You’ve heard of Tales from the Crypt. Now here comes the equally scary Tales from the Script, a 2009 documentary about Hollywood’s most maligned above-the-line professional, the screenwriter. Twice yearly I teach the art of screenwriting to wonderfully eager and hardworking advanced students in UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program They dream of moving into the big leagues, and of course I try to help them make their dreams come true .But the working professionals seen in this film provide evidence that a screenwriter’s lot is not always a happy one.
Tales from the Script also enjoys a companion volume that quotes from conversations with some 50 of the industry’s finest. The documentary combines talking-head interviews with artfully chosen movie clips (from such films as The Way We Were and Barton Fink) that illustrate how screenwriters are regarded in Hollywood. One of my favorite clips is the scene from Get Shorty in which a self-confident Delroy Lindo assures a wide-eyed John Travolta that writing a screenplay is a cinch. Not so, of course. First of all, there’s the craft of writing. The job is simply more complicated when you’re trying to fit a lot of material into a two-hour framework. Jane Anderson, whose credits include TV’s acclaimed Olive Kittridge, explains it this way: “Films are architecture, and you’ve got to get your blueprint down.”
Then there’s the basic difficulty in getting in over the threshold, which may well entail lying about connections you don’t really have. Even if your screenplay is sold, you’ll probably be removed from your material as much as possible. And a work that’s optioned isn’t necessarily produced, so your chances of seeing your own movie on screen—whether or not it’s in a recognizable form-- are slim. Shane Black, who’s enjoyed massive hits like Lethal Weapon, also sees the downside of success: there’s the danger of believing your own hype. My colleague Dennis Palumbo, who turned from screenwriting (My Favorite Year) to psychotherapy, characterizes screenwriters as “egomaniacs with low self-esteem.” Ouch!
If you’re a screenwriter, you’re doomed to take endess meetings with mid-level execs who “can’t relate to anything they haven’t seen before.” And changing tastes make small, sensitive movies hard to peddle. Screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) notes that “Ordinary People wouldn’t get made today. That would be a Lifetime television movie.” In Tales from the Script, writers talk frankly about navigating sit-downs with producer types. My old friend John Brancato long ago used to crank out Roger Corman sci-fi flicks with his writing partner Mike Ferris. They’ve since graduated to big paydays like Terminator 3, but John still knows his place in the Hollywood pecking order. His advice: “Let the producer take the big chair. Always sit on the couch.”
The writers in Tales from the Script freely admit there are times when a director can lift their work to a higher level, and when an skilled actor can show them that many of their words are just not necessary. And sometimes a writer gets very lucky, as when newcomer Justin Zackham got the perfect director and cast for his first feature, 2007’s The Bucket List. But that’s not often the case. Usually screenwriters, even the most successful, find themselves struggling with both their craft and their industry. Said one, as you move through your career, “the rules don’t actually change. You just get lied to by a higher caliber of person.” Still, screenwriters keep at it, sometimes turning out upwards of 46 drafts (for Amadeus) in hopes of striking cinematic gold – or at least writing that one really good sentence.