Screenwriters, Why Do You Write?

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by Fiona Wheeler

We take what paying gigs come our way, and the editorial content is most often prescribed before we, the writer, come aboard the project. Screenplays written on spec, on the other hand, are author’s choice, and what we choose to write about says a lot about who we are.

Some writers are alarmed and outraged by the suggestion that everything we choose to write is autobiographical. I’m not saying it is ‘autobiography,’ but each choice we make about theme, style, and content, whether known or unconsciously, does reveal our motives, life experience, and outlook. Even if you disagree with this premise, you must concede that other people will always judge you by what you create. So, isn’t it better to be aware of what others see in your work?

Charlie Kaufman’s amusing take on screenwriter-navel-gazing in Adaptation betrays how patently un-self aware we can all be about why we write what we write. The fictional Charlie is so busy trying to control the impression he gives of himself via his writing that he censors himself into muteness. At the other end of the spectrum dances fictional Donald, creating in blissful ignorance.

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No, we shouldn’t all run out and write screenplays about writing screenplays. That would be incredibly dull. But taking the time to consider what motivates us to write, and what we want from it, can be an incredibly worthwhile exercise.

There’s an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (a behind-the-scenes look at an SNL-type show) where the characters talk about why they write. Some write to be nasty, another writes “to be liked.” I like to think we real world writers are slightly more complex than that.

It’s not necessary to tell others the true reason/s you write, but if you want to get anywhere with your writing, I do think you need to be honest with yourself. Inevitably, what compels you to write is inextricably linked to your greatest fear.

Sunset Boulevard is about an average, ordinary Joe. Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter. He wants it all and he wants it now. I’ve known quite a few Joe’s in my time. They usually start out wanting to be actors and/or directors. After treading water for a while, one too many of their mates gets a lucky break and not them. So they quit acting/directing, take up a crayon and decide writing will be their way to riches and fame.

Back on the Boulevard, things aren’t working out for Joe, until he decides to use the various women in his life. For a while this brings on the luck, it looks like he’ll be kept in riches by Norma, get connected because he’s rewriting her next hit. It even looks like he’ll make it as a writer of genuine talent because of the work he’s letting the naïve gal ‘co-write’ in his name.

Then he gets shot and dies in the obscurity he feared most.  No one even bothers to fish dead Joe out of the pool. The focus is entirely on Norma.

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Joe’s well-known line: “Screenplay by. Original Story by. Hhmph! Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think actors make it up as they go along.” This becomes his unintended epitaph. In death he is unknown, unacknowledged, and forgotten. His worst fears have been realized.

Bleak subject matter, yes, but inspired. Every writer can relate to its theme, because we all fear failure.

Callie Khouri has mentioned in a number of interviews that Thelma and Louise was inspired by something that happened to her. One day she was walking down the street and a guy in a truck casually leaned out the window and shouted something graphically sexual at her.

She was so angry in that moment that, just for a split second, she wanted to kill him. The guy drove on like it was nothing, and obviously Callie didn’t act on that impulse. But that’s the piece of grit she wove into an Oscar-winning pearl.

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Why does a certain type of person feel so acutely insecure that they need to verbally and/or physically lash out in such ways? And should intelligent, law-abiding citizens who are victimized by these insecure bullies just take the abuse? The bible says ‘eye for an eye,’ but it also says ‘turn the other cheek.’ Surely, those can’t be the only two options. Long term, what’s most effective?

From the outside, the project seems like it started as a way for the author to explore, understand and exorcise that personal hurt, but it grew into so much more. By not being afraid to be personal, Khouri found the universal.

Breaking Bad is another personal fear-turned-success story. Guys in their 40’s and 50’s had successful women, younger men, and their own personal limitations to contend with. How could they possibly hold their own? Out of that collective fear was born Walt. An average guy who had all those fears and resentments festering inside him for decades. Being told he had cancer gave him the excuse he needed to behave exactly how he’d always wanted to. And a grateful audience whooped and cheered him on.

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I’m not a fan of Breaking Bad and its much-celebrated lack of a moral compass, but it certainly fulfills a current societal need, and it can only do that because the creators of the show were brave enough to go digging around, unearth their deepest fears and write about them.

We should all be that brave, bold, and honest.

3 thoughts on “Screenwriters, Why Do You Write?

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  1. The most powerful motivator for good screenwriting is not fear itself, but the love behind it which fuels determination.

    I don’t mean “love”as in “sexual love”, but the powerful intensity of our deepest connections.

    Look at The Gladiator. He could stand there pissing himself like the next guy in line, or focus on the asshole who put him there, determining that a mere host of hungry lions is not going to prevent him from stopping that man from bringing down all of Rome. His love encompassed his own life AND his lost family, AND the here and now of his people.

    I have nearly died and survived what certainly seemed to be all is lost moments. I don’t think you also need to nearly drown in a flash flood in a cave where if either one of you gave up both would die, in order to understand:

    We live because we must survive to be there for the ones we love, to teach others to avoid something, to finish something the world needs, to prove ourselves, to prevent evil from succeeding, to forgive. Even getting justice or wreaking vengeance is forged on our connections to others..

    Thelma and Louise were afraid most of their journey, yes, but it was determination through all of it that propelled the action, and made them heroic and immortal.

    Paul Haggis, whom I was introduced to when he was directing, “The Next Three Days” gave me this advice, “Don’t limit your screenplays, your imagination, to what seems ‘doable.’ Dream big.” The bigger our connections the more the audience feels.

    In the movie, “The Aviator,” Howard Hughes finally discovers the reason his airplane battle scene in the sky doesn’t look dramatic is because there is no contrast – no point of reference for people to see how dramatic the scene is. So a screenplay needs both determination and something fearful.

    But if I only wrote from what I feared, I would not attempt to write: I am over 30 by more years than is popular, I only got into acting as therapy for brain injury (not related to the cave), and only discovered the drive for screenwriting because larger blocks of prose on a page are harder for me to process. I wasn’t brazen enough to get Mr. Haggis’s contact info and my other really impressive contacts have passed on. By all counts, there is no hope for me or my screenplays.

    But I learned long ago from the late, great BBC Producer Tony McAuley, that entertainment truly matters and can be the most powerful way to make a difference. People spend more time paying attention to the silver screen than they do to their own parents, teachers and religious leaders.

    Even fun and laughs like in the animated film, “Happy Feet” derive their box office payoffs from our connection to the characters and what we get from them.

    So I write because the world needs what I have to say; what I have to offer. I know this because you are still reading – because you need to be reminded of this.

    Maybe, if you think that having been a performer gives me an edge, you need to know that I am “disabled”, so the odds are even more against me.

    I write my screenplays because I know what I do matters in the bigger scheme of things, and is worth that effort.

    And I write because what you do matters, also.

    And because I want to go to theatres and see movies I would pay to see a dozen times up on the big screen again – and his is rarer than I would like (and, judging by box office tallies, rarer than what many others would like as well).

    So save yourself, your fellow theater-goers, and the film industry. Take your passion, your drive, your sense of connectedness, and work it into your screenplay’s characters in contrast to their fears -yes maybe your fears -that are really the fears of all those out in the world you are connected to and want to help.

    Love your audience and write for them and – voilà, you will have something the world will need and I will watch a dozen times over.

    – Angelle Guyette

    1. Oops! No editing here. Shouldn’t have said “my other impressive contacts are dead,” I just meant the ones in the film industry that I’d actually spent any considerable time talking to about screenwriting – people who said they would enjoy seeing my work when I finished. Lesson? “Write faster!”

  2. And great job on your article. I wouldn’t have over-written in my response, but that you did what the best writers do – you touched a nerve, made me think. Still making me think…

    Also…Apologies to Commodus. I am terrible with names and meant to Google his, then go back and replace the more vulgar descriptive.

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