Monday, June 20, 2011

Confessions of an Alaskan Screenwriter, Act 3: A Guest Post by James McLain

When last we were speaking, I had learned that you need to not only write really good stories, but that period pieces are not likely to be made because they are very expensive. Both are good lessons, and ones I planned on taking to heart. Remembering the primary axiom of my chosen profession, “Writers write,” I was looking around for my next project. Then, more of less out of the clear blue, I was asked to try writing a short film by a couple of film makers. It seemed that they wanted something to present at the Anchorage International Film Festival and they had read my first two scripts. One of them had the idea for a story but wanted someone to turn it into a script.

For those who don’t know, a “short” script is anything less than about eighty pages long. I think mine was about seven or eight pages. I had never written a short script but I decided to give it a shot. I mean, what was the worst that could happen? If they liked it, I would get film credit. If they didn’t, I’d learn a bit more about writing scripts.
 
I sat down and lo and behold, four hours later, I had finished my first short. With much trepidation, I shipped it off via email to my film friends . . . They liked it . . . Who knew?
 
I like to misdirect my audience into believing the story is heading in one direction and then take a left turn surprising them at the end. Short scripts are great for this. You set them up and then knock them over. The story line I was given fit perfectly for this, so it was easy. They made the film and submitted to the film festival. We won a small prize and I was ecstatic. Then I was asked to write another short film for the same festival. I did it, again in about four hours, and it won a different small prize. I was on a roll. I had two short films made and both of them were pretty well received. I thought it was time to write another feature.
 
At the awards ceremony for my shorts, I ran into the director. I told him I had an idea for my next feature. I can’t go into what it was, because I signed a nondisclosure agreement. I can say that he didn’t want me to write my story because he had the same idea. Somehow, and I don’t really remember the exact order of things, I ended up agreeing to write the script for him. He liked it and optioned it for next to nothing. He also had me sign the nondisclosure agreement. I really don’t regret signing the option. As a new screenwriter, there is nothing wrong with hitching your wagon to an up and coming director. I even think the film may be made in the not so distant future.
 
I do, however, regret signing the nondisclosure agreement. All a beginning screenwriter has to sell is his/her ability to write. If I couldn’t show my work to anyone, how was I going to prove to people that I had the ability to write? I won’t tell you what to do, but I have never signed another nondisclosure agreement for one of my scripts. I doubt I ever will. Another lesson learned.
 
So there I was; three features under my belt and no new script to write. What to do? Then one day not so long after that, I saw on facebook that my director friend wanted to know if anyone had a vampire screenplay available. I was a little hurt. I had written two shorts for him and a feature and he hadn’t called me to ask to see if I could write his vampire epic. I called him up on the phone. I told him I thought I could do it. It was somewhere around April, so he asked me if I could have a script done by August. I allowed that I thought I could get one done by then.
 
I saw this as a challenge. He hadn’t called me! Having been a legal writer for many years, I was used to writing under strict deadlines and intense pressure. I sat down and began to write. Eight days later, I presented him with a shiny new vampire feature. (I tried for seven days but even I needed to sleep sometimes.) I wanted people to call me when they wanted a script, and I wanted to prove I could produce one on short notice. I didn’t let the quality of the story slip. I do admit that as the long hours ran on my spelling became even more creative than usual. Ah well, spelling is for machines. 
 
The director loved it even though it didn’t fit exactly into his original idea. It was a vampire film and it is enough different from others that I can hold my head up when it finally gets finished. It has been about 75% done for about the last year. Not enough money to finish it. Another lesson learned: Sometimes writers have to help raise money to get their films done. .

More next week . . .         

Aspiring screenwriters are invited to attend the 49 Writers Screenwriting Roundtable with visiting screenwriter Dave Hunsaker on July 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Out North Contemporary Art House, 3800 DeBarr Rd. in Anchorage.  Registration is required.

2 comments:

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Brilliant Writer Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

I invite you to follow me since we have a lot in common, but no pressure. I’m not giving you the award just so you will follow me. You really do deserve it!
Take care:-)

Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
~Deirdra

Laurel said...

You've got some great advice. I had never considered the implications of signing a non-disclosure agreement before. Thank you!