Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Seventeen

A Few Random Musings on Writing -- One Juicer's Opinion*

"'s just me writing about what I know the best way I can, answering to no one."

Richard Price

Other than a brief stab at writing a screenplay forty years ago in a college class -- an exercise I thoroughly enjoyed at the time -- I've never been particularly interested in the craft of screenwriting.  Not that writing for movies or television isn't an exceedingly difficult, highly skilled and eminently respectable endeavor here in Hollywood (and quite lucrative for those who succeed at it), but I've never found reading a screenplay to be much fun.  

And if reading it is no fun, then how much fun can writing a screenplay be?

A screenplay is a blueprint for a movie.  If you're lucky enough to sell your script, that blueprint can then be subjected to the abuse of half a dozen writers the studio will hire to "fix it," then the producers, a director, and one or two of the "A List"  stars cast in the film will have their say as to how your story should unfold. That's how the system often works --  as an escalating hierarchy of involuntary collaboration where the person swinging the biggest stick at the end has the final say.  And that means what winds up on the big screen (assuming it actually gets filmed) often bears scant similarity to the script -- the blueprint -- crafted by you, the original screenwriter.  

But hey, as long as the check clears, no problem, right?  By definition, a screenplay is a product designed and manufactured to sell, because if it doesn't, only a dozen people will ever read or appreciate all the work and creative genius you poured into it.  And absent a sale, you the screenwriter will not be compensated for all that labor.

The same can be said of prose, of course, but with one big difference: prose is the end product.  Yes, there are usually editors to contend with -- I've had two experiences fighting with editors thus far, and both were stressful -- but in the end, what's on the page was mine, for better or worse.  To me, a good book is magic -- in essence, a movie that plays out in my mind's eye, something I can hold in my hands that doesn't require a screen, batteries, software, or anything but a little imagination and enough light to see the page.  

Given how hard it is to write in the first place (which nobody ever believes until they actually try it), and the overwhelming odds against selling any form of writing at all, tilting at the windmills of screenwriting never made much sense to me. My feeling was -- and is -- that if I'm going to endure all the pain and frustration of writing in the first place, I'll damned well suffer in the service of a story I want to write rather than something I think, hope, and pray somebody else might be willing to buy. My aim is to write the kind of stuff I'd like to read, and if other people like it too, so much the better.

Fortunately, the film and television industry is full of very smart, incredibly creative people who are terrific at writing screenplays -- and more power to them. If not for such hard-working writers, there would be no "Sopranos," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Walking Dead," or any other quality shows.  Those who appreciate good movies and television should be eternally grateful that so many people out there continue to strive hard for the brass ring of Hollywood writing success. 

Another thing: without those writers, I wouldn't have a job.  Details...

I very rarely talk about writing on set or anywhere else (except here, of course), because really, what's the point?  Either you write or you don't, and if you do, your writing pretty much speaks for itself -- or it should.  But on the odd occasion when the subject comes up, someone invariably asks the obvious question: why don't I write scripts?  

I've never been able to come up with a good answer. I just prefer the flow of good prose in reading and writing, that's all, which puts me outside the industry fence.  Screenwriting has always been the default setting in this town, where every waiter, waitress, PA, stand-in, and half the studio security guards are busy chasing the dragon of screenplay success. I admire their energy, pluck, enthusiasm, and commitment, but for so many of them, no other form of writing even seems to exist.  Jack Warner may have said "Writers are just schmucks with typewriters," but the screenplay remains the only form of writing Hollywood values or is willing to acknowledge.**  

Here, nothing else matters. 

Maybe that's why I was so heartened to hear the following quote from novelist and screenwriter Richard Price during a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.*** 

"GROSS:  So you've been quoted as saying what you really want to do most - that you write for TV, you do movies, but what you really want to do is write novels. And I'm thinking much as I love your novels, why would you be so insistent on writing novels in an age when fewer and fewer people, sadly, read them?"

"PRICE: Well, it's all that crap. The novel is dead. You know, cable took over the novel's purpose. It's just a bunch of nonsense. You know, the novel will outlive us all, will be at our funeral."
"And of all the art forms for a storyteller, everyone that pays better - screenplays, TV - there's a committee over your head that determines what you're supposed to do. You are basically writing for them to feel like, yeah, this is marketable. We can get a maximum audience for this. When writing my books, nobody tells me anything. You know, if I trust my editor and have a rapport with my editor, I listen. And with my current editor, John Sterling, I listen very hard. He was the editor for me for "Clockers" and "Freedomland." But I'm free. I'm to write what I want. I don't have to worry about whether people in Montana, you know, are going to tune into my novel. You know, it's just me writing about what I know the best way I can, answering to no one."
Read that last sentence again -- the same sentence at the top of this page. To me, that's the distilled essence of writing: following your own personal muse, doing the best you can, answering to no one, and hoping what you write might connect with a few readers.

Granted, this is all very easy for me to say, because I enjoy the luxury of not having to write for money. I'm a guy who lifts heavy objects for a living, which makes this screed just one juicer's opinion -- and thus as meaningful as a single grain of sand out on the vast expanse of Zuma Beach.  All those screenwriters with mortgage payments, families, and private school tuition to pay every month are in a very different situation. They absolutely must write to sell as a matter of survival, and for that they have my full respect and profound sympathy -- and because they do what they do, I get paid to light sets.

So God bless you screenwriters, one and all.

If screenwriting rings your buzzer, then by all means swing for the fences -- but first, you might listen to some sage advice from the writer/creators of South Park.  Theirs is an elemental lesson, but those are the most important kind.

Prose may rule in my world, but all prose is not created equal, and -- hard though it may be to believe -- there are a few misguided digi-nerds out there attempting to program computers to write in a creative manner.  "Bot authors," they're called, and the propeller-heads in charge of this benighted effort seem convinced it'll happen one day and maybe they're right.  I hope not, but sooner or later computers seem destined to do everything for us, at which point there will be no further need for humanity.

Then again, read the example of computer-generated prose (ostensibly the best "short story" a computer has yet come up with) in this transcript, and you'll understand why Richard Price won't be losing sleep over the prospect of cyber-competition anytime soon.

That said, I wonder which major studio will be the first to buy and produce a robo-screenplay?
And of course, every story needs an ending, no matter the genre, but finding a good ending can be elusive.  Beginnings are all fun and games, endings not so much.  Here, in another pithy Martini Shot commentary, veteran writer/producer Rob Long discusses the eternal problem of endings.

And speaking of which, we've arrived at one. 

* Yeah, that's a blatant rip-off of George Putnam, all right…

** Then again, maybe he didn't...
*** Go on, click that link under the photo and read about Richard Price. Once you see what an accomplished writer he really is, you'll understand why his words carry such weight.  


Anonymous said...

Thank you once again for another great read. You gave us all a reminder of yet another overlooked major detail of our industry. I too agree that the novel will be here long after the
HBO and the sitcoms. Although i do feel a sadness and a bit of concern as more and more book stores are closing. Thats why i appreciate so much what you bring to our tiny corner in this sometimes overwhelming world. k

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

Dude, thanks -- I appreciate your support, and am just glad somebody out there is still reading this thing...

JB Bruno said...

Man, of all the writers you had to discuss, Richard Price. There was that period around "Clockers" where he was THE man.

John Sayles has some great quotes about the process - he talked often about having a room full of non-writers tell him what "didn't" work in "Eight Men Out."

If you want to know how low the writer is on the totem pole in film, it is the ONLY medium where the writer does not hold the copyright - in order to produce a screenplay, the production company not only options the script, but must hold the copyright. In the indie world, that often means a writer/director optioning the script to his own company.

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

Richard Price is great, and I've always been a big fan of John Sayles -- I loved "Passion Fish," among many others of his films.

I was not aware of the copyright issue on scripts -- that's an eye-opener, and really does put the writer's place on our industry totem-pole in perspective.

Thanks for tuning it...