From the Archives: Jim McLain – Confessions of an Alaska Screenwriter

I apparently am one of the first three (and hopefully not the last) Alaskan screenwriters to be asked to be a guest blogger for 49 Writers. That being the case, I thought it might be expedient to start out by explaining the differences between screenwriting and other forms of writing. I’ll try not to bore you.

Consider that you have just spent the last six months doing a dazzling essay or poem or short story or novel or stage play about say . . . Edger Allen Poe. You have edited it to a tee and it is all ready to send to a publisher. Assume also you find a publisher who loves your essay, etc. and who agrees to publish it. The publisher might request a minor league amount of further editing, but ultimately it is published and basically cast in stone. If you are a playwright, one of the strongest traditions of the stage is that there is an almost slavish adherence to “the book;” the words and actions written in the script. God help the poor actor or director who goes “off book.”

Now consider the screenwriter. He or she writes a brilliant screenplay about Mr. Poe of between 90 and 120 pages. It is a scintillating drama dealing with the alcohol abuse that led to his death at a young age. First the writer has to find a producer who is willing and able to raise somewhere between $25,000 to $100,000,000 depending on the script and the stars attached to have the film made. Given that there are thousands upon thousands of screenplays making the rounds at any given moment, the chance of successfully finding such a producer is, at best, poor.

Let’s say you amazingly actually find a producer who loves your screenplay and wants to make it into a movie. You are nowhere near done. Maybe the producer actually has access to the money needed to make the movie – in which case the producer buys the rights to the film for whatever you agree to sell it for. The selling price could be anywhere from nothing to a bazillion dollars. This doesn’t mean you will ever see a film made from your screenplay. Once you sell your rights, the script might well sit on a shelf forever gathering dust. Just because they own a script doesn’t mean they have any duty to film it.

On the other hand, maybe the producer doesn’t have the money readily available. In that case, you may sell an “option” to the producer. That gives the producer the option to buy the script for a set period of time at a set amount. An option usually lasts a year or two. The producer can use that time to raise the money to make the movie. The problem with this is that you can’t sell the script to anyone else during the time it is optioned. Let’s say you option your script for $25 on Tuesday, and on Wednesday another producer wants to pay you $1,000,000 for your script. Guess what, you’re stuck for however long the option lasts. In the mean time, the million dollar deal may well evaporate.

Just for grins, let’s say that you sold the film to a producer that can, and does, actually raise the money needed to make the film. Smooth sailing from now on, right? Wrong! Next the script goes to a series of film minions whose various jobs are to fold, spindle, and mutilate your script to fit it to the contours of their visions of what the story should be.  Maybe the producer wants to give a role to his or her third cousin on Great Aunt Sadie’s side of the family; you may have do a rewrite. The director has a different world view; you may have to do a rewrite.  Maybe a named actor wants more lines; you may have to do a rewrite.

Recently, in a film I wrote, the director called me and told me an actor was about to leave the state and would not be able to finish the film. Since the film was more than half done and she was in a significant number of scenes, reshooting the role was not an option. His directive: “You need to kill her.” I had to do a significant rewrite.

Even if you are lucky enough to sell the film, have it made, and are allowed to do the rewrites (as opposed to some script doctor who destroys your story), you still have to worry that the director and/or actors have such a different vision of the story that your carefully drafted historical drama may somehow morph into a slasher/porno/musical extravaganza. It has happened. Not to me . . . yet. But the day is young.

So if it is such a pain, why do I do it? Because to see your words turned into a moving, living, breathing tableau on the screen while you sit in a dark room watching it all unfold before your eyes is a thrill I cannot describe. God help me, I love it.

At the time this post first ran in 2010, Jim McLain was a 57 year old screenwriter who had lived in Alaska for 34 years. His first feature film, “Snow Angels,” was being completed and is due out in fall of 2011. His second feature film, “The Doppelganger Principle” starring Ed Asner, was scheduled to begin shooting on October 3, 2011. Principle photography and post-production for both films was in Anchorage, Alaska. 

Hope springs eternal . . .

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