Monday, July 14, 2008

Take the $ and smile

by Michael Dymmoch

In the late ‘80s, I had an idea for a movie I thought would be perfect for Sean Connery. I didn’t know anyone who knew Sean Connery, or anyone else in Hollywood. I’d never written anything longer than a short story or had anything published but bad poetry. Because I had no clue about how to get my idea to Mr. Connery (or if he’d be interested if I did), I went to the library and took out books on screen writing. I followed the directions and wrote my idea into a screenplay. I even lucked out and got someone in Hollywood to read it. When he called me to discuss it, he gushed about what a great writer I was.

But ...

Maybe I could rewrite the script to make it more like Back to the Future or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And why not call him after the holidays to discuss it?

I never called. Green as I was, I realized it would be easier to write another story from scratch than to rewrite my story to fit his ideas. Eventually I novelized the screen play; finally published it, The Cymry Ring, in 2006. (And I have a rewritten script available if anyone’s interested, though Mr. Connery is now too old to play the lead.)

Today I know people in Hollywood, though it isn’t any less crazy. And it’s no easier to get a story made into a movie. Everyone involved wants to make his contribution. People whose only qualification for writing is that they watch movies and have read Syd Field’s book want to tell the writer how to improve the script. Everything has to be like something else. Only different.

It’s all about the story. But...

Like publishers, movie companies have been bought up by international conglomerates. Except for indies—financed by indie film makers, passionate fans, and dentists—movies are made today by For-Ginourmous-Profit corporations, that don’t care if a movie makes sense as long as it makes money. And American audiences want circuses and happy outcomes. Very few writers have the skill to pull off a deus ex machina ending that works. (Neil Jordan comes to mind.) Writers have to know this to make it in film. (So if you want your book on the screen, exactly as you wrote it, you'll probably have to film it yourself.)

For novelists, adapting our own work is hard. Cutting a 300+ page novel into a 95-110 page screenplay—without gutting the story—is an art-form in itself. Best selling author and screenwriter Lee Childs has said he doesn’t want to adapt his own books. (And he gets hired to fix other writer’s scripts.)

Novelists realize the Moody Blues were right: Thinking is the best way to travel. And the cheapest. Actors are expensive, especially when they have speaking parts and box office draw. And car chases really co$t. Novelists don’t have to get permission to write a shoot-out in a public place. Or worry about crowd control, collateral injuries, lawsuits... Or idiots wandering through the scene demanding autographs.

We novelists don’t want anyone tampering with our characters or stories, but we don’t have to worry about convincing a bankable star or competent director to sign on. Even when the characters have minds of their own, we don’t have to settle disputes about who gets top billing, or think about whether the weather will cooperate or who’s going to pay the caterer and that long list of people named in the credits.

One of my books has been optioned; I wrote the SP. At the request of the producer, I’ve eliminated characters, added a chase, and blown up a boat (or maybe it’ll be a car if the movie gets filmed in winter). And the producer's indicated he wants the villain to have a larger role. He has his reasons. And they’re good ones from his point of view. Maybe the movie will never be made. Maybe a studio will buy the rights and hire a “real” screenwriter to rewrite it. And if they change everything but the title, I won’t care. They’re not gonna change my novel.

So I’ll cash the check and wish them luck. I’ll take the money and smile.


125records said...

I think it's kind of sad when writers I like get into writing screenplays. Even if they get paid $$$ for it, chances are SO infinitesimal that the film will ever be made. I know one writer who took 20 years off to write screenplays -- he made a lot of money but not ONE of them ever got made into a movie. I can't begrudge them the paycheck, but it seems like wasted time. Turning a screenplay back into a book is a great idea!

Dana King said...

I love your attitude toward this. I was at a book signing for Robert B. Parker several years ago, and the question came up (not from me) as to whether he had any advice for a novelist who had an offer for movie rights. I don't remember his answer word for word, but the clear gist was, "Deposit the check as quickly as you can and walk away."

Cameron Hughes said...

Its just painful when books practically made for the screen get ruined in translation.

Exhibit A? The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow. Simple enough story, GREAT action that would make most directors swoon, and under it all, a great heart. I'm thinking Tony Scott is just a weird enough action director to nail it.

Of course, Winslow's great narration would get lost in adaptation.

Michael Dymmoch said...


Barb D'Amato advised me to novelize a my first screenplay because novels are easier to sell. She was right. Making a living writing screenplays that are never filmed is probably better than driving a cab or selling stamps in the post office.


I may have heard Parker's advice long ago and stashed it away somewhere. If you worry about what Hollywood is going to do you'll drive yourself crazy.


There are very few screenwriters with the skill to distill a great novel into 120 pages of dialog and narrative. Most of them are busy writing their own plays...