Secrets and LIES

You have become the thing that you have mocked. That’s a paraphrase of a famous Shakespeare line, and it’s also a line that often popped into my head after I became a script and story analyst. By choosing to work on the development side of film, I had allied myself with the “thing” most screenwriters mock: the dreaded development executive.

“How did this happen to me?” I routinely asked myself. Like most grads of art school dramatic writing programs, I had bought into the belief that Dante got it wrong: He should have reserved the ninth, deepest, darkest, skankiest circle of hell for American film execs. I had fond memories of sitting in grubby classrooms listening to student writers rage against the day when their preciously pure work would be wrestled from their hands by the evil Hollywood dream machine and turned into commercial product to numb the minds of America. Once or twice, I remember muttering, “You should only be so lucky.” But I knew that my classmates’ imaginary pain was very real to them, and so was the complicated question of what they would, should, or could do if asked to choose between their artistic integrity and a shot at commercial success.

In school, we were often told that only a small percentage of the writers in our class would achieve working careers in the entertainment industry. We were willing to take this as truth. After all, we knew there were many more aspiring writers than shows or films produced. The numbers clearly meant that most of us wouldn’t make it to career success, but some of the faculty found a clever way to protect us from the prospect of future failure. We were encouraged to redefine “success” as self-expression and to define screenwriters as artists using the medium of script solely for their own emotional satisfaction.

One particular senior teacher was known to tell us tales of his disastrous Hollywood experience. As a screenwriter in the 60s and 70s, he wrote one notable film he considered worthy of him, artistically and politically—and then went on to turn down any writing project he regarded as too “commercial” or too empty of artistic value. He stuck to his principles, and we admired him for it, but when he divided his total screenwriting income by his number of working years, his average annual salary equaled what a middle-class college film professor would have earned…without the anguish and angst of dealing with life in Los Angeles. And so, a little embittered and a lot cynical, he told us to write for ourselves and not bother dreaming of an industry career.

For his students, it was never a secret that we didn’t buy his image of the purist artist, scribbling pages of perfect script to be locked away in desks or drawers and read, furtively, in the depths of night for the writer’s private gratification. But we did learn to act blasé about the concept of commercial success. And probably it was a lie that we didn’t all yearn to see our names featured in screen credits or at least on big, fat paychecks that would allow us to live—and write—comfortably.

There are writers who actually care about the perils of “selling out,” but for others, like my classmates, the queasy conflict between art and money serves as a neat defense against fear of failure. If your work doesn’t sell you can always tell yourself it isn’t because you weren’t talented or skilled enough—it was really because you were too high-principled to compromise your integrity. By fostering the concept of screenwriter as self-satisfied artist, writing programs—at least those that don’t promote their students professionally—provide their writers with an emotional bailout for flopped careers. And also justify their own existence.

This ploy—if we can call it that—is supported by a continuing confusion in American cultural values. We’re taught to believe we can have it all—money, fame, success—and we’re encouraged to think that we should. But we’re also cautioned that money and the greed for it are the sources of all things evil in society. Popular film culture plays into this confusion with its own form of paradoxical positioning on the subject of values. So a film that may have cost millions to produce and may aim for millions in profits, might easily feature characters learning the lessons that love of money and success is shallow and inauthentic, especially compared with deeper, more humanistic values found in friendship, romantic love, self-sacrifice, and integrity. It’s not surprising that screenwriters may end up puzzled and unclear about their own attitudes towards success and money, and what it may take, and cost, to achieve them.

As an analyst and consultant, I’ve come to believe that it’s useful for writers to grapple with these issues, because they may lead to potent creative questions about why a particular writer is driven to tell a particular story. For a writer, understanding creative motivation and asking why a story should be told and what is the true purpose of the telling, helps the writer gain control over the material and the storytelling process. The more a writer knows about the “what” and “why” of a story, the easier it is to craft plot, structure, and character so the script accomplishes exactly what the writer intends it to do.

The debate over “money versus meaning,” if it brings insight to the writer, can become a powerful creative tool. But the debate becomes problematic when it inspires a number of lies, or myth-conceptions—including the big lie that the relationship between screenwriter and development executive is a spin on the battle between good and evil, with the writer as a virtuous David squaring off against the Hollywood Goliath to defend the meaning and value of story from crass commercial concerns.

Early in my career, I began to learn some startling secrets about story development and the people who choose to work in the field. And most of those secrets turned on the exploding of several myth-conceptions. All development executives are stupid: This is a standard screenwriter belief, but there’s no truth to it. It may be accurate to say that development people, like people in any profession, function at different levels of talent, skill, and experience. But the reality is that many development execs have a highly developed sense of story and a knack for figuring out how to maximize a particular story’s potential. In part, their expertise comes from evaluating scores of scripts, but it also comes from having to talk about story issues and elements constantly. The result may well be that certain producers and development people are more sophisticated on the subject of story—its form, function, meaning, and value—than many screenwriters can claim to be.

As artists, writers hardly compromise their artistic integrity by collaborating with story experts who are smart and sophisticated about the writers’ chosen art form. Which leads to another myth-conception: Even the smartest development people don’t actually care about their stories—they care only about the prospect of distribution deals or big box office receipts. I can recall being taken to task by one development exec for a piece of book coverage. Apparently, I had left out the crucial “truth” that the main character’s life, she said, was “miserable, miserable, miserable”—and nobody would ever want to see it on screen. I didn’t know whether to be amused or impressed by her passionate response to the character and his circumstances, but it was obvious that her imagination had entered the world of the story so completely that it was extremely real to her.

In teaching screenwriters, I use this incident to suggest a note of hope: you will meet development execs and producers who care about your stories and characters as deeply as you do. What they may not care about is your creative ego, your personal issues about “values,” or your need for self-expression. They may wholeheartedly believe that the traditional three-act structure or the “hero’s journey” pattern provide the best framework for crafting screen stories that speak to an audience. And they may not care if you disagree. What’s more, they may also believe that the true measure of a story’s worth and meaning is the size of its audience—and that this naturally translates into dollars.

Finally, there are some secrets, lies, and myth-conceptions that development people may have uncovered for their own purposes. Writers are never lazy. This is a lie. They often are, and lackluster scripts often show a lack of real effort and imagination. Writers out for commercial success fare better than writers dedicated to their artistic integrity. They don’t, because their so-called commercial scripts are usually too derivative and dull to deserve attention.

And the biggest myth-busting secret truth of all? Stories have their own lives, separate from their creators. If both writers and development people are aware of this, they can work in what I like to call “service of story.” By serving the story, both sides may discover that there are times when integrity and success can go together. And when they do, great and memorable screen stories are born.

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