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By Randal Stevens · April 14, 2010
I, like probably far too many people to count in this country, fancy myself a writer. I'm not one of the smaller yet still intimidating demographic of lucky ones who's able to support a living writing full-time, but I still consider my skill as a wordsmith to be better than average. Were I to see my dreams come to fruition and I were collecting paychecks solely based on the written word, I would do so as a screenwriter. Seeing as I've yet to sell a screenplay, I'm still classified as an "aspiring screenwriter," which carries two different connotations depending on what kind of person you are. If your career interests lie outside of the world of cinema or films are only a casual interest of yours, then the term "aspiring screenwriter" seems like a noble aspiration to which the hopeful undoubtedly devotes the utmost of his or her efforts. However, if you're familiar with the craft of filmmaking and those who wish to suckle at its seemingly nourishing teet, you know that the term "aspiring screenwriter" carries as much prestige as an undergrad degree in Philosophy with the same moneymaking potential (read: none). If you're aspiring, you are, in probably 60% of cases, not writing at all you, you're simply dreaming of it.
I am an aspiring screenwriter. I have yet to complete a single feature-length screenplay. I began writing a horror film about two years ago and haven't gotten past page 84. Because of this, there's always been a side of me (and rightly so, some of you may say) that has felt hypocritical for critiquing films of any kind without having written anything myself. Who am I to say one film's screenplay was successful or another film's screenplay was a failure when I myself have neither succeeded nor failed?
So why not just finish my screenplay? Why not eliminate the inherent guilt by actually writing? Well, primarily, it was because I had already convinced myself of failure. Hollywood produces roughly between 600 and 800 films a year, many written by long-established screenwriters who had already scraped and clawed their way to the top. With literally tens of thousands of screenwriters at work in the U.S. today – established, aspiring and everything in between – and a small fraction of jobs available for them, what chance would I have at success? Keeping that mentality in my back pocket quickly led me to a "why bother?" attitude that saw my screenplay go untouched for far too long.
Perhaps some of you can relate to this mentality. Perhaps the salmon-against-the-current odds have also helped dilute your passion. Perhaps you've been convinced of your own failure. If this is the case, then perhaps you should re-adjust your view of success. Perhaps you should do yourself a favor and check out the documentary, Tales from the Script. Perhaps it'll re-convince you.
Let me give some background info: Tales from the Script is a documentary directed by a guy named Peter Hanson who at one point gave up on a fairly uneventful screenwriting career. He paid the bills with journalism but began the documentary with co-writer Paul Robert Herman (from Herman's orginal idea), as an admittedly self-serving excuse to talk to some of his favorite screenwriters, including William Goldman, Shane Black, Frank Darabont, Bruce Joel Rubin and Guinevere Turner, just to name a few. In the process, he found the inspiration to continue his own writing career and produced a film that could very well do the same thing for you.
How could this be? There are plenty of documentaries and books out there about screenwriting ranging in themes from the structure-focused "Story" by Robert McKee to the "everyone in Hollywood is an asshole so just give up" school of thought proposed in "Bambi vs. Godzilla" by David Mamet. What could possibly make a film by a guy you've never heard of any different? Primarily, Tales is not out to instruct anyone on how to write a screenplay, how to sell one, how to deal with agents or how to give a good pitch session. In fact, there is no "how" in the film at all. Instead, the film asks "why," specifically, why do you want to be a screenwriter and the answer to that question, which only you, the viewer, can answer, is exactly where inspiration can be found.
Spoiler alert: every screenwriter interviewed is unanimous in their declarations that if you're out to be a screenwriter simply for the money, then give up now because there are a multitude of easier ways to make money than screenwriting. That may be hard to believe coming from Goldman, an Academy Award winner, or Black, who STILL holds the record for highest pay day, but it's easier to believe coming from a guy like Michael January, who has had every one of his screenplays produced outside of America or Ari B. Rubin, who has yet to have even one of his screenplays produced. Their names are not on marquees across the country and they probably have never cashed a million-dollar check, but they are getting paid to write.
Just think about that for a minute. Sure, it's not sexy to have to say "my movies are popular in Germany's straight-to-DVD market" or to not have an answer to the question of, "what movie did you write," but there's definitely something sexy about getting paid to write and there's something sexy to think that the door is never really closed to you. Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob's Ladder) was 40 when he sold his first screenplay. Antwone Fisher (Antwone Fisher, ATL) worked as a security guard at 20th Century Fox when he sold his.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the negatives. Every single one of the screenwriters interviewed have had their work re-written, some of them have sold screenplays that will never see the light of day and every single one of them have written screenplays that will get no further than their shelves. But there are two edifying takeaways from the film that were the two most inspiring to me:
1) Amadeus was re-written 46 times. Fucking Amadeus was re-writte 46 fucking times! That means that after the 45th draft, someone read the script and said, "this could be better." Nothing is amazing upon the first draft.
2) Produced, credited or not, all of these screenwriters are – let me reiterate this – getting paid to write, or as someone else more jubilantly put it, "I get paid to use my imagination."
Tales from the Script is currently available on Netflix and will be released to purchase on DVD through First Run Features on April 20th. Do yourself a favor and pick it up. If it reignites your passion and drive for writing afterward, that's fine. If it makes you realize you're not cut out to be a screenwriter, that's fine too. At the end of the day you have to decide, do you want your name in credits or do you want to write?
Me? I want to write. But for any of those wondering, I'm still on page 84.