Friday, November 1, 2013

Screenwriting. Random thoughts # 1

Screenwriters as ‘content providers’?

We live in a world in which ‘content providers’ are increasingly expected to work for free – musicians, writers, illustrators and others who toil in the creative realm.
Those ‘content providers’ amongst us who write screenplays know all about writing for free. It’s what we do most of the time. Our choice, of course. No one is twisting our arms, holding a gun to our heads, but would any of us dream of asking our plumber, electrician, accountant or doctor to work for nothing?
As a new era begins at Screen Australia it is to be hoped that incoming Chief Executive Graeme Mason and his team in Script Development will be open to constructive feedback from screenwriters. Here is mine:

Treat screenwriters with respect.

It will not be possible to provide the majority of us with funds to develop our screenplays most of the time. This is just a fact of life. Without first rate screenplays we cannot make first rate films or television. A statement of the obvious, of course, but given the number of undercooked and often downright shoddy Australian screenplays that go into production, a statement of the obvious that is worth making. Saving money in script development (too few drafts, the quality bar set way too low) and then investing millions of dollars in the production of second rate screenplays is false economy.

Get the script right before investing.

If Australian film and TV is an important and integral part of Australian culture, then we screenwriters provide an invaluable service and should, at the very least, be treated with professional respect. We are prepared to work for nothing because we love and believe in what we do but would be much happier and be prepared to write those extra half dozen drafts if you stroke us a little. Be nice to us. Talk with us. We will not bite. In fact we will probably be pathetically grateful to have the importance of what we do acknowledged. It would be a pleasant change. If you like one of our screenplays, if you can see its potential to become a film or TV program with the potential to connect with Australian and international audiences, pay us to write those 7th, 8th 9th and 10 th drafts and don’t invext production monies until the screenplay is as good as it possibly can be.

More experienced, talented and wiser filmmakers than myself have addressed the question of how first rate screenplays come into being. Consider the following from Paddy Chayevsky - the only screenwriter to have won three solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay – with Marty, The Hospital and Network:

“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story so you start changing the theme.”  
Screenwriters are often working from a gut feeling that there is a story waiting to be found in the idea, theme, characters, images, opening scene or whatever it is that has inspired them in the first place. There are more questions than answers at the outset when we state at a blank screen or blank sheet of paper. We are flying blind and may be for weeks or months. Sometimes an idea can gestate for years before we can give it a shape that we can assess ourselves, let alone one that can be read and assessed by others. This is unpaid work. It will always be unpaid work. We do not expect to be paid for it but, please, Screen Australia can do better than write us a form letter that includes segments of an assessment written by an anonymous Reader. The telephone is a wonderful communication device if face to face dialogue is impractical. (I will return to this question later.)

Ernest Lehman, whose credits include Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, West Side Story, The King and I, Hello Dolly, and Portnoys Complaint, makes the following observation about the screenwriting process:

“The more the struggle, the better it probably is. The struggle indicates that you are not accepting the first or the second or the third thing that comes to mind at any given moment when you are writing. You are constantly rejecting and trying harder. Once you put the words on paper…even though they are going to be rewritten, the die is cast. It is better that you can hold out, saying to yourself, ‘This isn’t good enough. No, that isn’t good enough’ – keep rejecting, even before you hit the typewriter key or you write on a yellow pad. Once you start putting words down, that means you think the words are almost good enough. The greater the struggle the higher the level of critical faculties at work.”
It is this struggle that is time consuming. For the most part we screenwriters don’t receive any remuneration for this time spent ‘struggling’. Even if you think our screenplays are dreadful bear in mind that Screen Australia Project Managers and assessor/Readers have been wrong about what audiences want to see more often than they have been right. The acquisition of a desk in an air-conditioned office, a job description and a regular wage does not make any Screen Australia script assessor (by whatever title) an ‘expert’. S/he is fallible – just as is the screenwriter whose months of unpaid work s/he is assessing.  

Here is Jean Claude Carriere writing about ‘process’.(Carrier’s screenwriting credits include: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and, in collaboration with Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon.

“The screenplay…goes through a toddling, stammering phase, gradually discovering its strengths and its weaknesses. As it gains confidence it begins to move under its own power. Work on a screenplay often operates in a series of waves. The first waves are exploratory. We open all the doors and we begin to seek, neglecting no path, no blind alley. The imagination launches unbridled into a hunt which can lead it into the vulgar, the absurd, the grotesque, which can even make the imagination forget the theme that is the object of the hunt. Whereupon another wave rears, surging in the opposite direction. This is the backwash, the withdrawal to what is reasonable, essential, to the old question: exactly why are we making this and not some other film? Quite simply, what basically interests us here? This is the moment when we survey the road the characters have travelled, but we also look at verisimilitude, structure, interest, levels of audience understanding. By backtracking, by returning to our original garden, we obviously abandon along the way the majority of our illusory conquests – but not necessarily all of them. We return to scholarly, sometimes commonplace and even pettifogging concerns. They help us take stock. In the heat of the chase we might easily have forgotten to bring along our supplies, our drinking water, our maps. Rare are the authors who can afford, on their own, this balanced and impartial movement between the two zones.”
Carriere is writing about process – one that begins with inspiration of some kind and leads the screenwriter in directions he or she may never have imagined possible. Screen Australia’s assessment process, demanding as it does synopses, treatments, writers notes, forces the screenwriter to leap ahead of herself – to answer questions (in a way that will be palatable to an anonymous Project Manager/Assessor/Reader) that should really remain as questions until the best and cleverest screenwriting solutions emerge. This can involve travelling several roads that turn out to be dead ends before finding the road that serves your story, theme or characters best. Weeks and months of work can be relegated to ‘trash’ if no solutions emerge.

At the risk of belabouring the point, this stage in the screenplay development process is one for which screenwriters are rarely paid. Again, I have no problem with this but when a screenwriter has spent months, in all likelihood, engaged in processes similar to those of the screenwriters mentioned above, communicate with them either on the telephone or face to face. This is not only the polite and professional way of engaging with screenwriters (pitching in Hollywood is a time-honoured tradition) but also, I would suggest, an acknowledgment of the fact that Screen Australia Reader/assessors have no better track record developing screenplays that are made into films that audiences actually want to see than the writers, producers and directors (filmmakers all) who make the applications. Some humility on the part of Screen Australia in the script development area would be greatly appreciated. And Screen Australia’s track record this past five years suggests that humility is in order!

There are at least two positive reasons why face to face meetings should occur as often as possible:

(1) In the dialogue that takes place between screenwriters and Screen Australia Readers/Assessoras/Project Managers, ideas can be tossed around and often, in my experience, can lead to new ideas emerging that  had not occurred to either the screenwriter or the Assessors. As Carrierre writes: Rare are the authors who can afford, on their own, this balanced and impartial movement between the two zones.” Project Managers, who should, for the most part, be experienced filmmakers themselves, can play a positive role of the kind Carriere describes and make positive contributions towards the development of higher quality screenplays.

(2) Ours is a collaborative medium – film and TV. There is no ‘is’ and ‘them’. There is only ‘we’. Screen Australia’s tendency to remain aloof from filmmakers this past five years, to engage in no dialogue other than of a kind controlled by Screen Australia, has fostered an ‘us’ and ‘them’ relationship between our peak film development body and we ‘content providers’. This is counter-productive. None of us in this period of rapid change has a monopoly on good ideas, new ways of approaching both the development and production of stories that can be be broadcast now on multiple platforms. Applicants and Assessor/Reader/Project Managers should be engaged in dialogue in which each has respect for the professional skills of the other.

Barely a day goes by when someone does not start a spirited debate online (Facebook, usually, thanks to Lynden Barber) about Australian film. This invariably devolves into a discussion about distribution models and the quality of our screenplays. The ideas floated are often quite inspired and inspiring and the ensuing dialogue exciting. Which brings me to another random thought to float into the ether:

An interactive Screen Australia website for filmmakers

Screen Australia could (and I believe should) establish a website (or an area within its current website) where online forums of the Facebook variety can occur. Other than the requirement that contributors are respectful of ideas that they disagree with there should be as few rules as possible regarding what topics can be broached and debated. There is one rule that I would like to see governing such a website (though I may be in a minority here) and that is that there be no ‘anonymous’ comments. It should not be necessary for anyone to hide their identity. I do understand why it is that some people choose to do so. They fear retribution at the hands of those in bureaucratic high places whom they fear may take exception to their criticisms – implied or overt. They should not. Screen Australia should not either punish critics nor reward those who form part of an inner circle cheer squad. The field should be level. A prohibition against anonymous comments would also serve as a disincentive to those (and there are plenty) who hide the fact that they have a personal axe to grind by making anger-driven criticisms that do not serve the goal of collaborative dialogue.

Amongst other things, such an online forum would serve the function of making it possible for potential collaborators (screenwriters, producers, directors) to make contact with each other, swap ideas, screenplays etc.

Regardless of how effective such a website might be in terms of encouraging dialogue and debate, it is also important that there be regular fora in which filmmakers, film bureaucrats and Reader/Assessor/Project Managers meet face to face in the spirit of collaboration.

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