I was just reading an article in Creative Screenwriting magazine about the new Coen brother’s offering No Country for Old Men. Again, I apologize for referring to yet another film I’ve not yet seen, but I’ve heard Oscar buzz regarding their unique adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel and you all can please feel free to let me know what your opinions are, as well. The thing is, after learning that the film is a bit of a formula-bucking departure from traditional action fare, I find myself applauding Joel and Ethan’s ethos while at the same time crinkling up a print out of the first 23 pages of my latest script. Why? Cause ain’t nobody interested in my unique take on spooky cautionary tales and there likely never will be. Listen, I’m not trying to hate the player or the game here, but I have to ask myself why we, as writers, get example after example of thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror that the industry allegedly loves (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Pan’s Labyrinth, Momento) yet flat out rejection when we attempt to emulate those examples? I’ve tread in this water before, but I’ve still not found an answer. The security of putting fresh paint on the old has created a murky, and seemingly unfordable moat between existing talent and new talent. We’re told to write “this”, yet they’re spunking over “that”. So unless I decide to max out my credit cards and make my own damn movie, no one is going to care that I have this really cool idea involving a large crustacean attacking New York City that we can only see via the viewfinder of a camera. Come on, nobody’s touching that fucking screenplay in Hollywood unless the name on the front is the co-creator of “Felicity”.
Crowds flock once again to an engaging, three hour sprawl of story-telling, yet I’m restricted to 120 pages of by-numbers clown portraits. A “master” kills off his heroine in the first act, giving a thrill that makes audiences shriek and take notice, and my main character needs to collect a mentor and a couple of sidekicks, face his heart of darkness, find the fucking elixir, and bring it back to the old tribe for the audience to follow my narrative. We’ve got filmmakers showing the world how it’s done, and industry careerists at the gate with a new writer’s script in one hand (provided it’s won a competition held by another group of literary ambulance chasers) and a copy of The Writer’s Journey in the other. What gets through goes straight to fucking DVD accompanied by cover art done by an agency half a world away who’s never even seen the damn movie. What’s wrong with that picture?
I know what you’re thinking: shut up, play the game, win one of the godzillian competitions out there, and then open your mouth once it’s your ass on the line. Believe me, I’m trying. But I like my new screenplay. I think it’s riveting, engaging, challenging, fresh, kind of funny in parts and fucking scary. But in the back of my mind I hear this voice – the voice of rejection letters past – telling me to shell out another $100 for a seminar by Robert McKee or some other cottage industry closet self-help guru prepared to sell me bullshit based on TV shows from the 70’s and move on to the next school of mackeral in Podunk, Missou. I may appreciate the basic building blocks of storytelling that anyone can learn from a good, dirty joke but I don’t feel like stripping my story of all its original voice (something we’re always hearing we should have, but are flat-out foolish to try and use) just so it hits all the checkpoints of some reader’s meticulously stenciled score sheet. Half these readers don’t even like reading scripts, let me tell you. For all the shit they must receive, I don’t really blame them. But the way the industry ladder is set up right now, they’re better off trying to find the lowest common denominator fare that they can in order to move up a rung. Once there, they may be able to jump on a pet project that they’re passionate about, but by then they’re better off finding an adaptation. It’s the hellish circle of shit development, that only murks up the water even further.
There are some agencies and production houses out there that do operate with one toe in the deep end of the pool, and I can’t blame them either for trying to keep the lights on most of the time. This entry is not about blame, really. It’s more of a rant about what seems to be broken that isn’t being fixed because the way it is serves a few over many. The examples are everywhere, most notably a writer’s strike putting thousands out of work in order to increase the salaries of about a thousand writers. It’s very easy to ignore the passion for risk and fairness in favor or trying to be 1/1000th of the issue. And to be totally honest, I would take one of those spots and do what I had to do to stay there. More honesty means I would never look back to offer a helping hand unless I was safely a few rungs up and there was possibly something in it for me. That’s how it’s played, and things can turn against you in Hollywood very, very quickly. It’s like high school that way. Get caught at the skating rink with one stoner, and the next thing you know, only the guys from marching band will talk to you because they think you play guitar.
But still, there is something that might help cut through the murk. It’s the honesty of believing that one must write what they’re passionate about and what’s in their heart because if they ever thought that was a truth, it would be the pinnacle of dishonesty to stop doing it. Sometimes, you have to lock, load and head into the fray, at peace with where the spent shells will fall. Sometimes you have to stake your claim, no matter how much the land is worth.
Ah well, I promise to see something soon. Hmm…maybe McKee’s written something I can check out that doesn’t have a fucking wah-wah pedal over the soundtrack.