On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting?

Ask a Screenwriter #1

In 2012 I was an avid writer and contributor on Quora, writing several answers that went alarmingly viral, including What’s it Like When Your Movie Bombs at The Box Office.

But now, as I expand my teaching portfolio, I’m going back to Quora for three months in order to contribute to the Ask A Screenwriter section. Tonight I found this question On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting which I answered thusly…

Short answer: not much.

The key phrase in your question is “on average.” Every film is different, and there are situations (for example Ladybird and writer/director Greta Gerwig) in which the writer’s vision is exactly what “we are really getting.”

However, most movies are based on valuable underlying material: a novel, a comic book, a franchise, and so on. So, the primary elements of character, world, story, and conflict are already in place. The writer is not free to change these elements according to their “vision” because the underlying story is a valuable brand, handled as such by the corporation owning it.

Most movies have three or more participating writers who work on the screenplay independently at different times, often at the direction of different people. Most movies go into credit arbitration, in which the WGA determines who among the participating writers contributed enough material to the final shooting script to receive screen credit. As a result, most movies have multiple writers (and thus multiple “visions”) as well as a set of uncredited writers whose contributions (and uncredited “visions”) are never recognized.

Most movies are driven by the “vision” set by the studio, the producers, the director, and the name actors, all of whom outrank the writer. Screenplays are usually re-written dozens and dozens of times before and during production. Each time a “pass” is done on the script, the screenwriter (or screenwriting team) is given a set of “notes” (often bundling changes required by the studio, director, producers, and actors.) These notes are directives, not suggestions.

I have been both a WGA arbiter determining credit on Hollywood movies and a participating writer on Hollywood Movies that have gone into arbitration. A typical arbitration might include these elements:

  • A best-selling, novel on which the movie was based.
  • Seven writers who all worked at different times over five years during which the script was “developed.” In general, only two writers (or writing teams) can ultimately get screen credit.
  • Twenty different “drafts” of the screenplay, including the first draft and the last “shooting script.”
  • Statements from all seven writers, each arguing that their contribution to the final shooting script (aka “vision”) exceeded 33% (which just puts a number to a very subjective assessment.)

In this typical movie, the arbiters may determine that Writer A contributed 35% and Writer B contributed 30% and the other five writers made combined contributions of around 35%. The arbiters may talk it through and ultimately determine credit for Writer A (in the first position) and Writer B. Writers C, D, E, F, and G would get absolutely nothing. The dude who gets the producers’ dry cleaning would get credit, but they wouldn’t.

So, if you ask “how much of Writer B’s vision are we actually getting?” In this hypothetical case, Writer B did three “passes” on the script based on highly specific notes by multiple executives, producers, directors, and actors, while not changing anything that might harm the underlying intellectual property. While Writer B’s work added up to a third of the actual shooting script, many of these story points, dialogue additions, and action beats were changed during shooting and editing. Finally, after audience testing, Writer B’s ending was completely reshot.

So again, not much.

Ultimately, the way movie production usually works, the screenplay is often a kind of Wikipedia entry – emerging from countless small changes made by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “authors.” The screenwriter can have an important role in this process, figuring out how to skillfully and artfully execute these changes, but “on average,” the writer’s “vision” is not what you are seeing on screen.

Exceptions include hyphenates, like writer-directors and writer-producers, or celebrity writers, like Charlie Kaufman, Diablo Cody, Aaron Sorkin, and the late Nora Ephron. Also, there are producers (like the ones I’m currently working with) who see the value in maintaining the same writer from beginning to end, and in keeping this writer actively engaged in the filmmaking process.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

A Hollywood Screenwriter

One of the very best things I ever received in the mail was issue 23 of n+1 Magazine.

When I opened the magazine and read the table of contents, I saw under Kristin Dombek’s Advice From The Help Desk an article titled: A Hollywood Screenwriter. Intrigued that one of my favorite contributors had written something about the entertainment industry, I turned to page 91 and began reading a letter to Kristin asking for advice. I didn’t immediately recognize the letter as my own, just an uncanny sense the words wer familiar…

“When I started reading the first installment of the Help Desk, I assumed its title and contents were ironic. Halfway through, I realized that much of what you wrote was breathtakingly sincere. By the end, I found that almost every sentence could be read as either ironic or sincere, in the same way an optical illusion can be seen as a young woman or an old hag, but not as both at once. Either way, you wrote so deeply and extensively about each question, I found myself wanting to ask for your help, perhaps just to have you think so attentively about me, too.”

“However, as I thought about a question to ask you, I felt anxious. I began to worry that my problem would seem neither cleverly ironic nor lyrically sincere. What if you brushed off my question with a dismissive remark? What if, because you have so many questions sent to you, I got no response at all? It was this fear of your indifference and my inconsequence that helped me finally settle on the right question.”

“I have shared writing credit on several relatively high-budget movies, all of which were critical and box-office failures. I’ve realized, in midlife, that despite earnest dedication to my craft, I am ashamed of the work I’ve been involved in. None of it represents what I value artistically or politically. None of it expresses anything I think or feel. Worse than that, I fear that I’ve spent most of my fifteen-year career empowering shallow and immoral people to create cruel and witless films.”

“I pine for the same wry but authentic connection you make with the people who ask for your help, and I envy your satisfaction (as I imagine it) in moving your readers the way I was moved while reading the Help Desk.”

“How, as an artist, do I shed my failures and begin again?

Sincerely, A Hollywood Screenwriter”

I had written that letter during a spell of panicked insomnia months earlier, sent it to the magazine, and promptly forgot about it.

Kristin Dombek answered my question in the form of a fifteen-page essay, one that I have read and reread at least a dozen times over the last three years. Recently, it has taken on special meaning.

She writes about a lot of things, about the novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanial West, about the difficulty of giving advice to depressed friends, about cruel optimism and “the place where friendship and love become acts of invention, even of art.” For me, the essay embodies an idea that inspired Undergrids, that in an age of overwhelming content, a single reader paying careful attention is more meaningful than a million views.

Kristin’s article helped me navigate that particular pit of depression, and it continues to inspire me.

You can read it here:

Takashi Murakami

Apparently, I’m drawn to old Japanese men named “Murakami.” (The writer Haruki Murakami being the other.) Last night I saw an exhibition of Takashi Murakami’s paintings and sculpture at the Gagosian gallery.

What I like about Murakami is that his ultra-flat, extremely well-crafted works resonate with a feeling I often get living in our capitalist/consumer society: a sense of being overwhelmed by a perverse, explosive over-abundance of products and messages – all of them screaming ENJOY! HAPPY! MORE! MORE! like devil-possessed Teletubbies.

Murakami’s works have a fractal element so that walking closer to them feels like zooming in on a Mandelbrot set. (e.g. this Mandelbrot Video.)

Here (above) we have a Happy Flower made of flowers holding flowers in one hand and child-Happy-Flower in the other. Even the eyes (if I were able to zoom in further) are themselves multi-colored and micro-detailed.

There is so much fractal detail in th painting below that it ultimately exhausts and overwhelms any attempt to take it all in.

As one moves closer, the details are “self similar” to wider patterns of manic bunnies, rainbow flowers, a drippy glowing fluids. This is about 4% of the entire painting.

As we go even closer on one of the tiny individual characters, we find alive with disturbingly rich micro-detail. These little skulls are about a centimeter in diameter.

All the images are “Ultra-Flat.”

By ultra-flat, I mean that all the visual cues that usually provide depth (perspective, overlap, relative size, tone, hue) are eliminated or undermined so that the entire panel asserts itself in an insistent, overwhelming foreground.

Not only is no psychotic bunny in front or behind any other; all the bunnies seem to leap forward to assault the viewer at once. ENJOY! ENJOY! LOOK AT ME!

This same ultra-flatness is in all the details …

The scale of the pieces, echoing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, enhance the sense of being overpowered and overwhelmed by these “cute,” hyperactive demons of enjoyment.

Ultimately, I came away with a deeper interest and appreciation for his work. In the past, because I am not particularly inspired by Pop Art and I am not a big consumer of Anime, his work didn’t resonate with me on a personl level as it does now. Perhaps it’s only recently that I’ve felt so assaulted by the obscene consumer-culture imperative to ENJOY.

Looking back over his earlier paintings, there is a lot that’s intriguing and worth more study.

… And lastly, Murakami’s signature character Mr. DOB looks weirdly similar to my signature character, Little Boy Bobby.

Writing The Short Film

Here is a one-hour webinar on writing the short film. I hope you find it both useful and amusing.

Drawing on 20 years of experience as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and 10 years of experience as a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Sean Hood (that’s me) gives you tips and insights about writing short films. For experts, film students, and beginners alike.

Me in my “shed” where I sit with my dog, Luna, and imagine preposterous ideas for feature films.

More on short screenplays

If you liked the webinar, you can review many of the concepts I teach at USC School of Cinematic Arts on my previous blog, Genre Hacks:

Writing the Short Script: Week One

Writing the Short Script: Week Two

Writing the Short Script: Week Three

Writing the Short Script: Week Four (and Five)