I wrote this paper in English class, my senior year of high school. The assignment was to write an "I-search" paper on something that interested us.

I am not a good screenwriter. I acknowledge this because I want to make my living as screenwriter. Pretending that I am good now would only make my future plans harder to realize. Here is an example:

INT: TUEXDO SHOP

They walk into the room; tuxedos on mannequins are all around
them. A college aged sales CLERK in a tie and jacket
approaches them.

NICK
We have an appointment with Mister
Albright.

CLERK
Have a seat, he'll be with you in a
moment.

Nick sits down in an oddly placed small living room set.
John paces around for a moment; his hands wipe his mouth
several times, indicating he wants a cigarette.

JOHN
You are nervous.

NICK
I'm not. Anyway, you're the one who
is pacing.

JOHN
Please. Your tics were going so fast
I thought you were having a seizure.
I quite nearly stopped at a payphone
to call for an ambulance.

NICK
I don't have any nervous tics

As he says this he inadvertently twitches his eye and
partially crumples one side of his face.

JOHN
Recognize this?

John does an impression of Nick's last movements.
 
 

NICK
I don't do that.

As he says this Nick looks at a full- length mirror across
from where he is sitting, and he notices himself doing what
John did. He then - not to successfully - tries to control
his facial expression.

A man in his fifties or early sixties walks over to them.
MISTER ALBRIGHT extends his hand, while staring quizzically
at Nicks tormented facial expression and saying, "Thank you
for waiting gentlemen."

FADE OUT:


 
 

Once I identified that I'm a poor screenwriter, I went in search of good screenwriters, in order to learn from their experience. I wanted to know what makes a good screenplay, technically and artistically. I was also concerned about the business side of writing for movies or TV.

In my experience screenwriting, by its nature, is harder to write than straight fiction. What makes it difficult is not what one includes, but what one has to withhold. When writing a novel or a short story, the basis of most writers' stories is the thoughts of their characters. The point of view from which a character sees an issue is almost as important as what the issue is to begin with.

The form of a screenplay does not allow one to explicitly show his characters' thoughts. One has to learn how to show feelings through dialog, and notation that actors use.

My first step in trying to answer my question was to try to line up interviews. My neighbor and I were playing golf when he first told me to contact George Romero. I knew Romero had written and directed Night of the Living Dead. However, I had never seen it before. So my next step was to rent it and learn it like it was my own name. I realized that the more I knew about it, the more I could compliment him on his work and Romero would be even more helpful than he would be normally. Before calling him I knew I also had something going for me. He had not produced anything of note in decades. Maybe a kid calling him up wouldn't be an annoyance, but would rather be someone there to stroke his ego. When I finally called, a man's voice answered with a dog yapping in the background. I asked to speak to Mr. Romero. I was then told he wasn't in, and in a tone I didn't like, said, "Who is this?"

I guessed that he might not be thrilled by some kid just calling him after all. A little disappointed, I said I would call him back and the "lackey" said, "ok" skeptically.

A little disappointed with my interaction, or lack of, with George Romero, I chose to go to the one place I would feel reassured about my chances of being a screenwriter. The home of the horrible movie: Blockbuster Video.

Blockbuster makes me feel better because of how big it is, meaning they have a lot of bad movies in stock. As I walked through the aisles looking at all of the big "event movies", I felt better about myself.

Most of these movies have no script at all, just a formula. The formula is this: Stick jaded, preferably alcoholic, police officer or general tough guy, in a situation where he kills some bad men or aliens. His motive for killing these men? Well of course they killed his roommate's, brother's, daughter's second cousin, who was actually an environmentalist, social worker, good-type person that we all feel bad about.

My motivation for writing a screenplay, at least for right now, is to buck this trend, because surely, people would like something different.

My next move was to look for what people were saying about the screenplay, so I logged onto the Electric Library and searched the periodicals. Depending on to whom one gives the most credence, the screenplay is either dying or is the literary art form of the future.

According to an article in the Star Tribune, "Screenplay[s] have become the chosen form of literary expression for emerging generations." I'm a little doubtful of this because the quote was attributed to Lewis Cole, chairman of the film department at Columbia University. Is it not in his best interest to have people want to be screenwriters?

At the opposite end of the debate is Entertainment Weekly, who asks, "Who's responsible for what only can be described as the cold-blooded murder of the great American screenplay?" They claim that one of the main reasons for the death of the screenplay is studio executives. According to Entertainment Weekly, this is what studio executives say about the well- written screenplay. "If it's too smart, dumb it down - which is how the Scarlet Letter got a happy ending. If it's too dumb - well, that apparently is not a problem." I doubted this statement (because, aren't most people attracted to good writing?) until I was able to talk to an actual screenwriter.

As I was sifting through the different opinions, of the different "gurus", I received my enlightenment. It came in the form of a phone call from Jeff Monahan from Pittsburgh FilmMakers. I had called him several days before and left a message for him to return my call.

Before he called I looked over his credits from the Internet Movie Database. According to the database, Jeff has worked on several independents as a writer, producer and an actor. Among these are, most notably, John Sayles's Lone Star and Steven King's The Dark Half, both movies I really liked. Maybe I have found a like mind I thought.

Talking to him, I found a really down-to-earth guy who seemed to have the same values that I have when it comes to filmmaking. He went to New York after high school to act. I give him a lot of credit for just going after his dream. He went to college while he was acting on and Off-Broadway, and that's when he started screenwriting.

Jeff showed one of his first scripts to a friend who knew Al Pacino, and was able to get him to read it. Several months later, Pacino's production company purchased the script. It hasn't been produced yet, and he doesn't expect it to be. However, getting his script purchased showed Jeff he had other marketable talents. He sold two more scripts, One Way Out and Hits!, and began teaching a screenwriting class at New York University. After several years of teaching in New York, writing, and still working as an actor, he chose to come to Pittsburgh to write and teach at Pittsburgh FilmMakers.

I was disappointed to learn that a lot of what the articles say is true, at least about how much control a writer retains when the script goes into production. "When you go into production you lose control. I've had directors come up to me and say 'I really like your script, it will make a good feature, but I need to rewrite it.' And then they do. That's why I'm producing now, so I can control what happens."

He agreed with John Hodge, screenwriter of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, that a screenwriter is like a "constitutional monarch; you'll get consulted, but that's about it." However he disagreed with me when I told him of a quote by Irvine Welsh in the same article, describing what one needs to include or not include in a screenplay. "With... screenwriting, what you leave out is as important as what you put in."

I told him that I sort of agreed with Welch and that is why I find screenwriting (at least in my minimal experience) more difficult than straight writing. But Jeff said, "You don't want to direct... but a screenplay is not a blueprint. Not describing your idea is just a way not to get hurt [when it gets changed]."

I then decided to move into an area where I might offend him. I asked him whether on not to listen to all of the "gurus" and teachers (which he is).

"I don't have any philosophy. When I came to FilmMakers I was told what textbook to use, and I just told them I don't use any particular format. Some people say you need to write in five acts, some say in three.

"Then I read a text from one screenwriter, who said never use profanity when your character is in a tense situation; it dumbs down the script. To me that is stupid. It says two things: First, people don't swear, which isn't true. Second, it says that people only swear when they are tense which isn't true either.

"The other problem you run into with these people who write books, particularly the book Film Makers used, they have never written a script that was produced. When all is equal, you need to ask, 'How much practical experience does this guy have?'."

"My way of teaching is to teach the format of a screenplay and descriptive dialog. That's all a person needs other than being excited about a story."

As if I needed more confirmation that we were on the same page when it came to films, I asked him what kind of movies he liked, and if he could still watch a film without dissecting it.

"I like Quentin Tarantino movies for the dialog and just for the energy they give off. I also like Coen brothers' movies.... Raising Arizona and Fargo. I like the way they go about making them. They're a team. One directs, while the other writes and produces. That way they can control [the film] and stay true to what they want to show.

"I can watch most movies without dissecting them. If it's a really bad movie that you can't escape into then I do find myself saying 'I would have done that differently'."

Jeff made feel both enthused about and dissuaded from being a screenwriter.

On one side of the argument, if one has a good script and a passion for writing, then this could be a good area in which to concentrate one's creativity. However, when I asked him if being a screenwriter is a viable career choice he said, "It's statistically bad to expect to make a living doing this... but then look at me."

After I hung up with Jeff I continued looking through articles hoping to find some reassurance that I wouldn't be a destitute if I chose this career path. I found an article that said "the union wage scale is $31,000 to $63,000 depending on the film's budget." That was reassuring but what if it's a couple of years before I can sell another script?

I saw one of my potential interview subjects by accident on TV. I happened to catch the end of an interview with George Romero on Night Talk. Sadly, the episode was taped or I would have called him to ask some of the questions I had planned.

He seemed to have the same outlook as Jeff. He felt that, in order for the film industry to thrive, they need to stop making films with one hundred million plus sized budgets. That way there will be more films, with more points of view. It makes sense that if a film costs two million it's a lot easier to turn a profit.

I learned about one of my best sources of information by accident. I happened to be looking through the TV listings on Excite!, and saw an article titled "PBS follows the making of a Homicide".

I had been taping Homicide: Life on the Street religiously because I thought it was a quality program, in the style of writing I enjoyed. Homicide was antithetical to almost all TV cop shows. As one reviewer put it, "missing are the speeding car chases and the gun-play vigilantism of an 80s cop show like Hunter. Clearly, Homicide: Life on the Street is no retro visit to the 1970's Mannix or [Hawaii] Five-O school of TV crime." In my opinion, the writing of Homicide is like life- dark and unflinching, funny, and sometimes shockingly unaffected by the perversities of its subjects.

I sat down to watch the documentary to find out how such a great example of the independent writing spirit made it to network TV. According to what I had been hearing from Jeff and others, writing this good was definitely an anomaly.

It proved to be the best help to me, because it goes through the normal work- week with the writing staff, particularly James Yoshimura. He has written some of the shows best episodes, and wrote the "Subway" episode the documentary was following. The documentary showed me more than any interview or article that this is what I want to do, and I don't have to write like a hack to survive.

I learned that the script-writing process goes though several stages when the script is destined for TV. The first part is the "pitch meeting", where the writing staff and the executive producers sit around and discuss what their ideas are for the upcoming season. The other writers and the producers share ideas for expanding the script in general terms.

Then even before the first draft is written, it is pitched again to network executives. Yoshimura says "the network was very enthusiastic [about his "Subway" episode]... strangely" (he laughs deeply). I found this bizarre that the television network would make a decision about whether to produce before the first draft is even done.

Once approved, the writer sits down and begins.

The first draft is then submitted to the executive producer. In the case of Homicide, it is Tom Fontana. Fontana edits and brings in Yoshimura to talk about the changes. A lot of this time, the documentary shows, is spent talking about the psychology of the characters ("would this character say this?") and also what the network wants. In the case of Homicide, that usually means a rosier picture, which Fontana and Yoshimura are reluctant to give.

They often argue about what should be cut, for time or other reasons, even though Fontana describes his editing like this: "When somebody has a fire and passion for a story, you would be stupid to get in their [sic] way. [I] don't say I would write it this way, because [I'm] not writing it." The next step, I learned, is to just sit and think about how to change the next version, and to decide which comments to follow (I later saw that Fontana has the final say of what is in and what is out). Three days later the second draft is due. Now the network and the production producers get to make comments. Slowly, it becomes writing by committee. I could see the noticeable change in Yoshimura's demeanor as he slowly loses control of his idea.

The funniest part of the process of changing the second script into a "shooting script" or final draft was the discussion with the network censors. "Seventeen notes [or things they changed]," Yoshimura says, "usually there are three or four." He sits down with a writer's assistant to make changes. "Cut out that 'ass'…change 'assholes' to 'bastards'… Now let's go to the 'bitches', I'm taking half the bitches [the censors cut[ back." He then goes through a thesaurus to try to find different words to use. "Bitch, jerk, horses' ass, bird turd." He says the last with a laugh. "You can't write to the standards you think people are going to be offended by. All you can do is go in there and try to write to the reality of the situation. And then that's a matter of… this is all part and parcel of network television."

Finally, the script is given to the director and Yoshimura loses control entirely, which I personally would have a hard time doing. If there is one thing I've learned from this, that is one concession I will have to learn to make.

What makes the writing of Homicide by most accounts so good? According to John Leonard, it stays true to "big city, contemporary, American problems." One way it does this is by not writing shallow black characters. "It's not just that you have lots of black characters, every week, who are all powerful. They are complicated. They aren't there to teach white America a lesson in good behavior, to be cautionary examples, they aren't there to by symbolic. They have they're own complicated lives."

After watching the documentary I think maybe I would be happiest writing for TV if I can. Even though there are some concessions, it seems to be that the writer has more control. Also, if you are on the writing staff of a network show you have a guaranteed salary.

In the end I found that if I keeping working within the screenplay form and improve my writing skills, a career in screenwriting is a viable possibility. Even with all the comments from the naysayers, and you can call me a romantic, I still think that good writing triumphs.


Sources and Interviews
Welsh, Irvine. "Inside the Black Box". The Sunday Telegraph, Feburary 1, 1998, p. 12

Chun, Rene. "Writing their own Ticket: Screenwriters finding Success". Star Tribune, May 25, 1998, pp. 10F

D'Silva, Beverley. "How to Write a Movie". Independent on Sunday, June 14, 1998, p. 20

Henican, Ellis. "It's Aristotle vs. Titanic". Newsday, March 22, 1998, p. A8

Francke, Lizzie. "So you want to write movies?" Independent, September 19, 1996, pp. 8-9

Svetkey, Benjamin. "Who Killed the Hollywood Screenplay?" Entertainment Weekly, October 4, 1996, p. 32

Burns, Nick. "Media Watch." http://nvc.cc.ca.us/~nbur/mediawatch-2.htm

"The Making of a Homicide." PBS, Air date: November 1998.

Monahan, Jeff, screenwriter, actor and movie producer. (Telephone; November 1998)

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