nancynigrosh | Nancy Nigrosh
1
archive,paged,author,author-admin,author-1,paged-3,author-paged-3,ajax_updown_fade,page_not_loaded,,select-child-theme-ver-1.0.0,select-theme-ver-3.7,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-5.0.1,vc_responsive

Memo to Women Screenwriters: Man Up!

Why do so few scripts written by women receive high ratings on The Black List? This is mainly a problem for feature scripts, but highlighted television pilots also project a dim ratio.

 

As a service, The Black List has consistently been ahead of the curve but presently, it’s right in sync with 2013’s bleaker-than-usual, dismal “celluloid ceiling” report. Is the shrinking percentage of women screenwriters now seen as just business as usual, a reflection of our societal malaise? Or are women screenwriters actually doing something to fuel the inequity?

 

I doubt an old school research tool like listing all writers by their first initial would change the numbers much. It’s the genre-skirting “logline” that gives the women away, demonstrating what separates the girls from the boys. These self-congratulatory summaries border on dimorphism which, in the animal kingdom, distinguishes between male and female appearance.

 

An illuminated “premise,” on the other hand, has to work to gain advocacy with lasered, clear-cut genre as its engine. Agents prefer the term “premise.” A solid premise indicates something durable that actually has a shot at getting across the Hollywood player minefield, while a weak one won’t make it through the many hoops it takes to get all the way to the bank.

 

The Bechdel Test launched 1,000 righteous infographics illustrating the tried-and-true — and sometimes false — business model of male-centric “programmers,” clearly labeling blame on male decision-makers. What if those charts and graphs were interpreted another way? What if they were seen simply as stats for a losing team? If that were so, why wouldn’t that team re-think its overall strategy? Instead of a self-pitying document, why not make the annual Celluloid Ceiling report an occasion for a call to arms?

 

Instead, women marginalize and dig themselves further into girly ghettos like the well-intentioned Athena Film Festival. Read their selected “winning” script loglines and weep.

 

However, maybe all isn’t lost. Some women have accumulated serious cred and it’ll be fun to see what they do with it. But what they need in order to push ahead are scripts.

 

In 2014, Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison became the first woman, and only the fourth person in history, to receive two Best Picture nominations in a single year, for “Her” and “American Hustle,” whose star Jennifer Lawrence has so far totally escaped the second sex box. “White House Down” writer Laeta Kalogridis enjoys a robust career flexing her ability to wield Ocham’s razor, as does Kathryn Bigelow. But this is not a long list of serious women players.

 

Women are finding easier footing in TV. “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan loves a good crime while “Grey’s Anatomy” exec Shonda Rhimes kicks silk-sheet-covered ass. In Ann Biderman’s neo-noir, LA-set “Ray Donovan,” women are just as strong and complexly weak as the men. There are also those who’re impressively talented enough to invest in, and redefine, the traditionally safe real estate of “womantic” comedy, from Tina Fey and Mindy Kalling to the baddest “it girl” of them all, Lena Dunham.

 

Are women writers afraid of being “typed”? The fear of being typed based on looks is a reasonable concern that women are all too familiar with, but fuzzy genre identification or outright genre-switching is a recipe for failure, since professional identity isn’t a shape-shifting guessing game. This is well-known in television, where writers and producers are deliberately in sync, while studios are unanimously clear about the primacy, and necessity, of genre, which their infrastructures need in order to thrive. Audiences show up for male and/or female superstars who earn accordingly. Ironically, screenwriter Paul Schrader’s observation that “a screenplay isn’t a work of art. It’s an invitation to other artists to collaborate” fits the television model better than it does for feature films, which have long been his wheelhouse.

 

Even the women on studio greenlight committees exploit the gender parity for their own gain, so the ball is ultimately in the writers’ court. If there were more plentiful scripts written by women with clearly identified genre skills, the gender factor could disappear, as it does with novels, journalism, music, photography or any other creative discipline. The formula for what works is really about the writer’s ability to compete. As in any thriller, when the protagonist’s existence is threatened, the only chance to survive is to use killer instinct. Rip a page from the “Veronica Mars” playbook, hold the door open for yourself and don’t let the ceiling hit you on the way in.

How Screenwriter Terry Southern Prepared Me for a Career in Hollywood

Some people debate the value of film school. I’m not one of them.

 

Terry Southern’s NYU master screenwriting class was held on Tuesday nights at Remington’s Bar, a basement dive on Waverly Place. Trudging through the ice-hardened sidewalk, I noticed his beat up Ford Mustang with the broken canvas top barely covering up the snow from the storm night before. I always wondered how he’d made it back to Connecticut in that thing.

 

Terry was one of a kind, a truly badass screenwriter. Even in the revolutionary times of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the author of the geared to shock novel, Candy, also wrote screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, Barbarella, and many other films that scored bull’s-eyes at shaking up the status quo.

 

I nodded to my classmates, who each nursed a coke or a beer at the counter. In turns, we sauntered over to Terry’s table, where he presided in kingly fashion, and gave insights into the magic of professional filmmaking. There were six of us, so we got roughly half an hour each. By ten o’clock, Terry was in a world of his own, yet still adept at letting us in on Stanley Kubrick insider stories and cool anecdotes about the scenes behind the scenes of Easy Rider.

 

His advice was punctuated by references to classical drama that he connected to anecdotes about the films he’d written. Referring to The Magic Christian, one of his own novels he’d adapted for the screen, he became incensed that Ringo Starr, Peter Sellers and “all these other limey pricks” didn’t see that “Hamlet and his problems” were an expression of emotional excess that couldn’t be exposed simply by indulging in excess on screen. It seemed what he was really teaching us was something else other than writing, something about the reality of being a writer. He actually adored these “pricks,” who were his comrades-in-arms. But only they could get away with behaving outrageously. As a writer, Terry found out there was a double standard when it came to being creative. He had to bear the architectural burden of responsibility without the advantage of being in control.

 

Each of us pitched a story to Terry. He seemed to be listening and weighing words on some invisible scale only he knew the value of, followed by oblique commentary until he finally dug out a golden nugget and tossed it with a knowing raised eyebrow reminiscent of Durand Durand from Barbarella.

 

I’d just seen Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, so I pitched a forbidden love story between an immature actress in her twenties and a teenage boy actor, and framed it as a film-within-a-film. Fueled by pretentious schoolgirl logic I said, “I just worked on a feature and can see that filmmaking creates a heightened state where the rules just don’t apply…” He interrupted by exclaiming, ”I want to write this with you! I know all about what goes on on movie sets, so it’ll be authentic!” I was flattered and didn’t quite know how to respond. “You’ve never even been to California!” he concluded, shaking his head. It was odd that he was the one pitching me. I couldn’t quite believe it.

 

“How would it work?” I shrugged. He explained, “You write pages, send them to me in Connecticut and then I make comments and add to them, then mail them back, ‘Special Delivery’, wherever you are.” The plan was to collaborate through the post office, and of course, we’d write cutting edge, wild and subversive projections about how a girl in her 20’s – if left to her own dark devices, might behave. Little did I know this process would take nearly two years. Fat manila envelopes from Terry covered with red ink stamped “S.W.A.K.” and “Good Grief!” would ebb and flow. He also sent copies of his books, Red-Dirt Marijuana and Blue Movie, complete with scrawled notes I wasn’t sure were for me personally or well-thumbed copies he had lying around.

 

On our script’s pages, Terry vented all too real frustrations he’d had on the films he’d worked on with mind blowing insights into a screenwriter’s travails.

 

He created wonderfully bizarre characters, including the producer’s assistant cum girlfriend, Comancha, an Apache dominatrix who rids the set of the studio’s evil spirits with a down and dirty, pow-wowing striptease.

 

My contributions were more romantic and melodramatic, befitting my naïveté. Nevertheless, Terry gallantly told me how talented I was. He suggested I apply to UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program, move to L.A. and take my shot. He said he’d write a recommendation. He did. Within months I was on the road, traveling cross country.

 

Westwood seemed benign, even sleepy, but just as Terry hinted out loud, L.A.’s ‘70’s casual suburban façade was an intimidating mental construct even more self obsessed than the one he’d conjured in our script. His potent warnings about Hollywood made me fearful, and, at 22, I was still just a kid with a lot more living to do. It became clear I wasn’t destined to become a screenwriter after all.

 

Little did I realize at the time how well Terry had prepared me for the career I did end up having in Tinseltown years later as a literary agent. In spite of the supportive yet subversive film folks he’d worked for, Terry was well aware that he’d been lucky. With a killer smile he advised, “Court luck, keep your thumb out, and like D.H. Lawrence said, ‘when you’ve got something to say, say it hot.’ Somebody’s gonna want whatcha got.”

On Landing My First Job in the Business on Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’

10 pm. NYU Film School, The East Building 8th floor, Editing Room.

“Who wants to work on a movie?” a voice pitched, over the din of old time moviolas. We worked on the same ultra durable film sewing machine used by all the studios in their heyday. (It now occurs to me that maybe these are what inspired “Star Wars Episode V’”s AT Walkers.) We used a form of scotch tape to make temp edits, and carefully scraped the tape with razor blades to carve the film sprocket holes, a frustrating and messy business. Hours melted away. Time stood still.

 

Every wannabe filmmaker in the editing bay just wanted to finish and be done. “I need two camera assistants… a gaffer and…a script girl,” announced the voice I now recognized as Mitchell, our TA. Groans were heard. “OK, there’s coffee in it, on me,” definitely sounding like Mitchell. Heads poked out. Five guys plus me, the only girl around, threw on our coats and shuffled past the purple walls trimmed with bright yellow paint, yawning and stretching. We piled into a station wagon parked in a red zone.

I asked, “Is this your car?”

“No,” Mitchell answered, “It belongs to the bank, it’s a lease car.”

“What’s a lease car?,” I wondered.

 

Around eleven, we pulled in front of the Gramercy Park Hotel, a seedy place in those days. The lobby couldn’t have been creepier. But the elevator, an old fashioned cage, was. It occurred to me as we were being yanked up a few flights, that maybe I‘d made a mistake. The cage opened onto a fairly well lit hallway. But that wasn’t a good thing. A door opened and light spilled out like the sun just came up. Guys were pacing around as far as the phone chords would take them. Things settled down, however, when the eye of the storm, a dynamo with shoulder length black hair and a dark but smiling countenance, became the center of attention.

“Mitchell! So, are these the kids?”

“Yeah, Marty,” said Mitchell, who then pointed out two camera assistants, two gaffers and me, whom he called, “the script girl.” Marty stared at me and said, “This girl? She’s… tall. I mean look at her. Look at me…. Look at her.” Just as directed, the entire room fell silent, looking at me. Marty threw up his hands, shaking his head. With that, he left the room. I felt my feet move to follow him to another part of the suite, where someone was on the phone with “the coast.” Then it hit me that all these people were here from California, a place I’d never been. All around were sketches of scenes from the film they were making. Marty sat down at a nearby desk. Instinctively I sat down and said, “I don’t have to be tall.”

 

He grinned and said, “that’s good.” He showed me some of his sketches. They were very specific. He explained how he wanted the continuity notes to be, since he’d be referring to them in the editing room in California.

“So, you think you can do this?” he asked.

“Yes, I can,” I nodded.

Then we both stood up. The disparity in our heights threw him again. “Okay,” he said, sounding as if inspiration had just struck. He threw his shoulders forward as if to model a dance move or do a James Cagney imitation. Instinctively I followed his lead. I gently hunched in his direction. He beamed, “Yeah, that’s good.”

 

We spent the next ten days strategically focused like our lives depended on it. Rest was something the rest of the world did. We filmed in Little Italy, one step ahead of the teamsters, since we were a non-union shoot. The local cops watched out for us. One night, Marty’s mom, Catherine, acted in a scene. A restaurant in Marty’s old neighborhood opened its doors at 3am and treated us to the meal of our lives.

 

Marty was patient and kind. Only once did I truly fuck up. In one scene Robert De Niro was holding a gun. In the middle of shooting he switched hands. I shouted in a panic, “The gun needs to be in your other hand!” Needless to say, I made the man angry. De Niro stepped out of the scene. He walked up to me. “Please don’t do that,” he said in that soft voice that made you feel you had his complete attention and you wondered if maybe that wasn’t a good thing. Then he walked back into the scene, as though nothing had happened.

 

On our last day, we were shooting at night in an old cemetery, a stone’s throw from an apartment building where a party scene was being staged above us. This was an exterior pick up shot of the action inside through the window. I got to stretch out and rest. Earlier in the evening the crew had given me flowers because it was my birthday. I plopped onto the cold ground, leaned up against one of the thin granite tombstones with the flowers, my shooting script now fat with notes to Marty, my stop watch around my neck, looked up at the moon and thought, “So this is the film business. Wonder if anyone will ever see his little movie.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Memo to Screenwriters #3: Being Solely Identified by Your Scripts Leads to Permanent Identity Crisis

Like so many others, Elmore Leonard, god bless him, praised writers for their “perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out.” Of course writers might think he was only referring to writing, especially when coupled with his memetic 10th rule: “if it looks like writing, re-write it.” Taking this credo too literally is certain to drive writers even further into the ivory tower of the introvert. Justified, indeed.

 

Elmore Leonard’s fans don’t have to have read his work extensively or at all, to uh, “know” him. He presents himself as a look-us-in-the-eye type, not some remote artist alone in a tower being celebrated from afar. In other words, Leonard exists to us as a man, not solely as a writer. His appeal extends beyond what’s on the page — the other half of the career equation. Even an opposite icon like J.D. Salinger’s controlled seclusion and rejection of immortal author conventions are just as famous as the characters he created. We know what these writers look like. We can even imagine what their opinions on various topics might be. Even though they are no longer alive and writing, they still speak through the media in identities separate and apart from their work.

 

I was recently asked about the difference between a screenwriter’s identity and a screenwriter’s voice. Simply put, in a screenplay it’s the “voice” collected into pages that’s put up for sale. If the writer’s persona has been left behind embedded in the pages, versus used portably as a sustainable tool the writer can re-use, then the writer has to start from scratch with every screenplay to gain back any kind of self referral as an artist. Imagine if the DIY self-published authors of today followed the technique traditionally used by screenwriters to simply type their name under the title as reference to authorship with no personal outreach to their readers.

 

Instead it’s typical for DIYs to directly engage with their readers, communicating whistle-stop style to gain converts. Tweets become campaign waves; blog tours, virtual handshaking — which serve before or after any work is read to exponentially expand the writer’s off-page identity. DIY scribes understand that any discriminating buyer for their work will, without question, consult a website algorithm then mentally measure the writer’s metadata before making a purchase. In a contemporary Hollywood universe, any kind of screenplay buyer does the same.

 

Consider the more familiar difference in how a film director develops identity in a traditional film business scenario. There’s discoverable emphasis on the director’s background and training with critical analysis of themes associated with that director’s work. There’s an easy dialogue flow about where and how that director grew up; which filmmakers influenced them; who their mentors were. There‘s no expectation that a page they wrote or even piece of film they directed could solely speak for them by proxy. Directors aren’t conflicted about their human persona being a key component to their professional role. When they aren’t directing they’re visibly participating in far ranging community outreach to exercise their essential uniqueness and creative values.

 

If screenwriters demand exclusive evaluative focus on the pages they “just sit there and grind out” without including interactive public behavior to identify themselves as unique storytelling masters the way Elmore Leonard and some other writers do, the screenwriter’s identity becomes dependent on how that material fares in a finite Hollywood marketplace. In this traditional film business scenario the emphasis on material necessarily becomes about cost: the cost for the rights, cost of re-writing and cost of producing it. The page is what has value, not the man or woman who wrote it, who are bound to become less important. The ensuing professional relationship composition is calculated to take power away from the screenwriter.

 

Some folks might be waiting for the WGA to conduct a blind study to see if kick-ass public identity development works. It might be simpler and faster to take a look at Diablo Cody’s career or Tony Kushner’s.

 

Ms. Cody created a public persona different from the one she grew up with that she believed was more authentic. Working at an office, she started stripping while also blogging about it. Note that she didn’t blog in any way about a screenwriting career. She showed up online as herself and attracted the attention of an alert film producer, who encouraged her as a writer. Activist Tony Kushner also shows up consistently as himself. His opinion is often sought about topics of concern, not just Hollywood-centric ones. We know about these artists’ human personas, which not only influences their writing, but attracts the notice of their worlds at large, thus creating anticipation of their work.

Memo to Screenwriters #2: Like E.L. James, You Can Change the Game

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan emphasized the value of message and the medium the message uses over its creator. This idea flies in the face of the modern era’s printed book as the ultimate expression of the writer, who toiled in glorified isolation as the big publishing house distributed it magically across the universe. McLuhan went on to predict a wireless world, where all messages are accessed instantly to and from a collective brain–what we now call mobile media.

 

Ever since authors shed the fantasy of a big publishing house model, many midlist and novice writers have opted to write speculative books delivered to reading tablets–print on demand–once they realized that they had the distinct advantage of having a product they solely owned that could be bought directly online. Now writers manage not only all creative decisions but also their own metadata, including ISBN number and price.

 

The most successful among them, “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James, strategized with aggressive genre mastery. She identified and directly engaged with present and future readers in social media hangouts. She insured that the upload to Amazon, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony Reader could truly pay off. Big publishing houses had long overlooked such popular fiction genres as romance and science fiction. Now big houses along with the public (and movie studios), scout for bestselling indie authors.

 

Which prompts the question: what can screenwriters learn from this?

 

Flashback: Hollywood, circa 2001. Gutenberg almost left the building. Talent agencies began to scan screenplays into computers, making obsolete their script library (that also served production and casting). This was first done in the name of efficiency to save storage space. Printed copies went out as usual, delivered by hand. Then, after reliable email attachments came into general use, clients’ revised drafts could be distributed with an easy click.

 

But issues of control arose when it came to spec scripts. Reverting to type, the market marched backwards by sending sealed hard copies to buyers’ homes after hours and/or watermarking screenplays (so that pirated copies could be traced to a leaker) to accommodate time-sensitive, high stakes spec submissions. No thanks to the collective brain, many scripts were negatively profiled on the net via the tracking boards, and dismissed almost immediately. Though the market was fading, specs still held strong as an essential career strategy.

 

Truth is, the shark, like Oprah’s couch, had been thoroughly jumped. Around 2008, a certain major studio dropped the compulsory rain or shine weekend read. I recall a stunned colleague announcing at a staff meeting, “They’ve decided from now on to be more selective.” It never occurred to anyone to heed McLuhan’s prediction of electronic (vs. physical) delivery as its own high-impact message by posting a script on a private site with a password. Or trying the unheard of idea of posting a property MLS style with specs and stats that a prospective buyer’s gut could go with or without. First launched in email in 2004 as a free annual development survey, Franklin Leonard’s The Black List now offers a gated community tour for producers, directors and executives eager to identify the status of popular scripts idling in studio development or possibly overlooked (or looked over) gems.

 

A few weeks ago, the WGAW sanctioned use of the site solely devoted to promoting professional screenwriters’ work, searchable not only by name and title but by detailed genre, logline, budget and attachments as well as rated by reviewers. In the shadow of crashing tentpoles, opportunity has never knocked louder. Yet, how often have screenwriters solely described their work as a “calling card” that speaks for itself? By insisting on a virtual blind taste test, the writer’s identity elicits little more detail than a name followed by the question of who their agent is. Without a game a name is just a name.

 

Contrast that with what happens when a book is enthusiastically recommended to anyone. The question of “who wrote it?” paints a creative persona with details about gender, race, nationality, childhood, life story, life span, regional experience, class, politics. Expressed appreciation might extend to the book’s authentic atmosphere crafted by a mastery of language, character, genre cred, ear for dialogue, and clarity of message that all together earn that writer the reputation for ability to dial directly into universal truths.
Any kind of writer — dead and buried — or alive and writing, can “like” McLuhan, “friend” Gutenberg and become easy to discover via personal websites, genre driven blogs, mashup videos and show up on you-name-it social media to attract not only readers but loyal admirers. Why not screenwriters?