Saturday, 27 February 2010

A month that ended with me shouting a lot....

So I spent an hour on the phone on Friday night having a very heated argument over the fact that I've just wasted a month writing a script no one wants. But that's not really safe to talk about yet. Instead here's a story from last year about another wasted month that made me about as angry then as I am right now.

To make things easier and so I don't have to tip-toe around mentioning anybody's names I'm going to call the collective entity I worked with on this particular project Jeff. For the purposes of this story Jeff is both the writer and the producer/director, though in reality Jeff was two separate people.

The first time I became aware of Jeff was at a party in Cannes, which I talk about here. I only really became aware of him as someone who stood around drinking while the majority of us were helping to clean up. Little did I know then that we would soon be working together.

Later in the year a production company I'm working with sends me a script. It's written by Jeff. They are possibly going to put some money in but have asked for my opinion on the script first. So I read it.

The script is awful. It's 148 pages long for a start. Now I have to be careful here as the latest draft of one of my scripts I've been rewriting since last year is 130 pages. And as much as I know 130 pages is too long I'm reluctant to cut anything at the moment because most of it is a) good stuff even if I do say so myself and b) it's stuff that other people I'm working with suggested I put in. So yes, sometimes scripts will be longer than the recommended 120 pages and that doesn't always mean they are terrible. But this wasn't the only problem.

I can't really go into the story although I'm not sure why anyone would want to rip it off, but there were two major issues - genre and character. The genre was martial arts. It was a film about a martial arts tournament. There is no way you could possibly call it anything else. Martial arts films are not two and a half hours long. There are exceptions - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the obvious one. A Touch of Zen is over three hours, but it's three hours of awesomeness. This script was not 148 pages of awesomeness. There was an easier way to do it. There was a way to cut it to 90 pages and make a solid martial arts film. But Jeff didn't want to do that. He thought martial arts films were trashy and didn't want to be told that he'd written one. Jeff was convinced that this script was Fight Club (which, incidentally, is a 150 page script. I checked hoping it was much shorter so I could use it to argue my case).

Again, I want to stress that I'm not saying genre films can't be interesting because my opinion as a fan is completely the opposite of that. I consider genre films to have just as much right to be called art as anything else and I think they often have a lot more to say than their more worthy counterparts, even if they didn't necessarily intend to say it. Interestingly I'm also having the same problem with the script I'm working on right now. It is a genre film, there is an easier way to do it that would make it 90 pages but less interesting and we've chosen to focus on the characters more than the genre elements. It's a problem I understand. But it doesn't make Jeff's script any better.

Onto those characters I mentioned. There was no central protagonist, that role was split between three people. That can certainly work, but here only one of those protagonists actually did anything and the other two took turns at taking up meaningless screentime. The female protagonist took a lot of drugs (a lot of research had clearly gone into this as the descriptions went on forever) and got raped a lot. Worst of all, none of the characters had changed by the end - they were miserable and directionless at the beginning and all three ended up the same way.

The other character problem was to do with the antagonist. This role was split between two characters but their relationship was almost impossible to understand. They were rivals in one scene, they worked for each other in another scene, it was never clear what they were supposed to be doing and worst of all they were in the script more than the protagonists. I later found out that while only one of the protagonists had been cast (one of which Jeff was going to play which is perhaps a source of the problems) the biggest names Jeff had managed to attach to the project were going to play the two bad guys. And they had read the latest version of the script and agreed to do it based on this version (presumably they just looked at how many pages their characters appeared in rather than actually reading it). So it became a film about the bad guys who did lots of drugs and violence and raping and yet they took up half the script in a way that suggested we should care about them. And again there was no development here, they started out one way and they ended up the same way.

So those were the fundamental problems. Here's the problem with the actual script itself. In fact it's probably easier if I just show you. This is a sample scene and it's one that's been done a billions times before (so it's funny to find it here, in a script that is apparently not a martial arts film). In this scene a trainer meets with a down-and-out fighter and asks him to take part in a tournament. It should be a single page long, if that. This scene was 6 pages long. Here's an extract. I realise I'm on possibly dodgy ground here so the character names and odd bits of dialogue have been changed, but otherwise this is all as it appeared in the script.

The scene takes place in a diner. We'll call the fighter Jim Awesome and the trainer Captain Plot:

Jim Awesome and Captain Plot are sitting at a table. The Waitress (woman, late 40s, stocky, resolute, motherly type) comes to the their table.

(removes a notepad from her apron and a pen from behind her ear)
Hi, what'll it be?

I'd like a small “Big double Cheese Burger”

I'm sorry, we don't do that in small. Otherwise it'd be called “small” instead of “big”.

Oh, hmm ...
(studies the menu)
Do you have something similar to the “Big double Cheese Burger”, just a little smaller?

JIM AWESOME hunches down over the menu and tries to ignore the two of them.

(blowing out of the corner of her mouth in an annoyed way)
(pointing to the open menu in front of Captain Plot with her pen)
Why don't you take the "extra spicy cheesy cheese" then.

Oh, that sounds delicious!
But with an extra helping of mustard.
Mh, wait. No. Make it BBQ sauce.

JIM AWESOME looks around, embarrassed.

(jotting, now more annoyed)
Anything else?

Yeah, those crispy little potatoes.

(bored, writing)
"farmer wedges"

Yeah, exactly. And a lemonade
and sour cream.
Say, is the sour cream low cholesterol?

(shouting in the direction of the kitchen)

(giving Captain Plot a warning dirty look, then talking quickly to the waitress)
It's okay, it's okay. Just bring it. And get me the same, but without sauce.

The WAITRESS turns and leaves.

Jim Awesome, how's little Sally Exposition doing?

Haven't seen her for years. Seems she lives with her new flame now, some rich guy.

The drinks arrive.

(slurping his lemonade)
But wasn't she married to that musician Glenn Character Who'll Never be Mentioned Again?

That was her first husband.

The food arrives. CAPTAIN PLOT carefully flattens his burger with his hand. The sauce drips out, he licks all his fingers and presses down on the burger again. JIM AWESOME watches him, puzzled and disgusted.

(looks at JIM AWESOME'S plate)
Oh shit, you got my burger. Can we swap, please?

I don't think I want to swap.

JIM AWESOME bites into burger quickly. Both munch up their burgers. CAPTAIN PLOT SMACKS his lips and licks his fingers at intervals. CHOMPING, CAPTAIN PLOT sticks his hand into his pocket and pulls out a creased piece of paper.

(smacking and chewing, lays the paper on the table in front of JIM AWESOME)
I almost forgot.
(licks his thumb clean)
Here, I've got something for you!

(glances quickly at the paper, bites into his burger and asks nonchalantly)
What's that?

And what follows is a load more exposition about the tournament. This is a particularly bad example of the kind of writing that continued throughout the script. And in case you're laughing along with the scene and thinking this is good character building stuff for Captain Plot, he doesn't really appear in the script too much after this moment and certainly doesn't get any more 'comedy' dialogue. It's a waste of pages that should've been used to set up the underdeveloped Jim Awesome character if at all. But maybe I'm wrong, maybe I just don't know good writing when I see it and if that's the case send me an e-mail and I'll put you in touch with Jeff. Although you may not want to work with Jeff after I explain what happened next.

So I go back with my extensive notes. Jeff agrees with some but is mostly defensive about his script. The production company I'm working with agree with all of it and tell Jeff they'll only get involved if he lets me rewrite the script. Jeff isn't happy with this. He wants to come over to England to work with me on the script. He means literally that Jeff will be in my room standing over my shoulder while we go through pages and pages like the scene above with me trying to make them better and him telling me why they work as they are. I've got no interest in doing this. We come to a compromise - Jeff will come over and we'll discuss the script in person before he decides whether he's happy to let me rewrite it.

So Jeff arrives and is in town for three days. We have an intensive meeting about the script going through all the issues I've raised. Most of the problem seems to be the amount of research that has gone into it, so all my issues are met with 'but that's how it really is'. And yet despite all that this is not a gritty, dramatic depiction of real-life events, it's a martial arts film. Eventually we agree that I will go away and rewrite the script but that there are several things I can't change, most importantly the amount of screentime the two antagonists get.

In the following weeks there's some negotiation about agreements until a deal is eventually reached. Again, I can't go into too much detail but essentially I'll get a fee upfront and then a bit more later on. It's the fee upfront bit that's important. And what I did next.

Due to a combination of naivety and bad advice I went ahead with the rewrite. I didn't see that it was going to be a problem. I'd invoiced Jeff for the initial fee, everyone seemed to be on good terms and it was all fresh in my head so I wanted to get on with it. Added to that, I was due to go on holiday in a month and didn't want it hanging over me while I was away. So I did it. I spent a month on the script and what came out at the other end was shorter, more efficient and generally better. It still had problems due to the things I couldn't change and the fact that I didn't want to rewrite the whole thing from page 1 as that wasn't the deal, but it was much better script. And then I waited for the fee I should've already been paid by then.

I won't go into too much detail here as this is the part that gets really frustrating. I spoke to Jeff several times over the next few months and there was always some excuse about not getting my e-mails or having to wait for people in his office to get back from a break or something stupid. Behind the scenes what had happened was that the deal with the production company hadn't quite worked out, and if that wasn't going through then they didn't need my rewrite. And if they didn't need my rewrite why should I get paid? Well, obviously I should get paid because I had a signed agreement that said I would. But that didn't seem to matter anymore.

So I chased it to the point that I threatened collections agencies, but after that it turned into something where I would need to put in my own money to pursue what I was owed. The fee wasn't all that much really so after a few months of chasing I let it go.

What did we learn from this, kids? There's the obvious one, that if you're offered money upfront wait until you get it before doing any work. But there's another lesson here too, and one I didn't learn at the time because I still got into a situation this year that ended with me shouting down the phone on Friday night. And that's to not get involved with people or projects you don't like the look of from the beginning. It's not worth the hassle.


Anonymous said...

ouch buddy, Painful lesson there. We need a good afternoon of ranting with eachother. How's Friday suit ya?

Chris Regan said...

Friday sounds awesome. I think I might also invite everyone I know to come along and listen to me rant too.