Sidelined

I was listening to Danny Stack and Tim Clague‘s UK Scriptwriters Podcast (which if you haven’t heard, you should. Now. Do it now! Quicker than that!) and they were discussing Danny’s and James Moran’s letters to BAFTA and how writers and writing is generally undervalued by the industry.

It’s an annoying issue, writers just aren’t seen as central to film making.

You never see ‘From the Writer of’ (unless the producer and director are absolute nobodies) and writers are frequently not mentioned at all in a film’s publicity material.

One argument for the sidelining of writers is:

‘No one cares. People don’t know who writers are, so why mention them?’

To which the answer is:

Um, possibly no one knows who they are because you don’t mention them?

(Two great exceptions to that are John Hughes and Richard Curtis – two writers so well-known they each have a type of film associated with them and are (arguably) more recognised than the directors of some of their work. Laud them, that’s a hell of an achievement.)

Possibly part of the reason Hollywood doesn’t promote its writers is because once you hit the fifteenth or sixteenth writer on a single film, it starts to get embarrassing. I’m fairly certain there’s a direct correlation between number of writers and utter shitness, so playing down the number of writers might make sense if you want people to actually come and see the film.

The answer to that, of course, is to just pick one writer and stick with them. The present revolving door system of hiring and firing anyone who walks past and allowing actors and directors to throw out a script because it clashes with their ego is fucking mental. It doesn’t work, so why keep doing it?

But that’s another story for another time.

Writers in the UK get equally sidelined when they’re (mostly) the only ones working on a project. They single-handedly create the entire movie out of pure mind juice … and then get cast aside like a well licked yoghurt lid.

Except, that’s not really true, is it?

I think part of the problem (and I may have said this before) is in the way we and the industry describe our job.

We don’t write movies, we write scripts … but we’re not proud of that.

Movies are multiple people’s interpretation of our work. Sometimes a movie bears as little resemblance to the script as it does to the original novel (which, coincidentally, is often the only time critics mention the script – when the movie deviates from it and is fucking awful).

Part of the problem is there’s nothing physical to point at and tell people ‘I did that’.

You can point out the direction, the set design or the performance in a movie; but you can’t point at the script. Well you can, at home or if you take it to the cinema with you; but you can’t see it on screen.

You could tell people you wrote the dialogue; but since dialogue is one of the least important aspects of script writing and is frequently improvised to something stolen from somewhere else, is that helpful? It’s hard to point at the story, because it often seems obvious after the fact. Let’s face it, most things seem obvious after someone else has spent months inventing them.

Movie making is glamorous, script writing isn’t … and we contribute to that opinion. We get more excited about our script being filmed than we do about actually writing it. We accept the perceived wisdom that a script isn’t an art form in itself, but merely one step in the process.

Okay, so we tell people we believe it’s the most important step in the process; that nothing would exist without it … but do our actions back that up? Can you honestly say you know who wrote the last movie you went to see? Can you honestly say you care?

In short, does writing excite you as much as you think it does?

If not, why not?

Yes, it’s difficult. There is no audience for our art form beyond a handful of people who don’t always like us. We are the only creative people in the world whose art is never exhibited to anyone beyond a handful of technicians.

Is art art if no one sees it?

Goddamn it, yes!

I honestly think the first step towards getting more recognition for our work is to actually be prouder of our work and not theirs. For us, the script is the end result. It’s our product, it’s what we sell. The movie is not ours, it’s an interpretation of our work – something other people do.

Authors may be pleased a film is being made of their book, they may be excited about who’s directing it or being cast in it … but I doubt they think of the book as merely a step towards getting the film made.

My scripts aren’t made into films, because that implies the script is abandoned like a cocoon when the movie butterfly emerges.

(Or maybe it’s the caterpillar? This metaphor is a bit dodgy.)

My scripts aren’t made into films, but there are films based on my scripts. The script still exists and I’m always proud of the script even when the movie is a bag of unwatchable shit.

Especially when the movie is a bag of unwatchable shit.

I did my job properly, it was good enough to get funding and to attract a director and the actors. Even if the actors can’t act and the director has more ego than talent, everyone still liked the script enough to want to fuck it up in the first place (because, perversely, if the script’s awful they don’t want to have anything to do with it. If it’s good, they want to change everything about it).

If you’re interviewed, talk about the script not the movie. Make sure you make that distinction. Maybe we can make writers perceived as more integral to the process by first disassociating ourselves from the process?

I think we subtly sideline ourselves, so can’t really be surprised when other people do too. Maybe all it needs is a slight change in the way we value our own work to get people to follow suit? Maybe we should take the line ‘People pay us handsomely to make a movie based on our art’?

Or maybe I’m just talking shit?

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Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Rants | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Sidelined

  1. An exceptional blog post Phill, Bravo – even though I actually think the exact OPPOSITE. I bailed on scriptwriting for the very reasons you outline here: I couldn’t care less about the writing process either it turns out, I want to see the fruits of my labours and if that’s not going to happen, then I’d sooner find a role where I can make that happen – ie. novelist, script editor, associate producer. But that’s just it – that’s ME, not everyone. And that’s not to say I’ve turned my back on scriptwriting altogether, I daresay there will be projects that will get me excited about opening Final Draft again, “never say never!” Plus I’ve always agreed with Bill Martell’s “the film version of my script”… that’s HOW writers should be viewing their work and saying, “THIS IS MY SCRIPT, IT’S ACE.” If they can’t or won’t, who will? No one.

  2. Nice one Phill. It all seems to boil down to whether you see a script as a piece of art in and of itself. I believe it is, but the average reader I suspect does not. And who is the average reader for a script? People in the industry? The general public does not purchase and read scripts primarily because they are not used to them, they have never been exposed to them and they don’t understand the conventions. But in essence all writing is full of conventions including all those forms the public does regularly read and engage with to create pictures in their heads. If everyone took a class in school on screenwriting, where they learn the basic conventions of poetry, novels etc, then I bet the greater understanding and knowledge of the form would result in an increased appreciation of screenwriting. As this occurs screenwriters would gain a higher profile as well. I wonder is it taught in school in America yet?

    • I find it interesting people rush out to buy the book of a film (often before they see the film, a recipe for disappointment in my view) but never think about the script.

  3. Actually scriptwriting is on the curriculum NOW in secondary schools, has been for at least best part of ten years now, comes under English usually, which now has a sizeable creative writing element on many exam boards in comparison to the more analytical pre-2000. Problem is, many English teachers have never done scriptwriting themselves, so have no idea what they’re doing. Case in point: my Male Spawn uses my Final Draft software to create a short script for his English class…. and gets marked down for presentation.

  4. Oh dear. Too long out of school for me then. And I’m trying to imagine that particular parent/teacher meeting!

  5. Oh you bet I enjoyed that ; )

  6. Pingback: 2011 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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