the gates of (development) hell

In order to research my work-in-progress (which will be called either SHADOW HILL or THE DECADENTS), I sat in on a story meeting at my friend Octavius’s production company (there was talk of he and I doing a yoga class beforehand, but no way in hell could I get up that early. The spirit is willing, yet the flesh is so weak…)

It was interesting not just for the sake of the WIP (which I now have to rethink a bit) but also to see writers and writing discussed from the kind of business perspective we’re usually so insulated from, sealed away in our bedrooms and offices and local branches of Starbucks (or in my case, a friend’s guesthouse) and often to our distinct disadvantage.

The first item up for discussion was a newly revised screenplay that Octavius declared “worse than the previous draft. It’s kind of a mess. It made me wonder why we were even looking at this project in the first place.*” As one of his –assistants? development people? — described her interactions with the writer (“He is difficult”), I sensed what had happened: the writer didn’t take their notes all that seriously, rushed through the revision grafting on the changes without considering what those changes were supposed to accomplish in the first place (I did something similar as an undergrad and got slammed for it, one of the best writing lessons I’ve ever received about how to approach both constructive criticism and the process of revision itself). Octavius and crew wanted the bad guy of the piece to be more fully developed. Instead, the added dialogue “only makes him seem like more of an asshole”, which was not the development they had in mind (“we already know he’s an asshole”). They discussed his other screenplay, noted his weakness with characterization in general and declared him “pretty much a B-movie action writer”. Ouch. They agreed to schedule another meeting with the dude to see if the project could be saved, but no one looked optimistic.

Another writer up for discussion was a guy who co-wrote one of the biggest hits of last year. He has several big pictures set up with another studio — “We got his dark little personal project,” Octavius said, tossing a weary smile my way. “That’s the one he sent us.” They discussed a woman who wrote a movie that’s on my list of all-time favorites. It was a box office smash and critical darling when it came out maybe twelve or fifteen years ago. Her career — and, it seems, the quality of her writing — has veered downhill ever since (“It’s sad,” one of the development people commented). Her recent movie was the kind of flop that flops so badly it’s a laughingstock, and her latest screenplay won no votes from this bunch (“Let’s just say,” one woman said tightly, “that it’s a pass”).

Octavius chided one of the younger guys for bringing him a script that only made him shake his head in despair.”…and why exactly did you bring me this?”

“I like his writing. I think he’s got a good voice.”

Octavius sighed. “When considering a script, you have to ask yourself, ‘Who would want to see this?‘ You can’t just say, ‘He’s got a good voice.’…Have we met with this writer? Or have a meeting set up… No? …Then you should have given me the first thirty pages, said, ‘Take a look, tell me if you want to read more.’ I should not have felt the obligation to read this whole thing. You wasted my time.”

The guy said, a bit defensively, “[So-and-so] over at [such and such company] likes [this writer].”

“Really? [So-and-so] told you this? Who told you this?”

The guy admitted that the writer’s agent had told him this, that he had not actually spoken to the so-and-so in question.

Octavius got exasperated. “Well of course the agent’s going to say that! It’s the agent’s job to sell the script! Did you actually get on the phone and call [so-and-so] or [his assistant] and ask, Hey, what do you think of this guy?…C’mon, you’re smarter than that.”

I quietly wondered if maybe the screenwriter was a personal friend of this particular development guy. If this guy had said, or been persuaded to say, Sure, I’ll cut you a break, I’ll slip your script to Octavius. One of the things that exasperates me about this town is how obsessed people get with networking, with connections. They forget that if you don’t actually have something good to give the connection, you end up with nothing more than a disgusted look on the producer’s face and your own taste or judgment — or craft, or talent — in question. If anything you end up in a worse place than when you started.

Another screenplay got tagged “overwritten, overstylized, too much dialogue” — which made me suspect Tarantino’s influence. I wasn’t immune to that influence myself, in what little attempt I’ve made at screenwriting: entire blocks of glib, ‘clever’ dialogue. Until I saw how written lines translate to actual screentime: how long it takes for an actor to speak them, how the minutes stretch on…and on…with nothing else happening but people blabbing at each other. It might work onstage, or in a novel. It doesn’t work in movies, where the dramatic power comes from the silence, the image, the tension between the surface of the said and the depth of the unsaid. Tarantino seems so easy to imitate, but he’s working with principles that he understands in a way his imitators don’t.

Octavius ended the meeting a dissatisfied man. “We need more movies,” he sighed. “We need more.”

Because this seems to be the truth at the core of the film industry: water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. This town is flooded with screenplays. Dismiss all the unagented screenplays — the studios and independent production companies certainly do** — and you’re still wading through snowstorms of material. I had my own experience with this, reading for a production company a few years ago. At that level — the agented level — the material is competent and at least mildly engaging. But most of it is familiar. You’ve seen it, or versions of it, before.*** You don’t want just ‘competent’, you want make me fall wild-crazy in love, you want make me see the movie in this, not just a good story but a movie, movie, movie!, not to mention everybody’s favorite, …and make me a lot of money/promote me while you’re at it.

*Reminds me of an article in the recent Poets & Writers wherein a long-experienced writing teacher scorns the feel-good kind of workshop where the teachers claim they learn as much from the students as the students learn from them (“What do those teachers learn?” this guy asks. “That you should drink lots of water at a rave?”) The guy believes that the nature of writing workshops would change — drastically, and for the better — if you actually hammered home the point that, in the real world, you are writing for people who don’t have any reason to read you if they don’t want to . Who are not your friends and family, or members of your workshop assigned to read you for next class. Who, like Octavius, can simply say, “Why should I care?” and “It’s kind of a mess” and “Who would want to see this?” — much less spend money and time for the privilege. In the article, the guy remembers his own workshop experience when he was a young ‘un. The teacher would start reading the piece aloud — and then stop as soon as he decided he no longer cared. Which could be two pages in — or two paragraphs in — or two sentences in to the story. Everyone became ruthlessly hellbent on writing a story rich and strong enough that would make the teacher care enough to read all the way through. There was, claims the writer of this article, a quality of “terror” to that workshop that resulted in its members becoming significantly better writers. He doesn’t believe that that kind of ‘terror’ is allowed to exist in workshops today…and that students suffer for it. Without even realizing.

**The production company I read for made a serious attempt at giving unagented writers a chance. They were forced to stop, one of the founders told me, because those unagented screenplays “just sucked. They were so bad. Even the contest winners. They sucked way too much to justify all the time we spent going through them, and we just didn’t find anything good. Not one single script. We hated to do it, but to preserve our own sanity we had to limit submissions to those with agents.”

***The problem of generic creative influence: when everybody has seen the same movies/read the same bestsellers/grown up in the same stream of popular culture. You need to range deep and wide in your reading/movie-watching, go to the edges of your own personal obsessions, in order to find those nuggets of inspiration that will make you more original than everybody else — if just because you’re stealing from more original sources, or synthesizing your mainstream ones in more original ways.

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