Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

The two kinds of gatekeepers

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Yesterday I finished reading Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, which I decided to check out mainly because of a terrific interview they recently gave to The A.V. Club. Lennon and Garant are former cast members of The State and Reno 911! who have also managed to build remarkably lucrative careers for themselves as screenwriters, with their movies, as they remind us repeatedly, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. (Though only a fraction of these dollars are thanks to movies not named Night at the Museum.) The book is a fast, amusing read, and while its advice on writing is only marginally useful, as a look at the life of a professional screenwriter, it’s candid and fun. Half of its readers, I suspect, will be tempted to move to Los Angeles at once, while the rest will resolve to stay the hell away.

Lennon and Garant’s best stories, like those of every other screenwriter who ever lived, are cautionary tales of studio interference. Horror stories about clueless stars, directors, and studio executives are, of course, a mainstay of screenwriting memoirs, starting with William Goldman’s great Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? (One of my favorite examples is Goldman’s account of his involvement with the doomed Chevy Chase adaptation of Memoirs of An Invisible Man, which inspired this comment after a particularly useless meeting: “AAARRRGHHHH.”) Lennon and Garant are especially good at explaining why some executives seem determined to destroy otherwise decent screenplays. Often it’s because they don’t understand the script, or haven’t bothered to read it, but the reasons can be even more insidious. From the book:

  • Sometimes they want to get some ideas of theirs into the movie, even if it doesn’t work, so they can take credit for it, to gain headway in their career at the studio. (“You know that GREAT scene where Godzilla steps on a building—that was mine.”)
  • Sometimes they don’t like the executive who bought your movie. Politics are rampant.
  • Sometimes they don’t like you. This doesn’t happen often. If you’re a writer, most executives won’t even remember you.
  • Sometimes they think they should be president, and they think the way to do that is to develop your movie in some new direction—to prove THEY’RE smarter than the person who bought your movie.

And so on. Which is only a reminder of the fact that a writer, in the course of any career, is going to deal with two kinds of gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are an inevitable part of any creative profession: for a novel, in particular, getting published requires clearing at least four obvious hurdles (the initial query, the agent, the acquiring editor, and the publisher) and probably others that the writer never sees. Each of these gatekeepers, like all ambitious people, have goals of their own, which is exactly how it should be. The best kind of gatekeeper is someone whose goals are aligned with yours—that is, someone whose career success is tied up in your work doing well. This is mostly true of your agent and everyone at the publishing house, from the art department to the copy desk. These people aren’t your friends, exactly, but they are your allies, because if you win, they win.

For a screenwriter, this isn’t necessarily true. A studio executive, as Goldman points out, is like the coach of a professional sports team: he knows that sooner or later, he’s going to get fired, and his only goal is to postpone being fired for as long as possible by signing movie stars to projects. And the writer contributes close to nothing to the executive’s ambitions. Screenwriters are fungible, which means that one can be swapped out for another without anyone even noticing. (According to Lennon and Garant, no fewer than twenty-four screenwriters worked on Herbie: Fully Loaded.) Which means, to put it mildly, that the interests of studio executives are not the same as yours. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good at their jobs: to get where they are, they need to be at least moderately resourceful and ambitious. But as the second kind of gatekeeper, they should be approached with caution. For a healthy dose of that kind of realism, as well as much other good advice, Lennon and Garant’s book is a decent place to start.

Wouldn’t it be easier to write for television?

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Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?

My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.

Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:

Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.

And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.

So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

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