When a Screenplay Falls in the Forest September 5th, 2009

As part of the application to my screenwriting course at Harvard I ask the students to ask me a question.  Most of the questions I’ve received are just fine – good indicators of what the student hopes to learn and sometimes what they misunderstand about what screenwriters do.  Yesterday I got this question and it simply blew me away:

“Would you write a feature length screenplay if you knew it would not be produced?”

Oh my.  That gets to the heart of so many things.

My immediate response is, without a doubt, no.  Of course not.  Why would I do that?

And then I hear my impassioned lecturer voice telling the students to pursue screenwriting not because they expect to “win the lottery” – make a million dollar script sale – but because they really love to write screenplays.  After all, if you spend most of your time writing screenplays, that is your life.  Why would you want your life to consist of something you didn’t want to be doing? 

In point of fact, most of the screenplays that screenwriters write are never produced.  More than most.   So how is knowing that your work is very unlikely to be produced different from knowing that it will never be produced?

Answer number one: Hope.  Faith.  Belief. 

Who knew that screenwriting was such a religious experience?

I write with the underlying assumption that the work I am creating is worthy, and that I am a worthy creator – no matter how much evidence could easily be gathered to argue the contrary.  I assume that there is a point to all of the toil and that point includes production.   

It takes a certain blind faith and reckless self-confidence to make it through the arduous journey of writing a screenplay.  Certainly there is joy, excitement, discovery, learning, and passion along the way, and much of this is why we write.  But there are also rough patches, unsolvable puzzles, self-doubt, un-conjurable humor and recalcitrant characters.  Without that possibility of production and that confidence of a script’s worthiness of production, I think it would be almost impossible to find a motivation to slog through the muck. 

Knowing that a screenplay will NEVER be produced is the same as saying that you have no hope, no faith, no belief.  I personally can’t write like that.  

Answer number two: Even if the movie is unproduced, as long as there is a belief in the possibility of production you can still get paid. 

The movie you wrote may never see the light of day, but lots of screenwriters are paid to write or to have their screenplays “optioned”.  That is perhaps the fourth tier of screenwriter satisfaction, with the third tier being production, the second tier being a worthy production and the highest pinnacle uber-tier being a worthy production of your screenplay as written that your mother’s worst enemy loves, critics praise, and audiences flock to see.   

Answer number three: a screenplay has a purpose, and that purpose involves an audience. 

An unproduced screenplay is an unfinished work, the first leg of a four-way relay race.  

When I write it is always to an audience of me, to write a movie that I would want to watch; but a perception of how an audience might receive it is never out of my mind.  I am not ignorant of how my story will play (or ought to play).   Will the audience be shocked?  Will they be anxious?  Will they laugh, or cry, or squirm?  Will they want to know what happens next?  There is no drama in a story that doesn’t know what it’s trying to elicit, and there can be no eliciting without an elicitee.

It is true that with absolutely no chance or hope of production a certain liberation can occur.   Whether writing to please an audience or a marketplace, the writer may be limiting himself, avoiding the edges of his creativity or the depths of his true observations lest they be rejected.  Without hope of production there is no chance of rejection or judgment, and that can lead to original and honest choices.

Yet the writer who is pleasing only himself with no thought to the audience is showing a certain contempt, and is not joining in a process of give and take that I believe drama requires.

If I have a terrific idea and know in my heart that it will never be produced, I don’t have to write it as a screenplay.  I may articulate that idea as a short story, or a song, or a stage play.  I may just tell it as a story when people ask what I’m up to.  There is no imperative to write an un-producible screenplay if I’ve got other outlets for my creative story ideas.

I do believe that screenwriting is an art, but it’s a commercial art.  And movie-making is a collaborative art, the primary collaborateur being the screenwriter.   No chance of production?  No chance of collaboration?  No chance of commerce?  No thank you.


Comment by A Long
2009-09-09 04:31:52

No? Not even for the fun of it?

Isn’t there the writing equivalent of playing an instrument on the back porch? Just because one doesn’t imagine themselves angling toward Carnegie Hall or topping some chart doesn’t mean that can’t be rewarding. Seems to me there should be writing of that sort, too.

I’ve collected old radio shows and their scripts–Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, and the like. When I was attending the university I enrolled in an English course titled “Voices of American Humor.” That course required us to do a semester project. Mine became to write an episode of “The Fibber McGee and Molly Show” some thirty years after it had left the airwaves. Losing myself in that experience was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Those familiar characters came alive and wrote their own script, borrowing my fingers and typewriter.

Was it a waste of my time? Perhaps. There was and is no opportunity to write episodes for network radio comedy shows. But it sure was fun, it made me laugh, and it gave me confidence that I could write something funny. Seems that might be transferable enough to make the writing worthwhile.

Under close scrutiny has there been a letter written, an email sent, or a blog comment added for which its author could escape the scorn of lacking a commercial prospect? And yet those writing interludes can be enjoyable, fulfilling, and leave one with a small sense of accomplishment. I dare say, for some people, writing a movie script could be just a casual pastime. If things went well it could move beyond that, but would not have to for it to have been a valuable experience for its writer.

I’ve probably missed the point of your blog post. Wouldn’t be the first time, yet I keep adding comments. Now you can appreciate why.

Comment by danny
2009-09-10 06:49:04

I used to have a back porch and I would indeed sit on it and play my guitar, just for fun. I had zero expectation that anyone would hear me or that I would make any money from the experience. Sort of the same for the occasional poem, short film, doodle, and (frankly) these essays. Back in the day there was a time that I wrote screenplays only for myself, with the only goal being self-satisfaction and self-erudition – I wanted to learn how to do it. But the point of this essay is that writing a screenplay is no doodle – to do it right takes me between two months and two years, and I get no joy from doing it wrong. The other point is that a finished screenplay is not a movie, and so is by its very nature an unfinished project.
I don’t discourage anybody from writing screenplays for joy, I’m just stating my own condition. For heaven’s sake, don’t mistake me for a money-grubbing hack – it hurts my feelings.

Comment by A Long
2009-09-10 15:34:43

I’ve not only missed the point, I’ve managed to insult the host. I suppose those are transferable skills, too. Just my luck.

Comment by Lola Haskins
2009-09-13 16:05:41

I think writing without hope of exposure works differently depending on what the form is. Screenplays, plays and musical scores inherently involve other people to be what they came to be. But poems and novels could be said to be complete in the doing. Though it”s true that poets like me and presumably most novelists would like readers I’d argue that for some, it doesn’t matter. And that for others, telling a poem or reading a story to, say, a rosebush, would be enough.

Comment by Mathew
2009-10-13 03:20:17

It seems to me that “reading to a rosebush” or “singing on the porch” is an activity that we would call a hobby. One of my hobbies is Latin dancing– it’s a great release and I do it for the pleasure of the thing. My two left feet guarantee that there no chance of me being successful at it, though many people get to see my “creativity” in that area.

In other words, I could do a hobby with no expectation of success, but I could not put in the necessary time and energy into a work, such as a screenplay, if it would not be produced.

That being said, there are so many examples of writers who order their papers, journals, and unpublished works to be destroyed when they die. I can only guess why. The material wasn’t good enough? Too personal or scandalous? Or in the case that proves my above point wrong, the writer was simply writing for himself and never intended for anyone to see the work. Thank goodness when those orders are ignored. Every work deserves the chance to be seen at least once.

Comment by A Long
2009-10-13 12:20:19

It’s clear to even me that I’ve overstated my case. Even so, every now and then someone’s initial “hobby” effort grows into something bigger. By that time, it’s fair to admit, they have taken on professional aspirations with it, but it still started as something looking more like a hobby.

Two examples come to mind. First, the movie “Kenny,” the Australian mockumentary seems to have come about from outsiders moving into something more mainstream with their work. It’s a very fresh (maybe the wrong word here) comedy compared to much of what’s being cranked out. I’d add the television series (more so than the movie) “Trailer Park Boys” from Canada to the list of humbly-begun projects that grew into something bigger. (And, also, quite unique.) I’m not suggesting that should become the norm, but I think it holds open the door for people who have small ambitions initially.

You raise an interesting point about writers having their papers destroyed. I’d suggest a few more possible reasons for it. Writers seem vulnerable as a class to depression. That could easily account for some of that. Others have grown bitter or resentful over their lack of success and might want to deny somebody a claim “discovery” rights over their work after they’ve passed away. And, sadly, some family members might be responsible for that destruction over fears that the papers could embarrass them or even for some hold-over resentment towards the deceased.

Hope I’m not out of line chiming in with a reply here…this is, afterall, Danny’s blog. I’ll attempt to pipe down.

Comment by Mathew
2009-10-13 21:08:28

Would you put it in your will to have your unpublished screenplays or journals or papers destroyed after you go? Apologies for such a morbid question. Having a friend, brother, or even perhaps a graduate student writing his thesis on 21st century writers go over your diary could be an unsettling thought.

Also, what happens when your life becomes a story to someone else and you have no control over what they do with it? Hopefully at least you would get the role of a minor character… or perhaps a lovable foil for the hero…

Comment by danny
2009-10-14 08:59:26

I’m pretty sure I won’t be leaving a burn clause in my will, probably because my ego would welcome the idea that a future graduate student might continue to take an interest in my work. I have no fear that their investigation would expose, say, a phony, and recast my legacy in a way that would deny me the role of lovable hero. I suppose if I actually believed that my legacy would be undermined by their research then I may be more inclined to throw everything into the fireplace, but where I sit right now that doesn’t seem likely – it’s not part of the story I tell myself. That story is certainly filled with lies and distortions and selective memories, but it seems to me that’s a winning strategy.
I most certainly hope to leave this life as the lovable hero of my own story, and nobody’s foil. What happens after that is no longer my concern.

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