Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Blog 12: The Writer/producer, the Director & the Big Breakup

It was not going well. I was getting frustrated, Shirley was getting frustrated and upset. 

I admit I am not the easiest person to work with when it comes to my screenplays. It comes from years working with more of the bad people than the smart ones. Like Amy the anti-Christ I described in blog 10. Unfortunately it led to some serious arguments  And if they wanted one word changed, there would be blood first. And not mine.

Enter Shirley. 

We had finally begun the next draft of the screenplay, with notes from her and my own notes.  We decided to sit down across from each other, each with our laptops. Shirley had brought muffins and coffee and it had become a routine for us before we started reworking the script. But after a few days it was becoming clear that there was some friction.  I was resisting some of her changes,  increasingly so. To her credit, she stayed there as I resorted to my "yeah, well, I've done 16 movies..." attitude.

And regardless of what I thought, my "16 movies" defense wasn't helping things. 

Nor was my producer hat which suggested two against one. The first few days were okay but each of us had different takes. Shirley's big on methaphors, she would want to show changes  with a character without words whereas I would want dialog.  It was clear our personal preferences were coming to the front. 

At one point Shirley suggested I put a strike-thru on some sentences, to which I replied sharply, "I don't use strike-thru", she said it just makes it easier to see what should be cut,  and I said I don't have that feature. This dragged into a huge argument as she tried to tell me where the command key was on my menu. I insisted it wasn't there. Shirley was frustrated as hell. Then I suddenly saw the strike-thru command and acted like I knew it was there all the time. I think she wanted to throw a phone book at me this time.  This became known as the "strike-thru gap".

After a few days, tension was gaining in both our meetings and our emailed notes. Email is a particular subject to me as I have learned over the years that misunderstandings can often occur within what someone intended and what the other person interpreted. I'm sure wars were accidently started by a few misunderstood emails. 

To her credit, Shirely maintained a professional demeanor, while I continued to use the "experience card" as my defense and reasoning. Finally it ended in an email (which I seem to have conveniently lost) from me saying that it was too difficult for me to continue as I felt her notes just didn't translate to me.  

This was what we called the Big Breakup. We continued trading emails,  but it was clear something had to change or Travel Day was over.  Shirley replied that  she still loved the project but that finally, she would not direct it. 

It was over. 

I was angry, and I think she was also. And for the next three days I was not a nice person to be around. But I do have one facet of my character that has some reasoning behind it. It is probably due to a few years of majoring in Psychology, an education I eventually quit for television. I can step outside of myself when I want to, and be brutally honest. I wondered how I could be so angry at Shirley, when all she was doing is offering her notes and suggestions.  It was her movie as much as it was mine. And I had to at least consider her ideas.

It didn't take long. I was wrong. 

I was angry not at her, but at me for pulling out the excuses, the experience, all of that.  And I knew I had done it often in the past on other projects.  But I also remembered that it was usually used against people who really didn't know what they were talking about, who would have two hour discussions about whether a character would say three words or four.  So I could let Travel Day fall by the wayside or I could try to change her mind. But it was one of the hardest things to do for me.

I finally composed an email that said just that,  I was wrong and I did want her to make Travel Day and that I think we could work this out. 

Shirley's response was quiet and apprehensive, she was willing to try again. The next time she showed up, I knew we were going to work better together - she had muffins and coffee. And it did work out, we hammered out a new draft where there were compromises on both sides and again,  respect for each other. And yes, we still have a laugh about "the Big Breakup" and the "Strike-thru Gap". 

People generally don't understand why creative types have such intense confrontations, sometimes resulting in people leaving the movie or the music album, or any other artistic endeavor. With writing, it begins when a writer finishes there story or screenplay. You've sat at that damn computer, facing a blank page and searching for ideas so that you can finish it. It's only you there, nobody else, at least for a spec script. It's your child, you brought those 100 pages to life where none existed before. Then, someone comes in and tells you that you did it wrong? 

See where I'm going? 

And that other party, be it a development exec or a producer or an actor... or Shirley, comes into what was a solitary artistic endeavor and begins to change it. And it's damn hard to want to change, or admit that it could be better. 

Are today's sitcoms better with 12 or 15 writers than I Love Lucy with 2 writers, a husband and wife?  You know the answer already. Our little breakup did some good things; it made me realize that Shirley had definite ideas that could be considered,  that we both would compromise when it mattered and again, that both of us could only make Travel Day better. We finished the rewrite and it was better. But now we reached a new stage of this partnership.

How to find the money to make our movie.

(Next: How do we find anyone who will give us $900,000)


  1. This maybe one of my fave blog posts...

  2. I agree, Nic.
    "I can step outside of myself when I want to, and be brutally honest." That has got to be my favourite sentence in this whole blog, Jim.
    Is that a writer thing? Are we too bloody honest about everything, including ourselves? Don't get me wrong, though. I wouldn't have it any other way. - Shauna Osatchuk

  3. How could we write personal stories like we do if we weren't able to be honest with ourselves? At least part of the time.

    Of course, it's a trait that has to be pulled, kicked and ripped out of me before it happens.