Monday, August 9, 2010

Everyone starts somewhere, so don't insist on being pretentious right out of the gate

I write fairly often about the moral lows of what I read. In part, that because it's a lot of fun to rail against the idiots who spend their creativity on dreaming up new ways to disembowel people, or find new bodily fluids that haven't been used for comedic purposes. And if they're not doing that, it seems they invest all their efforts in describing the curves of their female characters' asses, or failing that, find as many places as possible to stick in the descriptor "side boob."

But there's a fairly large amount of the submissions that land at the other end of the continuum: the "important" pictures. These are the ones whose writers are determined to show they can write DRAMA, dammit! The problem is that the amateur tends to mistake "dramatic" pictures for "films that leave you depressed and wanting to hang yourself."

Those are the sorts of films where the prom queen not only is in an abusive relationship with the captain of the football team, but he rapes her and leaves her when she turns up pregnant. Then she gets thrown out of her abusive home because her molester of a father doesn't want anyone figuring out he's also had his way with her. She's reduced to living on the streets and turning tricks, where naturally she develops both a drug habit and is infected with HIV. Naturally both cause complications with the birth of her child, who either dies moments after being born or has severe birth defects that weigh on the mother.

Oh, yeah... and these usually end in suicide.

The above might be a generalization, but I think you all get where I'm coming from - the writers who try to write important movies usually end up writing soap opera melodrama.

Or they end up writing pretentious period pieces. Often these are about IMPORTANT ISSUES like slavery, women's rights, or some really obscure corner of history. When these projects are put in the hands of a writer who knows what they're doing, they can be compelling. When one attempts them as their first project, the results are often painful for the reader.

I've been thinking lately about why someone might try to write one of these scripts right out of the gate, and the answer I keep coming back to is that the would-be writers fancy themselves serious screenwriters. They scoff at anything "commercial" and turn their nose up at the suggestions they might want to try writing something in a more marketable genre. They don't want to be hacks - they're artists. They want to be the next Frank Darabount and write The Shawshank Redemption.

But here's the thing: everyone starts somewhere. I recently raved about the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, which covered the production of all the films in the Elm Street series. Guess who co-wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street part III: Dream Warriors? Frank Darabount. You know what else he wrote? The Blob remake, The Fly II and two episodes of Tales From the Crypt - all before he made Shawshank.

For that matter, the Nightmare franchise counts Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette among its alums, two VERY serious actors.

The list goes on and on: James Cameron got his start on Piranha II, David Fincher's first feature film was Alien 3, this year's Oscar-winner for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow directed the Jamie Lee Curtis cop movie Blue Steel and then the Swayze/Reeves vehicle Point Break long before handing weighty material like The Hurt Locker. There's even a rumor that before he became a distinguised blogger and university professor, Scott Myers wrote a Jim Belushi film!

(Let's be clear - I'm not disparaging any of those films. I'm just pointing out that they are exactly the sort of fare that "serious" screenwriters seem to enjoy looking down on. And I'm absolutely not taking a cheap shot at Scott. I read Go into the Story everyday and I think he's a great guy. In fact, I haven't even seen K-9, so please don't take that last bit and spin it as "The Bitter Script Reader's talking shit about Scott Myers!" At worst, I'm giving him a gentle ribbing.)

My point is that you shouldn't make the mistake of believing your first screenplay (or even your second or third) needs to be an important screenplay. Don't try to write the next Oscar-winning epic on cholera, or feel that you need to browbeat the audience with a social issue in order to be taken seriously.

It's less critical that your work is "important" than it is for it to be entertaining.

And if some of you still aren't quite catching on to what I'm saying, go rent Sullivan's Travels.


  1. Actually, Point Break is a very good movie, even by today's standards. It was the brain-dead marketing that made it look like something it's not.

  2. Good post bitter.. I often fail to do this...

    "you shouldn't make the mistake of believing your first screenplay (or even your second or third) needs to be an important screenplay."

    And so I just exhaust my stories with gobs of potential ideas, but end up cutting majority due to the fact tackling all life's woes in one script is damn impossible. Especially as a young little puke screenwriter. I currently should just 'keep it simple'.

  3. You left out that Bigalow's first movie was NEAR DARK, a classic vampire movie before vampire movies became in vogue ... it's got Adrian Pasdar, Lance Henrickson and fucking Bill Paxton, dude. A classic.

  4. From another perspective, I know a few fiction writers who were paralyzed by reviews of their first novels that described them as "important". There are few things more capable of instilling writer's block than feeling you have to live up to such a reputation.

  5. Dude, I have sooooo been there. A writer friend of ours read one of our action scripts, and tore it to shreds, because he thought we were "selling out" and we were "better than that."

    I don't know, the guy with the paycheck might not be better, but he's certainly better off.

  6. If it doesn't have an explosion and at least one fistfight, it is not a serious movie.

  7. I also wanted to add, that James Belushi had to his credits Thief with James Caan, directed by Micheal Mann, and Salvador with James Woods, directed by Oliver Stone, in the 80s ... also Red Heat with Arnold, but that was a horse of another color, too.

  8. Re: the prom queen gets pregnant and abandoned...

    Why'd you go and spoil Quinn's storyline on "Glee," Bitter? SOME of us haven't gotten through the whole season's tivo yet.

  9. I think that generally you find out how bad your work can be, or good for that matter, if you write it out as novel first. If it doesn't hold as a novel, it won't hold as a film. The sort of everything gone wrong no happy ending that you posited doesn't work as a novel. It reads like a postmortem. There has to be some redemption or reaching of acceptance and realization of something that brings a little inner peace to someone. When you can cover the evolution of the characters from end to end of a novel, then you can pare down to a script, or it's just two-dimensional as most films are. Who wants not only a postmortem report, but one with no depth to anyone in it? You can work as a transcriptionist for the coroner's office if that's your cup of tea, but it's not box office of any kind.

  10. I really like this post. This is definitely something that hampered my creativity before and prevented me from moving forward with a story. I was constantly stuck on "but it's gotta mean something!" rather than creating an entertaining story.

    At times I believe that most of the stories that share purpose or meaning were never meant to do such a thing in the first place. A reader/viewer will interpret however he or she wants.

  11. I was just thinking of this the other day. How must of the screenwriting classes I've taken seem to have pushed me to write "important scripts" instead of sellable scripts.

    But I also think that a lot of people writing these "important scripts" might be writing for contests. When was the last time a comedy won Nicholls?

  12. Steve - I think you're on to something there. Screenwriting professors who appreciate the skill it takes to write genre pics seem to be in short supply. It's one reason I love what Scott does over at Go Into The Story. I feel like if I was his student and said, "I want to write an action film about Colombian drug lords plotting to to take hostages at the X-Games," he'd say. "Wonderful! Let's make it the best genre action pic it can be!"

    A screenwriting prof in Iowa might scoff and suggest I write about a boy who deals with the pain of an abusive home by teaching an ostrich how to fly.

    Writing for contests is always a dicy thing. I said last week on Twitter that I'm constantly shown evidence that many "contest winners" are merely the fastest children of their particular obesity-combatting commune.

    Nicholls tends to go for these "important" scripts too, and at least based on the finalists I've read, there's a distinct dearth of commercial material there. The big difference is that at least those scripts get read by people in the biz. Few of them sell - which speaks to your point about comedies never winning - but at least they're seen.

    But as regular readers of this blog know, I consider most contests as waste of time and money that can better be spent elsewhere.

  13. Sullivan's Travels is a constant inspiration and defense of comedy's honor.

  14. I think all good scripts have a clear THEME, something which holds it all together, but that's very different from trying to be literary or make an important "message" script.

    Read somewhere that the theme should be expressed through the protag's problem (the flaw) and how that gets resolved reflects the writer's attitude.

    All of this would then play out through the protag's choices and development, and not people sitting around and actually discussing the theme explicitly, which of course would be incredibly dull.

    Pixar movies are a great example of what I've just been saying; they all have clear themes which are explored in an entertaining way which also resonates deeply with the audience.

  15. I'm not sure I agree with the Why? here. I think a lot of people write scripts about the Teapot Dome scandal or abusive HS boyfriends for the same reason people write terrible horror movies and gross-out comedies - that's what interests them.

    And there could be a good story lurking in there. They just lack the craft capabilities to write them well.