Some thoughts on the state of screenwriting in 2013
It was a great weekend for American filmmaking. Gravity is a solid thriller, made by a great director, Alfonzo Cuaron, a man with a bold cinematic vision, backed by a fearless producer, David Heyman, who ushered Cuaron’s vision to the big screen, produced in collaboration with a huge studio, Warner Bros, who supported Gravity‘s vision and ushered it into theaters with a hugely effective marketing push. Miracle of miracles, the movie made a ton of money and will continue to do so. Because Gravity fulfills one of the essential qualities of commercial filmmaking in 2013: you gotta see it in a movie theater. This is a movie that will not be the same experience when you’re watching it on your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store.
Here’s the thing: in an ideal world, Gravity would be an average American movie. Why isn’t it?
Once upon a time, when I was a wee lad, Hollywood turned the reins of power over to talented directors, people like Stanley Kubrick and Bob Rafelson and Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma and Peter Bogdanovich and many others. The Second Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from roughly 1968 to 1980, followed the great wave of international filmmakers from the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini and Michaelangelo Antonioni and Luis Bunuel and Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa and Yosujro Ozu and many others. Around the world, directors, the people who actually made the movies, allowed to follow their visions. Some of the movies that came out of this director-driven wave were commercial smashes, some of them were self-indulgent disasters.
(Before the director-driven wave, there was a producer-driven wave. Big-time producers put their stamps on gigantic projects. Before the producer-driven movies, there were studio-driven movies.)
Now, we are in the midst of what I’ll call a marketing-driven wave. This current wave differs from a studio-driven wave because back in the days of the studio system, the studio heads, for all their greed and marketing savvy, were still “show people.” You got to run a studio by starting out in the mailroom and working your way through the studio labyrinth. Now, studio heads are assigned from the corporate top, the decisions about which movies get made are made by people who have never made movies, who sometimes don’t understand movies, who sometimes don’t like movies.
(I’ve always said that there are two kinds of art: art that is made because the artist had no choice but to make it, and art that is made because there is a market for it. The bulk of Hollywood filmmaking is this second kind of art. If there is a market for it, it will be made. If a title “tests well,” a movie will be made with that title. If there is a popular toy, sticker, internet meme or board game, you can bet that there is a studio, right now, developing that thing into a feature film franchise.)
I mention all this because oftentimes a young writer will come to me with a script and ask me to read it. And often the script is good, and sometimes it is very good, but always, always, the scripts are personal, heartfelt and “interesting.” And often, they are “experimental” or downright peculiar. And I’ll give them notes, and suggest more conventional ways to get their points across, and at some point the young writer will inevitably dig in his or her heels and say “But I want it to be different, I don’t want it to be formulaic and conventional.” And I’ll say “Well, there are rules to storytelling, if you want to get your point across you have to do X, Y and Z.” And they will inevitably say “But what about David Lynch? What about Tarantino? What about Fellini? What about Bunuel? What about the Coen Bros? What about Jim Jarmusch? What about Charlie Kaufman?”
At which point I’ll say this: “Do you have the money to make this movie? If the answer is yes, don’t listen to anything I have to say, take your script, go and make your movie, don’t listen to me or anyone else, go and make exactly the movie you want to make and I will be first in line to see it.” And I’m totally serious. I love all those guys, Tarantino and Lynch and Kaufman and so forth. If you can make an unconventional movie, make an unconventional movie. And maybe your movie will be great and maybe not, but at least it will be your movie. But if you want someone else to pay to make your screenplay into a movie, you must learn to work within commercially acceptable forms, otherwise you are of no use to Hollywood and they will not hire you.
It took me many years to fully understand a basic truth: movies get made by people who can get movies made. The person who can “get a movie made” is sometimes a star, sometimes a director with many hits under his or her belt, sometimes a powerful producer, sometimes a combination of these people, but the deciding vote is always cast by a high-ranking studio executive.
If you can get a movie made, make a movie. If you can’t, you will be working for someone who can, and your personal vision will always, always be subordinate to theirs. It doesn’t matter how low-budget the movie is or how low the creative stakes are, if they’re the ones who can get a movie made, they will be the ones making the movie. They won’t care “what you want to say,” they can get a movie made and you cannot, the only thing that matters is what they want to say, and, in most of Hollywood, the people who can get movies made are an increasingly small number of studio executives with motivations geared toward a high-grossing opening weekend and a thousand other marketing concerns well beyond the scope of a lowly screenwriter trying to tell a compelling story.
The bad news is that even people who aren’t that small number of studio executives have been trained to think like those executives, so that even producers of low-budget independent movies will still try to make their low-budget independent movies as much like studio product as possible, to make it fit a niche, to make it a cog that will fit into a slot, to make it a commodity. The low-budget independent producer behaves like a high-profile studio executive in the hopes of one day becoming one. None of them care for one millisecond “what you want to say.” You’re there to help them say what they want to say.
All the filmmakers I’ve named above, all of them, got to the heights that they reached by finding powerful producers (and, occasionally, executives) who would stand by them and protect their visions. Some of them even got to express themselves within the studio system. Some of them enjoyed working within the studio system, others got out as soon as they could and formed their own companies. But their masterpieces didn’t get made by corporate fiat, they got made because those filmmakers could get those movies made. If you want to break the rules, figure out how to make movies and break all the rules you want.
The good news is, making a movie is easier now than ever before in history. When I saw Shane Carruth’s Primer back in the day and heard it cost $7000 to make, I said “Well, that’s it, there’s no excuse anymore. If this guy can make a movie this good for that much money, nobody has any excuse anymore.” And that movie was even shot on film, something no independent filmmaker would do now. If you’re a young writer and you have a personal movie you want to make, get a camera, any camera, your damn iPhone if you want, get some friends and make your movie. Don’t submit your script to producers, don’t try to figure out how to gauge the marketplace, don’t listen to people like me who will suggest how to make it more formulaic and easy to understand, just make your movie, and that’s how you’ll learn how to tell stories cinematically.