Four years ago an L.A.-based screenwriter and now a respected screenwriting consultant approached me with a story for a script. Until then she had been primarily writing comedies, but knew that I'd done a few thriller scripts and that a political thriller of mine had placed in the Nicholl Fellowship competition, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She asked if I'd like to co-write this thriller with her.
What did this mean? I hadn't the foggiest idea, but I did know that Hollywood, and its century-long history, was known for its famous teams. The great Billy Wilder—he's up there on the left, with I.A.L. Diamond—almost always worked with a partner, and since then there have been many notable partnerships (you know them because on movie posters they're the names separated by an ampersand; if there's only an "and" it means someone was hired to rewrite you, something that happens all the time). But as a working novelist for many years, for me the idea of having to share anything more than a cookie or a bottle of Cabernet was somehow, well, alien. On a more exalted level, imagine Horowitz playing a Beethoven sonata, then in the middle of a phrase getting up and turning to Rubenstein and saying, "Okay, your turn, pal."
So, she pitched me the idea and asked me to think about it. Take your time, she said. Mull over it. A few minutes later, after long and deep reflection, I agreed. I thought the story, though somewhat outside of what I'd done or even thought about, was original and intriguing and would, on a commercial level, make a very credible and hopefully profitable motion picture. With two very strong female leads it could create a powerful on-screen dynamic. I could never turn something like this down.
She gave me the names of the characters and the setting (in the Pacific Northwest, where I hadn't been since a weird teen tour I took in 1963; believe me, the Seattle of today bears very little resemblance to the sad gray town of then). She wrote the first five pages and emailed them along to me.
I took those five, added my own touch to them, then added five more pages. In this way, with many daily telephone conferences and very nearly no dissension, we completed our screenplay in some three weeks. The work was seamless; it was impossible to tell one's work from another's. We had a system, and the thing worked.
Rewrites took a further week, and with representation it went wide to studios and producers. Meetings were requested by some executives, and one in particular, a development person at a production company attached to a major studio, asked to develop the script with us.
"Develop" meaning to change it utterly. So we worked with the woman I'll here call Diane (since even her first name is well-known in the biz) for nearly eight months. Diane's instincts were actually very good. Her job, as anyone's in Hollywood is, is to create a bankable product: to make the project attractive to actors (known as "talent") and directors (who sometimes convince themselves they're the writers); to audiences both here and abroad; and to potential purchasers of the DVD.
Things were looking good. Until, at the end of those eight long months, we asked our manager to request some sort of contractural and hopefully financial commitment from the development executive. She wouldn't bite. Eight months to her was nothing, while to us it was almost a whole year's inexorable march towards the grave. So we took the project away from her, and, because it had been seen all over town, the project was, to all intents and purposes, "dirty".
Sorry for the lingo, but in Hollywood everything's either gold or garbage.
It is in publishing, as well, but they use other terms and pat you on the head while saying so.
Anyway, the project lay dormant while we put together a second collaborative script, and then my partner, through a friend in the business, got a lead on a producer looking for just this kind of project. He read the logline—the short, pithy description of it—and asked to read the script. And then called a meeting. He gave us notes for yet another rewrite. That was one week ago.
Last night we finished the rewrite, working just as we had in the beginning, taking chunks of pages at a time, rewriting, passing them along, having phone conferences, and so forth. And though we knew this script and its characters inside and out, we now had the same story with a different dynamic between the main characters. And, in a way, the script is now one giant step better and more marketable. But then, in a way, it always has been.
There was no room for negotiation with him, as there often is in book publishing ("If you change this I won't make you change that."). Though no movies are ever made without them, screenwriters are slaves to everyone else involved in a project, and hence at the very bottom of the food chain. We may be the sole begetters of a story and its script, but once it's sold anything can happen. Other writers are brought in who will follow your ampersanded names on the poster; characters you thought you knew well would become, like a person in a Kafka story, creatures you never imagined, and ever afterwards people will say to you, "Hey, that was great," while all along they're thinking, "I thought he was a bright guy. That really was crap."
But for all that I enjoy screenwriting almost as much as I love writing fiction. For one thing, it's pure craft. And if you go into it knowing that you don't "own" anything in this story, that somehow this isn't coming out of your soul in a way that a novel does—screenplays tend to have their own special exit points—you're more inclined to mess endlessly with it.
Anyway, the script is out for a weekend read. There'll either be a flat No, or we'll get further notes. The waiting game begins. And when you're a full-time writer the waiting game never truly ends.
It's all a gamble. And who doesn't love to watch the roulette wheel spin? The pain only comes when it stops.
Rien ne va plus, mesdames et messieurs...
Causes J.P. Smith Supports