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.
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.
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.
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.
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.