Thursday, February 28, 2008

Death By A Thousand Hacks

As a counterpoint to my entry “Why YOU should write Stigmata 3,” I’m now going to tell you how to protect your dream screenplay from a death by a thousand hacks. I’ll start with the hard truth.

The trouble with aspiring screenwriters (whether they realize it or not) is they think of themselves as playwrights instead of filmmakers. They write stunningly original and deeply personal stories and then expect “them” to make the movie just as they have written it. With a few notable exceptions, it never works out that way.

The most likely thing “they” will do with your stunningly original and deeply personal script is ignore it. Stunningly original and deeply personal scripts almost always lose money, and “they” won’t take the risk. In the very unlikely event that your screenplay is actually sold, every word will eventually be rewritten by others, probably by “hacks” like me.

Take the example of my own brother, Brendan Hood. He has been writing original and personal screenplays since he was 14. You can read his brilliant horror screenplay for the movie “They” here. The spec script bears no resemblance the film that was eventually produced. Now, read his sobering interview about the recent release of his follow up movie “Deaths of Ian.” The bottom line is that “they” took his screenplays, not once but twice, and rewrote every word.

Brendan Hood Final
Brendan William Hood

I say this not to vilify “them.” Would you risk millions of dollars of your own money on somebody else’s poetry? Most investors who get charmed into financing movies ultimately feel they were swindled by a bunch of flakes and charlatans. Read “their” perspective here.

And for the record, a lot of “them” (studio executives) turn out to smart, perceptive, and creative film-lovers who are just as frustrated as we are when good scripts get mangled by the development process. So don't blame them. You may even find that working with them on genre sequels and comic book adaptations is a lot of fun.

But meanwhile, there is only one solution for you and your stunningly original and deeply personal script: become a hyphenate. Direct it yourself, or raise the money yourself and own your own product. Start by scraping together a little cash for a short film. In the age of digital filmmaking, you don't have excuses any more. Most of all, remember that you are not a writer; the words on the page are just blueprints. You are a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker you should take responsibility for your own films.

For those filmmakers out there who are not cut out to be either producers or directors (and many screenwriters are not), form a close relationship with a producer or director that will last beyond a single film. Filmmakers who find the right creative collaborators, people who force them to make changes to their screenplays FOR THE BETTER, craft the the kinds of scripts that win awards and inspire the rest of us to keep on hacking. You can that too.

Joining Filmmaker’s Alliance is a great place to start.

1 comment:

Martin said...


Well, you’re right on the money in more ways than one. I’ve spent most of my creative life as a playwright, exactly because I wanted to write personal stories. And I’ve been very lucky, as all ten of my plays have found a home, and full productions, some multiple productions. Lucky, indeed. As a playwright, I own the copyright and a theater literally has to GET IT IN WRITING FROM ME if they want to change a word. The down side, which I don’t mind at all, is in my best year I made $25,000 as a playwright. Most years it’s more like five to ten. But I do just fine coaching actors, which I love to do. And it does not hurt that my wife is an executive for a technology company. I did get into the film world by the back door, as a small production company bought one of my plays after they saw a reading in LA. BUT my eyes where wide open. It was more than I ever made as a playwright, and I got lucky since it only went through a first draft, two rewrites, and a polish. I was the only writer. (I think!) And they were really nice. On the other hand, I was more than happy to do notes. So it worked out fine. I don’t think the film will ever be made, but my agents think I have a fine sample. And if it gets made, well, I know I’ll be rewritten. So? I got to see the play produced twice exactly as I wrote it, before I ever signed over the rights to film. The only reasons I’d write movies again is for the money, which is not to say it can’t be or was not a lot of fun. It is. You just have to know what you’re getting into. Which is your very smart point. I also teach playwriting from time to time, and tell people if they don’t want to collaborate, write novels! Which would lead me to my final thought: I know Peter Hedges a little, (he was first a playwright), and he wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as a novel. And they don’t get more personal. Then it sold to film. I ran into him on the street in NYC with his novel in hand years ago and he smiled a big smile and said, “Hey, they’re making it into a movie!” So, while I sneak in to Hollywood from time to time, I would suggest for the most personal stories, a Novel. Maybe a play. On a stage, actors can truly make you better than your are on the page, or it can go the other way. But God love actors who do theater year after year. What makes most sense to me is to know the market you are working in and exactly what it has to give and not. In my experience, in film, theater, novels, if you talk to enough working writers they will tell you the score. My score, my real goal in writing, is TO HAVE FUN. So far, so good.