The eternally galling thing about being a screenwriter is that loss of control is a given. The reason for this indignity? Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.
Whether it be a $200+ million dollar Studio film or a $2,000 buck 2-day micro, whoever comes up with the money, in general, gets creative control.
Notice I hedged that bet with “in general”.
This age-old conflict isn’t lost on writers. The eternal warfare between directors like Fellini and Orson Wells with their producers is legendary. Giving away control of your vision? For a price? It’s a hard thing for anyone to reconcile, let alone masters like these.
So how do you reconcile it? And must you?
When I first started writing in London in the 80’s, I was writing poetry. It was just me and my pretentions, cranking out pretty lousy stuff on a daily basis. I would write what I wanted, when I wanted to write it. I controlled the process from A to Z. Why? Because nobody gave a shit. Nobody was invested but myself. Because my stuff was bad. Had I submitted my stuff and if, by some miracle, was published, yes, I would have have had to answer to an editor. But, as a poet, you pretty much control the creative.
In the 90’s I morphed into a playwright. Here again, I wrote what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it. Subject matter was my domain. I had several companies interested in my stuff and sure, when we did staged readings I would have to take notes and rewrite for the theater companies paying the bills. But the playwright is much higher up on the priority pyramid than the screenwriter. These creative content discussions were truly discussions. Theater is the realm of words. The playwright will always be stronger than the writer of moving images.
On an Indie-budgeted movie, the chances are slim to none that you, as the writer, will be asked to be involved in the post-production process. There is simply no place for you.
When we signed the paperwork for JANE DOE we signed a contract that was quite explicit: For XYZ dollars invested by Unapix Entertainment, Unapix would get, among other things, FINAL CUT. That meant that as director I would control the creative aspect until the rough cut, then would agree to sign over the final vision of the movie to Unapix.
Why on earth would I do that?
Well, the $150,000 they ponied up had a small part to do with it. That sort of money is quite convincing in and of itself. Money helps in creating illusions, or “mirages”, as the Desert tribesmen of WakuWaku call them. For instance, that the producers are “on the same page as us, creatively”. $150,000 dollars will help you talk yourself into a lie like that.
So understand clearly what happens when you take their money. When you take their money you give up creative control. And when you give up control, you put yourself at the will and mercy of others.
Life Lesson 12Z: Beware giving up creative control. Beware of who your collaborators are. This will determine the life of the movie itself. Success or failure springs directly from this.
JANE DOE was doomed the morning I delivered the rough cut to Niki Nikita at Unapix. She turned to me and said she “couldn’t fathom” my vision. Changes would need to be made. She then proceeded to “put a pin in it”—notating where the changes would happen.
And I could do nothing, nothing at all. I had signed away that right when I took their money. I was contractually obligated to be in the edit room as she assumed the captain’s chair next to my editor and, in the course of a few weeks, completely unwound my movie. I am not the first director to lose control of a project and I won’t be the last, but until it happens to you you can’t know how painful it is. I think I described it back then in my usual understated, Sicilian way, by telling folks that was Niki hacking the limbs off my child. What was worse was actually having to be in the room where the slaughter was happening. I would be behind the editor and Niki on a couch as they worked. Once an hour or so, Niki would turn and ask what I thought of this cut or that addition.
Bob Dylan once wrote: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” This is what happens when you don’t know your collaborators, when you take money and give away creative control to the wrong people. Mediocrity ensues.
The beauty of micro-budget is the changing dynamic of control. When you don’t need other people’s money, when you can marshal the resources you need to make your movie yourself, when the barriers of entry fall, then a revolution is truly upon us.
I learned a hard lesson with JANE DOE and wasn’t about to make the same mistake with CHAT. The circumstances were vastly different. Boris and I had known each other for years. We had been creative collaborators on two previous projects. We had a shorthand built in, a knowledge of how the other guy worked. Most importantly, we had trust. It’s the only reason I signed away final control of CHAT.
You have to draw up legal paperwork, even with a partner you trust. You need it in writing, what the responsibilities are for each partner, what the percentages are should a sale be made. Be safe, get it in writing.
With micro-budget, the landscape shifts, but the rule still stands: Who pays the piper, calls the tune. Boris was directing, and was bringing the largest share of money to project, both with his own investment, and in investors he was bringing in. For this, he wanted Final Cut. I, as writer and producer, would be given a generous back end piece, but I had to agree to give us final control. Was I OK with that? If I wasn’t, Boris and I would have to go our separate ways. I would have to raise the money solo and have to direct. The road would become much, much tougher. Knowing and trusting Boris, I signed the paperwork.
I told you about the edit room hell of JANE DOE. The difference with CHAT can be found in this single example: Our lead character, Falcon, has photophobia—a disease of the cornea causing severe pain when he is exposed to light. There’s a scene in a bar when the waitress lights a candle flame. Falcon says: “What do you see, when you look at that.” The response is: “A candle. Nothing. What do you see?” Falcon replies: “Something else.” Falcon then cups the candle flame and doesn’t move his hand away. She looks at him, alarmed by his burning flesh.
When it came time to shoot this we couldn’t get the effect we wanted. The candle melted in a way that the actor just couldn’t control it and maintain a level of safety. We had to move on to another scene before getting the look we wanted. So, when it came time to edit, Boris had few options and did the best he could, keeping the scene intact. When he showed me the rough cut I told him it had to be cut, it was completely unbelievable, no audience would buy it.
Boris disagreed. He wanted to keep it. And Boris, having final cut control, would use his “directorial prerogative” to keep it even though I disagreed. So, what’s different?
The difference is massive, actually. First, Boris asked for my opinion. On every scene of the movie, he asked for my opinion. This wasn’t just some contractual thing. He made changes based on 7 out of 10 of my suggestions. But what about the other 3 out of 10 where we had differences, like this flame scene? We would screen the rough cut to an objective audience (something Niki Nikita never did, not caring for anyone’s opinion but her own). We would ask specific questions of our audience about scenes we can’t agree on. Boris is nothing if not scientific. He likes empirical evidence, as do I. If the majority of folks in the screening tell us the candle scene isn’t working, then OUT IT GOES. If they say it didn’t bother them, then I’ll shut up. Doesn’t matter who was right or wrong. Only thing that matter is making a better movie. And that, my friends, is what micro-budget does. It puts the writer back into the equation.
Micro-budget changes the dynamic of movie-making control.
Writers can pay the piper now. Writer can call the tune. Oh yeah!