am
When was the last time you saw a film or a TV series and thought, ‘Wow, whoever wrote this, is really clever!’ Audiences are primarily after some kind of emotional experience, something they can consciously or unconsciously relate their own experiences to. No one (except perhaps other screenwriters) is in the least bit interested who wrote the script, much less what erudite or witty individuals they may be. In fact, just as with structure, the more ‘invisible’ the screenwriter is, the better their work.

The bright side: Writing screenplays requires a lot of very disciplined thinking and research. Whether that’s in terms of structure or subject matter. Plus, you’re always delving deeper and deeper into human motivations and weaknesses. And guess what? Wanting the world to know how clever you are is a classical flaw, which you soon learn to overcome (actually, only by about page 75 in your life, to be honest). Screenwriting is an inherently enriching and enlightening activity.

I Want To Be Famous
How many Oscar-winning movie stars can your local greengrocer name? Everyone’s heard of Bruce Willis, Nicole Kidman, and so on. How many directors do they know? They’ve probably heard of Steven Spielberg, or Quentin Tarrantino. Can they name any screenwriters? The typical answer to that one is: “I didn’t know movies were written.” Successful actors and directors can become global celebrities, successful screenwriters can become guests speakers at screenwriting conferences.

The bright side: In many spiritual traditions, the highest form of charity is an anonymous donation. How many people know who wrote Jaws? Or Raiders of the Lost Ark? (I confess, I had to look these up.) Screenwriters are generally spared the hell of celebrity limelight, but a beautifully written film can have a profound impact on viewers. That’s some fulfilment. Plus, even hugely successful screenwriters can visit Paris without being hassled for their autograph.

So, there you are, just a few simple thoughts from someone who has no authority whatsoever on the subject, but doesn’t let that deter him from pontificating from time to time.

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