The Writer's Block.05 Aug 2011
Here's one for ya: "How many development executives does it take to change a light bulb?"
"Does it have to be a light bulb?"
I've had the privilege to work with a range of writers, both produced and un-produced. I've started to notice a trend, between the two categories. A secret, if you will. I could probably write a screen-writing self-help book, but let's be honest; no-one would buy it, and anyway, there are far too many already. Screen-writing books, that is. I cast no aspersions on the number of screenwriters, produced or un-produced.
So, what's the secret?
What makes them different?
Un-produced writers are very precious about their work. It's a well-known tip for first-time screenwriters, that you should immediately start your second script as soon as you complete your first. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is because you'll become less emotionally attached to the first one, when you're deep into the second one.
One of the things about writing a script, is that someone has to buy it. To buy it, they have to love it. Not just like it, but love it. Deeply. For a producer, director, actor, or insurance-salesman-with-extra-cash to plump up money and/or energy to turn pages into light, they have to really believe that it is the greatest script ever written.
Now let's be honest, here. It's probably fair (and somewhat obtuse) to say that the greatest script ever written hasn't actually been written yet.
So, there's going to be a few, how do I say this nicely, "notes." Some of which probably aren't too helpful.
"Does it have to be a light bulb?"
But to be honest, that's a fair question. For the purposes of the joke, yes it does. Does it have to be a development executive changing the bulb? Not at all. But we need to be able to defend the decisions. If we can't, then it was reasonable to ask in the first place.
Many years ago, I worked with a film-maker who made a really entertaining 16mm short film, with a "twist." It turns out that the twist was really obvious - once you watched the film for the second time. But it caught us all out, the first time. If I ever showed up with a friend, while he was editing, he insisted that the friend watch his latest cut of the film. He then asked the friend a hundred questions about the film, and specifically, the twist. Most people wouldn't pick up on it. He'd make it more obvious. More testing ensued. Maybe it was too obvious, now? Once you'd seen the film, you were of no use to him any more. You couldn't offer a second opinion or a more "informed" opinion, after you'd lost your virginity, so to speak. The film was really popular, because that first reaction was so important to him. Let's face it, most people seeing a film will only ever have a first reaction. It is rare for us to see a film for the second time (unless it's "A Wonderful Life" but that's another story altogether).
A script has the same effect, and as writers, we often forget this.
When a development executive reads the script, and doesn't like it, then something didn't work. They didn't "get" it.
There's no point arguing with the person, and there's no point "dissing" their opinion. They didn't get it. Of course, I'm sure if you sat them down and explained exactly why Grandma had to get hit by a bus in the closing scene, maybe they might think differently, but they're no longer virgins - they've read your script. Now they're using their analytical capabilities to finesse the thing, rather than that most honest of opinions, when they first read it.
I have all the time in the world for someone who says "I didn't like it." Even more time (if that's possible) for someone who says "I didn't like it because this character is weakly drawn, and in that early scene, they lost my interest." I have no time for someone who tells me how I should fix the scene. But I have to respect an opinion.
A lot of un-produced writers are in desperate need of endorsement. A need to be validated, as a writer. I suspect this is why so many scriptwriting contests make money.
The truth is, for a film script, the only validation that counts is when someone pays real money to make it into a film. Likewise, the only validation that counts for a finished film, is when an audience will pay real money to see it (or a broadcaster purchases it). Obviously that's a very commercial, or mercenary way of looking at it, but it helps.
However, time and time again, with un-produced writers, notes are taken as an affront. Either the critic doesn't "understand" the film, or is "too stupid" or what have you. Ultimately, if the film is going to get made, it is going to require the creative energies and creative input of a large number of people. Most of whom, such as the editor, may be unknown to the writer.
As writers, we need to take criticism on the chin, and understand it for what it is - someone's virginal thoughts on our manuscript. It's our decision as owners of the piece, ultimately, whether or not we'll change it, but how can we expect to have someone else read it and have a different reaction unless we try to appreciate the reaction of the first reader.