Monday, March 29, 2010

Therapy scripts

I recently read a script that was written by a person who was something of a bystander to a national tragedy. Their participation in this incident, even though they were largely a spectator to the events around them, clearly traumatized the individual. It was clear from early on that this writer was using the script in an effort to work out some of their own issues. There was unfortunately a very big problem with it - it wasn't very good at all. There was no structure, the character development was all on the nose, the dialogue was overwrought and there were a lot of extraneous little subplots, that while they weren't strongly related to the national incident, I'd bet my life they were actual incidents from the writer's life.

I'm being a little extra vague here because I don't want to take the chance of the writer somehow stumbling across this page in a Google search and be re-traumatized by seeing me mock their writing here for all to see. This was one coverage write-up where I actually felt very sorry for the individual who I was passing on and hoped and prayed that they would never see my one-page write up that pointed out every single major flaw in the writing in a cold dispassionate manner.

Let me put it this way: You ever see the rare occasion on American Idol where someone auditions convinced that that are awesome - and not in a cocky "I am the shit!" way, but in an endearing way? Like maybe they've lived a hard life and they walk in with the conviction that they are going to impress the judges and walk out the next Kelly Clarkson? And then have you seen their face just crumble as Simon tells them they simply aren't that good? You know those times when even Simon doesn't have the heart to be cruel and actually tries to let them down easy? Don't you just cringe and feel bad for everyone in the room - both the one being turned down and the people who have to be the bad guy to the sweet but untalented wannabe?

Just me? Okay, maybe I'm projecting. My point is, it's sometimes hard for me to be dismissive of a script that so clearly has great emotional meaning for its writer. This writer was clearly working out some issues, and while I often joke that I'd love to recommend therapy for those writers who have violent fixations on disemboweling characters, this was a case where I wished I could recommend therapy just so this person could begin the healing process they clearly need.

But at the end of the day, my job is to say what's good and what's bad. And this was bad. Very, very bad. Unfortunately, that's not too unusual with the "Therapy scripts" I've seen.

I'm sure there are plenty of good scripts that have been inspired by a writer's bad relationships and emotional hardships. Look at Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Jason Segel says was inspired by a bad breakup he had - and if you listen to the commentary track you get the feeling that both the writing of the script and the recording of the commentary were extended therapy sessions for him. Consider how songwriters like Alanis Morissette have built careers writing about their bad break-ups and horrible lovers. There are always great stories to be found in personal events.

But at the end of the day, even though it's a story from your life, it still has to work as a movie. There needs to be structure, and you need to be able to develop the "you" character objectively. Bad therapy scripts usually present the protagonist as the victim of a cruel and indifferent world that's against them. "Why does all this happen to me?" the character whines. Nothing is ever their fault - stuff just happens to them. They're a victim of circumstance. That sort of rage against the world might be enough fodder for a three-minute song, but the pity party gets old after ten pages.

If you need to write these stories just as a way of dealing with whatever trauma is bothering you, that's fine and good. Indulge your creativity - but think long and hard before sending that baby out in the world. Taking criticism is hard enough when the story is just something you made up - it's excruciating when those notes are taking aim at real events you lived through and the character who is acting as your avatar in the script. Basically, don't send that script out while you have an emotional attachment to it.

Another thing to be aware of - when I started reading scripts in late 2002, there were a ton of 9/11 scripts in the slush pile. Over the next few years I read a lot of stories that were set in New York on September 11th. I'm sure that happens with every national tragedy, and unfortunately, few of these scripts had a truly interesting take on the incident. Most of the time, the story was about an average Joe who was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that day and had their life imperiled five or six times. Unfortunately, most of those writers usually skimped on making their protagonist all that interesting and merely used them as a chess piece to move across the game board that was the historical events.

I often thought that those writers were missing a real emotional connection to the material - that the key to making an interesting script that wasn't a rehash of the news of the day would have been to get a writer who lived through it. Having read a script from a writer who was just on the periphery of a national tragedy, I've had to rethink that somewhat.

Therapy writing might be good for you, but such a script would not be the first one I'd send out to that Hollywood contact you have - especially if you haven't had a few dispassionate readers vet it first.


  1. I would think that taking the time to learn proper form and structure would make it easier for a person to tell their story, and thus make it more therapeutic, if that's what they're after.

  2. Six years ago, I was fired by Norfolk Southern for allowing my physician to view a videotape of my former workplace. That was only the tip of the iceberg for that one. During a chance telephone conversation with Jim Glennon (cinematographer), Jim thought the story might make a nice screenplay.

    That was how my journey into screenwriting began. But I'm too close to what happened to actually do that story justice. It's just plain too personal with too many villainous scumbags. When, not if, I become a successful screenwriter, there will be one f**king hell of story about what put me on this path.

  3. In grad school I wrote a story about World War 2 that was extremely faithful to events. My thesis director pointed out that I didn't have to include ever single thing I found interesting since it took away from what was going on with my character.

    That was enough to make me never make that mistake again.

    I think we all do it in the beginning, but you know how we all send out our first screenplay even though it's never a good idea.

  4. I've read scripts like this before, but I always have the sneaking suspicion that scripts like this have been written by an actor.

    Actors are always looking for heartfelt scripts with lots of great character moments, and the plot is usually a secondary concern.