Mar 15, 2010

Tales from the Script

As its name indicates, this is a very scary movie about the perils of being a professional screenwriter. It doesn't look pretty, to judge from the horror stories of writers who have actually been successful and survived in Hollywood. Some of the writers featured in Tales from the Script have written wonderful scripts and others have written dreck; but the system is so screwed, they all complain.
What is most surprising to me is that even after hearing their bitter tales of woe, I felt motivated to continue slogging through my own screenwriting project, which, if you must know, is killing me.
I work in advertising. Creatives in advertising love to complain about too many cooks stirring the pot, too many uninformed people sticking their noses in what they don't know. But in the end we're selling soap for thirty seconds, and anybody in advertising who gets too bent out of shape about their misunderstood creativity 1) is a schmuck and 2) needs to see this film to put things into perspective.
The most disheartening aspect of Tales from the Script is that nowadays the creative process in Hollywood is an exact replica of the creative process in advertising, but on a much grander, exponentially terrifying scale. It is geared to sell product, not so much to tell an interesting, original story. As in advertising, market research (also known as fuck us groups) is the absolute death of imagination, creativity, art, charm, however you want to call it. But at least in advertising you know you are selling diapers and the audience knows that they are being sold crap; when you see a movie, you'd like to believe you are watching an entertaining and enlightening story, not a 2 hour commercial for the sequel, or 2 hours of product placement.
Movies have become so expensive that executives just want to recreate what works. This explains why there are so many movies about comic books, and why movies are franchises, like Dunkin Donuts. Movie executives are no different from corporate marketing people, they operate mainly by fear and groupthink, and they are afraid of taking risks. Hence, the tired, over-chewed formulas and cliches feel as cynical and jaded as the people making these movies. I've always felt there is a huge disconnect between the narrative of fierce individualism that courses through the free enterprise system in America and the actual corporate reality, in which no one has an independent thought, or takes a risk, or takes personal responsibility for their criterion.
The writer Shane Black said something I have always felt about some account executive colleagues or clients: I don't tell my surgeon how to use his scalpel, or my dentist how to do my root canal, but people tell writers what to write and how to write it. And again, let me qualify this by saying, in advertising that's the way the Oreo(TM) crumbles. We have it easy.
The screenwriters in this movie are funny, bitter, jaded, exhausted. They all seem to have been run over by a truck and they lived to tell the tale. The system of not trusting the writer you originally hired and having someone polish or doctor a script seems particularly soul crushing, not to mention the horrendous problems of getting due credit.
My favorite quote from the movie is from Dennis Palumbo, who wrote the lovely comedy My Favorite Year (which I bet nobody would make today), and after enduring much humiliation in Hollywood, decided to become a therapist. He says something like, screenwriters are egomaniacs with a total lack of self-esteem. That has the ring of truth to me.

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