A friend of mine recently quit copywriting to write a screenplay.
Within days he was phoning to chat about migraine and insomnia; his attraction to cliff tops and razor blades. Suddenly he’s fighting with his girlfriend – her fault – arrives late for appointments, drinks too much or, alternatively, claims he no longer drinks at all (first sign of the alcoholic).
Finally, we meet for coffee and he’s wearing odd shoes. He hands me a Post-it with this on it:
The true way leads along a tight-rope, which is not stretched aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip than to be walked along.
Kafka had found him.
Paranoia is the writer’s drug of choice. You don’t choose writing. It comes to you like a terminal disease. Like Covid. Suffering is the central condition of the artistic experience. That’s was Samuel Beckett said, even with the Nobel Prize on the shelf. Hemingway, another Laureate, blew his head off with a shot gun. Graham Greene got God. A messy business.
The pencil lead, red felt-tip and keyboard make a three-tongued whip writers use for self-flagellation, peeling off layers of flesh in search of the story buried among the scars. And then, when it comes out on the page, dripping blood and perspiration, it’s never quite as good as what you had planned in your mind.
The writer expects to be kicked when he’s down, and kicked harder if he appears to be defying the Gods and getting up. When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out, New York’s leading papers devastated the forests of Finland for their reviews. Critics had palpitations over the pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman and forgot to mention the writer. One journalist hated the picture and blamed the script. William Goldman had spent five years writing it.
Here’s a test: list your five favourite films in the last twelve months. Now name the writers.
And another test: who wrote Thelma and Louise?
Film schools teach the script in screenwriting classes. Remember Susan Sarandon (neat hair); Geena Davis (neat Levi’s); Ridley Scott with his hand firmly on the gear change. It was Callie Khouri who wrote the film and I still don’t know if Callie’s a man, a woman or a pseudonym. Perhaps it’s a play on Kali, the Hindu destruction deity, bit man, bit woman, the standard bearer for a new, less sexually defined century.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon spent eight years getting Good Will Hunting in the picture houses. They walked off with an Oscar for best screenplay and have spent the years since in front of the camera not with their eyes following the marching black ants on the blank flickering screen.
Writing’s a tough business, in all genres. The highly paid are the tip of an iceberg crammed with struggling hacks, struggling with the gas bill, struggling with the corkscrew, struggling to smelt raw words and forge them on to the page.
I’ve been commissioned to write several scripts. Only one, written with director Gyorgy Dobray, has been made. Titled The Whiskey Robber, it’s based on the true story of a hockey star who took to robbing banks in Budapest and became a folk hero like Robin Hood. The Hungarian producers never scraped the money together to make the film and finally sold the project to a Turkish film company that transferred the action to Istanbul and translated it into Turkish. I did get a credit on the movie bible IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, not that anyone I know can understand a word that’s being said. Except the Turks, of course.
Writing’s like opening your veins with a blunt knife to watch the blood pour out. Writer’s feel the shadow of Sisyphus chilling their souls. No one knows why we do it and, when we’ve done it, nobody wants it. And if they do want it, they rarely want to pay for it. If I were to choose a patron saint for writers it would have to be Vincent van Gogh; a painter.
Writing is not a competitive sport, quality is subjective, although I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of loser syndrome when my copywriting pal called the other day with a chirpy tone to his voice. He’d met a producer at a rebirthing weekend in Canterbury and sold an option on his screenplay. It’s about an alcoholic trying to turn his life around at a rebirthing weekend. So it goes.
Writing a screenplay? Try my book: Making Short Films
Photo top of the column shows me directing the short film Greta May