Famed screenwriters Dustin Lance Black (Milk), Diablo Cody (Juno), the team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Josh Olson (A History of Violence) shared real talk about life as a writer-for-hire at the Los Angeles Film Festival last Sunday.
“Compare and contrast,” said Olson, “working for yourself versus…How should I say this? Behaving in the manner of professional people in the studio system?”
“The oldest profession,” someone corrected him.
“The biggest difference,” said Black, who we profiled in our people issue this year, is that a studio job comes with a paycheck. If you're working for yourself, “you have to figure out how to survive.”
Studio checks come with studio notes, though, Olson pointed out. Lots and lots of notes. “My trick is to avoid those for as long as possible,” said Black. But how? “You just take crappier deals.”
“Any time I try to write anything for a studio, I completely fail at it. It's almost as if, like, I'm aware of the noose around my neck,” said Cody. “It's hard when you're in a creative space and you have someone telling you 'your character needs to be less of a whore.'”
Marcus talked about the frustration of walking into conference rooms where “there's a million people and no one has the authority. And everyone's going to have their say, and it's going to be awful.”
Added Cody, “And then you'll spend weeks or months addressing a round of notes only to have them completely redacted. And it'll be like, 'Who told you to do this?' 'I thought you did.'”
But what would a world without studios — or notes, or corporate budgets — look like? “Is there a movie you'd love to do? A film in you that nobody expects?” Olson asked.
“I'd like to write the life story of Brian Wilson,” said Cody. And who would play him? “Me. That's why it's a passion project. I'm also writing the music.”
“With our big movies, we've been kind of dealing in hope,” said Markus.
“Hope merchants,” McFeely grumbled.
“And I don't really have the deepest well of hope,” Markus continued. “So I'd kind of like to write a tiny movie where at the end everybody kills themselves.”
The panel opened to the audience for questions. “Do you feel like you can land big talent now that you're more well known?” a woman asked Cody.
“It's fun to be new,” Cody answered. “This town is full of vampires. They want to deal in like, fresh new blood.”
Did Cody have anything coming down the pipeline?
“I wrote Sweet Valley High. I can't really talk about it. But know, ladies, that it is moving forward.” The women in the crowd applauded.
“All the ladies are excited,” Olson said.
“If the studio reads about this they're going to like, 'Listen, I think there needs to be more dudes being dudes in the script,'” Cody said.
Olson led the writers gently into a discussion on dealing with critical feedback. “Have you ever found any of it helpful?”
“Some things can be helpful. But not if somebody says your legs are fat,” Cody said, not inaccurately. “That's what happens when you're a lady.”
“Any advice on pitching?” asked a woman in the audience who was shopping her own script around to execs.
“They smell fear,” said McFeely.
“They know if you want it really badly. And it's going to turn them off. Like a dude,” Cody added.
“It's a conversation. Not a vaudeville act. They usually know what they want. If I can help them with that, then they're kind of on board already,” Markus said.
“What's something you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career that you could offer as a piece of advice?” came a final question.
“I just like to tell myself not to worry. I've spent a lot of time worrying,” said Markus.
“Write what you love, because that's the thing you're going to be best at,” said Black.
“Have no other marketable skills whatsoever,” said Olson. “Don't have any other skills.”