Art can be a risky thing, and probably should be. Obviously, there's the prospect of rejection, which is a part of life and a constant companion if you're an artist that puts your work out there. But what I want to talk about is the risk of making people uncomfortable or angry.
A few years ago, I set out to write an exploitation film. My idea was to make it a modern version of "Last House on the Left." Now, I'm not a fan of that movie, but I respect what it accomplished - it's a deeply disturbing movie (even today) while not being something that should be taken too seriously. But as I wrote my script, called "Inner Demons," it began to turn into something more than exploitation. Slowly, it evolved into a meditation on how power corrupts. By the time I was finished, I knew I had written something special. I believe it has the potential to be that rare horror film which pleases the fans of the genre and is also thought-provoking. But . . . it's extremely violent, and the subject matter is disturbing and will be offensive to some. Even if this movie is made exactly the way I envision it (which rarely happens!), some people are going to be pissed.
What should an artist do? Do you censor yourself out of fear of offending some? Do you water your material down to make it more palatable? Obviously, I can't write something that makes the entire audience walk out. But I think it's my duty as an artist to write the truth, even (maybe especially) when it's uncomfortable. And "Inner Demons" is definitely about that. So now it's time to keep my fingers crossed as the project inches its way forward.
This a follow up of sorts to my Father's Day post. A few days ago I was talking to a friend about her sick mother. It made me think of my own experience watching my father's long decline, then death. Not just the experience, but also the way I reacted to it, and how it still affects me today.
In my earlier post, I mentioned using some of my personal history in a recent screenplay, called "Origin Story." I believe all writers do this. We take an emotionally charged event in our life and we use our work to process it. We mull it over, look at it from different points of view, and even rewrite it. After all, can't life stand a little improvement? In the three plus years since my father's death, I've used aspects of the experience in at least four of my screenplays. It's not always a conscious decision - just one of those things that has worked its way into my psyche and out it comes during the creative process. In one script, I made a character a hospice nurse. In another, the protagonist has recently experienced his father's death and still has a hospital bed in his house to prove it. And in this new script, "Origin Story," I deal with it head on in a story about a man helping his father through chemotherapy. Is this a form of self therapy? Definitely. But it also makes my work richer and gives it more emotional depth. And If relaying my experience, filtered through a fictional story, can help others deal with their own complex grief, then it's a win-win. It also makes me feel that this is a higher calling. At least it's more than just making shit up about fictional characters!
One last thing. My manager just read "Origin Story" and told me he loves it . . .
This is a follow up to my post about succeeding as a screenwriter. I used to believe that writing for the market was whorish. And that if I attempted it, the end product would be uninspired crap. Then one day a producer told me she was looking for something for SyFy Channel. I decided to write an old-fashioned monster movie -- basically the 10,000th remake of "The Thing From Another World." The producer loved the finished script. Rewrites ensued. Somewhere during the process, I made a remark to the producer's partner (who was the development part of the team) about it not being a very respectable script or something like that. He called me on this and said that my passion clearly came across on the page, and that it was obvious that some part of me enjoyed writing this monster movie. And . . . he was right. I loved "The Thing From Another World" as a kid. I'm sure my script wasn't what anyone would call art, but it was good -- for a monster movie. Which brings me to the late Elmore Leonard (pictured above). He was predominantly known for his crime novels. But before that, he wrote westerns. Why did he switch? Because the market for westerns had died and he needed to make a living. If you're good, you'll be good at whatever you do.
Few people have the relationship with their father that you typically see in the movies. Well, unless the movie is "Affliction." For people like us, this in-congruence can be painful. One of the great things about being an artist is that it gives us a way to deal with these feelings in a positive way. And if you're a writer, you can even rewrite history.
My latest completed script, called "Origin Story," deals with a father/son relationship and how anger and violence is passed down from generation to generation. While definitely not autobiographical, it includes a lot of details from my life, my father's, and my grandfather's (who I don't even remember), all in a fictional story with an optimistic ending. As a famous writer (whose name I can't remember) once said, writers tell the Truth by making up lies about people who don't exist. And it's my hope that when this movie gets made, it'll help others feel better about their less than perfect relationships with their parents -- and maybe even give them some hope.
When I was younger, naive, and more of a snob, I approached my screenwriting career in the following way: I wrote what I was passionate about and assumed that something would eventually get made. Whenever someone suggested "writing for the market," I thought of it as a waste of time. After all, if you're not passionate about what you're writing, that lack of passion will come across. Right?
Now that I'm much older and a bit wiser, I know that it's about one thing: getting a movie made. And the sad reality is a movie doesn't get made because the script is great, it gets made because it's what the financier is looking for. So here is my advice to screenwriters who are reading this: If you know a producer who owns a gorilla suit and wants to produce a monster movie featuring that suit, don't send him "Citizen Kane." Most likely, he'll say, "this is a great script. But where's the fucking gorilla?" So write something for your producer. Get your name on a movie. Then you can do something good.
For my first ever blog, I thought I'd talk a little about the business side of writing. One of the most frustrating parts of being a screenwriter (apart from the waiting) is the criticism. It seems like everyone believes they can improve your work. This can be especially sticky when it comes to representation. I've had my share of agents/managers, and although they technically work for the writer, it sure feels the other way around -- maybe because it's so hard to find representation! They do have the right to have some say about the writing since they're putting their reputation on the line every time they submit your material. But where does one draw the line? Do you throw out stuff you love to please your agent? Are you perhaps wrong about that thing you love?
A few years back, I went through a period where I didn't have representation and was having a Hell of time just getting read. A producer friend was nice enough to give one of my scripts to a manager she met. The manager emailed me that she liked my script, but had some criticisms. What were they? She didn't like the age or sex of the protagonist, nor did she like the beginning, middle and end of the script. She didn't offer to represent me, but I had the distinct feeling that she wanted me to rewrite and resubmit it. Although I was desperate for representation, I instinctively knew that this wouldn't be the manager for me. I thanked her and went on my way - thought not quite sure I made the right decision. A few months later, another manager came calling and I signed with him. I don't know if it's because he's from Europe or it's just his style, but he's more respectful of my work and my time. Is he too easy on me? Maybe. But at least I know that it's my work going out there!