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SE2 D012: I'm Insulted That You're Insulted - Part 1

Screenwriters are insulting.

This is something I hear frequently. Not about my own work, thankfully, but it’s a commonly repeated refrain in seminars, workshops and online forums. As a screenwriter, I naturally take exception to that statement, but it seems to be a regularly occurring theme that points to the disrespect screenwriters suffer on a daily basis, even from other scribes.

We screenwriters are already at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to respect. Our work is often rewritten and remade several times over before the first frame of film is ever shot. There is an almost constant, paranoid – if mostly unrealistic – fear among screenwriters that their work will be stolen. And often we are asked to take deferred payments that never appear.

If we do receive compensation, it will be a rather paltry sum while producers and directors take the bulk of the profits (if any - let’s be fair). So when I hear screenwriters are insulting to directors and actors in their writing, I tend to get my hackles up. I find it particularly egregious when the comment is coupled with the notion that screenwriters aren’t even necessary. Such an incident occurred this past week.

I was attending the Action on Film Festival in Monrovia, CA, and happened on a screening of a found footage horror film. I was told, rather proudly by the director, that the film had been shot in only 6 days and used real method actors – as opposed to the imitation variety who only act like they are acting, I guess. I was intrigued by the 6-day schedule and the Producer/Director had a substantial resume, including projects he had written. Indeed, he held a writer’s credit on this film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long into the screening before I realized that the actors were winging the story. The entire movie was an exercise in improvisation. . .and not particularly good improv at that.

There were serious leaps in logic and story continuity throughout the film. Structure was largely absent for almost the entirety of the piece. The basic premise involved a group of young adults going on a camping trip. Their destination was near the location where a honeymooning couple had disappeared a few months prior. The first hour of the film was largely shot inside a car as the group traveled to their campsite with the actors struggling for interesting things to say. Of course, they get lost and end up, not at their campsite, but at the spot where the honeymooners vanished, and soon enough, everyone dies.

The multitude of problems that plagued this story – I won’t use the term script – are too numerous to recount here, but suffice it to say that if the first 70 minutes of this 90-minute slog fest was cut out, it would not have changed the story in the slightest. There was no story progression, no character development, no reason for the first 75% to exist. Cutting all the extraneous material out would have left the filmmakers with simply a bad short instead of a horrendous feature.

Still, I was willing to give the cast and crew the benefit of the doubt and offer kudos on getting the project completed. After all, they did what so many of us crave. They made a movie. And got it up on the big screen. But then I went to the talkback where everyone involved gleefully expounded on the fact that no writer was involved.

Or needed.

It started with the director talking about why he didn’t want a script. He was looking for something more authentic, more believable, more real. And for that he wouldn’t use a script; he would just trust his actors to create the drama and logical flow of the story. . .from nothing. He somehow believed, as a writer himself, that this would create a work of cinematic art more complete than if a writer were in involved and muddled things up with backstory, foreshadowing or even a basic plot. The actors then threw in their two cents, and the proceedings descended further into absurdity.

They discussed how freeing it was to be cut loose from a script, how they could actually create something that was real. Freed from the ‘burdens’ of a screenwriter and his pre-arranged script, they were actually able to generate something meaningful.

The burdens of a screenwriter?

Something meaningful from nothing?

Did the actors really think they could throw away all the experience a screenwriter brings to a project and bullshit their way through a story in just six days?

Yes, they did.

One actress gushed about how the only thing she received prior to the start of shooting was a single written line on a piece of paper that said she had been a cheerleader and was now a bartender. From that one line, everything else flowed she claimed. Except that nothing flowed. I spent an hour in that car with them, and I can’t tell you anything about the characters, their past or current relationships or why they even wanted to come on this trip. It was nothing but babble – painfully bad dialogue that led nowhere.

Now, I’m constantly hearing from actors about how they are artists. They are trained professionals. They have spent many years learning their craft and are ‘insulted’ if they feel in any way dismissed for their years of hard work. But here they were, on stage, in front of an audience, dismissing the work of the screenwriter. To which I ask:

Is the writer not an artist?

Has he not spent years learning his craft?

Has he not spent months, if not years, developing his script to ensure the story flows not only in a dramatic but logical sense?

If you question an actor about this, they invariably fall back on ‘Well, Christopher Guest does it.’

Well, yes and no.

First of all, they’re not Christopher Guest. And Mr. Guest takes a considerable amount of time to work with his very talented actors to develop characters, scenarios and a story. He didn’t just hand Parker Posey a slip of paper that said ‘You like dogs,’ and Best in Show spilled out before the cameras. It took work and planning and story. And not just the barest of premise.

Needless to say, I left the festival feeling a little angry. In fact, I was still fuming when I attended one of my writer’s workshops two days later. In the feedback session, an actor (with writer’s aspirations) responded to another writer’s work by saying it was insulting and offensive to actors. She then punctuated her stance by declaring she should know because she is an actor.

I'll fill you in on what happened next in Part 2 of this blog where I examine the necessity of screenwriters who blatantly insult their collaborators. And in Part 3, I'll take a look at where these criticisms arise from and what we as screenwriters can do about it.

In the meantime, let me know if you've had a similar experience. Have you been called out for insulting a director or actor with your script? Can actors convincingly create as nuanced a story as a screenwriter simply through the use of improv?

You can respond directly using the form below or on The Screenwriter's Journey Facebook page.

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