A User’s Guide to Screenwriters by William Nicholson

For film producers, development executives, script editors, and any others who have the job of working with screenwriters…

How screenwriters see producers

Producers are fickle. At the first meeting on a project, the producer makes you feel desired. It’s like a first date. But once the courtship is over and you’ve surrendered your virginity, the producer loses interest.

Producers don’t return calls. After you’ve delivered your first draft, you hover over your phone or your screen, excited and nervous as a young lover. But day follows day, and you hear nothing. No call, no email. You have no idea if your love offering has even been received at the other end. Why are they silent? The excitement fades, the nervousness grows.

Producers don’t know what they want. The response comes at last, in the form of notes, and all are negative. Apparently there was nothing right with your screenplay, though it’s not at all clear what was wrong. The production team, it seems, want you to ‘make it better.’ Confused and disheartened, you return to work. In time you deliver your second draft, not at all sure you’re heading in the right direction. Again, there’s no response. You have no idea where you’ve gone wrong, but it seems no one likes what you’re doing.

Producers are too busy to read. More notes appear, and bewilderingly the parts of the new draft that receive most criticism are those you’ve already changed in response to the last set of notes. The awful suspicion grows in your mind that the producer has only skimmed the new draft, and has already forgotten the first draft. Should you simply reinstate your first draft? Would the producer notice? As draft follows draft you lose confidence in the project, and in your own ability to make anything of it.

Producers don’t communicate. You hear rumours that the project is out to directors and actors, but you have no idea if this is really so, or which draft is in circulation. No one in the production office thinks to tell you what’s going on. You begin to think you must have been sacked.

Producers are cowards. One day your agent tells you that she’s read in the trades that a new writer is at work on the very same title. Your own work is never referred to again. When you bump into members of the production team by chance no one ever mentions the project. You wonder if maybe you dreamed the whole thing. But you know you didn’t, because of the mess of bad feelings you’ve been left with. You feel confused, ashamed, bitter and angry.

How producers see writers

Writers are arrogant. They think they’re smarter than you, and more complex, and morally superior. They think they’re artists and you’re just a manager. They have no respect for your judgement and aren’t grateful for the money you put their way. They resent you because you have power over them that they believe to be unearned and unjustified.

Writers have an infantile craving for approval. All that posturing is no more than a cover for the writers’ bottomless hunger for reassurance. It makes you sick, how needy they are, how fragile, how easily discouraged, how lacking in dignity and sheer grit.

Writers let you down. Why this should be so is a mystery, but every writer you hire screws up every time. They don’t listen to the brief, most of what they write is a bolt-together of material from other movies, and when they break out into an original sequence it’s so neurotically personal it’s disturbing.

Writers can’t take criticism. It turns them either homicidal or suicidal. This makes it ten times as hard as it should be to work on the screenplay. Why can’t they just grow up?

Writers takes no responsibility and no risks. You’re the one who carries the can for the project. You don’t get paid until the film goes into production. But the precious trembling writer gets paid before he starts work. He goes on being paid even if he delivers a useless screenplay. He gets paid again when you start shooting, even if there’s not one word written by him in the shooting script. He may well get a credit on the finished film, even if it’s not his work. And finally, he may end up with an award. Meantime, while you’ve slogged on with making this one film, he’s written three more screenplays, been paid for all of them, and he’s still whining that no one appreciates him.

Clearly there’s a fault line here, a failure of perception and understanding between producers and screenwriters. It’s a failure that we can all agree does damage to both parties. This User’s Guide is no plea for pity on behalf of the writer. It’s a set of suggestions that will repay you, the producer, many times over, because if you adopt them you’ll get the best work from your writer that he or she is able to give.

1) Give encouragement

Most writers are insecure about their talent, and in need of reassurance. This is not just vanity and a childish appetite for praise. A writer who doubts his ability becomes unable to write. Like a plane in flight, when the speed drops below a certain critical point, the plane falls from the sky. How is a writer to know whether or not his ability is real? So much of it feels like a fantasy, long and secretly indulged. So much of a writer’s life is spent suspecting he’s not a real writer at all, but a fraud who’s got away with a successful pose, based on a glib manner and a powerful dose of ambition. Validation must comes from outside. That means you.

You are the only person who will study the writer’s work with close critical attention. What you say will become the writer’s reality. However much success the writer has had in the past, this is new work, and the writer doesn’t really know if it’s any good. Your response will make that judgement, and he will internalise it.

If your response is damagingly critical, your writer will lose confidence in his own judgement. After all, he delivered the work to you, evidently believing it to be ready for consideration. Your negative response tells him his own instincts about his work are wrong. From now on he can’t trust himself to know if he’s writing well or badly. This is devastating. Of course, he’ll conceal his inner devastation from you; he may even become defensively aggressive; but the damage is done. His engine has broken, and you’re going to have to do the pushing. He no longer has his own ideas. He wants only to regain the lost praise that will make him believe he is a real writer after all.

Is this what you want? A writer who takes dictation? You might as well write it yourself. No, you want a talented collaborator with a healthy ego who can challenge your ideas, develop the best of them into something even better, while maintaining a rich flow of new ideas of his own. Such wonderful creatures are hard to find. But you can take an average screwed-up insecure writer and train him.

2) Be clear from the start

The first meetings are always delightful. The writer’s thrilled to have got the job, and is riding a wave of confidence. You’re excited, because right now all things are possible and nothing’s yet gone wrong. It really is very like the first stage of a love affair: you both see only the good in each other, and it seems the wrong moment to raise awkward questions about long-term intentions. But it is the best moment, perhaps the only moment, and you must do it.

Don’t ask for a treatment or an outline. That will only lead to endless micro-managing by you and your team, and will madden your writer. But do have proper discussions about the story, and how the writer plans to tackle it. Take notes, write them up, and send them to him as an aide-memoire. If this process uncovers differences, sort them out before he starts to write.

3) Respond fast, respond often

Once your writer has delivered, your response should follow this pattern:

a) Acknowledge receipt of the draft immediately. The writer has no certain knowledge that the email has reached you. From the moment he pressed SEND he entered a state of irrational suspense about his work that can easily tip into panic.

b) Indicate when the writer can expect to hear what you think of it. If you can’t read the draft for three weeks, say so. He will then start counting the days. As day follows day his confidence will fade. Maybe the draft isn’t as good as he supposed. Maybe it’s a humiliating disaster. He’ll continue in this state until you respond.

c) Give your writer at least a brief headline response as soon as you can. You’ll most likely wish to hold off your full response until your team has had time to read, discuss, and formulate their thoughts, but in the meantime don’t allow a deadly silence to fall. If you do, your writer will start to think, ‘They’re so embarrassed by this crock of shit they don’t know what to say to me.’ Offer something along the lines of: ‘Great work, but of course we have a lot of thoughts.’ You may think this is so vague as to be meaningless. Believe me, it’s a whole lot better than the paranoid nightmares your writer is adept at creating for himself.

d) When you’re ready, deliver your first full response in a phone call. It’s so much more human and friendly than an email. Let your writer hear in your voice what you’re feeling about his work. Banish his worst fears. Make him feel good about what he’s done. That means you must begin with praise. After that, by all means give him some idea where you think the next draft needs to go. The rest can wait for the production meeting, and the notes.

4) Criticise courteously

Never show your writer the production team’s notes. To you they may seem sensible and moderate. To your writer they will be devastating.

Your team notes say: ‘The opening sequence lacks drive. We don’t engage with our hero. He’s neither attractive nor interesting.’ You say to your writer: ‘Let’s take a fresh look at the opening. Your hero is such a great character – are we getting how attractive and interesting he is in these opening pages? Maybe there’s room here for one of your brilliant character moments. Something that really gives us our hero in a beat. What do you think?’

Don’t crush the work your writer has done, ask questions about it. Give him the respect of including him in the critical process. ‘Do you think there’s a slackening of pace in Act Two?’ – ‘You’re going to have to explain the plot twists to me here, I’m getting old and slow’ – ‘I love what you do with the girl, but is it delivering all we need?’

This padding about takes time and effort, but your reward will be a writer who is excited, creative, and eager to improve the draft. Never forget: it’s easier to see what’s wrong with a screenplay someone else has written than to write one yourself. So all this praise need not be patronising. If you can do better, go and be a writer.

5 Give clear notes

Make sure at the script meetings that your writer is not being exposed to conflicting notes. There will be several members of your team at the meeting. Sort out your differences before the writer comes in. If differences still emerge – suggestions from a junior that may or may not fit the overall plan – the producer must give the writer a clear lead as to whether he’s to enact the note or not. Don’t let the meeting last more than three hours. Writers’ brains collapse after that.

Follow up the meeting with an email that outlines what’s been agreed between you all. It’s surprisingly easy for people to come out of meetings having heard different things.

6) Don’t let your attention slacken

As the new drafts come in, and your relationship with your writer becomes more familiar, you’ll be tempted to jump straight to the work that still needs to be done. You’ve already noted the ways he’s solved the problems thrown up by the last draft, and you’re pleased, but your eye is on what’s still not right.

This is hard for your writer. He’s proud of the way he’s solved those problems. He wants to know you’ve noticed. Sometimes his changes may be very small, but very smart. He deserves to be praised for these too.

7) Give project information

As the project moves on from the writer to the director, be courteous and keep him informed of progress. In these reports you can and should be brutally truthful. If every director is turning it down, say so. If the studio is losing faith in it, say so. If it’s dead, say so. He needs to know.

If you have to sack the writer, make the call yourself. Don’t delegate it to a junior. In the course of your work together, however disappointing it may have been, you have engaged in actual human contact. So do it the decent way. And while you’re about it, why not send him a bottle of champagne? It’s a hard blow for him, and he could easily become your enemy for life. £40 isn’t much to pay to keep him friendly.

8) Build long-term relationships

You may be tempted to pursue the latest boy-wonder screenwriter, in the hope that this time you’ll get the script of your dreams. Remember how many times in the past you’ve taken this route and been disappointed. The film business suffers from neophilia – the belief that what is new must be better. There is another, older path to perfection: build on what you already have. The great advantage of working with the same writer over many projects is that you get to know each other’s ways of thinking. You, the producer, find that your writer understands you quickly, and that you communicate in your own private short-hand. The writer learns to read your responses with some accuracy. Because you have a history of fruitful collaboration, his anxiety level is reduced and he has less to prove. This means he will feel free to take more risks, and do better work.

You may object that the best writers won’t commit themselves to you in this way, and that you in your turn don’t want to commit to a mediocre talent. I think both assumptions are wrong. The best writers would welcome a long-term working relationship with a fine producer. We’re not talking exclusivity here. Both of you can date others. But with each return to the old team, the familiarity builds. Of course, the best writers get their pick of producers, and they may not pick you. But talent is not a static commodity. Give a mid-level writer security and confidence, challenge him to raise his game, and he will grow into a first-class writer.

9) Respect

The key to the whole business is respect. Imperfect though they may be, writers deserve respect and will flourish if they feel valued. At present the only source of self-esteem for the writer is a credit on a successful film, and we all know how rare, chancy, fickle, and even downright unjust that can be. The same is true for the producer. So let’s find ways to respect each other as we work, and at least enjoy the journey. Film making should be fun.

The views I express above are of course personal. I’ve referred to the writer throughout as ‘he’, being male myself. Many, if not most, screenwriters are women. The issues I raise apply equally to male and female writers.