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Don't Blame the Screenwriter

By The Pajiba Staff | | July 8, 2010 |

By The Pajiba Staff | | July 8, 2010 |

A couple of weeks ago, we featured a seriously random list here — Demonstrating the Importance of Directors by Highlighting the Failures of Screenwriters — that was inspired by Peter Hanson’s documentary, Tales from the Script, a thought-provoking doc that examines, through interviews with screenwriters, the scriptwriting process and how a screenplay morphs on its way to the big screen. What we came away with was the perception that even the most successful screenwriter often has no control over the finished product.

Writer/Director Peter Hanson was nice enough to submit to an email interview with us and eloquently discuss his documentary, his thoughts on the screenwriting process, and the role — ultimately — of the screenwriter in the development of the film.

To get the ball rolling, can you provide some information on your background, what you do, and what makes you an expert in the art of screenwriting?

I went to NYU film school, where I studied film production and screenwriting. I ran out of money and left school for a while, shifting into the working world by starting a ten-year career as a journalist in upstate New York, specializing in entertainment coverage. During this time I got my first freelance screenwriting jobs and occupied various crew positions on indie productions. Toward the end of my run as a full-time reporter, I decided to tackle more ambitious projects, so I wrote my first book, Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel—which, believe it or not, was the first book-length critical survey of a screenwriter’s body of work. Shortly afterward, I wrote my second book, The Cinema of Generation X, and embraced the possibilities of then-new digital video technology by making a short documentary featurette and then a full-length documentary feature, Every Pixel Tells a Story. Once I had all this work under my belt, I finally made the big move to the West Coast, and since I’ve been out here, I’ve done freelance screenwriting work, optioned and sold my own specs, co-written a narrative feature called The Last Round, and worked as a script analyst and screenwriting consultant. So even before I started Tales from the Script, I guess it was safe to describe me as an expert in the art of screenwriting because of my practical experience as a working professional and because of my academic work studying the history of the craft.

How did Tales from the Script come together? And when did you realize you wanted to make the doc?

The original premise for the project was brought to me by someone else, but right from the start it was clear that I was going to be as hands-on with this project as I had been with others that I generated myself. I ended up financing, writing, directing, and even shooting the movie, in addition to writing and photographing the companion book. More importantly, I took the original premise—a discussion of the rejection that screenwriters experience—and turned it into something much bigger. While the original premise was catchy, I quickly discovered that it led down a very short path, whereas my alternate concept—a broad exploration of everything that screenwriters experience—had limitless possibilities. Ultimately, the version of the story that I ended up telling relates closely to the answer for your question of when I realized I wanted to make the documentary.

Having pursued a screenwriting career over the course of several years, thereby learning firsthand what sort of abuse screenwriters suffer, I was curious to ask my more successful peers how they put up with the disappointments long enough to build self-sustaining careers. And, of course, on a pure fanboy level, I soon realized that this project was a way to get face time with people I had always wanted to meet. For instance right from the beginning I gave myself a personal goal of getting William Goldman involved in the project—to me, securing that interview felt like it would be the ultimate validation of my endeavor. So the fact that I actually did get Goldman to participate remains a high point for me: Sitting down to chat with him in his New York City penthouse apartment was nearly an out-of-body experience. He’s been amazingly gracious.

How was the doc funded? Was it easy or hard to get funding?

I financed the production entirely by myself, and then once the movie was shot, two fantastic friends stepped in as executive producers to give the movie the financial shot in the arm it needed to get over the finish line. I don’t recommend paying your own production bills or asking for favors from friends, but that’s how a lot of movies get made.

Was it easy or hard to get writers to speak openly about their failures or battles with directors, studios, and others? How did you manage to get access to so many respected screenwriters?

I’ve been interviewing people for something like twenty years, so I’ve got a pretty surefire method. I keep my set very casual, enlisting as few crew members as possible, and I make sure that whenever I can, I spend a few minutes making small talk with the interviewee before I start rolling. And then, once the interview starts, I ease in with unthreatening warm-up questions about the person’s background. Done right, this method helps people understand that the interview is really a conversation, and it shows that I’m interested in everything about them, rather than just what they might have to say about this movie star or that director. Creating a loose vibe in the room makes a big difference. I also know for a fact that screenwriters were thrilled to have an opportunity to speak on the record about their adventures. One point I made when selling the project to publishers and distributors was that screenwriters are usually pushed aside during the publicity campaigns for movies, so my documentary—and the companion book—represents an effort to give faces to the faceless. Regarding your other point, I got access to big names through a combination of luck and persistence. In terms of luck, I was fortunate that Shane Black and John Carpenter are friends of friends—I don’t know either man socially, but I was able to present my invitations via trusted sources. That helped me build a base right at the beginning. Past that point, I went after interviews however I could, whether by contacting agents or attending events where screenwriters were scheduled to attend. The direct approach was always best, because whenever I laid out my intentions in person, I always got a yes on the spot.

A screenwriter, after I told him about a particularly terrible romantic comedy, said that he’d be curious to see it just to see if he could find the original or creative idea buried underneath that prompted the studio to greenlight the movie in the first place. Do you think that most greenlit scripts start off as good ideas but are often railroaded by the production process?

That’s a big theme of my project, and in fact the screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) makes a terrific point: He notes that a good idea in and of itself is worthless, but a good idea executed well is worth a great deal. So for people in Hollywood, it’s easy to come up with and/or recognize some seed that might grow into an interesting movie, whether it’s a one-sentence concept or a full original script that needs work. There aren’t that many very good ideas, so people tend to pounce on them when they emerge. Everyone then proceeds with good intentions, trying to grow the seed into something special, but inevitably problems beset the process. Such-and-such studio head decides the idea is too risky, so she insists that the story be homogenized. Such-and-such actor just flopped playing a villain, so he wants to overcompensate by making his character extra-sympathetic. The budget just got cut, so what was supposed to be visually spectacular has become cheap-looking. If the specialness of an idea gets drained away before the greenlight, then the movie ends up development hell. But very often, if the specialness of an idea gets drained away during production, then the studio has no choice but to release the movie anyway, because it represents such a large capital investment. The deck is so heavily stacked against movies turning out well that it’s a miracle when a good movie reaches theaters. And that’s not even taking into account the folks who don’t have good intentions. I’ve certainly met a few of those!

In Tales from the Script, there were a lot of anecdotes from screenwriters about how their scripts bore little resemblance to the final product. Typically, from what you can see, how much of the screenwriter’s vision makes it into the final product? And are there certain screenwriters whose voices manage to puncture through the director’s vision?

My friend Michael Wolk, who wrote a vampire movie called Innocent Blood for Warner Bros. in the early ’90s, laughed out loud when I asked him exactly that question on camera. His reaction was so funny that I featured it in More Tales from the Script, a 45-minute bonus film on the Tales from the Script DVD. The reason Michael laughed is that it’s a naïve question, and I didn’t realize just how naïve until this project was well underway. The question presumes that there is such a thing as the screenwriter’s vision, and in Hollywood, that’s rarely the case. The screenwriter’s job, whether writing an original or an assignment, is to assemble a set of elements that gets other creative people excited enough to participate. Those creative people—producers, directors, actors, etc.—then contribute until the original vision becomes a collective vision created by everyone involved. The end result may still resemble the writer’s intent, but unless the writer is also the director, chances are the script has evolved significantly on the way to the screen. Having said all that, there certainly are some screenwriters whose voices cut through the process. Setting aside the writer-directors—people like John Carpenter and Paul Schrader—there are writers like Bruce Joel Rubin, who explore key themes from one script to the next with such a consistent viewpoint that their screenplays form a coherent body of work. Bruce’s scripts, all the way from Ghost to The Time Traveler’s Wife, have a spirituality and soulfulness that’s unique to him, even though he didn’t direct either of those movies. But for most writers, it’s very difficult to sense a consistent aesthetic, just because so many other people play significant roles in the creative process.

One of my favorite parts of the doc was Guinevere Turner’s story about Uwe Boll and her Bloodrayne screenplay, which was a first draft and only 20 percent of it made it into the final cut, anyway. Anecdotally, what’s the biggest change you’ve ever noticed between a screenplay and the finished film?

Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know if I can think of one single answer, but a few possibilities spring to mind. In the first Alien, the Ripley character was originally written as a male, but luckily for audiences (and for Sigourney Weaver’s bank account), the gender got switched before casting. Bruce Rubin talks in More Tales from the Script about how director Adrian Lyne refused to shoot the special-effects climax Bruce had written for Jacob’s Ladder, which profoundly changed the impact and meaning of the movie. And of course there’s the story of J.F. Lawton’s script $3,000, a dark drama about prostitution that eventually became the feel-good romantic comedy Pretty Woman. Massive changes to scripts are so commonplace that I can’t think of the single best example. Sorry if I’m forgetting something incredibly obvious!

My general impression of Tales from the Script is that there is an enormous amount of luck involved, from having the right producer, to the ideal cast, to having a director who can execute the screenplay well. Screenwriting seems like a huge crapshoot, and often a profession where luck and knowing the right person means considerably more than the actual talent of the screenwriter. More often than not, it seems like — no matter how good the screenwriter or the script is — a good director will make a good movie and a bad director will make a bad movie. Was that the impression you were trying to make, and does that impression jibe with your own?

That’s definitely part of what I wanted to communicate. I think the other part is that screenwriters can be advocates for their own success if they learn how to work the system. Savvy veteran writers in the project, like John D. Brancato (Surrogates) and Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard), talk about ways to make collaborators into friends instead of your enemies. Achieving this involves a complicated dance built upon offering deference to the people who sign your paychecks, while artfully and politely steering them away from bad ideas and toward good ideas. Plus, just as importantly, screenwriters need to realize that the people with whom they’re working are sometimes just as likely to fix problems as they are to cause problems. So while you got one of the major themes exactly right—the screenwriter ultimately has no control—I hope that the more optimistic counterpoint is that the screenwriters can generate luck for themselves by approaching their careers from a long-run perspective. The goal isn’t to win a fight about whether such-and-such scene stays in the movie; the goal is to do everything you can to help ensure that the movie gets made in the first place. Because even the writers whose scripts have been mangled the most realize that very few people get to become professional movie writers. It’s easy and tempting to complain about a frustrating story meeting or the infuriating way some director “ruined” a scene, but at the end of the day it is, as UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter says in the Tales from the Script book, “a privilege to suffer in this business.”

What should the average moviegoer know about screenwriters? So much of the blame or praise for a film seems like it can be attributed to any number of people, including the writer; how much, on average, can actually be traced back to the script?

If average moviegoers realize that screenwriters actually exist, that’s a great start—believe me, every single participant in my project would be thrilled to think of some moviegoer in Wichita taking a moment to read the screenwriting credits during a movie. Screenwriters have a deep love/hate relationship with their anonymity: They love not being scrutinized the way movie stars are scrutinized, but they hate not getting the credit they deserve when something does well. Having said that, the writing credits on a movie rarely tell the whole story. Even some movies with only one writer listed were actually written by multiple people, because the director and actors made contributions and/or because some uncredited script doctor came in to fix a few scenes. And then on movies with multiple credited writers, it’s almost impossible—without actually reading all the drafts involved—to figure out who came up with what. So I advise people to take a wider view of screenwriting careers. That’s how I first became interested in Dalton Trumbo. After seeing his name on several interesting movies, including A Guy Named Joe and Lonely Are the Brave, I started watching more of his movies and researching his history. That eventually led me to write a whole book about the theme of honor that permeates his scripts. So while it’s true that there are some writers whose mark is indelible on every movie—only Charlie Kaufman could have written Adaptation or Being John Malkovich—most screenwriters are behind-the-scenes worker bees whose contributions are only truly known to themselves and their employers. In other words, it’s not always fair to blame the writer for a bad script, and it’s not always fair to praise the writer for a great script. Inevitably, something is always lost in translation, and something is always gained. Obviously when you watch a movie bearing the “written and directed by” credit, you can much more safely assume that you’re witnessing an artistic statement by an individual.

What’s the best piece of advice that screenwriters are never given? Conversely, what’s the most popular piece of advice that’s total bullshit?

As a way of answering both questions, I think screenwriters would do better to think for themselves. Wannabe writers are starved for guidance, because they’re looking for the one magic secret that will help them make the leap from amateur to professional status. Similarly, anyone who actually proposes to offer that one magic secret—and there are a lot of people in Hollywood who claim to know the surefire steps to screenwriting success—is, quite frankly, lying. Every screenwriter’s path is different, and frustrating as it sounds, some screenwriters never get the careers they deserve. So all you can really do, if you’re pursuing a screenwriting career, is to embrace the journey. Go after this dream because you love movies, not because you think you can crack the code and write a million-dollar screenplay. That way, even if you never become successful, you will be enriched as a creative person, and you may be able to take that powerful energy into another part of your life. And if you do become successful, you’ll remember why you got into the game in the first place. So the best advice is to ignore any advice that sounds too good to be true.

Writer-filmmaker Peter Hanson is the director of films including the acclaimed documentary “Tales from the Script,” the author of three books about cinema, and the writer of screenplays including “Savage,” which recently sold to production company Picture Road. He is in preproduction on his first fictional feature, “The Eulogist,” which is based on his own original screenplay. You can find out more about Hanson at his website, buy “Tales from the Script,” or check it out on Netflix Instant.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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