Death by a Thousand Compromises

Oct 13, 2020

I, like many writers, have tried my hand at many forms.

Plays, novels, essays, poems, short form animation, non-fiction, newsletters and perhaps the most complex form of all, screenplays.

There is somewhat of a descending scale of influence for the writer in these forms. Works such as plays, novels, essays, poems, etc. are works entirely of the imagination that require very little cooperation from others to complete. You can choose to workshop or hire an editor. You can choose to spend the time and effort seeking traditional publication. You can walk various avenues that require you to wait for permission to move forward, but nowadays you can just put it out there without input if you like. Not recommending that, necessarily.

Non-fiction relies on actual true events, or at least it should. This may require rights or lawsuits. So, there is a layer of built-in involvement from others.

Far on the other side of the spectrum are writings that require a team to make them exist in the real world, fiction or non-fiction. Animation, documentaries, teleplays and screenplays.

The writing in these cases isn’t really for public consumption. If you seek out and read scripts for these things on anything approaching a regular basis, I don’t know whether to applaud you or do an intervention.

On the inside cover of a play from Samuel French or Dramatists you will see a very clear warning that you can’t change a word without permission. The writer is king in the world of stage. It is a “Pintar play” for instance. There is no inside cover to a screenplay and there are no protections at all. The writer is quickly forgotten, by the general public, in the world of screenplays. In filmmaking it’s “It’s a Spielberg movie.” The director, or sometimes the producer, gets the creative “ownership” of the end product. Which is fine, but it can be very frustrating for the writer.

It is curious business. The common refrain is, “It’s all in the script.” Vast sums of money and talent revolve around this premise. Then, as the money and talent move to a script that “has it,” the script starts to be altered. This will be less the case where the writer is also the director or lead actor or producer, but assuming he’s “just the writer” it will be altered based on the input of the money or talent.

This alteration is an ongoing process. This “script” which continues to change becomes little more than a point around which to pull in support.

Here is an illustration: We did our film In Search of Fellini in 2016/2017 and in the Fall of 2016 we started principal photography in Ohio. The leads showed up and we all went out to dinner. There were three leads there, all marvelous actors, and all loving “the script.” The not so small problem was that all three had fallen in love with significantly different versions of the script! And this was, I believe, basically realized very close to that dinner.

We worked it out – more alterations, more compromises. Basically, if you are looking for a good definition for collaboration – another common refrain in film “it’s a collaborative artform” – the best definition is compromise if you’re the writer. The moral of this story: If you can’t stand others meddling with your work, for heaven’s sake, don’t become a screenwriter.


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