Pre-Grief Counseling for Writers

Writers are, by nature, control freaks. When they’re writing a book or a screenplay, they’re in total control. They create the characters, decide on the setting, invent the plot, and just generally bend the story to their will. A lot of writers will give you that “oh, my characters have control, really” spiel, but that’s just their overactive imaginations talking. They created the characters (consciously or not) and only they are allowed to tell them what to do. They get very anxious when anyone else tries to horn in on their territory, such as an editor or a producer or even (especially) another writer.

How then, do movies get made? With a great deal of pain and suffering on the part of the writer, that’s how. Once all the various people get their filthy mitts on the original story (agents, editors, publishers, screen writers, ghost writers, producers, directors, actors, etc.) it barely resembles itself at all, and by this point the writer is nearly out of his or her head with agony. (If you don’t believe me, read this).

Without writers, movies can’t get made. But they can’t get made without directors and producers and all the rest of them either. So what’s the solution? I call it “Pre-Grief Counseling for Writers.” I imagine it would go something like this:

THERAPIST: Good morning, Mr. McWriterson. How do you feel?
MCWRITERSON: Great!
THERAPIST: Do you know why you’re here?
MCWRITERSON: Yeah, because my agent said I had to come see you or I wouldn’t get paid.
THERAPIST: I see. Well, Mr. McWriterson, you’re here because your agent has some concerns.
MCWRITERSON: She thinks I’m going to freak out, right? After I sell the script.
THERAPIST: There is that possibility, yes.
MCWRITERSON: I’m not going to. Really. I’m not one of those guys. I’m totally cool with it.
THERAPIST: Are you?
MCWRITERSON: Yeah. I mean Mr. Producerly said they were going to respect my vision. Keep everything pretty much the same. I get creative input. Like veto power.
THERAPIST: I see. And it says this in your contract?
MCWRITERSON: Well, no. But that’s what he said.
THERAPIST: And you believe him?
MCWRITERSON: Well yeah, I mean, he’s made like twenty movies that I like. So obviously since we think the same way then he’s going to keep everything like I wrote it.
THERAPIST: Mmm hmmm. And how long is the script?
MCWRITERSON: Well, it’s about 140 pages.
THERAPIST: And how long would that be on screen, roughly?
MCWRITERSON: Um, like two and a half hours?
THERAPIST: And how many movies have you seen recently that were two and a half hours long?
MCWRITERSON: Well Avatar. And Transformers 2.
THERAPIST: And have you written an Avatar or a Transformers 2?
MCWRITERSON: No, it’s a drama.
THERAPIST: So it’s unlikely to be two and a half hours long when it’s finished.
MCWRITERSON: I… guess.
THERAPIST: So Mr. Producerly will need to cut approximately 30 minutes of material from your script.
MCWRITERSON: Well, maybe in the subplots or something.
THERAPIST: And then change the main plot to match.
MCWRITERSON: No.
THERAPIST: And then tweak the characters a little to make everything flow.
MCWRITERSON: No!
THERAPIST: And then brighten up the tone to make it appeal to a broader audience.
MCWRITERSON: No!! He can’t do that!
THERAPIST: I assure you he can.
MCWRITERSON: But he promised!
THERAPIST: I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. McWriterson. You seem like a nice person. But promises don’t mean anything in Hollywood unless they’re written into contracts and backed by expensive litigation attorneys. People will lie to your face in order to get things done.
MCWRITERSON: Mr. Producerly’s not like those other guys. He’s different.
THERAPIST: I see. You’re sure about that?
MCWRITERSON: Absolutely. We had coffee together. He told me about his dog.
THERAPIST: Come with me, Mr. McWriterson. There’s something I need to show you.

They leave the therapist’s office and go down the hallway, past a locked, guarded gate. The therapist gestures for McWriterson to look through a reinforced window set into a door. Inside is a padded room. A man in a white straight jacket sits in the center, wailing.

MAN: Love interest! AAARRGGHG! Shoehorn! AaAAA! Cute dog! AAAAAAAA! Will Ferrell! AAAAAAAAAA!
THERAPIST: This is screenwriter for one of Mr. Producerly’s earlier projects.
MCWRITERSON: Dog Days, right? My girlfriend loves that movie. It’s so cute and funny.
THERAPIST: It was originally written as a serious drama about veterinary malpractice. He had Gary Oldman in mind for the lead.
MCWRITERSON: Oh.
THERAPIST: Are you beginning to get the picture now?
MCWRITERSON: Well, there’s no reason that has to happen to me. My script is different. It’s special. I’m special. I’m sure that guy’s script wasn’t too good to begin with. No wonder they had to rewrite it.
THERAPIST: That is Tom Writerbottom.
MCWRITERSON: Tom Writerbottom, who won the National Book Award?
THERAPIST: Yes.
MCWRITERSON: Wasn’t he nominated for an Oscar last year?
THERAPIST: Indeed.
MCWRITERSON: Christ.
THERAPIST: Mr. McWriterson, let me be frank. May I be frank?
MCWRITERSON: I guess so.
THERAPIST: Mr. Producerly will not keep his word. He will take your script and strip everything unique and interesting from it. Then he will give it to several of his friends to rewrite. Then he will hire a director, who will rewrite it again himself. Then they will hire a lead actor. He will demand a larger role, or more memorable lines, and the script will be rewritten again. Then the director will make further changes as he is filming, and again later, while he is editing. You will be invited to the premiere, but no one will know who you are. In the screenplay credit your name will be buried underneath a half a dozen other writers who have more clout in the WGA than you. You will barely recognize your own story, and even the parts you do recognize will be twisted away from their original meaning. The audience may or may not enjoy it, but regardless, you will feel ill, angry, and cheated. The price for your acceptance of this is the thousands of dollars Mr. Producerly paid for your script.

There is a silence as McWriterson absorbs all of this.

MCWRITERSON: Is that really what’s going to happen?
THERAPIST: Yes. I have seen it many times.
MCWRITERSON: Oh.
THERAPIST: Now, Mr. McWriterson, how to you feel?
MCWRITERSON: Wretched.
THERAPIST: Excellent. Now we’re getting somewhere.

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