Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Set Up

I was informed today that a script we recently finished for an independent producer has been set up at a studio. This happened because everyone is thrilled with the work we did. The note from the director said that the set up deal is done, the studio plans to fast-track the film, and "the rewrite starts after the New Year."

This is typical. The studio loves the script so much, the executives want us to write it again. Does it ever occur to anyone in this industry to make the movie that the writers write? I am aware of only one instance in recent years in which this was done - Clint Eastwood making Paul Haggis' first draft of 'Million Dollar Baby.' The result was Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Hollywood films are written, rewritten, and re-rewritten a dozen times by writers, executives, producers, and directors, with the result that most of what is in the theaters is crap, worth neither making nor watching. The remedy for that dismal fact - just on the basis of the odds - is simple: Make the movies the writers write. Just as an experiment - just to see what would happen. Because whatever happens, it couldn't be any worse than it is now.

The main culprits in this mindless muddle are, of course, the producers and the studio executives, none of whom could write a coherent screenplay if the Taliban were holding their sisters hostage. But another culprit is the Writers Guild, which does nothing to protect the aesthetic integrity of its members' work. Yes, they do a pretty good job of looking out for our economic interests - but that is only half the job of representing writers. The other half, which they fail miserably to do, is to stand up for the artistic integrity of the work we create.

I have already recounted how, on one occasion, I asked the Guild to intervene to prevent the secretaries in the typing pool at Warner Brothers from making changes to a script we had written. I was told solemnly that doing so was outside the Guild's jurisdiction. Money is in - aesthetics are out. Well, it can call itself a Guild if it wishes, but it ought not call itself a Writers Guild, in my view.

Among other things, this raises the question: Why would anyone who wants to take himself seriously as a writer write screenplays in the first place? To me this remains an impenetrable mystery. The screenplay is a hybrid literary form, the integrity of which is up for grabs the moment it is submitted to the studio. Everyone on a film has the right, either acknowledged or implied, to change a screenwriter's work at any time, with no regard for the writer at all. On 'Ali,' a twenty-two year old production assistant (a gofer, as they are called, because they go for coffee and donuts) was asked to rewrite one of our soliloquies. And there was nothing we could do about it, not least of all because we had been banned by the director from the set.

If you want to take yourself - and be taken - seriously as a writer, write plays, novels, short stories, or poetry. Write anything but screenplays. But that rarely happens these days, since most young writers - and many of the older ones - are seduced by the promise of wealth, fame, glamor, and the chance to have lunch with movie stars. I have had lunch with movie stars, and pleasant as that experience can be, it is not worth the sacrifice of your artistic integrity.