Updated: Oct 18, 2019
I ask my students this provocative question quite often, and if you are just getting into film, it's actually the most important question, to which you need to give yourself a sincere and clear answer. Especially because an incredibly large number of people, and more and more every day, write and want to write for film. Does everyone know what exactly they are getting into? Is screenwriting glamorous or hard work? Is it the hardest or the most beautiful profession in the world? Or both? And is it underestimated?
I would not want to discourage anyone from the start, but listen to John Truby, if you have not already, one of the leading authorities on screenwriting today. He clearly and loudly says: “Screenwriting is the most difficult craft in the world.” Be sure to do it here and now.
It's a bold statement, and he doesn’t use the word “a profession,” instead he says “craft,” but still being a painter, a novelist or a musician is exceptionally hard as well. Writing for theater is also not easy at all, but writing for film, especially feature film and TV series is absolutely and totally different than writing for any other medium, and I assume that Truby knows that. Why then he says: " Directing is a difficult and challenging job but it doesn’t compare to writing. It’s the most complex craft in the world, takes a lifetime of commitment to master it.” Why?
And by the way, directors, you know we love you the most!
If you’re directing a film you have a map of the treasure in front of you (this is of course true for directors who are not also the screenwriters of the films they’re directing). The treasure map is a screenplay you need to revive, and if you are writing for a film (from scratch, which is of course an understatement,) not only you do not have a map, but you do not know where the treasure is, nor what it is, nor do you know who is searching for it, nor why.
As a writer, first you are a detective, because each screenplay is a big puzzle, and only then are you the creator of this emotional map. You are the one who knows not only how to guide the audience through the story, but also when and how to purposefully misguide them. You are the one who knows where and when to place these moments just right, so that someone who is entering into this maze is led to the “treasure” as if through a game of hot and cold, without being aware of what’s actually going on, as if no one else has ever done it before. The quest for that treasure and the discovery of it is an unforgettable experience! Everything is fiction (both fiction and documentary) and everything looks and feels more real than reality.
A screenplay is a complete emotional (visual-audio) reconstruction of reality through fiction. In this newly built fiction, which has its own rules, like building a new world or a new universe, some particular seed of reality is germinating, which then represents this reality. The reality of our lives, of human nature. Every film is a piece of life that represents the whole experience of life: the truth in all its multi-dimensionality. And at the same time film is not life.
Sounds complicated and paradoxical? I know! And here we are not just talking about how to write a script, but how to write a good script - as Robert McKee (Story) says: “We want a good story well-told,” one that “changes” people's lives because our goal is actually that.
That’s not easy to do, it is not easy to create a character with its sufferings and desires, in situations that are mostly conflicting, in relations with the whole range of people (with institutions or with himself) ... and at the same time to place these situations in relation to other situations, in such a way so that they can breathe next to each other in a specific rhythm (structure). Because only specific structure is telling a specific story, which people not only believe, but also find themselves in; it is relevant to them now and forever, and it opens their heart in the place where we want them to experience expansion.
Emotions are musical notes for screenwriters, notes that come to a certain tone in a countless number of ways.
A screenwriter uses emotions that are known to everyone, yet they can be difficult to define and display. No matter how predictable certain genre patterns are, or as much as the story structure is actually an archetype, human nature remains elusive.
Therefore, as a screenwriter, you must know how to immerse yourself in a character, as if nothing else exists, but you must also know how to look at the character from a distance, to see how he/she behaves in relationships and what those relationships or actions mean to the whole. And at the same time, you have to be with the other characters as well; you have to know what all of them feel, think, even if they will say something completely different. And you have to know what they want, even if they would not know it for themselves. In literature we have the opportunity to read hero’s mind quite often, but that’s not the case in the film. In films we usually use action to represent emotion.
You have to control the subtext and the text at the same time, and you must know how to synchronize them, because a film is just happening in a conflict between the visible and the invisible, between an action and a subconscious which drives the action, just like in life. And you need to know what to leave out, because as we have already mentioned, a film is not life.
Hitchcock would say: “Drama is life, with the dull bits cut out”.
And of course, you need to be new and unique.
In order to keep that map in your head while creating it, you need an analytical and synthetic way of thinking at the same time - you need to have good intuition, you need to know human nature, you need to have a wisdom of life, you need an emotionally developed apparatus and you need to understand compassion, and vulnerability and humility, you need to love people and be obsessed with their searches, dilemmas, secrets. You need to be prepared for a lifelong commitment, and be willing to spend months on a text (which maybe no one will shoot, in the end) and you need to have a lot of patience while putting this "clock mechanism” together, to work at all levels at once and impeccably.
The director is a "conductor," there is no doubt, but the screenwriter is a “composer.”
The prize is never a red carpet, rarely in Europe is there a large amount of money, although perhaps someone is entering this profession for that reason. The award is an audience that feels, laughs or cries, and finds good within themselves. The award is a better world and a process of creation and reconstruction of life itself. The prize is also the process itself. The persistent remain in this business. And only when they go through the whole process several times can they say with confidence that they know what it’s all about. Being on that pedestal, which belongs only to serious creators, is both magnificent and lonely. Conflicting actually. Like every movie. Because again, schools and academies exist and some are good or some are not so good, and screenwriting rules also exist, but it depends on you whether you will actually end up doing it, whether you’ll have that set of skills plus “that something” that audiences will love.
When I say ‘doing it,’ I mean professionally, not occasionally, as a hobby. Will you succeed in living off of it in the sea of people who want to do the same, when there is so much supply that it really becomes a question of how to differentiate yourself and come up to the surface. And, if possible, how to be an author/screenwriter in a world in which directors and producers are usually in control (obviously in TV series today the situation is different). They claim that quality always comes through. But as we know, it takes time for quality to come through, and during that time a screenwriter also needs something to live off of in order not to lose integrity and not give up. Not to give up, even when scripts are refused dozens of times and at the same time to use vulnerability and not to close up emotionally is a challenging prospect. And as Truby tells us, we need to know that we are always at the beginning, that we are continually learning without ego.
As life and civilization evolve, we need to learn about how storytelling can evolve. A film is the best reflection of who we are at a given moment, and a screenwriter, as someone who breaks the ice, has both a moral and ethical responsibility to be an example. When writing a screenplay, you cannot hide anywhere. This is a basic requirement, to strip yourself naked first.
I'm just thinking why some wise people have said: “If you know how to do anything else, do it; don’t write (film).”
They seem to know that even though this is a magnificent job, you might never be able to be sure of yourself, at some point in your life you will suffer from inadequacy, you will be very alone, your friends or your family will not understand you completely, you will not get nearly as much attention as actors and directors, you will wait for the result much longer than if you would do a commercial...
If you still want to write for film, and if you do it well - and if producers happen to not want to pay you adequately, do not agree to "humiliation," tell them: “I am a magnificent being” – and send them this post.
And know this, if you are doing this for the right reason and only if you are ready to spend your whole life working on yourself, the prize will surely come. The prize is either a movie, or your life as a movie with all the ups and downs - the reward is you, the best version of yourself. Rarely can a profession claim that.
When you put your ego aside, is it glamorous enough?
That I cannot answer for you. For me it is. And anyway, I do not know how to do anything else.