It's springtime, which for some of us means only one thing: Screenplay Season.
Yes, it's that time of year when all aspiring screenwriters who have no lovers, relations, former college roommates, or blackmail victims (a.k.a. "connections") in the film industry try to get their feet in the door via the only means possible: screenplay contests.
Late spring — particularly May, for some reason — is the deadline for damn near every prestigious competition, from the Nicholl Fellowship (sponsored by the fine folks whose membership deemed Crash a better film than Brokeback Mountain) to the Disney Fellowship, the Sundance Lab, and more.
In other words, this is the time of year when you'll find me sitting in a coffee shop at every available moment, poring over the scripts I've labored on all year 'round, fine-tuning and revising and fervently praying this is the year and this is the script that wins the prize, gets the agent, starts my career, etc.
And when I'm not actually writing the script (or rewriting it, and then rewriting that, and then contemplating suicide...), I'm filling my head with as many books on screenwriting and filmmaking as I can find. There are two in particular that have proved rewarding and helpful this year.
Few things interest me more than interviews with professional screenwriters whose work I admire. So when Scott Frank (Out of Sight), Wes Anderson (Rushmore), Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Election), Alex Garland (28 Days Later), and David O. Russell (Three Kings) all appear in a single book of interviews, you can count on that book finding a permanent home on my shelf.
Kevin Conroy Scott's Screenwriters' Masterclass doesn't disappoint. Every single writer featured offers a unique perspective on screenwriting and how to (if I may humiliate myself by quoting Larry the Cable Guy) git 'er done.
Jim Taylor went on Wheel of Fortune with the intention of using the footage in a short film if he lost, so he gave a fake occupation and invented a fiancé, confounding friends and family members who watched. Taylor ended up the champion. He even won a boat, which he climbed aboard and posed on during the end credits — an act that Alexander Payne claims was hilarious, though it didn't exactly endear him to Pat Sajak. Alas, Taylor never ended up making the film, though I'd love to see the footage as a DVD extra.
The anecdotes aren't generally that colorful. For the most part, they're about writing — the long, solitary, often debilitating slog of just sitting and writing, never quite certain if one is expending one's time on the next Best Picture nominee... or an incoherent muddle that will shame the writer when he's foolish enough to dust it off. Fortunately, Scott has assembled an intriguing assortment of screenwriters — not just of the Hollywood persuasion, but also well-received foreign luminaries like Lukas Moodysson (Together), Michael Haneke (Code Unknown), and Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool).
As with any such collection, each reader will find some subjects more interesting than others. I can't say I'm chomping at the bit to read about the writing of Die Another Day, yet another woefully inadequate James Bond stunt show that almost makes me long for the days of Roger Moore — but the writers presented here are diverse enough to provide inspiration for any aspiring screenwriter.
The dark side of Screenwriting Season is the inevitable disappointment. Sure, this could be THE YEAR — but the others could have been, too, and weren't.
Multiple Honorable Mentions in the Nicholl Fellowship are a nice consolation to get me through a long day at the office (or make it a little less painful, at least), but they don't mean a damn to agents, managers, producers, or any of the other gatekeepers standing between me and my desired film career.
The longer I wait for some random judge whose credentials are a complete mystery to deem my screenplay worthy of attention to the power brokers of the establishment, the more I question why these people should be able to make that choice.
In other words, there are two ways into a film career: through the front, which means waiting in that long, interminable line with eight billion other hopefuls... or around the back. That means make your own film and get it seen.
Which astronomically improbable longshot do you prefer?
I've sworn to write the script for my next short film once Screenwriting Season has ended, and I'm hoping to shuffle it into production A.S.A.P. But there are even more obstacles, sometimes of a more insurmountable nature (money being only one, albeit a crucial one), to making one's own films over trying to sell a screenplay.
Which is why I'm finding Joshua Horowitz's The Mind of the Modern Movie Maker such consolation to read. For one thing, it's comforting to learn that everyone faces the same (or similar) difficulties, frustrations, and crippling neuroses. For another, this book adds to the universal truism that no finished film ever comes out quite as the director had hoped. Aspiring filmmakers are liable to frequently exclaim, "Thank God I'm not the only one!"
Horowitz interviews a diverse array of directors, including Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger), and David Gordon Green (George Washington) — alongside "studio guys" like Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), McG (Charlie's Angels), and Todd Phillips (Old School).
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the book is that even the hackiest of mainstream hacks wants to be Steven Soderbergh: make a studio film, followed by a low-budget personal film, maybe an experimental indie, then another blockbuster, and so on.
This is the sad reality of the business today — even guys like Ratner, who has surely made fistfuls of money directing the Rush Hour movies, Red Dragon, and The Family Man, have to "prove" themselves. The only filmmakers who can make what they please without compromise are the titans like Spielberg or the true independents who work outside the studios — guys like John Sayles and George Lucas (who self-financed the Star Wars prequels, thus dodging those pesky studio notes like, "Dude, Jar-Jar totally sucks" and, "How about if Anakin has a reason for becoming Darth Vader instead of suddenly going all psycho just because his eyes turned yellow?"). Easy to do if you've made mountains of money like Lucas — but a much tougher route for the rest of us.
If I have a complaint about the books, it's that the interviews are too short. This is truer of Mind than Masterclass. Horowitz glosses over a lot with his subjects, making for breezy but not especially penetrating reading. Scott tends to be a bit more thorough, although he generally confines the focus of the conversation to one particular screenplay (I would have liked to learn more about Payne/Taylor's adaptation of Sideways, for instance, along with Election).
This is a mere quibble, and the rewards of these books far outweigh the drawbacks. I was more than astonished to close The Mind of the Modern Movie Maker and discover myself thinking of McG as a real filmmaker with a genuine vision. Granted, he hasn't displayed that anywhere onscreen (yet), but his interview reveals the makings of a canny, lucid artist who has yet to reach his true potential. If you'd read this paragraph to me a week ago, I'd have laughed myself stupid — and never spoken to you again.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of reading these books is the encouragement to keep going. Woody Allen is fond of saying that luck is the only true element of success (and he illustrates the idea quite lucidly in the excellent Match Point), but I like to believe perseverence and talent have something to do with it. We can't control the talent part — we can only hope we've got it, and that audiences will ultimately agree — but I like to think that persevering in the face of nearly limitless adversity counts for something.
If I'm utterly and completely deluded, don't tell me yet. Wait 'til June.
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will soon be published by Candlewick Press, and created the comedy series Wage Slaves. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.
Books mentioned in this post