This week I’d like to share with you a very excellent thread that I came across on twitter by US screenwriter CHRISTOPHER MCQUARRIE (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible, The Tourist, etc). As I am working my way through the 1454 scripts we received for the 2020 Channel 4 screenwriting course (with the help of 7 script readers), knowing that however good the scripts are, we can only take on 12 writers, this advice seemed particularly relevant. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about how to empower yourself as a screenwriter.
‘I’m receiving a lot of questions from writers asking where to submit scripts or how to sell them. Others ask how to sign an agent, attach directors or producers, etc. You won’t like the answer, but here it is: You’re asking the wrong questions.
I spent seven years – AFTER winning an academy award – asking the same questions. My career stalled (and I still have scripts that no one will make despite subsequent commercial successes). In that time, I never stopped to realize that my own career didn’t start by blindly submitting scripts, nor did the careers of any of my writer friends. This is not to say it can’t happen, but the ODDS of just submitting your script and having it made are extremely slim.
It’s also empowering others to determine whether or not you’ll have a career. And while I would never discourage you from playing the lottery, I would strongly advise you not to make it your sole source of income.
“How do I sell my screenplay” is a question at the heart of the screenwriter’s mindset and is the essence of why writers are treated the way they are. We are trained to think that way. The system depends on our dependency.
The subtext of that question is “where do I go for permission to sign away my dream?” It also asks “what is the shortest route to my career?”
After twenty five years in the craft, I’ve learned the secret to making movies is making movies – starting with little movies no one will ever see. The secret to knowledge is doing and failing – often and painfully – and letting everyone see.
The secret to success is doing what you love, whether or not you’re being paid. The secret to a rewarding career in film (and many other fields) is focusing entirely on execution and not on result.
There are countless valid arguments against everything I have just said. They don’t change the fact that the lottery is a lottery.
One will say “I can’t direct.” There are only three answers: 1. Neither could I. Now I do. 2. Find a friend who can. 3. Keep playing the lottery.
One will say: “This is easy all for you to say. You have an established career.” There are only two replies: 1. This is how my career began. 2. Keep playing the lottery.
One will say: My script is too expensive to make on my own. There is only one reply: If this is your only idea, this may not be the right career for you. In any case, good luck playing the lottery.
Some will say: I can‘t find a friend who will direct and I don’t WANT to direct. I have news for all of you writers who like to say writing is where the process of filmmaking begins: Understanding the process of filmmaking is where real screenwriting begins. Why wait?
Some questions you should be asking: How do I gain experience making films? How do I become an invaluable part of the process? How do I learn to walk before I fly? And the answer is: make a film – alone or with friends – share your work – then do it again.
This guarantees NOTHING. But it’s what I know. And it’s better odds than the lottery. And there’s no waiting for permission. You are, in fact, living the dream. And if you think the dream relies on bigger budgets and a paycheck, brace yourself for profound unhappiness.
Of course, none of this stops you from still playing the lottery. Let’s say you do. And you win. Congratulations. What did winning teach you about your craft? How did you grow? How did it make you invaluable to the process? What foundation for a future did it provide?
What power did winning the lottery give you? Other than the power to play the lottery again?
Some will say: I’ve already made that movie. How do I take the next step? How do I find an agent? How do I get a studio to read my material? You won’t like the answer but here it is:
Do it again. Agents came to me when my friends and I had done all of the above. And they helped me more effectively when I helped them – by giving them something they could sell. And it’s infinitely harder to sell a screenplay than it is to sell one’s proven abilities.
Stop thinking about the business as something to “break into” and starting thinking of yourself as a business to be acquired. Your job is to create, improve and demonstrate your value. Ask yourself if the lottery is the best way to do this.
Your greatest cinematic heroes, whoever they are, all made their own luck. They were also never satisfied, they all suspected their peers had it better and were better, they never felt fulfilled or fully understood. At some point they all failed spectacularly.
And your heroes never, ever fully realized their dream. That is why they kept dreaming. That’s the best it’s ever going to be. And there is no place else to start except at the beginning.
I never set out to be a director. I certainly never set out to be an action director. I never expected to be where I am and EVERY critical choice I made to get here was counter-intuitive. I also still keep playing the lottery. And the lottery has still given me nothing.
This is my truth – learned the hard way. It may not be yours. I was asked and I have answered with what I know. Those of you with arguments and acrimony are wasting valuable time that could be spent on your future.
For those insisting solely on playing the lottery, I wish you all the luck in the world. For those of you ready to make their own luck, I wish you all the success you deserve.’
The second piece of advice I’d like to share with you this week is from another very successful and excellent US screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, taken from his BAFTA speech –
‘They’re selling you something and the world is built on this now…We’re starving, all of us and we’re killing each other and hating each other…because it’s all become marketing and we want to win, we’re lead to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning. So what’s to be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work, tell someone out there who is lost, who is not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time, it can’t help but be. But more importantly if you’re honest about who you are you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them help and it’s done so for me…give that to the world rather than selling something to the world. Try not to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do.’
And there is much more that is of real value in his speech –
Sharing these two screenwriters’ advice is a response to reading so many scripts in the last few weeks – and focusing my mind on what makes particular writers and their work stand out.
I (and this year’s script readers) will write more about this in the next few weeks.
Finally I want to share with you another excellent piece of writing – Guardian journalist Eva Wiseman’s article about the healing powers of a solo visit to a weekday cinema matinee – which reinforces for me the power and value of story and screenwriting. (Eva herself is a very talented screenwriter who was on the 2016 Channel 4 screenwriting course).
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 15th
All the best
November 1st 2019