by Fin Wheeler
Every time an award-winning screenwriter gives an interview, the reporter inevitably asks what they consider the essential elements to success in screenwriting. Just as inevitably, the successful subject responds that talent, determination, hard work, luck, and the right attitude are fundamental ingredients in gaining and maintaining a high profile as a professional screenwriter.
We’re told over and over that for a screenwriter to get anywhere they must be easy to work with and pleasant to get along with. In the real world this translates as:
- Don’t be too clingy and demanding of other people’s time.
- Don’t ask unnecessary questions.
- Respect the privacy of others.
- Don’t complain.
- Don’t bitch or gossip.
- Always respect deadlines.
- Save the drama for the script. (Don’t talk about the sagas of your personal life in a meeting).
- Don’t invent problems just to have something to talk to a producer/director about.
- Always be friendly, but professional. (Don’t decide you’re someone’s new BBF just because they had a conversation with you.)
- Don’t hard-sell unless you’re in a pitch meeting. (When you are on a job, you’re expected to focus on that job, and not be endlessly pitching your other specs to anyone who can’t run away from you fast enough.)
But the right attitude on the job isn’t all an aspiring screenwriter needs; we also need the kind of attitude that will get us there. So, what is the right attitude?
Your attitude is made up of three things:
The Things You Say and Do
What is your default setting? Without input or manipulations from other people, how do you tend to live your life? Are you always on the lookout for someone to blame? Are you entirely self-sufficient and mildly resentful of anyone who tries to take up any of your time or attention?
If you’re reasonably honest and self aware, you’ll know what aspects of your personality are not ideal in a collaborative situation. Rethinking how you deal with everyday situations can give you a better professional attitude.
How You Respond to the Things That are Said and Done to You
What writer likes hearing that there are three glaring plot holes in their latest epic? We all get notes we don’t like or agree with.
During a Q&A a few months ago, screenwriter/ showrunner Javier Grillo-Marxuach (LOST) was asked how he deals with endless notes from the production company and the network when he’s writing/creating a show. I really respected his answer: He has the philosophy that once he’s signed the contract and sold the concept, it belongs to the network. They spend millions on research, they know their audience and they know what product works for their demographic and their advertisers, so he takes the notes.
At a professional level, everyone involved and invested in a project (the producers, the investors, the director, the talent) know their audience and what that audience wants/expects. So, as a screenwriter, you have to remember that they aren’t criticizing you just for the hell of it; they genuinely want to create the best possible product.
What about the people who are just trying to give you a hard time?
On our way up, we have to consider whether to take any and all gigs that come our way. Should we say ‘yes’ to every single thing, whether we get paid or not?
One of the most important things a writer can have is self belief. Just as there are good actors and bad actors, good writers and bad writers, there are good producers and bad producers. An early career screenwriter can’t expect to work with the top producers. If a producer is demanding that you take on an unpaid job, and promising you huge backends as they demand round after round of rewrites, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Will it ever even be a finished film? Will it get distribution? Will you actually get a full ‘written by’ credit? Or will the entire experience just make you bitter and cynical? Remember to look out for yourself, because no one else will.
The People You Surround Yourself With
In this digital day and age, it is harder than ever to actually choose the company you keep, but we can take control of at least some aspects.
Many of the great classic writers grew up in tragic and/or toxic environments. Charles Dickens was dragged out of school at the ripe old age of ten when his father was thrown in prison for unpaid debts. He was put to work in an accounting firm where he worked incredibly long hours in the freezing cold to support his entire family. William Shakespeare suffered a similarly humiliating fate at age 12, when his father was declared bankrupt and stripped of the title of town mayor. Fifteen years later, when he finally started getting traction as a young playwright, Shakespeare was picked on mercilessly because of his working class origins.
Most people end up in relationships that mimic the emotional environment they grew up in. As a writer, you spend all day everyday analyzing the emotional mistakes your protagonists make over and over.
Do you ever stop to look at those you surround yourself with, and the negative toll they take on you and your writing?
When I was young, I’d take forever getting a story just right. Finally I’d print it out and proudly present it to a relative who would invariably toss it on a table and make a point of not looking at my darling story for at least two days.
In your formative years, you don’t have a choice about what your “normal” is, but as you get older, you have a say in who you allow in. No one has a perfect life, and it’s impossible to reduce the amount of horrible people in your life to zero, but you can take a step back and reassess who really deserves a place in your support circle.
So weed out the negative people in your life, and use all that extra time and energy to take your writing to the next level.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.