There are two kinds of rugby player”, the legendary Scottish coach Jim Telfer told his players, “there are the honest ones, and there’s the rest. The honest player gets up in the morning and looks himself in the mirror and sets his standard, sets his stall out, and says: “I’m going to get better, I’m going to get better, I’m going to get better”.
The great man continued:
“The honest player doesnae complain about the food, or the bed, or the referees…all these sorts of things…these are just peripheral things that weak players are always complaining about: the dishonest player. I’ve coached teams before, and we’ve complained and carped about this, that and the next thing. And I liken it a bit to the British and Irish going abroad on holiday: the first thing they look for is a fu*kin English pub; the second thing they look for is a pint of Guinness; and the third thing they look for is a fish and chip shop. The only thing they accept is the sun. They don’t take on anything that’s good or decent or different abroad…if we do that, we’re sunk…”
A more unorthodox start to a screenwriting article you may struggle to find, granted, but bear with us. Whilst there’s a relatively finite list of things sportspeople can complain about (after all, if she ran the race quicker than you…who can you blame but yourself?) the screenwriter, by contrast, has an almost never-ending line-up of potential targets to fling culpability for failure on to.
the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.
Where do we even begin with such a list?
So we’re not here till doomsday, let’s assemble a list of 10 default screenwriter responsibility-deflections:
- The reader didn’t “get” my vision.
- The reader doesn’t like my genre or sub-genre of project.
- The reader didn’t read my script properly, missing crucial beats that massively impact the quality of the whole narrative.
- No-one will read my scripts.
- The reader doesn’t see the potential in my premise that I do.
- No-one’s buying scripts or hiring writers at the moment.
- My agents sucks, like, big-time.
- The reader didn’t get it: with great actors behind my dialogue any clunkiness will vanish.
- I don’t have time to write.
- The reader didn’t empathise or care about any of my characters and that’s their problem, not mine.
As you can see, this list isn’t scratching the surface in terms of the great sea of accountability opt-outs available to the screenwriter.
There are so many, in such a subjective and nebulous area of art and business. Many are totally valid, too: execs and agents in particular are notoriously harried and hassled when it comes to their ever-growing reading pile. 20 minutes read on a tube journey here, 30 minutes just before bed there, the act three in the back of an Uber on the way to a dinner.
The system of how scripts get read, when they get, and by whom, has been flawed in the film and TV industries since their inception. And nothing has changed on that score. (Read more about “The Hierarchy of an Executive’s Script Pile”, in this piece by Tamzin Rafn)
But, when push comes to shove, even the most accountability-loathing screenwriter wants to reflect on results, not excuses or get-outs or near-misses or might-have-beens, when they reflect on their body of work.
It’s with this end goal in mind, then, that we’ve compiled a list – nay, commandments – that must be obeyed if the screenwriter is to remain an “honest” player. If he or she is to fulfil his or her potential. If they are going to get the end result they so desire.
NOTE: if you’d like to be emailed a large, printable, frame-able A4 PDF of these commandments to hang above your desk, as a continual reminder of what “great attitude” looks like in screenwriting terms, just click the link below.
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The 10 Commandments of the Accountable Screenwriter
1. Thou Shalt Take Responsibility
If the Head of Development at a major film company feels your script isn’t for them due to ___INSERT STOCK EXECUTIVE RESPONSE__ then you might think that’s their problem, not yours. Or you might think: “rubbish, my protagonist is a true anti-hero in the tradition of …. and the fact that you didn’t empathise with him doesn’t mean I’m going to dilute his edge”. And you might even be right. But it’s still a YP not a TP. If your theme isn’t getting through to people, if they’re not getting your metaphors and symbolism and the parallels between the distant planet of Ooozebella and the current situation in Gaza then…you’re not articulating it well enough. It’s a YP not a TP. This isn’t to say that you should blindly, lemming-like, follow each note or piece of feedback you’re given but when’s all said and done, if the script in question keeps not selling, if it keeps failing to rank in contests, if it keeps failing to get you meetings and gain some traction and get those crucial “above Pass” verdicts from script consultants, then at some juncture as an intelligent, serious screenwriter hell bent on making it, you need to take responsibility for that. You’ve gotta own it. You created it: it’s yours.
2. Thou Shalt Strive Towards a “Taste-Proof” Screenplay
Is there such a thing as a “taste-proof” screenplay? Yes, there is, in that even if an exceptional screenplay might not be to an executive’s taste, might not be what the company is looking for at the moment, might not be a reader’s cup of tea when they’re having a bad day, if the writing is good enough it will – at the very least – get that crucial “above Pass” rating. Then the ball begins to slowly roll. The exec might refer it to someone else, or mention your name to an up-and-coming producer. But either way, something positive will happen. To take extreme examples: THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 12 ANGRY MEN, SE7EN, THE GODFATHER…these are taste-proof pieces of writing that were always going to result in positive outcomes for their creators, regardless of who read them. Anybody, with any taste-palette, could read those scripts and respect the quality of the writing. That’s the area you’re gunning for. To pick up the sporting theme that began this article, the saying: “take the referee out of the equation” is relevant. This mantra refers, of course, to the major variable outside a sports team’s control. After all, they control their own performance, to some extent their performance subdues or negates the other team’s performance, so all that’s left in terms of variable are the referee and the weather. To “take the referee out of the game”, then means to play so well that even if the referee gets half a dozen decisions wrong, the level of performance is such that the “score takes care of itself”. Screenwriters can do likewise, by taking the reader out of the equation. Think of the reader like the referee – take him or her out of the game.
“If you write something great, and you know somebody who is even peripherally involved in the industry, like the assistant director’s brother-in-law’s niece, it’ll find its way to someone. It may not get green-lit and turned into a blockbuster immediately, but it’ll get read, and if it’s really good, it’ll start your career.” – Aline Brosh McKenna, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, 27 DRESSES
3. Thou Shalt Always Remember Who Chose Who…
The Corleone Family didn’t force you at gunpoint to become a screenwriter. Galadriel did not appear to you in a dream…tell you to buy Final Draft and head for the screenwriting equivalent of Mordor. You chose the pursuit of writing for the screen because you’re inherently creative and want to spend your life creating imaginary stories and being magnificently reimbursed for it. As an adult person, with absolute control over your own decisions, emotions and thought processes, you stepped forward and chose this path. Quite a few people around you were sceptical and – far from encouraging or fanning the flames – maybe even told you not to. But nonetheless, you did it. And with a task of great difficulty comes a responsibility to accept and make one’s peace with that. You knew it would be this tough, you didn’t have to have a double first in classics from Cambridge to know how many people are gunning for it. It’s not owed to you, you’ve got to go out there and take it. But never forget who drew first blood: you.
4. Thou Shalt Celebrate the Cheap Resources Available to You
1946, this is not. The combined annual cost of: a Netflix/Amazon Prime subscription, a library card, Wi-Fi, free screenwriting blogs by the boatload, and a modest Blu-Ray/DVD purchasing budget can’t be more than $300. With these inexpensive tools you are able to educate yourself, cinematically-speaking, to a level only fantasised about by your forefathers. You can bring yourself up to an incredible level of cine-literacy, quickly, which will in turn pay significant dividends in terms of your storytelling abilities. When one of our consultants was starting out, she was told that (at the absolute bare minimum) she should be watching four new films she’d never seen before every week. There isn’t an 100% free education out there waiting for you, but it’s pretty damn close.
“If I had known (how tough it would be), I wouldn’t have tried. I had been on my own since I was 18, and couldn’t afford to go to college. And there was so little information. You have to realize this was pre-internet. You couldn’t enter your script in a screenwriting contest. You couldn’t even learn how to write a script properly. There was nobody anywhere around me, and nothing I could even get from a bookstore that conveyed correct screenplay form. So no one was going to teach me how to do it. But I felt that if I could get to Los Angeles, I could do things there, like get a library card from AFI and check out scripts and read them.” – Leslie Dixon, screenwriter: MRS DOUBTFIRE, LIMITLESS, PAY IT FORWARD, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR
5. Thou Shalt Recognise that If You Can Build It, They Will Come
Again, many moons ago, if you were writing a script from rural Indiana (or even India), it was bloody difficult to get spotted. No internet. No contests where you can upload your script in under 5 minutes. Printing costs. No 1-click talent databases for executives to trawl through or do a quick look up from. No LinkedIn to approach key players directly. No fast, cheap-ish international flights so agents can come and scout on the ground in London, Sydney, Toronto, Cannes et al. Imagine sitting in a room with an aspiring screenwriter in 1953 and whining about the lack of opportunities to be discovered! You’d appear faintly ridiculous, they’d kick you out the door. There’s an absolute plethora of ways to get your writing discovered and for that, you should feel very grateful indeed. If you can build it – from anywhere in the world – they’ll come. If you’re in denial about that then ditch that denial, and fast. The battle’s exists between you and the blank page, sport.
“Young writers seem to forget that people in the industry are desperate for good material. The business isn’t constructed to keep you out of it, but to bring you into it. More than ever now, there are so many contests and agents and producers. It’s a world that’s so desperate for good writers. So if you can build it, they’ll be there.
– Aline Brosh McKenna, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, 27 DRESSES
6. Thou Shalt Not Moan About Your Lack of Time to Write
A perennial, old-as-the-hills writer complaint, you’ve just got to find a way past it. That’s it, basically. And if you can’t find a way past it then you’re probably better off throwing in the towel completely. Harsh words, maybe, but then we can look at the example set by RAIN MAN screenwriter Ron Bass. Bass was a lawyer with his own practice when looking to make the leap to professional writing. “I got up at 3am, wrote until 6, the kids got up, I spent time with them until 7am, and then got to work by 8 and was a good lawyer until 6, had dinner with my wife, and played with the kids. All weekend long I’m writing, and on vacations I’m writing like crazy. I wrote four scripts in a year-and-a-half while I was practising law”. Today, Bass works an average of 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. This breaks down into 6 hours of writing his current script, meetings and calls for 2 hours, and 4 hours a day developing his next script. He also exercises daily, riding 30 minutes on a stationary bike as soon as he wakes up, and lifts weights every other day. So, remind us again, is it you don’t have time to write or is it that you just don’t want it badly enough? Which is it?
7. Thou Shalt Never Blame the Script Reader
One of the biggest myths (started by, and fuelled by screenwriters) about writing and script development is the one that paints script readers as bitter and vengeful gatekeepers. Readers, so the story goes, are typically often writers too and due to the fact that their writing isn’t going well (or they wouldn’t be reading) take out this frustration by blocking all the great scripts and writers from getting to the powers-that-be. “If only Basil Bigstudio would read my script himself, personally, and really, really focus on it then it would sell and I would be off to the races! Only his nasty little anonymous minions stand between victory and I!” Here is the absolutely blunt, definitive truth on this topic and bear in mind this is appearing on the blog of a script consultancy. A place that exists to analyse scripts and can benefit in an ancillary, PR-kind of way from finding good ones. READERS ARE CRYING OUT TO READ GREAT SCRIPTS. There’s the truth, in black and white and caps. Imagine a man…a very weary man…dying of thirst on a dusty, desert road, his mouth is dry, parched and cracked. He comes upon a watermelon stall…now, the desperation that man feels to drink the fruit’s juice, is at a higher level than the reader’s desire to read something truly, truly great. But for diehard pro readers who’ve been doing it a long time, we’re in the same ballpark of desire, we really are. They are that keen to consume, to imbibe a wonderful screenplay. To ingest it and call the executive and rave about it and tell their friends they were the first to find it. Again, if the writing’s good enough, those gatekeepers transform into your champions.
“If you’ve got craft, you got game. If you got game, you can write your way in and out of anything. Writing is the best gig in the whole business, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the only job where you don’t have to wait for someone to tell you what to do. You just sit down and make s**t up.”
– Robert Mark Kamen, KARATE KID, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, TAKEN
8. Thou Shalt Never Take it Personally, It’s Strictly Business
It’s a personal business this one – few get into it out of duty, or for the pay check. It’s a passion play. But in the final analysis, the whole thing is a business. It’s not the film “popularity contest” or the TV “art appreciation fair”. They’re both businesses, and the humans operating in them will behave like humans do in any business in the world. So if you meet with a producer, and he or she requests to see you script, and they don’t enjoy it this has no reflection on the meeting. “Baloney!” we hear you cry, “we blatantly didn’t click in the meeting so that’s why they didn’t buy the script”. No. No. No. Why? Because if the script were good enough, if the producer could envisage money or a great credit or even awards at the end of it they would go out of their way to woo, charm and cajole you into selling the script to them. Do you really think their desire for self-advancement or self-preservation would be outweighed by the fact that they didn’t really dig you in the meeting? Whilst we’re all in a people business, one of the tremendous joys about being a screenwriter is that until you hand over those rights you’re in control of your own day (see Minghella, below) and if you’re exceptional everyone else has no choice but to work with you. But never forget what Michael said to Sonny (clip below). Fire in your heart, but ice in your brain…
“The best thing about writing has been the writer’s life, the sense of being expressed, the ownership of the day, the entirely specious sense of freedom we have, however slave we are to some boss or other. I wouldn’t trade it for any other life.” – Anthony Minghella, writer-director, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY
9. Thou Shalt Not Blame Writer’s Block
Being a writer is some hard yards, no-one disputes that. But “writer’s block”? Really? What are you blocked by? Has your muse gone to Hawaii for a couple of weeks? Are you a love-sick, homeless poet in 18th century Paris? You’re not. You’re a 21st century snowplough who uses any means necessary to bash, smash and crash through this imaginary block that is essentially no different to any other professional problem that could be encountered by a plumber who has to think his way round a problematic issue, or an electrician playing detective with a faulty connection. Bottom line: we can’t say it better than Akiva Goldsman, below.
“Writing is both a pleasure and a struggle. There are times when it’s really aversive and unpleasant, and there are times when it’s wonderful and fun and magical, but that’s not the point. Writing is my job. I’m not a believer in waiting for the muse. You don’t put yourself in the mood to go to your nine-to-five job, you just go. I start in the morning and write all day. Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing.”
– Akiva Goldsman, I, ROBOT, I AM LEGEND, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, CINDERELLA MAN
10. Thou Shalt Not Moan That You Don’t Have Any Connections or “Can’t Pitch”
As suggested above, one of the great joys about being a screenwriter is that you aren’t at the mercy of nepotism, personal favouritism and the other factors that affect how and why people are hired, quite as much as the rest of the industry. If the script’s awesome it’s awesome and that’s the end of it – you’ll get hired. It’s not like you’re the brilliant but socially awkward sound editor, who just got passed over for a job because the director got drunk a lot at uni with somebody else. But having said that, this industry is still a “people business”, if ever there was one. And any resistance, or trepidation, or reluctance you may feel towards that basic fact needs to be shed, and fast. Likewise with pitching: throwing your arms up, dramatically and despairing that you can’t “reduce” your tale in such a way means you’re not a professional. You’re an amateur trying to play it your own way in a system that only cares about its own rules, not yours. Your writing and your pitching need to be outstanding, to succeed. Own those facts, don’t fight them.
If you’d like to be emailed a large, printable, frame-able A4 PDF of these commandments to hang above your desk, as a continual reminder of what “great attitude” looks like in screenwriting terms, just click the link below.
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