Post by Trai Cartwright
One of my Advanced Screenwriting students pointed me in the direction of a documentary called “Tales of the Script.” It really inspired her, she said, and made facing the third act of her screenplay easier. Excited to hear of a new wellspring of inspiration, I Netflixed and watched. And proceeded to be horrified and traumatized, left dazed and damaged on the couch.
The twenty or so screenwriters interviewed related exactly my own experience while in Tinseltown – the frustration of getting to a marketable draft, the weekend reads, the hurry-up-and-wait, the thrill of big news, the grinding terror of deadlines, incomprehensible notes, wrong casting -- all of it. Worse, those experiences were compounded by the advanced level at which they played. I had only been optioned a number of times; these were screenwriters who were bought, produced and in some cases even awarded.
They spoke at length about the astonishing amount of work it takes to get a script into producible shape, and it’s often done by writers who are up against executives who aren’t expert storytellers and directors determined to get an action sequence on the Eiffel Tower shoe-horned in and movie stars who demand more tortured-hero scenes so they can show off their chops for that Oscar-bait role they want to land.
And that’s when you’ve actually gotten to the pre-production stage. How about all the work that went into first learning your craft? One screenwriter broke down the screenplays he’d written into three columns: made (3), bought (7) and written and not bought (12). He shrugged and said, not too good. Me, I thought, Wow, this guy’s got a 50% success rate! That’s terrific! (Success for a screenwriter isn’t always a made film – it’s also those that have been optioned or purchased, because those deals help us get the next deal).
Another screenwriter gave his stats: 2 films made; 35 written. Thirty-five, people!! Can you imagine writing 35 books before you made a sale??
This lead me to think of Kevin Williamson (“Scream;” “Vampire Diaries”), who spoke to a writer’s group I belonged to. Someone asked how many drafts he usually writes before he sends it to his agent. He said about fifteen to twenty. There was an audible gasp in the room – that many?? That’s crazy! But me and a few others were nodding our heads; that sounded about right.
But somehow, for some reason, the work gets done. We tuck ourselves into our small little offices where no one can hear us scream and pound away at the keys.
The question any sane person would ask is, why? Why would anyone work this hard to get so little payback. (Trust me, the $85,000 WGA minimum they pay you for that first script breaks down to about $12,500 for each year it took you to get to that point; the $250,000 paydays are few and far between. Even Shane Black doesn’t make $1 million anymore.)
So why do we do it?
One writer on the documentary had this to say: “It’s like sending only young people off to war – they simply don’t believe they’ll be hurt. If any of us had any idea what was involved in attempting this for a living, we wouldn’t do it. The secret, I guess, is to never doubt for a second that you won’t succeed.”
And that’s just the attitude required to be any kind of writer. Never doubt for a minute that you won’t succeed. And never watch documentaries that are too true to life about your chosen field.