Tales from the Script

A couple weeks ago I was couch-surfing at a friend’s place over the weekend. A former roommate of my friend had been a German film student, and upon leaving he had left behind a book. Having no interest in the book, my friend offered it to me, and I took it.

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As the cover indicates Tales from the Script is a collection of anecdotes from professional Hollywood screenwriters. I knew almost nothing about screenwriting going in, and only a modest amount of knowledge about Canada’s own film industry. As I discussed with my friend when I took the book off his hands, the domestic film industry in Canada is bleak. The funding and distribution available for Canadian films is limited, with movie theatres stocking American films almost exclusively. The situation in Quebec differs somewhat as French inoculates it more from American cultural products, but I nonetheless respect the Canadian filmmakers who generally have an uphill battle getting their movies to market.

Tales from the Script is mainly of a series of thematically organized bloc quotes from the featured screenwriters. The book might be more rewarding to an aspiring screenwriter, but I found most of the anecdotes and advice somewhat pedestrian, and had a hard time retaining most of what was written. Most of what there is to learn from this book people would already know or guess about screenwriting. Only a fraction of the scripts screen-writers sell ever become finished movies, and once the script is sold it is typical for it to be warped out of recognition by the director, actors, and subsequent screenwriters.

The greatest lesson from the book is how little control a screenwriter has over whether a film will make it to completion, and what form it will take. Frequently, a studio will buy a script, fire the original scriptwriter, and hire a new writer to do revisions. A replacement writer will often even make more revisions than are necessary in the hopes that they can have the script attributed to them when the movie comes out. The thing the book taught me most about was the screenwriter arbitration process, where all writers who work on a film submit an appeal to receive credit for having written the script. A review board of other screenwriters at the writer’s guild then determine who is responsible for the chief elements of a script and awards credit for the screenplay to that individual.

The arbitration process benefits some writers enormously. David Hayter (know mostly to me as the voice of the Metal Gear Solid protagonist Snake) received credit for the first X-Men movie after not initially being the chief screenwriter, and this catapulted his career forward. The most memorable anecdote in the book about a particular script also, for my money, comes from Hayter. Hayter was tasked with writing a script for a proposed Black Widow movie, and he spent a year researching the script and character, even naming his daughter Natasha after the title character. Then, a succession of female vigilante movies came out around the same time, including Tomb Raider and Kill Bill, which did well, and BloodRayne, Ultraviolet, and Aeon Flux, which flopped. The studio determined the market was over-saturated, and the planned Black Widow movie was cancelled. Given the deluge of Marvel movies still coming out, their worries about over-saturation seem quaint now.

I cannot really recommend Tales from the Script, which is really just several interviews stitched together under some broad headings. Some screenwriters like John Carpenter, David Hayter, and William Goldman have interesting stories but most of the advice is the same: be prepared for failure and do not go into the industry if you do not love writing movies. Most scripts do not sell, and unless a writer loves their craft, they are unlikely to have the motivation to press on through the dry spells.

Next time, hopefully, a return to CanLit.

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