I am a young screenwriter in Canada who has recently had the privilege of having a film made of my first screenplay.
Surprisingly, the script was financed for production and went to the boards rather quickly — 6 months to be exact. For whatever reason, I got this one right, with the type of feedback a person could only dream of, from everybody involved, including producers, distributors, the crew and cast, the financiers. I felt validated and motivated and eager to continue on, with offers and interest and such.
Here’s the problem: the film has just locked picture and one of the producers gave me a copy to screen. It’s terrible. Astonishingly bad. This isn’t an issue of opposing visions or creative difference. Despite the fact that the script has been heavily cut and rearranged, it just seems to lack life or vision.
The entire treatment is superficial. The performances are terrible, the images lack nuance, there is no sensitivity to the material, never mind entertainment.
And I’m not the only one that feels this way. The producers, the distributors — all are very disappointed. My question is, will this hurt me and my reputation? Will I be given another chance? And how do you deal with a loss of this kind? It’s pretty devastating.
First off, my sympathies.
This is one of the worst things about being a screenwriter: you ultimately have very little control over the movie that gets made. The director might shoot your scenes; the actors might speak your lines; the editor might assemble them in a logical manner. And yet, when it’s all done, the film may in no way resemble what you set out to accomplish when you wrote your script.
When I saw the first cut of Go, I nearly threw up. I’m talking physical nausea, with shortness of breath and heaviness in the arms. It was terrible. I remember thinking, “Maybe they can just never release it.”
But after a few hours, my optimism gradually returned. Because I’d been on set for every second of filming, I knew we had much better versions of everything. So I sat down and wrote eight pages of notes. (You can read them here.)
After the next cut, I wrote another seven pages, then three pages, and a final three pages.
Ultimately, we went through five or six major cuts of the film, including three days of reshoots. My notes certainly didn’t save the movie. But by writing things down, I was able to get the team (the director, the editor and the producers) to focus on one set of issues, and help steer discussion on what to do next.
I’ve given notes on every film I’ve written since, sometimes with good results (c.f. Charlie’s Angels), sometimes not (c.f. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle).
So my first advice, Jeremy, is ask those producers and financiers how locked the picture really is. Given a choice between a bad movie and a pissed-off director, most producers will gladly unlock the picture if they think it can really help.
Have you seen dailies? Are they significantly better than the movie? The cliché is that no movie is as good as the dailies, or as bad as the first cut. But if you were watching all the dailies and didn’t sense a train wreck, maybe your movie went off the tracks in the editing. The good movie you wrote may still be in there, hidden under bad choices.
But there’s the very real possibility your movie is just awful. If that’s the case, there’s little you can do except remember that most filmmakers have some credits that make them cringe. Hell, James Cameron directed Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. I’d argue that even a bad credit is better than no produced credit.
So if it ends badly, take the emotional hit. Feel it. Then move on. Your career’s not over; it just didn’t start on quite the note you wanted.