It would be true to say that I havepuzzled about screenwriting a lot. What I puzzle about is why we screenwritershave such a shitty life.
Even though things have gonemoderately well for me - I think I have a success rate of something like 30%,which is not bad - that's still 70% failure.
And by failure I mean total, abjectfailure. I mean scripts in drawers that never get seen again; scripts intowhich I've poured my life blood.
Every writer knows all about that;but here's the puzzle: Why is it that everybody I know, everybody who comesonto my website, everybody I meet in a taxi, wants to be a screenwriter'
There seem to be thousands andthousands of people who either are or are becoming screenwriters.
And yet every time I meet a producerhe says to me, "I have a project, but I can't find a writer. Where are thewriters' There are no writers."
This gives rise to a strange andhaunting image. Armies of wannabe screenwriters are marching away with theirheads held high and smiling into a mist, and none of them are coming back. It'slike a scene from the first world war. It's tragic. Somewhere there's a swampin which flounders the dying youth of British screenwriting talent.
I've been puzzling about why thisis, and I think there may be a very straightforward explanation. I know thishas applied to me. Whether it applies more widely, I don't know.
I was raised in the British highcultural tradition. I did Eng Lit at Cambridge. I love writers. I love books. Iwanted to be a writer because of the writers that I've loved.
When I think about why I want to bea writer, I realise, being a writer is the ultimate ego trip. What you actuallydo, whatever you write about, you're writing about yourself.
Everybody gives you an enormousamount of attention, and everything that you've written is some sort ofreflection of your personality.
As a real writer, as I used to think,as a writer of books, you're encouraged to develop your own voice, your ownstyle, your own personality. It is in fact you yourself that you're expressingwhen you write.
So you go with this sense of what itis to be a writer into the film business. I think you can see where this isleading. You go, specifically in my case, to Hollywood. I should make it clearthat everything I say relates primarily to the Hollywood system.
It does not relate to the productionof indie movies, where a very talented writer, possibly a writer/director, canmanage on a very small budget to do something that is entirely under their owncontrol, and that remains their own vision, and speaks with their own voice.
I applaud that, but I'm not nowtalking about that, because the only problem you've got with that is you needsheer blinding talent. If you've got sheer blinding talent, you will have acareer. But what about the rest of us, who slog along and want to make a lifein the business'
We head for Hollywood with thisdream of what it is to be a writer - and we find to our amazement that thepeople in Hollywood don't want to hear our voice, and don't want to know aboutour style.
As for expressing our self throughour movies, they say, "Listen, buster, we're not going to spend millions ofdollars expressing your self. That'snot what you're here to do. You're here to create a movie that will sell, thatwill get people to go to the pictures, and that will pay back the investors whoput the money in."
Now, what do we do, we Brit writersfaced with this attitude' We have various options.
The common option is to say, "Thesefuckers are just commercial morons, and I'm not going to have anything more todo with them. I'm going back to a proper world where art if appreciated.
Now that would be a veryunderstandable reaction. So why don't we do it' Why don't we say that' Well,there are a couple of answers, I think. One is, we want the money. Everybodythinks that's the only answer. I swear to you it isn't.
"I truly believe it isn't. I thinkwhat draws us like moths to the flame is, we want to be part of these giantpictures that girdle the globe, and that enter the consciousness of everybodyall around the world.
It's the most extraordinary feeling.I had a little bit of a feeling of it when I was part of Gladiator, many yearsago now.
That movie - everybody saw it,everybody responded to it, everybody had a feeling about it. So every time Imet somebody and said that I was one of the people who had worked on Gladiator - and Iemphasise that I was just that, just one of the people - it was a thrill. Itfelt as if I had connected with this gigantic global audience.
Now, we all know that most of thestuff that comes out of Hollywood is no good. But occasionally there's somevery, very good stuff comes out, and when that happens, it's astonishing.They've got the muscle to push it all around the world. And to be part of thatis an astonishing thrill. And that's what keeps us going.
I've been writing screenplays fortwenty-two years now, if you include the years doing BBC dramas. I'm 58 yrsold. So I think I can call myself a veteran.
Also I really have thought quite abit about what you have to do to survive. So now I'm addressing the writersamong you. Those of you who've already cracked Hollywood won't need to hearthis, you'll know all about it.
Those of you who don't want to hearcan get a drink at the back. For everybody else, this is my theory about howBritish screenwriters can do a great deal better in the system; and also, Ithink, write better screenplays.
When you go to Hollywood as a Brityou've got three major problems. The first is ego, which I've mentioned. We goas writers who see ourselves as the centre of the action.
That is not going to work. We arenot the centre of the action. I would like to be, I wish I was. It just isn'tso. Everything you write can be changed by others.
Your entire work can be re-written.Right now, as we speak, I have two screenplays, one I wrote for Universal, oneI wrote for Sony, both that I've poured my lifeblood into, draft after draft,year after year, because I will not let go until I am physically kicked off,and I have been physically kickedoff both of them.
One of them is now being rewrittenby Akiva Goldsman, who's a very distinguished screenwriter, who's done TheDa Vinci Code.
The other is being rewritten byWilliam Goldman. So I have to bask in the kind of distant reflected glory ofthe people who are, even now, trampling on my babies. That is what happens. Soif you go to Hollywood with your ego waving, you will be crushed, and you willlimp home weeping, and you will end up doing something else, and frankly, soyou should.
So what you have to do is somethingelse. You take your ego and you wrap it in a nice soft silk scarf and you popit in the drawer with all your early manuscripts that have never been seen; andyou let it stay there. That's the first thing you have to do.
The second thing is about teamwork.We don't like teamwork in this country. We think that the author is king. Iwrite plays as well. As the playwright I am the king. I love that. People don'tchange the lines without asking me.
Can you imagine' It's fantastic. Inthe film business, it's not like that. You are a member of a team. Now by thatI do not mean that you're going to be put in a room with seven other writers,like they do on the sitcoms.
No, no, no, you'll be all alone asalways. Lonely and miserable. But everything you do will be pored over by theteam who's producing the movie - the production team, the developmentexecutives, and if you're lucky enough to get that far, the director.
And if you're lucky enough to geteven further, the actors.
And all these people feel that theyhave the right to play a part in the creation in your script. And they do. Nowthis may run against the ethic that is held here. You can stamp on me and say,"No, they don't. The writer should be sacrosanct."
But I don't believe it. An enormousamount of money goes into the making of a film.
Why should one of the people therecontrol the whole thing' It ain't gonna work. So you have to accept you're amember of a team, and everything you do is subject to other people.
Not everybody perhaps, but there arequite a number who are entitled to come in and beat up your script and tell youhow to make it better. Now, okay, they can screw it up.
That happens. But it's not been myusual experience. Right now, I'm working on 'The Golden Age'. I'm onto draft13, I think, and every meeting I go to I spin out a draft. In these drafts thechanges are getting less and less, and we're getting closer and closer. Westart shooting in April.
Every time I go to a meeting, thereI am in Oxford Street, sitting around a table with the production team, andsomebody says, "You know, I've been reading over the weekend, and I wasthinking about that sequence there, and I've had an idea."
Then they give me the idea and Ithink, "Jesus, that is a very good idea. Why didn't I think of that' Am I anidiot'' The minute they say it,it's so obvious.
But what can you do' Steal it. Takeit. That's what I do. Okay, it's a great idea. I put it into the script. On thephone, I'm writing a film for Ridley Scott, I'm on the phone with his team inLos Angeles and he's got a new guy working for him called Michael Costigan,who's very, very good, and this guy is so bright and he's talking to me on thephone about my draft and he says, "You know, I've been thinking you could dothis, this, this."
And he's right. It's the most brilliant, brilliant, idea. Sowhat do I do' I put it in the script. That's what I mean by teamwork. I thinkit can be made to work. It's not as alienating as you may think.
The third thing you have to adjustyour attitude to if you're going to work in this system is money.
And I don't mean the money thatyou're paid. That's simple. For all of us screenwriters, we're the lucky ones,we get paid even when the whole thing goes down in flames.
We get paid before the producers getpaid. It's really easy for us, on money. What I mean by adjusting our ideas onmoney is, our attitude to the money that finances the movie.
If you go into the movie businesssaying, "I am the artist and the money people are the enemy. These are thepeople who are trying to screw me, they are trying to take my work of art andturn it in to some monstrous commercial bull", if that's your attitude, don'tgo there. You've got to make friends with the money.
You've got to go there and say,"These people, who are getting the money are getting it to make the film I'mworking on. If I need to do anything to help them get the money I should dothat.'
Now, that doesn't mean that yourewrite it so that you have a porn star in it. You have a point at which youstop, obviously; but you do say to yourself, it is reasonable and proper andright that they say to me, "We can't finance it like this; we can finance itlike that."
In other words, you as a writer, asan artist, in film, must be an artist-producer. You have to combine these twofunctions. You can't be a child.
You can't sit there saying, "I justwant to do all the fun stuff and daddy can worry about all the rest of it."It's not like that. You've got to get serious about how your film is going toget made.
And that is an attitude that in myexperience a lot of British writers do not have. Now you're entitled to say,that's why Nicholson writes such rubbish scripts. And there are many otherpeople who write scripts that have an absolute zip of originality that I don'thave.
Fair enough. If you can get yourfilms made, that's the best way to go. But the whole mass of the business worksthe way I'm describing. You have to make compromises because of the money, andyou should respect that and enjoy it.
You should be on your producer'sside. Right now, on B;The Golden Age', I get told, "We've got to lose $3m.Where's it going to go'' What am I going to do' I'm not going to wet myself.I'm not going to squeal. I say, "Okay, we've got to lose $3m - tell me wherethe money's spread' Show me where the expensive bits are. Lets try and find the3M, and I'll rewrite you something that will do the same job and will lose the3M.'
That is part of my job as a writer.That's why - I secretly think - I'm constantly in work. I don't think itstalent. I'm just useful, you know. And I actually fit in with these people whohave to make the thing happen.
So those are the three things that Iwould urge all writers to consider. You'll notice that I've said nothing at allabout technique, or structure, or how you actually write a screenplay, becauseI don't know.
None of us know. I don't think it'sworth reading any of those books about how to do it. I think it's not worthgoing to any of the courses.
I think what you need is a goodstrong idea, and you need good people round you. If you've got good peopleround you, this team I'm talking about, and if you're prepared to rewrite, torewrite and rewrite, it will get better and better and better, and it willhappen.
Anyway, that's been my experience,and I'm proud of the work I've done. It's also, and this is the other curiosityabout it, it's made it more fun.
A lot of people think that it'storture to be told what to do. It is hard. It's very hard to becriticised. I feel, at the age of58, as if I've never left school.
As if teacher is still marking myessays, because that's what it feels like. To all of you who are producershere, I'm sure you know, that's in effect what you're doing to the writers.
You're saying, "Well, you've got abeta plus here. You've done quite well, but I think we could do with a littlebit more. And your punctuation isn't so good."
And we writers have to swallow allof this, and take it in a good spirit - because it actually makes the damnthing better.
Now if we can train a generation of screenwriters who are notafraid to work this way - But perhaps you all work this way, I don't know. Iget the feeling from the producers I speak to that a lot of writers have heartattacks when told that their work isn't good and has to be reworked. It'spartly to do with confidence.
You need a lot of confidence to say,"Okay, I'll go back into it, I'll reinvent that bit that isn't working. I won'tdo exactly what you say, because that's not our job as writers. Our job is notto take dictation from the producers."
That's right. If the producers coulddo that, they wouldn't need you. They'd be the writers. Our job is to hearwhat's wrong, work out whether we agree with it, and usually I find that I do,and come up with a solution.
So I say to the producers I workwith, "Tell me what's wrong, don't tell me how to fix it. Let me come backto you and I will try to fix it for you. If you don't like my fix, I will tryagain and I will try again, and I will try again."
If we can develop a whole body ofscreenwriters with that mentality, which is very pragmatic, very craft-based,very open to everybody else who wants to make a contribution - including by theway, some people who you may not want to have contributions from at all, likethe actors - but I have found - do we have any actors here'
I don't think we have any actors' -I think all of you who have worked in the business will have had thefrustration of actors who refuse to say lines - I had this with Russell Croweon Gladiator - I remember him saying, "Your lines are garbage butI'm the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage soundGood" - and you know what'
He is the greatest actor in theworld, or one of them. He's very, very good, and probably my lines weregarbage, so he was just talking straight.
But you have to be able to deal withthat as well and you have to be able to roll with that, as well. So if we canspread that word, I think we will begin to develop a body of screenwriters herewho are global, who can make screenplays that can go all over the world.
But todo that, what we need is not just the kind of slightly aggressive ideas I'vebeen putting forward now - we need to help each other.
We need confidence. And that isvery, very hard. We need to feel that we're among friends. That we can shareour anxieties, our problems and our scripts, and get support, and not feel thatwe'll have our ideas stolen or that people will piss all over us. I would loveto see some place where screenwriters can actually meet and talk and say,"Look, I'm working on this, what do you think''
And share the problems. Because thebasis of everything I'm saying is confidence.
To have an ego under control, youhave to be confident. To accept criticism, you have to be confident. To take inother ideas, you have to be confident. Where the hell are we to get confidencefrom' We're all terrified of failure. But I think we can give it to each other.
It's in that spirit that I welcomethis initiative that David and the others have put together. I really hope thatit gets off the ground, because frankly, it's a lonely business being ascreenwriter. It's like being a gladiator. You sit all alone in a cage for avery long time and then they throw lions at you. It's very, very tough.
Solet's form some kind of body between us, that shares experiences, including, bythe way, the experiences of producers. I'd love to be able to ring somebody upand say, "Have you ever worked with that poisonous toad'"
And my fellowscreenwriter might say, "Yes, I did, and he looks like a poisonous toad, but hedelivers."
You know, we need this kind ofinformation. You producers have all got it. You producers all ring each otherup and say, "What's this writer like'' "Oh, he's shit, you don't want him."
Well, we need it as well. And soanything that can give us more of a unity and more of an opportunity to worktogether, I applaud. Beyond that, frankly, all we've got is our talent.
For more go to www.screenwritersfestival.com.