SV: The actual writing is the same. The process and the industry is entirely different. In movies the director is king so once a director is on board you can be fired, and he can rewrite you and the producer doesn’t give a shit about you any more because it’s all about the director. In television, it’s the writer and producer that work on the script and get the commission, and it’s not until it gets a green light that the director is hired. So the producer and writer are already a team and the director fits in. The writer will not get fired and the director has to listen. Bollocks to his ‘vision’. There’s nothing more harmful to the quality of feature films being made than the ridiculous pedestal that directors get put on as if their words are gold. It should be an equal playing field like it is in television and there shouldn’t be the feeling you could be fired as a writer on the slightest whim even when you’ve created a project and been writing it for maybe fifteen years, thirty drafts or whatever. But they don’t care because a lot of the time producers don’t know the difference between a good script and a bad one: they just want to get it made. The money on movies is better but as it says on Sh*t My Dad Says, “screenwriting is like riding on a merry-go-round where the horse is trying to fuck you.”
So how thick skinned are you? I would imagine that unlike writing novels, where the only other input is your editor, screenwriting has lots of different people poking and prodding your baby?
SV: Just picture that and multiply it by a hundred and you might be close to the reality. It’s horrendous, because nobody knows anything and you can’t listen to everybody and you can’t listen to nobody. A writer might be happy typing THE END on page 110 of his new script, but they haven’t become a screenwriter until they’ve wrestled with development notes on a project for at least ten years. That’s what separates the men from the boys. It’s absolutely gruelling. The truth is I don’t want to get a ‘thick skin’ because a thick skin means you don’t care, but you have to develop the intellectual muscles to get through the collaborative process without imploding. After over 20 years in the business, I suppose you get better at negotiating it, but still, every single time I get notes or go to a meeting my stomach is in knots because you are thinking, literally, “Is this the meeting where it all gets fucked up?”
Have you ever walked away from a project because of a difference of opinion?
SV: Yes. Well, not merely “a difference of opinion”. It has to be much more than that! I left The Guardian, a film I was working on with The Exorcist director William Friedkin, for a variety of reasons: mainly, I couldn’t read his mind and he wanted me to write what was in his head and only he could do that. (The full story of what happened on that picture I tell on the extras on The Guardian DVD re-release, which is out now.) The other film I didn’t continue on was adapting The Box of Delights for Mike Newell. I’d written about four drafts and Newell was too busy to meet for even ten minutes to discuss where we were at, so there seemed to be no point in doing more drafts as far as I could see it. Sometimes you have given all you can, and life is too short.
You need to know when to walk away
My US agent always used to have the philosophy, stay on in there till you get fired, which I’ve never understood. I’ve always thought honesty is the best policy and, yes be loyal to the absolute point of professionalism as long as you can, but if it isn’t working and you can’t give it your best any more, and you are torturing your own work, get out of there before it kills you. Because sometimes it does kill you.
One thing I have never understood is how far down the ladder of fame a scriptwriter is. Ask anyone to name their three favourite actors or directors and they could rattle them off no problem. However if you ask someone to name their three favourite screenwriters, most folks would be hard pushed. Do you ever get hacked off by this? The way I see it you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. And the foundation of a good film is its script. Or am I being silly?
SV: Why would that be silly? No. In theatre everybody says Arthur Miller is the author in his play. TV writers are the author of their dramas. Why not in film? It’s entirely political and it is all to do with power and nothing to do with creativity or efficiency. The silly ‘auteur’ system (which was appropriate in France because France was creating writer-directors) was entirely stupid applied to Hollywood. Yet somehow the cult or the director arose as a marketing tool. And it won’t go away because now even a first-time director will have the credit ‘A Film By’ – something a genius like Billy Wilder never asked for! He always said “Isn’t director enough?” Quite right! The truth is film culture, aided by the likes of Sight & Sound magazine, really want the director to be the author of the film. Why? Because it makes the critic’s life easier! The fact that it’s totally inaccurate to how most movies are made is irrelevant to them! This is the reason many screenwriters are bitter, aside from the fact that they have to sit in the room with some very dim directors and some very stupid producers. I know one thing. If writers had ALL the power instead of NONE, there wouldn’t be a larger number of bad films made. I’ve several times asked people to pay attention to the writer of a film they enjoyed. Whether they do or not I don’t know. I think they’re just brainwashed into thinking the director does everything. Except the dialogue, maybe. (Though they probably think the actors make that up most of the time, too!)
SV: I enjoyed the experience of The Deadness of Dad which was a short film that won a BAFTA award for me. I wasn’t commissioned, I wasn’t paid a penny, I just wrote it. The director was terrific. It started as a neat little dark concept but she saw the potential for something moving and deeper, and I’m so glad it went in that direction because I realised that’s what I want in my writing – I want genre (in this case a kind of magical realism) to produce emotion, maybe surprisingly so, because people don’t always expect to be moved by supernatural of scary stories. The other hugely rewarding experience was working on Afterlife, my TV series because, not only was the result really close to what I wrote on the page, but the whole process was collaborative and involving: I was there every step of the way, working with the director and actors on a day by day basis. That’s the way it should be, but often it isn’t, I don’t know why. The producer on Afterlife, Murray Ferguson, is the best I’ve ever worked with.
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