Screenwriters are bachelors and bachelorettes.
Not literally, perhaps. But whether or not you have taken a spousal partner in the physical world, the endeavor of writing a screenplay is an isolating, lone wolf pursuit where 90% of the conversations you have are in your head.
It’s okay, I understand. I am one, too.
Now, it has been said, ad infinitum, that two heads are better than one. This may not have been true for Ray Milland and Rosey Grier (and if you get that reference, you are not obligated to admit it), but, in terms of creative collaboration, nothing beats a true meeting of the minds. It’s the greatest high in the world. Not that I have sampled them all. But it’s gotta be close.
I believe it was Alfred Hitchcock (I could be wrong) who said that a movie is made three times: once when written, once when filmed and once when edited. Think of it as Acts I, II and III. In my professional experience, as a screenwriter who has enjoyed working side by side with directors during each of these stages, I have come to learn that the most crucial creative relationship during filming is between director and cinematographer. The most important duo during editing is, well you can guess that one. But the most important creative relationship right out of the gate is director and screenwriter.
It is a marriage.
A limited marriage, to be sure, but a marriage nonetheless.
If you, dear undervalued scribe, are lucky enough to find yourself working with a talented, productive director– that is, one who actually makes movies or TV product that you can actually watch— gobble this opportunity up. It is manna from heaven. Spit out the seeds and ask for seconds, because there’s nourishment in that feast, in the form of firsthand insight that money (or a wedding ring) cannot buy. You just may find yourself more valued than ever before. This is how we thrive. Don’t blow it, and you just may be invited to hang around for Act II and III as well.
Here’s what this limited marriage involves:
Married couples have intercourse. So do writers and directors. Now, sex with your director is not encouraged or endorsed here, and almost always a bad idea, but a free and open intercourse of creative ideas should be nonnegotiable. Just like with any healthy marriage, intercourse should be give and take, and it should be fun.
For it to work, you both must be willing to acknowledge different skill sets. A director has had hands-on filmmaking experience that you have not, and he or she enters film development from a different door. What I’ve learned by seeing a script through the eyes of a director is that you’re writing a story to be told on film, with moving images on a screen. Obvious as this seems, it must be put into practice to be internalized.
Writers love themes, metaphors and symbolism but we sometimes allow them to bury the story, and we err on the side of subtlety. This is perhaps a result of bachelorhood, living in our heads. Whatever. Directors can’t afford this. Directors look for moments, visuals, they are not afraid of eye candy, as long as it serves story.
And directors are masterful at thinking on their feet. They have to be. In fact it is near the top of their job description.
As a case in point: I had spent months reworking a script with an accomplished director. The script included a carefully crafted scene taking place in Grand Central Station in NYC. It was a clever, entertaining, romance-bonding scene between the main characters that featured dialogue specifically tailored to Grand Central Station. Producers secured the location. I was over the moon.
Months later, the film is in production, I get a call. They lost the location. Days away from shooting the scene. And they lost the location. Four pages of integral dialogue that would work nowhere else but Grand Central. It was stupid, there was an altercation between a producer and… well, never mind. They lost the location.
ME (blood-drained face): Fuck. Fuck. What are we gonna do? It’s over. The jig is up. I knew it was too good to be true. I’m a loser.
DIRECTOR (laughing, jovial): No problem. No problem. I have an idea. Meet me.
So we meet… at a new location he had found. It was nothing like Grand Central. It was in a park. At a fountain. Now, to be clear, directors are also writers. They write with images, moving images. And this director was thinking of such images, specifically spraying fountain water, and how it could thematically and metaphorically expand upon already-filmed rain scenes. A little research about this particular fountain’s history revealed a way to completely write new dialogue around it.
And guess what? You got it: it was better. More original. Tighter, deeper. Thank you, mother necessity. That writerly scene I couldn’t imagine improving upon? That’s right. I stood corrected.
The movie, FALLING AWAKE, was released by IFC Films and is still streaming on SundanceNow.
Which brings me to my next point:
Open the Windows, Open the Door…
… and throw ego the fuck out.
There may be times and places for ego, but that’s another article. If you want to make the best film possible, then the screenwriter/director relationship is not the arena for it. I don’t care what you’ve heard, ego is for amateurs. And that goes triple for arrogance.
Don’t tell your director how to direct your script. Even if you’ve been to film school, you possess a stupendous sense of visual composition, you’ve watched eight million movies, you write music, you hear the soundtrack in your head, you’re fabulously qualified, etc… your job is to get that movie on paper, his job is to put it on film.
Ego is of course born of fear and insecurity, so part of stifling it is a willingness to leave your comfort zone.
Case in point #2: I had the marvelous fortune to be hunkered down in a Hollywood bungalow on the Universal Studios lot in L.A. for a week (mere yards from Alfred Hitchcock’s old bungalow as a matter of fact, see how things tie together?) with an Oscar- and Emmy-winning director/producer. I was hired to help him develop a project based on an enigmatic historical figure. It was a complicated, unwieldy story with many gaps. So– his idea– we created a “war wall.” We researched, printed out photos, articles, bios, timelines, etc., plastered them on a wall the size of a movie screen, and used connect-the-dots lines and arrows to organize the factual information and determine how best to tell the story. Of course we reorganized it, over and over. Terribly old school.
Now I’m a lover, not a fighter. A war wall is a bit over the top for me. Point is, it was not my comfort zone. But a director operates like a general in battle, and this was a great opportunity to be a part of. So I adapted to working in a way I was not used to. And, utilizing the war wall approach, I learned a new method of visualizing how story elements, characters and narrative interconnect in a full-scale “total-picture” way, which I can’t quite do on my trusty laptop. I acquired another tool.
Remember, it’s entirely possible that someone else may bring something to the table that you never conceived, something bearing fruit, something good, something better, something exciting, an improvement. As a matter of fact, I have never, never, never been even remotely involved in any film production where, overwhelmingly, this is NOT the case.
Word. And my scripts kick some pretty good ass on their own.
It goes both ways, of course. Mutual respect is necessary (unless you’re a masochist, in which case it’s not really much of a collaboration anyway). Fact is, ego will stomp on creativity, waste precious time, inhibit free expression, dumb down risk-taking, and, perhaps worst of all, annihilate the safety zone of mutual trust that is necessary to cultivate all of the above. In the context of creative collaboration, ego is disrespectful, childish and extremely shortsighted. In other words it will fuck up your movie.
Mutual trust brings me back to the creative collaborative high that I mentioned.
Case in point #3: during pre-production of an intense drama screenplay that I wrote, working closely with the director, I was invited by him to an open casting call. He, I and another producer sat together through 12 non-stop hours of like a million actor auditions, comparing notes– the three of us– as equals. Why? Because who knows the characters better than the screenwriter who lived and suffered with them for months? I was also invited on scouting locations for my input. Did throwing aside any directorial ego and opening up his trust and respect for me pay off? Did I give the project 100%? No. I gave 200%. And our little low-budget film, BRILLIANT MISTAKES, was made and released with worldwide distribution.
Mutual trust can’t be beat.
“The Thing With Two Heads”
(There, I gave it away. 1972. It’s a hoot.)
In summary, a Thing With Two Heads is not what you and your director want to be. Synchronized is what you want to be. Give and take. Intercourse, remember?
Your film– for better or worse, through sickness and health, ‘til death do you part, etc.– will outlive both of you. Medical science is miraculous but it still can’t change that fact. Your film will outlive everyone you know. Your great great great grandchildren might see it.
To ensure that this little piece of culture is the best that it can be, Screenwriter and Director should be Two Things With One Head.
That’s a marriage, folks.