Friday, April 24, 2020

Not Just for the Money: Hollywood Screenwriters Tell All

When I fell into the movie industry, no one taught me anything about how to write a screenplay. I was an almost-PhD in English, accustomed to reading Shakespeare and abstruse modern novels. On my first day at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, I was handed a script – it was Charles Willeford’s screen adaptation of his own down-and-dirty Cockfighter – and told to note my thoughts on how well it worked. Somehow I managed to make a good impression. My career as a motion picture story editor had begun.

Roger, in those years, was a master at avoiding the hiring of union screenwriters, who of course were paid more than Corman peons. My good friend Frances Doel, from whom I learned the tricks of the screenwriting trade, was quite resigned to being send home on a Friday afternoon and told to come back Monday with the first draft of some screenplay for which Roger had supplied the premise. She’d slap a pseudonym on the title page, and when a credentialed screenwriter was brought in to improve on her very rough original, the identity of the first writer was our little secret. (We had to come clean just once, when the very gentlemanly William W. Norton expressed a strong interest in meeting with that original writer in order to check out some story points.)

Later, when I worked at Roger’s Concorde-New Horizons, we dispensed with WGA writers altogether. Or, at least, we weren’t WGA signatories. Plenty of writers with guild-worthy credentials but no work on hand were happy to invent new names for themselves so that they could be part of our cut-rate productions.  Henry Dominic, anyone?

Although I have six Roger Corman screenwriting credits, I’ve never been a WGA member. Still, the guild sends me the occasional check (compensation for overseas screenings of films I’ve written), and I have the greatest respect for the pros who deserve every penny they’ve earned by crafting my favorite movies and TV shows. And I’m happy to endorse a recent publication of the Writers Guild Foundation, edited by screenwriter Daryl G. Nickens. It’s called Doing It for the Money: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood.

How-to books about screenwriting are a dime a dozen, and I wouldn’t recommend this one as a primer. Though several brief sections offer the reader “Secrets of the Hollywood Pros,” the book’s strength does not lie in providing specific advice on such things as formatting and loglines. Instead, the core of Doing It for the Money  is a series of short essays by award-winning writers on how they’ve handled their own yen to tell stories on the screen. They’re writers, after all, so they express themselves with heart and wit. They’re funny, and often inspirational.

My very favorite section is  by Glenn Gordon Caron. He was once a newbie on a TV sitcom writing staff, led by a man named Steve. Everyone loved Steve’s work, but one week it was Caron’s turn to churn out the first draft. Instantly, the cast turned hostile, refusing to have anything to do with this interloper’s script, and insisting that Steve step in and fix it. Steve, who knew a good script when he saw one, told Caron to re-submit the same draft but add the word “revised version” to the title page. Suddenly everyone was onboard, and Steve announced that Caron had made many of the great fixes himself. With his reputation and his morale saved, Caron went on to a long career, including the wonderful Moonlighting. Like most Hollywood writers, he wasn’t doing it just for the money. .

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