Saturday, July 24, 2010

Am I writing a film or a novel?

From Meredith: I am intrigued by your career path since I was an independent filmmaker and screenwriter before I started writing novels. How do you decide if a new story idea is going to be a film or a novel? Or do you plan for all your novels to eventually become films?

Stephen: Oh, boy, do I wish all my novels would become films. From your lips to Scorcese’s ear. I really thought Boulevard would get optioned to a film producer, even in galleys. When I was a development exec in the film business I was always looking for something just like it. But things changed a lot in those years between. The biggest change was that producer and “vanity” deals (big actor and director deals) fell by the wayside, so there were fewer buyers in the market. That, combined with the worst economic downturn the film industry has ever seen, pretty much killed my chance of getting an early option. My plan was to attach myself as the screenwriter and work my way back into the “business” as an author/screenwriter. I would love to see what a director like Fincher, Scorcese, Steven Soderbergh or Jason Reitman could do with Boulevard. Someone with edge and an independent spirit.

I was lucky that CAA was interested in shopping the project. But they wanted to go TV all the way, seeing Boulevard and Beat as seasons in a show that could be pitched as “Dexter” meets “Californication.” A very good agent there basically convinced me that TV was a better way to go, that there was much more flexibility and creative room for a project like this in the world of television. And there are a number of cable outlets very willing to produce dark, edgy material. She sold me on it. Of course, it means that I have no chance of writing the pilot episode, because in TV you need a well-established showrunner to pitch to the networks. I have a shot at being a staff writer, perhaps, but I’m not sure I want to spend all my time writing TV when I need to be writing a novel a year. I think if I get the shot I’ll have to take it, and figure out how to make it all work out. So, we’re going out to showrunners presently.

As you know from writing screenplays, the experience is completely different from writing novels. A screenplay is really just a blueprint for a director’s vision. I don’t know any happy screenwriters, unless, of course, they direct their own films. Even then it’s a collaborative medium. Most directors do not have final cut. So, the studio can do what they want. Who’s the author? After you’ve spent a year writing your baby, someone passes it along to the next writer, and from there itgoes to the next and the next. You’re lucky if you recognize a single line from the finished film. You’re lucky if you get to share screen credit. I’m much happier as author than I ever was as a screenwriter. But, if I knew I had a “go” picture, and I was the only screenwriter working with a major film director…now, that’s a different story.


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks for the insider look at the world of film, Stephen! I always thought about being a screenwriter myself, but novelists are by and large so much happier with their work, that it's tough to argue with.

I can totally see Hayden as the star in a TV series. Fingers crossed that I get to see his adventures in print and on the screen.

And thanks for doing a great job grandmastering this week! After tomorrow we'll miss you!

Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

I'm going to miss everyone here, Becky. It's a great community of authors and readers.
And I'm glad you made it home safe and sound. Congratulations again on the success of "Knives."

Shane Gericke said...

Love your description of how writers fit into the film business. But why do scripts get rewritten SO many times? If a studio pays you big money to buy your vision--which is what your blueprint is--why would they pay again and again to alter that vision? Seems odd. Thoughts?

Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

Shane - producers often buy a screenplay for the "concept" and don't feel that the writer has fully executed the story. They give the screenwriter a chance or two to develop the idea further, but if they feel the original writer is unable to hit it out of the ballpark, they'll bring on another writer to do the rewrite. Of course, no one can guarantee that the new writer will succeed where the original writer could not, so the process of finding the "perfect" writer continues, sometimes coming back to the original writer in the end. Also, new producers or actors get involved and each new "element" usually wants their "own" writer to take a stab at rewriting the story. It can get really, really crazy.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for sharing your insights with us! I'm happier being a novelist, too. But glad to use all the tricks and knowledge I learned as a screenwriter when I write a book.

Come back and visit again soon!