Something strange happened to me this year. My screenwriting life took a shift in a new direction. A producer reached out to me about optioning one of my features and is now working hard to secure the financing needed to green-light the project. This is a strange new world to me and, being the the kind of person who lives in perpetual state of anxiety, one which is filled with inner conflict and paranoia. I should be happy, ecstatic even, and I was for a few weeks before resuming my normal state of melancholy.
Here’s the thing though, I’m a different writer now, one who cares deeply about artistry, and this wasn’t something that came with the recent validation of my ability, it was a journey I started about a year ago and a change of direction that I believe led to what could be the genesis of my screenwriting career.
I want to go back and go over what I’ve learned, what I want you to know something important, and I want talk about a subject screenwriting communities seem uncomfortable discussing.
When I got that initial email and found myself facing a potential sale, I became a changed man. I’m almost angry about that. If you are an amateur screenwriter trying to break in then you are probably filled with doubt, you are most likely putting on a brave face, and sadly you’ve almost certainly been told you don’t have what it takes by someone else in the same situation. Validation is a strange and powerful thing for us, it’s what keeps us swimming against the undertow and just little bit of it can empower us for a long time. I imagine my anger is something shared by many writers who find themselves in the same position and think, “Why the hell did I spend so much of my precious time worrying I couldn’t do this and not just enjoying it?”.
Let’s go back a year.
After a year of not finishing projects I thought I was excited about, I found myself circling a blackhole of despair. There had been nothing wrong with my approach. I had taken ideas that I was highly motivated about, developed them, worked on outlines, and somehow just petered out before idling for a month or two and repeating the process with something new. These were concepts I’d lay awake at night picturing and researched like crazy. Everything suggested they would be a home-run to the first draft yet, for the first time in my writing, I couldn’t get much more than an act completed. Something was really wrong — I now know what that was.
It was how pointless it all felt. I was writing a huge budget dystopian feature and an apocalyptic TV pilot and, as much as I loved the idea of seeing those realised via a big screen or home television, I just couldn’t see a path there. What was the point writing a script if I felt so hopeless about its chances?
This is the problem we face doing speculative work for an extended period of time. We go from naive and optimistic to cynical and pessimistic, and I think it’s fair for us to turn that way. Continually pouring your heart and soul into months of work only to get doors slammed in your face at every turn is going to teach your brain it needs to defend itself. It needs to react to those big ideas and remind you they haven’t worked in the past — so why should they now?
This is all further compounded by validation, which is effectively our key indicator as to whether we’re on the right track or completely deluded. So we find ourself fighting these external factors with inner logic. One moment we can think, “I can do this! Anything is possible!”, and the next moment, “Who am I kidding? I don’t have the talent or the connections!”.
The result? Mania. Extreme highs of determination and extreme lows of self doubt. Worse still, an increased need for validation. This is where it all falls apart.
I’m confident in saying I think I’ve wasted around 50% of the six years I’ve been writing falling for the fallacy of believing there’s a golden bullet. Typically, I’ve always seen this in others but I failed to really see it in myself. I wasted my time redrafting scripts to try and please everybody, churned out the kind of material I understood Hollywood wanted, fell for various rule based nonsense touted by gurus, and clutched my head in despair as yet another short script was optioned and never actually filmed.
I know what it’s like to keep offering the World what you think it wants only to be met with at best apathy and at worst rejection.
Then something weird happened and I wish I could pinpoint what may have caused it or the moment it happened.
I just stopped caring, and it was the best thing I ever did.
I accepted two essential things 1) the pressure to build a career was destroying me, and 2) I needed to write.
Number two was critical here and I’d come to terms with that the hard way. I’d tried to stop and that had made things worse. Rather than feeling liberated by not writing, I felt increasingly called to it and guilty for not rising to that call.
What I learned to do, and I’m so lucky I did, was to stop caring about what didn’t matter.
People’s opinion of me didn’t matter. Chances of a script getting made didn’t matter. The so called rules didn’t matter.
I then proceeded to sit down and, at my own pace, wrote the best screenplay I’ve ever written by far, the same screenplay now in the hands of a producer who’s fighting to make it a reality.
It’s absurd really and life has a way of working like that. Rejecting what I desired seemingly attracted it to me.
But that’s not what really happened. That’s getting a little to mystical. I didn’t realise it at the time but I’d become an artist, a term I don’t think I’ve ever really seen used within screenwriting — but we’ll get back to that shortly.
Two films had profoundly affected me in the past few years, one was Carnage and the other was The Hateful Eight, both single location, dialogue heavy features didn’t feel the need to be clever or action packed yet entertained with their dramatic conflict and fascinating characters. These films felt more like a play than a movie and, in the case of Carnage, that’s exactly how they began.
Needless to say, I sat down and wrote a single location thriller in similar vein.
More importantly though, I sat down and wrote the film I desperately wanted to watch, and I wrote it with the kind of freedom and motivation I did when I wrote my first two scripts. It was pure indulgence and it showed in a good way. I’d become so mediocre in those years in between, so timid and apologetic, now I was back and more empowered than ever before.
In a way, deep down, I wasn’t too surprised when a producer came knocking a few months later — and yeah, before you ask, I only uploaded it to Script Revolution and Stage 32. I knew this was my best work, my most valuable work, but I wasn’t going to ram it down anybody’s throats, they could come to me. I was done with the competitions, the evaluations, and the pitches. I didn’t need to feel this script was worthless or have anybody else influence it. Hell, what I put out there was a first draft — take it or fucking leave it, right?
Facing this potential sale has had a profound affect on me. Everything suddenly seemed to make sense. I’d been vindicated on so many of my opinions, some of which had been ridiculed by my peers. I’d also broken so may of the supposed rules everyone was fretting about. I wanted to jump up and down and scream, “Hey! Look! This stuff you say definitely can’t work, it’s fucking working for me over here!”.
I penned a lot of blog posts that I never felt I could publish. I got arrogant (yes, even more arrogant) very quickly. I wanted to motivate others. I wanted to burn down the establishment. I pruned my portfolio and, for the first time, established the stories I really want to write in my lifetime.
Then things dragged, and they’ve been dragging for three months now. The imminent sale that had me waking up at 3am each night to check my phone has reduced to a mere possibility and the fall back to Earth has been welcomed as it’s caused me to do a lot more reflecting to get to the real centre of what matters. It’s been another year of first act fade-out and I’ve been having to do a lot of thinking. I had been writing with confidence but there was still something lacking.
I’ve found out what that was; artistry.
This seems like a painfully obvious discovery to make. Writing is a creative art, so that makes us both creatives and artists. However, the latter term is almost a blasphemous term in the screenwriting communities I know of. Why is that?
It seems we have become so obsessed with being worker bees and cow-toeing to industry demand, we have completely destroyed the essence of what we do. To suggest that a screenwriter should be an artist first and anything else second is enough to get you burned at the stake, yet it’s the very fabric of our being. We are all slowly and wilfully killing the very life force inside ourselves. We are selling our souls for nothing more than empty promises. We are doing this to ourselves and doing it to others. We have to stop.
“So,” you ask, “what does it mean to be an artist.”, well it means something really quite simple; it means being able to reach as far down into yourself as possible and apologising to nobody for what you tear out.
That’s it. A few months ago I was listing all these counter-points on craft and marketability but that’s it. It’s all as simple as that, and while it may sound trite, it’s the most empowering way a screenwriter can see themselves.
We have to be brave enough and bold enough to do this, to stand proud and say, “Yeah, I’m a fucking artist.”, with absolute conviction. That means being somebody who not only hones their craft but seeks validation only via introspection. We not only owe that to ourselves but also to the film world we hold so dear. It is our task, our burden, our calling to offer material that is as brave as it is bold. We have not been born into this universe, blessed with the imagination needed to dream and the spunk needed to write only to be ground down into self-loathing hacks, regardless of how financially rewarding that may seem.
So, this Holiday season, I implore you to think hard about what being an artist means, read up on it, discover more about it, and hopefully, with that empowerment coursing through your veins, to open one up and write something which is a piece of your soul, because that’s what you owe it, and that will be enough to fulfil you regardless of anything that may happen next.