Erasing the Movie in Your Head


writer bio

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been allowed to participate in the collaborative process beyond the printed page on my three films, but that is certainly the exception and not the rule. For most screenwriters it’s a case where you come up with the idea, spend months or even years to develop it (usually on spec, i.e. free), write it (another long period of time) and hopefully sell it – after that your services are usually no longer required. It’s like being a surrogate mother: “Thanks for being inseminated and carrying the baby for nine months but now that it’s born, well, we’ll take it from here.” But being allowed into the collaborative process isn’t just a bottle of beer either. It can be painful and disappointing and, sometimes, infuriating.

Directors like to think that they are auteurs, and nothing tickles their egos more than to have a ‘film by’ credit, as if the entire story sprang fully-formed from their own fetid minds. It all started with Chaplin and, for some few, it is well-deserved: Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, the Polish Brothers, Gilliam, Woody Allen, Guy Ritchie, Tarantino… Even directors who didn’t necessarily write the script (Hitchcock, Polanski) can claim the title simply because of their unique vision of the film.

They are the exceptions, as the majority of director ‘film by’ credits today owe more to the power of their agents than the power of their prose and for writers to be relegated to an after-thought (or after-birth, to continue the insemination scenario) is usually the lot of the average screenwriter. “You took the money now take a hike,” say the producers and directors, acting as if you’re some stripper who can be slipped a twenty for the thrill and all will be forgotten after the lap-dance. I’ll jerk-off by myself. Okay, fair enough I suppose – I’m a whore - but there’s still a problem that’s not solved by throwing dollars at me: the movie in my mind.

I doubt there’s a screenwriter alive out there (produced or not) who doesn’t have a movie memory that you’ll never see. That’s because it exists only in their minds. It’s the curse of the screenwriter. In theatre the writer is the king: what they write on the page is what is seen on the stage. In books, generally the same, and also, for the most part, in TV. But movies are a different kettle of fish.

There’s too much money involved, too may egos – too much collaboration and politics – so that what the writer ‘saw’ in their mind when they wrote the script is usually very different than what the movie-goer sees.  You wrote a thriller for Brad Pitt about an ex-CIA operative who learns he was the subject of a black-bag mind-control experiment so he steals government secrets and sells them to the Chinese? It’s not unusual to see it end-up as a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez who steals a guy’s heart and leaves him in Chinatown.  Would it surprise you if I told you that the original story of Star Wars was a Western? Well, it should because it is complete bullshit but you see what I mean (you believed it for a moment didn’t you?). All is grist for the mill, and the screenwriter is the grist.

Boo hoo the screenwriter you may be saying, but seeing your precious dialog being mangled, mauled and rewritten on-set and on-the-fly by actors who are more concerned about their own ego than their character’s ergo, or by producers who consider your work to be nothing more than a ‘product to be delivered’ can be frustrating, to say the least. The fact that we’re (fairly) well-compensated (when we actually get paid) for our troubles does not really erase the (better) movie in your mind, or the fact that the final product is never as good as the one that played nightly in your brain all the years that you gave birth to the screenplay (besides, your credit was always bigger in your head). Alas collaboration, alas compensation, alas a better agent!

So in the end what am I talking about here? Better compensation and more representation? Yes, but no (however nice that’d be). I’m talking about respect. Respect for the writers out there (of all genres) who work – usually alone, in a vacuum and on spec - to create an engrossing story with interesting, vibrant, characters and a satisfying resolution. We writers live in our heads, usually to the detriment of relationships, our own well-being and our family, to provide entertainment to others – and to quiet the voices in our heads that wake us up at 3 AM demanding we write down their thoughts, stories and dialog.  I never set-out to write a ‘product to be delivered’ in my life (although product it’s become), I wrote what I felt was interesting. At least to me. If it became interesting to others then, well, that’s a bonus I suppose. It’s just that the movie in my head has always been better than the one on the screen. Don’t misunderstand, I thank God that the scripts I’ve written which were produced were produced, but every time I watch them I keep hitting “erase” in my mind - and nothing ever happens. Maybe I need a better agent.


Working with Your Empty Wallet


writer bio

We’re all accustomed to big visions, and unfortunately, we’re often times more accustomed to empty wallets.  That’s the reality and that’s what brings us to this website.  The good news is that until Hollywood comes calling with giant budgets for your films, there is a way to still produce quality work with limited funds.  In the coming weeks, I’ll focus on ways to turn those big visions into realities, even with an empty wallet.  The first step is in the script.

I’ve made films with budgets as low as $1500 and as high as three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but there is always one thing that that remains the same.  I wish I had more money.  Let’s get this straight, you’ll always wish you had more money on your production to pay for better help, better actors, better food or a better location, that will never change, but to eliminate expenses before they are looking you in the eye, that’s a job for you as the writer.

I’ll start with an example that is very drastic, but very effective.  I had written a film that I wanted to make come hell or high water.  It was a personal story and I thought it could only be told through the 100 pages of dialogue I had written.  There was no way a story this important could be told any other way.  That was until I had researched what kind of money I was looking at to get it made.  I realized that I simply could not make the film without raising about 250K.  This was never going to happen.  But this film needed to be made!!  So what I did, on the advice of some friends, was turn it into a short film.  I scoffed at first, but then got to work on writing the short film.  I took the concept and the story I was dying to tell from 100 pages to 12 pages.  We shot the short film and after it was all said and done, I had a project I was so proud of.  The short, From Woodside, Queens, went on to win some awards and also screened at the prestigious Aspen Shorts Fest alongside three Oscar nominees and the eventual winner of that year’s Academy Award for Best Short.  In short…you can still make your film if you are willing to rewrite it to a “shootable” length.

You’ve decided that you can’t cut a page and the idea of turning your baby into a short makes you cringe.  Okay, how else can I help?  You love exploding buildings and car chases, but your budget is built more for firecrackers and parallel parking.  What do you do?  Rewrite your location, rewrite the action.  Let’s assume that you are making a film that has very little to no money.  Well, the two page car scene is out, sorry guys, but you can still work in the drama with a carefully rewritten scene.  If you have to keep the car in movie, consider a way that you can shoot it with as little motion as possible.  Work with your Director of Photography and tell him or her what you hope to accomplish and what kind of drama you are trying to create.  If they say it can only be done with a camera car or mounting a camera on the side of the car, you will have to decide if you can afford it.  Remember that the camera car and a camera rig on the side of a car will require time.  Time is your biggest enemy on a set.  Do you really need the scene so bad that you might be willing to lose a day of shooting to get it?  Consider all the things that can go wrong and know that they probably will.  You might get the shot, but if it took 20 rehearsals and a tired crew and putting an actor in jeopardy, was it worth it?  You might be surprised how much drama you can create with a foot chase as opposed to a car chase.

On the feature film I just directed, there were several scenes that included driving.  All but one had dialogue and a single actor.  The producers, the D.P. and I decided that shots of an actor driving a car are no problem.  The scene with dialogue between two actors in the car (driving on a highway) was a problem and would be moved.  It didn’t make sense to have the actors engage in a conversation, that they could have had anywhere, in a moving vehicle.  We moved the scene to a bedroom and shot it in 25% of the time it would have taken to shoot it in a moving car.  Time equals money.  We saved thousands of dollars in man-hours.

When writing the script, ask yourself, who you are writing the script for.  Is this something that you will be producing for sure?  If you have saved up $5000 and it is going into a short film, then write it like that.  Consider every location and every prop you place in the film.  If your characters are at a baseball game at Citi Field and cheering on the Mets, it might look great, but ask yourself if the dialogue could have been spoken in a local sports bar or in a character’s basement in front of the television with the game on. 

You have to write to your empty wallet.  Locations are pricey; really consider what locations you can get for free when you write them into a script.  I was making a 4 minute short with a budget of $1500 (Husky, 2005).  The story revolved around a kid and his desire for a Halloween costume.  I needed a costume store for sure.  I didn’t cast an actor or hire a D.P. until I had locked down the location because without the location it wasn’t going to happen.  I was prepared to trim the amount of scenes in the store as much as needed, but I knew without that location the script was dead.  As an alternative, I would have shot the film, but changed the dialogue and action from inside a store to somewhere else and then gone back for exteriors.  Either way, I had to be prepared to rewrite to fit my budget.  After your big vision has come to your head and you’re ready to start to write it out, do yourself a favor and put those scenes in locations you know you can get (your house, your grandmother’s house, your place of business).

Along with locations, consider the time of day that the scene needs to take place.  Let’s say it is a scene that must take place at night and you just can’t live without it.  Okay, consider that you will, of course, have to light the scene.  Now consider that you will either have to blow it out on lights or live with a grip following your actors with a China Ball connected to an extension cord.  But it has to be outside and it has to be at night! 

My advice?  Use what is available and free.  The sun is free.  Shooting in daylight can present some problems, but they can be worked with easier than shooting outside at night.  For the sake of your budget, consider shooting in the day whenever you can.  Shoot at night, but try to keep it indoors.  If you’re writing a film that you want to sell, don’t hold back.  Let the production company who buys the script pay for the location on Mars, they wouldn’t take the script if they didn’t think they could produce it.  But if it’s for you, make sure you write something you know you can afford.

One more way to use your pen to help your wallet is to limit your cast.  It’s fun to have a big ensemble cast, but it’s also more expensive and time consuming.  Remember that for every actor you write for, that’s one more mouth to feed, one more schedule to work around, one more person you need to dress and one more body that needs to fit into the van.   Try to limit your cast, if possible, so that your ambition doesn’t outspend your bank account.  There is no cap on the number of people in your screenplay, but be aware if your cast starts to get too big.

There are always exceptions to the rules and these are not hard and fast rules by any stretch of the imagination, just reminders.  Write the best script you can, just remember that that script is at its best when it is being produced, so write a script you can produce!  Good Luck to you and best of luck to Big Vision Empty Wallet!!!


Hollywood Uncut


writer bio

Let's start with the big question: what does Hollywood want?

What do you need to know in order to sell that screenplay, to find the right agent, to connect with the perfect producer/director/actor?  How can you find out the covert handshake, the secret password, or crack the code that will be the catalyst to make it big?  Who’s hiding Hollywood’s Holy Grail and how the hell do you find it?

It's true that Hollywood's bigwigs may have one idea on Monday and another on Tuesday; and even another idea altogether after the weekend's box office numbers drop.  And that's not even taking into account the endless round of musical chairs among said bigwigs, which inevitably produces more tempo changes than Pamela Anderson on "Dancing with the Stars."  You might be tempted, then, to ignore the power-brokers altogether.  Why listen to them if you're only going to get whiplash in the process?  There are some people, a handful, or maybe a thimbleful, who can do just that.  Ignore those self-proclaimed arbiters of taste who think they have your future in their buffed and polished hands!  But you'd better have the goods to back it up along with a thick skin and a nest-egg in the bank just in case.

More likely you need to work it out the old fashioned way.  You need to find out what they know.  Learn everything there is about the world you've chosen to inhabit, know who the players are, what the success stories are and what big-assed failures are standing between you and your dreams.  There may be no free lunch, as the saying goes, but Hollywood isn't tricky.  If "How to Train Your Dragon" works, they want more movies like that.  If "The Marriage Ref" can't pick up a bigger share, they won't want more shows of that genre.  You think you're better than Jerry Seinfeld?  You can succeed where he couldn't?  I applaud your self-confidence, but good luck with that.

Okay, that being said, there will always be the exception that proves the rule.  If you are really, really amazing or really, really lucky (preferably both) you can fly in the face of history and make it work and the world will applaud you and bow at your feet.  But you have to be brutally honest with yourself.  Are you the Susan Boyle of cinema?  If not, let's assume you'll benefit by playing by the rules.

Once you have a good handle on the basics, then it's time to let your instincts take over.  Now you can be the artist your inner voice whispers to you about when you're lying in your bed alone at night.  This is assuming you have actual talent in addition to your drive to succeed. The goal is for everything you've learned to reside in your brain so that it will inform your creative process naturally.  It will be the sieve through which your choices and ideas flow.  Your instincts will be making it happen while your head, which has already done its part, goes along for the ride; but doesn't drive the bus.  If you try to allow your head to take over, if you over-think, you're looking for trouble and you're going to drive right off the road into a bottomless ravine where you'll die, tragically, before you ever get your big break.  

So start by doing the boring stuff, the homework you hate now just as much as when you were in high school, and be totally prepared so you can make the most of your chances.  Let's face it.  The stakes are higher today than when you were worried about passing your chem midterm or acing U.S. Gov.

To give you a hand with that homework, this column will periodically bring you news from the front lines.  It will by no means tell you all you need to know; that would be promising the proverbial free lunch which we've already admitted doesn't exist.  But it will help you navigate the high-powered hills of Hollywood and the gold-dusted gridlock of Gotham, bringing you closer to your goals, one thoughtful step at a time.