I was perusing your site, and it occurred to me that you might be a good person to ask a question I’ve been struggling with.
I’ve been a working screenwriter for about five years. I’ve never had anything produced, but some things are looking promising. I’ve worked at most of the major studios, and my career thus far has been steadily getting better. No spectacular ups and downs.
Over the years, I’ve pitched on quite a few rewrites, passed on a few, and done a few. Most rewrite opportunities that come my way are pretty bad. A lot of times, people are looking to breathe new life into their stalled projects. When you read them, it’s clear those projects have stalled for a reason.
Here’s my question. I mostly get rewrite opportunities on scripts that are based on mediocre ideas that are also badly executed. I’m generally interested in making money, but I’m not desperate. I don’t HAVE to do everything that comes my way. Often I get scripts that I know can make much, much better.
Here’s the catch: they’re based on mediocre ideas. It’s never going to be GREAT. If I bust ass and do what the producers want, it might be solid, professional, entertaining and generally well-written, but it’ll still be kind of derivative and unoriginal. In this (very common) case, should I:
Take the job and just make it the best it can be, without making fundamental changes to the idea. I’ve done this. The problem, it seems, is that people are really happy with you initially because you’ve fixed the problems. But, when they go out to get it made, the fact that the idea was never that great becomes a problem. And inevitably, their enthusiasm for you as a writer cools. Since you were the last writer on the project, it becomes kind of your fault that the project is stalled again. Is that okay? Does it matter?
Take the job and try to re-work the premise, making fundamental changes to try to make the project actually good. I tried this, as well. I’m proud of the work I did, and everyone I gave it to who had nothing to do with the project thought it was a HUGE improvement. But it was a horrible move politically, since I was changing ideas that had originated with the producers. I had been careful to make it clear what I was doing, but they weren’t listening – they just wanted it rewritten. Then I turned it in, and was burned alive.
Pass on rewrites that aren’t based on good ideas. I’ve certainly done this, but I worry that it just takes you out of the rewrite pool. My agents aren’t going to endlessly send me rewrite gigs if I pass all the time. Rewrites are a big part of the business.
I know this is a long-winded question, but it’s a thorny dilemma. Oh, by the way, I’d appreciate it if you could make me anonymous if you post this. God forbid someone should find out I think they have a mediocre idea for a movie.
Obviously, many readers would kill to be in Matt’s position: a working screenwriter with the luxury to turn down jobs. But I think his question is helpful because it points out the tough choices you end up making as a screenwriter.
Deep down, a screenwriter wants many things: money, artistic satisfaction, the respect of his peers. But if you were to really ask…
STUDIO EXEC: What kinds of movies do you want to write?
SCREENWRITER: Movies that get made.
Unlike the novelist, whose work is finished the minute she hits “Print…”, the screenwriter is beholden to countless external forces who will determine whether or not his screenplay becomes a film. Matt’s been working five years, and hasn’t had a movie made. Still, he has a career, because the people who hire screenwriters recognize his talent.
What should Matt do when rewrites come knocking? I think all three of his options have their merits, given the right circumstances. Here’s what I’d do:
Pass on fundamentally bad ideas.
Note the difference between “bad idea” and “not based on a good idea.” Lots of good movies are based on ideas that, on their surface, don’t seem especially promising. Keep those in the mix. You’re just trying to weed out the concepts that, even if perfectly executed, would be lackluster. (“He’s a clown who solves grizzly murders!”)
Pass on perma-development projects.
Watch out for the project that one mid-level studio executive is championing, particularly if he says something to the effect of: “I think if we could just crack this one thing, then the Studio Bosses will get it.” Nope. That project is going to be sitting on the development list for years. You have plenty of unmade projects. You need a produced movie.
If you’re planning major changes, say so before you take the job.
And if they’re squeamish about what you’re planning to do, walk away. You may still piss off certain personalities involved with the project, but at least they were warned.
Accept that sometimes, you’re shining shit.
Or to put it more optimistically, you’re making a bad movie better. Think of yourself as an interior designer. True, new paint and curtains won’t fix the hole in the living room ceiling, but they might make you notice it less.
In the end, remember that you’re a screenwriter, not a screen-rewriter. You don’t want to make a career of it. But sometimes, rewriting a bad movie can be liberating, because you know that almost anything you do will improve it.