Monday, September 15, 2014

When a script takes a decade to get made, maybe it doesn't want to be born

I don't often have time to listen to podcasts, in part because I already have so many on my playlist that I keep falling behind on ones that everyone constantly recommends.  Because of this, I'd avoided getting hooked on How Did This Get Made? until I saw a recent live show at the Largo and could resist the siren call no longer. Each episode is about an hour long and covers a different notoriously bad movie.  The intent seems to be that the movies aren't just merely terrible, but entertainingly terrible. I can attest that some of my favorite episodes are the ones dissecting Superman III and Jaws: The Revenge.

I began by looking up the episodes for films that I had seen and once I tore through those, found that hosts Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael were funny enough that it was entertaining hearing them flip out over movies I hadn't seen.

As it happened, one of my early picks in this category was the episode revolving around the Robin Williams/Barry Levinson collaboration Toys. My only recollection of this film was that it came out around the same time as Aladdin, that the commercials mostly consisted of Robin Williams riffing in an empty field, and that it was considered an incredibly awful film. As both Williams and Levinson were coming off a hot streak of films at the time, this was not dissimilar to if Christopher Nolan and Jennifer Lawrence teamed up for a film that made Pluto Nash look good.

Drew McWeeny of HitFix was the episode's guest and brought up a fact that I'd heard, but completely forgotten - that for years, Toys was considered one of the greatest unmade scripts in Hollywood. Levinson spent almost a decade and a half trying to get it made.  Only coming off of a four-year streak that included Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, and Bugsy did he have enough clout to make this dream project.

And it bombed. Horribly.

It's unfortunately not uncommon for directors to totally blow all the capital they built on previous works by ramming through a long-gestating passion project: Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea immediately sprang to mind as such a film and I bet a number of you can fill up the comment sections with more examples.

And that's not even getting into the films made when a director is too big to be told no, such as M. Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water.

This might give a creative mind something to consider - if it's been almost impossible to get a particular script going even after you've "made it" and you have to be virtually untouchable to force it into production, maybe there's a reason for that.  At the very least, consider that this "trunk script" might not represent your work at its best.

There's a very recent example of this: Matthew Weiner's Are You Here.   As this Entertainment Weekly article explains, this was a passion project of Weiner's for over a decade. He wrote it between his first two seasons of The Sopranos. (He started on that show in 2004, so presumably this script's first draft was written in 2004 or 2005.) The article says "it took him eight years to get the script to Owen Wilson, two breaks from Mad Men to shoot it, and two more seasons to finish and edit the film."  The math on all of that seems dubious as it pushes the timeline past the present, but let's just say it took a decade or so to go from script to finished film, which became his feature directorial debut.

Let's also stipulate that Matthew Weiner is not a bad writer.  Mad Men is critically acclaimed and is pretty clearly his voice and his vision. He's not a hack, but he's not infallible either.  And within all of this, let's not overlook the most important detail - the Matthew Weiner who wrote this script a decade ago is not the same Matthew Weiner working on each episode of Mad Men

Yes, in a literal sense, it is the same guy. But I've always believed that writers grow and develop with each subsequent work. If you're doing it right, you should be getting better, particularly in the earlier stages of your career. By 2005, I think I was on my fourth screenplay and I thought I was getting pretty decent. Today, I would never show ANY of those scripts as a sample of my writing talent. As valuable as they were to my growth as a writer, I'm far better subsequent to writing those.

I actually read Are You Here a number of years ago and I immediately identified it as a "trunk script." (The term is used to refer to a script that a writer hauls out from the bottom of their stack, as if it had been locked away in a trunk.) This script came after a stretch of really sub-par scripts for work. It had been such a bleak week that when I saw the name "Matthew Weiner" on the title page, I was elated that at least one assignment that week wouldn't crush my soul.

I have not seen the finished film, so I can't render a verdict about it. However, having read the script, I can tell you have zero interest in seeing the film and there's not been a single review that changed my mind about this.  I had to sit on this opinion for a few years, as I didn't think it was fair to bash the script before the movie came out.  I was very aware that when that day came, it would be an excellent object lesson for a lot of writers, though.

It ended up being one of the most boring reads I'd had in a while.  I've read worse, I've read a LOT worse, so I'm not trying to claim that it was one of the worst scripts in existence. However, if it wasn't for the extremely acclaimed name attached to it, this thing would land in the PASS pile so fast it would break the sound barrier. I actually contacted my employer to confirm this was indeed the work of THE Matthew Weiner and not a similarly-named scribe because it contained so many hallmarks of an unseasoned writer.

For starters, the script was 138 pages long. That's a red flag with ANY script unless you're talking about some sort of epic.  This was not an epic. It was a story about a man whose father dies and leaves him an inheritance in the form of millions of dollars worth of Amish land in Pennsylvania. His sister is challenging the will and while he deals with that, he also struggles with his feelings for his young step-mother.  So in terms of concept, this isn't necessarily the sort of high-concept tale that makes for a immediately compelling read.

Even as a character-based story, it floundered. Part of what made the script laborious was that there was little sense of pace. I recall the reading of the father's will came at nearly 45 pages into the script and the script didn't make the road getting there interesting. A lot of the same points about the characters were hit again and again.  Without a strong concept and plot forcing things to advance scene-by-scene, the script was left to lean on the characters. I've seen this work before in other scripts, certainly in scripts that I praised even though they ultimately went nowhere at the companies where I was working. This script just didn't have momentum. It felt like a first draft, and a first draft from someone who was still learning how to make character drama engaging in a screenplay.

It got made eventually, probably because Matthew Weiner was just too big a name for someone to NOT take a chance on his passion project. I'm sure that the thinking was "Well, this is the guy who did Mad Men and no one got that until it came out either. I'm sure he'll make something great here too!"  Sometimes you take a gamble on something like that and it turns out to be Star Wars or The Matrix. And then sometimes you end up with a film that scored a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes and apparently had a box office so unremarkable that Box Office Mojo doesn't even have figures for it.

I have been blinded by that sort of thinking in the past too, so I can't really fault it. Early in my career, I read Richard Kelly's excellent spec script DOMINO. I championed it to my bosses, to no avail. (Their pass was more business-related than having anything to do with the quality or the commercial prospects of the material, I should note.) Having already been convinced that Richard Kelly was a genius writer operating on another level (though oddly, I wasn't blown away by DONNIE DARKO,) I was ecstatic when his next screenplay hit my desk.

That script was SOUTHLAND TALES.

I was convinced I'd told this story on the blog before, but I can't find it in the archives. As this is already a long post, I'm going to shunt that tale into it's own post for tomorrow.

I still stand by my praise of DOMINO's script, but I'm all too aware that I raved about SOUTHLAND TALES because I was a DOMINO disciple and I wanted SOUTHLAND TALES to be just as exemplary.

I'm sure that's how these passion projects eventually find their producers, someone wants them to be as good as everything else that creator has done.  The producers are staking their career on that writer's rep. For you, the writer, when your entire filmography is essentially collateral, you need to make sure that property is worth it.

And from what I see, that is the failing often. Writers and directors fly too close to the sun on their passion projects without running them through the checks and balances their early work faced. Perhaps their brilliance came out of compromise, or at least having to justify and fight for their vision.  Mostly, it needs to recognize that early works are often better left in the past.

If even Matthew Weiner can make the mistake of spending years on a "trunk script," what makes you the unsold writer so confident of everything in your catalog?  I hear so often from writers who say they have a dozen scripts "ready to go right now" and those are the writers whom I will never, ever read from because they have zero awareness of their own abilities.  If you've really taken an honest shot with 12 scripts of brilliance, SOMETHING would have happened for you by now. At a minimum, you'd be repped.

I've written about 10 spec screenplays and of those ten, I'd maybe use five as writing samples. MAYBE. There are two that I'd really lead with. and the other three are back-ups that are at least solid enough that a buyer might feel there's something the could work with.  I've got a similar ratio in my pilot scripts. 

More importantly, if I'm lucky enough to get a particular film made, I already feel like I'd be more inclined to develop something new as the follow-up rather than reach back four or five years to a script I've grown beyond.  I don't know if there are many old ideas that are so original or meaningful that they're worth blowing all your clout on, but I'm aware that opinion is informed by seeing so many of these projects crash and burn.

If you aren't your own worst critic, you'll learn that there are plenty of people who'll line up for that particular gig once you pass on it. Just ask Matthew Weiner.  But let's be honest, the guy is still going to be untouchable in TV.  Are You Here won't hurt that in the slightest. He probably is going to find it harder to direct his next feature, though. I can't help but wonder what might have resulted if his directing debut had been a script he wrote

The big takeaway - if Matthew Weiner can still make the mistake of sending out a old script that should have been cast aside or rebuilt entirely, what makes you think that everything in your portfolio deserves to be made?  Always move forward and don't cling to that early effort as the one that must be made.

1 comment:

  1. Some good points here, but .....what's the difference with those scripts and/or films that go ten years (or more) and finally get made and do succeed? Two recent films popped into my head as I read this post --- Under The Skin and Dallas Buyers Club, the latter of which was Oscar nominated. Also there's the Oscar winners Platoon (1986) and Unforgiven (1992) that also had long script/production development periods. I'm sure there's many more.

    I know in your headline you have the word "maybe" I know, but I think a case could be made that "passion projects" aren't always a bad thing. Or am I missing something in that the bad outweighs the good?