When do you walk away?

questionmarkSo I’m doing it again. Writing on a project that I feel in my gut is doomed. It’s paying me money and I know many writers are looking for that first paying gig. This is my umpteenth paying gig, and somehow I’m not really that much further along in my career than I was four years ago when I started. But I am a bit wiser. Wise enough to know when producers and development execs are really out to lunch. But apparently not wise enough to jump off this sinking ship. Baby needs a new pair of shoes, right?

And so I must ask someone wiser and infinitely more successful than I am: at what point do you pull the plug. You know, you’re getting notes that make no sense. You’re executing a project that is someone else’s “idea”…though you know full well this someone doesn’t realize that his idea is nothing yet…not until you deliver a script that will undoubtedly be everything he did not imagine (because he really hasn’t imagined anything at all).

When do you save yourself the embarrassment and heartache and suddenly become “unavailable due to a scheduling conflict.” Yes, sometimes the most unlikely projects fraught with problems go on to become successes. Apparently Casablanca didn’t have a script and was being written anew the night before each shooting day. But my experience also tells me that is the exception and that doing it “right” has a higher likelihood of turning out a creatively successful product. What’s John August’s tipping point? When does he leap? What are the danger signs that make John August say, “My employers are completely whacked and I’m catching the next bus out of here”?

— Skip

Often, the only power a screenwriter has is to walk away, and the decision whether to do it is almost never straightforward. But there are a few key points to consider:

  1. Write movies, not scripts. Always recognize that the words scrolling up and down on your monitor are the means to an end, not the end itself. An unproduced screenplay is like blueprints for an unbuilt skyscraper — brilliance is irrelevant if it never gets made. So ask yourself: “Am I giving up because of a fundamental concern about the movie, or a concern about the script?” The former is valid, the latter isn’t.

  2. Don’t do free repairs on sinking ships. The Writers Guild (or the Canadian equivalent) would like to remind you that you’re never supposed to do free rewrites, but the reality is that for a project you believe in, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it right. But if you’re questioning the producers’ commitment to the project, ask to get paid for that next batch of tiny tweaks. If they balk, it’s that much easier to walk.

  3. Set some objectives and deadlines. Agree to do that next pass, but only if they’ll commit to taking it out to directors. Insist on having the follow up meeting this week, not a month from now. Don’t let it drag out.

  4. Write your own notes. Before the next revision, give them a set of written notes about what you want to do. Let that be the template. If they’re not on board, it’s clearly time to move on.

If it’s any consolation, the decision of when to cut one’s losses never gets easier. I had to walk away from both Charlie’s Angels movies when they completely went off the rails, only to come back later. More recently, I had to let Tarzan go, after more than a year of work.

In both cases, I felt profound frustration and disappointment, both in myself and the people who’d hired me. It wasn’t just the amount of wasted work, but the sense that I was abandoning my creations. The characters were real to me, and now wouldn’t get a chance to live. (This dilemma ultimately became one of the storylines in The Movie.)

The only upside I can offer is that once you leave a project, you remember how many other movies you want to write. Shutting one door opens others.

Follow up: Advice not taken

[follow up]The cavalcade of follow ups continues today with this guy, who got conflicting advice and chose to ignore all of it. And somehow still ended up okay. If anything, it’s encouraging to see that my guidance isn’t necessarily that crucial. Most people who are going to make it would make it without me.

Here’s the original Q and A:

Recently, I struck up a correspondence with a successful screenwriter and asked him for advice on how to move my career forward. He told me that I should focus on making films instead of writing them, because that now was the best if not only way to break in.

Do you think that is true? I was inspired to take up screenwriting by people like William Goldman and Richard Price, who worked in the business solely as screenwriters. That’s what you’ve been able to do thus far in your career. Is it still a possibility?

– Vince
Seattle, WA

While films, short and otherwise, are increasingly being used as the foot-in-the-door for young writer-directors, if your goal is to become strictly a screenwriter, I’m not sure it’s the best use of your time and money. Yes, it’s still viable to be “just” a screenwriter. Not only will Richard Price and William Goldman continue to work, but new screenwriters emerge every year, propelled by nothing more than the quality of their writing.

What may have changed over the last decade is the degree to which a screenwriter is required to have social interaction. The classic nebbishy writer who gets spooked by his own shadow would have a hard time in modern Hollywood.

Take me. I’ve produced and directed, but 90% of my work consists of pushing words around on the page. The other 10% is crucial, however. It consists of making phone calls, taking meetings, discussing notes, and feigning interest in terrible projects just to be polite. My writing is what makes me hirable, but it’s sociableness that gets me hired.

One reason this successful screenwriter may have given you this advice is because you’re in Seattle, and while it’s easy to shoot a film there, it’s harder to come in contact with the people (agents, managers, producers) who can help you get your career going as a screenwriter. Since you can’t do the social part of a screenwriter’s job in Seattle, making a film isn’t a terrible idea. But neither is moving to Los Angeles, which might be the better use of your money.

Here’s what Vince is up to now:

In September 2004, I asked you for advice about advice I’d received. A successful screenwriter/director suggested that the best way of moving my career forward was to concentrate on making films instead of writing scripts. You said that while that wasn’t a terrible idea, it might be a better use of my resources to move to Los Angeles if I wanted to be a screenwriter.

What to do when two gracious professionals offer contradictory advice? If you’re me, you ignore them both and keep doing your own thing.

After I wrote to you, one of my scripts was named a quarterfinalist in AMPAS’ Nicholl Fellowship competition. That led to some interest from agents and managers. I decided to seize the initiative and contact managers with the news myself. The firm highest on my list asked to read the script. After a suitable interval, I started placing regular follow-up calls.

The manager eventually got on the phone with me, saying he did so for two reasons. I was persistent, and he liked the script. Not enough to sign me — it was too small in scale and lacked an easily marketable hook — but enough to see if I had any others. I had in fact finished one the week before. I stumbled through a description of the story, and the manager asked if I could email him a copy. That day, if possible.

That was a Thursday. On Saturday morning, he called me from a coffee shop to tell me he liked the script. By Monday, I was a client.

Soon enough I was in California for a week’s worth of meetings. One of them was on a movie set in downtown Los Angeles with two producers. They ended up optioning my script. I finished rewriting it for them earlier this month, and it’s out to actors. Another script I’ve written since then is currently in development. I’ve also completed the first draft of a novel, because that’s how I see myself: as a writer.

For now, I still live outside Los Angeles. That may and probably will change. What matters is that I no longer feel like I’m in the wilderness. That is partly due to writers like yourself who are willing to shed some light on how the game is played. For that, I thank you.

— Vince Keenan

Follow up: That crushing doubt

[follow up]Today’s follow up comes from a reader who asked a question on my imdb column, which somehow never got copied over to this website.

Yes, for the record, I’m aware that this “Follow Up” feature has become self-congratulatory. If it’s any consolation, I hate myself. (Not really.)

The original Q and A went like this:

That feeling where you sink low in the stomach and begin to doubt the really great thirty pages that leaked out of your head -­ which eventually leads to utter disappointment in yourself, your talent, your words. That’s good right?

I know the old “Don’t give up” or “Give it time” advice. But tell me from your personal experience how you get through those famine times in writing.

— Carey O. Malloy

At a workshop last week, one writer said her trick to getting through these bleak times started before she even began working on a project. She would write a half-page letter to herself about why she was excited about the project. Then she’d take this letter and seal it away. Hopefully, she’d never need to look at it again. But if she hit hopeless despair, she could rip that envelope open and be re-inspired.

It’s a smart idea. Unfortunately, it does nothing for you, Carey, right-here-right-now, with no hope, no confidence, and no damn letter to inspire you.

Self-doubt is essentially an argument with yourself, and it’s impossible to win a battle when you’re fighting both sides. So concede defeat and move on to the real questions: Do your thirty pages really suck? What changed that led you away from thinking they were great? Do you really know what the movie is that you’re trying to write?

This last question is usually the killer. I’ve gotten lost in scripts many times, and had to throw out material I really loved but that simply wasn’t part of the movie I was trying to make. It was too slapstick, too showy, too Ivory-Merchant or too Bruckheimer for the project. But I realized something amazing: Nothing ever really goes away. You’ll re-use or re-invent things, sometimes without being aware of it.

The short film script that begat Go was in turn begat (begotten?) by an aborted modernization of “Alice in Wonderland.” I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I was using a lot of my ideas for Alice in it. Later, I wrote a damn cool split-screen action sequence for Charlie’s Angels that didn’t survive, but as God is my witness, one day it shall be filmed.

I guess my best advice for grappling with self-doubt is to reassure you that every script has its crisis point in the birthing process, before a certain critical mass is achieved and it comes out wet and shiny and crying. If a certain scene is troubling you, skip over it and tackle something further ahead. If the story is getting confused, take a break and outline the scenes. Ask hard questions of the script and the characters, but lighten up on yourself. You’re only human, and they’re only paper.

Here’s the follow-up, more than six years later.

You answered a question of mine WAY back in July of 2000 on IMDb. Here’s the link.

I lived in Nashville then, and at 22, had just decided that year to combine my one real talent, writing, with my insatiable love of films. (Apparently I had also decided to use my middle initial. Go figure.)

So in 2004, armed with a spec that was fueling opportunities to rewrite other people’s specs, I moved to Los Angeles. It took a couple of years, I worked jobs that had nothing to do with writing, as new Angelenos are wont to do, and in April a good friend (and an ex-agent) asked if she could make some calls around town on my behalf concerning my spec (which had basically been a drink coaster for a year and a half.) I said, uh sure.

A week later it sold. She cold-called a big company about a script and a writer no one had heard of because she dug the script and wanted to be a part of it. I had zero representation, no management, no professional guidance really, just that nagging instinct that storytelling is what I’m here for, and someone who believed in my writing.

The project’s in active development, much to the surprise and excitement of just about everyone involved.

And because of that deal, I pitched and met and pitched and met and I’m now adapting a comic book for one of the Big Five.

Less than six months ago, my life started down the road to becoming what I sometimes thought it could be. And it simply came down to a combination of an honest-to-goodness NEED and ability to write, getting people to believe in what you do and wanting to go to bat for you, but mostly, getting the best you have on that page.

Back then I emailed you because starting out I wondered, is this normal? What is this? This sinking, desperate feeling? And of course, now, I know it’s normal. I know what it is. It’s the critic, it’s the “realist,” it’s the southern upbringing telling me that making movies in Hollywood is a fairy tale. Or it’s a problem with the script.

I had to learn the difference between self-doubt and a bad idea. And I think reading your response first helped me realize there was a difference. But if I hadn’t asked, if I hadn’t sort of reached out to someone who I knew I could trust professionally, a guy I knew had been there, who knows…

I like to think I would’ve still pushed through, but asking then, helped get me here now, and I’m grateful for the nudge.

Thanks, Carey Malloy

Follow up: How to write a bio

[follow up]The first of the follow up emails came in last night. I fully anticipate that several will be, basically, “Yeah, I took your advice but nothing much happened.” This one, however, was particularly encouraging, especially considering my glib-in-retrospect reply.

Here’s the original question and answer:

I’m submitting a script to a screenplay competition and to an agent that accepts unsolicited material. Both ask for a biography. Common sense says to keep it short and sweet-and spell everything correctly. But I’m finding it very hard to write anything other than a two or three sentence summation of my education and career (none of which is entertainment related and all of which is surely boring). I suppose I could add something about my interests or goals as a writer, but does anyone care? Any advice or guidance would be greatly appreciated.


Here’s my all-purpose screenwriter bio. Change the relevant details to match.

Mark Anonymous hails from Osh Kosh, Pennsylvania, the zipper capital of the world. The son of average suburbanites, he found escape from the crushing sameness of early-90’s America through the films of Pedro Almodovar and Lars Van Trier. Inspired to become a rule-breaking filmmaker, he dedicated himself to learning the rules so that he might break them more fully and artistically. To this end, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Oberlin, where he made stylish and inscrutable films. Forced to take a slave-job at The Gap in order to repay monumental student loans, he turned his attention to screenwriting, hand-scribing his first feature-length screenplay during slow periods in Men’s Wear. That script wasn’t very good. However, his second screenplay, A SWIFTLY TILTING DOUGHNUT, turned out great. A light-hearted riff on Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, DOUGHNUT tells the story of a Krispy Kreme manager sent to close an unprofitable store in the Florida panhandle. Mark is 25 and lives in Pittsburg.

And here’s what happened next:

You answered my question about how to write a bio on Sept. 8, 2003.

At the time I was 33 years old, living on the east coast (still am) and working a day job as a textbook proofreader (still doing that too).

I was writing my first ever script, a short for a competition. I was feeling a little silly, like I was too old and too far away (geographically and metaphorically) from Hollywood to ever justify the amount of time and energy that I was spending on that little 15 page script.

When you answered my question, it kept the flickering flame of my optimism alive and played a part in keeping me on track to finish the script and the application.

The script won one of 3 grants and was shot the next spring in L.A. I got to hang around during pre-production and be on the set all three days that we shot. The only thing I didn’t get to participate in and see was post-production because I had to get back to my day job after 3 weeks. It was the best experience of my life and I haven’t stopped trying to write my way back to L.A. Since.

You can see the final bio that I wrote here.

The film, if you’re interested, can be seen [here](http://www.planetout.com/content/movie/?id=74&navpath=/entertainment/popcorn q/posma/).

It’s about 8 minutes long, I think. Try to hang in there until the middle, when one of my favorite actresses ever, Jane Lynch, begins her turn as the antagonist of the story. I wish I could take credit for her hilarity, but she is a improv genius, as we will all see yet again this weekend in For Your Consideration.

Watching her play a role that I wrote was right up there with having my question answered by John August.

Thanks so much for all you do to help new screenwriters out. What you do helped to change my life.

— Melanie Aswell

Follow-up, please

I’ve had this site up and running for about four years,1 and in that time have answered approximately 300 questions from readers who wrote in, either to johnaugust.com or my column on imdb.

What I haven’t done is followed up with any of those questioners to see what they actually did with the information I offered.

In some cases, the answer I gave was simply The Answer — there wasn’t a next step or a decision lurking on the horizon. But many readers write in asking for advice about a specific situation, a career choice or judgment call. These are often my favorite questions to answer, but I have no idea whether my advice is being heeded, or if it’s even helpful.

That’s why for this week I’m urging anyone whose question I’ve answered to write back in and me know what you did, and what happened.

I’m thinking about the guy whose friend was directing a movie, and wondered what job he should beg for. The girl who couldn’t stop writing. Hell, Dracula’s son.

Even if I’ve just told you that the page 17 sex joke is a myth, I’m curious to hear what’s up with you.

How will I know if it’s the real person writing in? Well, in most cases I have the original email, or at least an IP address. But my curiosity far outweighs my suspicion. Let me know how it turned out.

  1. To bring back nostalgia for the Olde Days of HTML, you can check out [early versions](http://web.archive.org/web/*/https://johnaugust.com) of the site at archive.org.