Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Good Scribe, or A Good Jake

Mixing film & firefighting backgrounds on "World Trade Center" movie set. I'm the small mustache...

Part II - The Screenwriter As Firefighter

(This was published on my other blog, but thought it appropriate here as well.)

I have been both Scribe and "Jake."

Well, not really a Jake. That term is almost exclusively a reference to a firefighter from the Greater Boston & New England area.

Since I did most of my Fire/Ems work in Alaska (with a brief foray into Antarctica) I guess a better term would be "Ake."

Drop the J and you have AK for Alaska, E for emergency responder ... No?

Lost Friends & Writing Credits

Before I became an Ake I was working towards becoming a professional writer, though I didn't know it.

I enjoyed writing, and had some good response from friends, but never got around to submitting it to places that could pay me wages to write. When I finished my first full-length play, and shortly after that, my first full-length screenplay, I had no idea what to do with them. I was vaguely aware of contests, writing agents, publishers etc, but my lacking self-esteem at that time kept my pages in a drawer...

Until a filmmaker friend asked me to help her work on her story and script for a feature film she had an offer to direct.

Today, I'm still not sure what my position really was on the project. Was I a co-writer? Script doctor? Story editor?

In the end I realized she did all the typing, so I wasn't a co-writer. And it WAS her idea that she came to me with and started bouncing off me as a friend -- something we've all done as writers, I'm sure.

But then the day came where we walked all the way from uptown to downtown Manhattan discussing and developing the story together. Sure, she had final say in everything, but I was there, wasn't I?

And then the work sessions began. She would write some pages, give them to me to read, and we'd meet and discuss them at her apartment, over coffee at a diner, walking around a park. Often these sessions would go on for hours, and we'd have to block out time for them so she could still spend time with her family. I spent hours, then weeks, then months discussing the story, reviewing pages, giving notes...

The film got made. I got paid some money and one of those "special thanks" credits, which at the time I thought was all I could hope for.

I mean, it wasn't my project or original idea. I was lucky just to be asked to the dance.

A few years later when I was making my own indie feature I had done a brief Q&A for an independent film magazine and mentioned I had helped work on the screenplay and story for my friend's movie, which was receiving attention in the indie scene. My friend read my statement in the magazine and called me up. I was excited to hear from her as it had been awhile since we had last spoken (Facebook did not exist then,) but quickly realized she was upset. I defended myself and we haven't spoken since.

Most of us will have been taken advantage of at some point in our life, often to our detriment. Just as we will take advantage of others, whether it be personally or in business. Thus I strive for two things:

To limit my advantage-taking when I recognize it, and to better my ability to stand up for myself.

If my self-esteem had been more fully realized, and I had understood how to stand up for myself those many years ago, I would have fought for credit -- as story editor, script doctor, anything that would have helped legitimize myself in a profession where your name on a project, good or bad, is often more important than the short-end money.

In fairness I realize there are multiple sides to every story. The friend I've lost undoubtedly has her take on things -- but this is my side to the story and since time has long marched on and I've yet to have a real "career" as a screenwriter, I'd like to get it off my chest and officially claim my credit before I pass into the ether.

I am far from alone.

Unfairness Abounds

There is a fantastic and sobering documentary about the professional frustrations of screenwriting called "Tales From The Script."

If you are a writer who has been at it for some time, whether you've had a project sold, produced, awarded, or you've worked for years on spec in between flipping burgers, you'll recognize yourself in this documentary.

I own it and pop it in whenever I begin to believe that I am kidding myself with this screenwriting thing.

Actually, before I pop it in I usually think--

Give it up. Another screenwriting blog, DVD, book, seminar... They're all the same, say the same things. All they do is bring attention to and make money for the person who's putting it on.

Not with "Tales From The Script." At least I don't think so.

I popped it in again this week and (perhaps unfortunately for me) it rejuiced me. Even the most successful of us experience the same frustrations and battles.

Unfairness abounds.

We take advantage of each other because we are survivors, or competitive, or greedy, or insecure, or there are just too many of us.

Build your self esteem and fight. Cream can't always find its way to the top.

Careful about celebrating contracts early. I certainly enjoyed the Dom, but it's safe to say I was "out of pocket" on this unproduced spec work...

You're Not Invited To The War

With that said, be smart...

I had a small one-line role in my first professional play. The play was a hit and we were extended for a few months and so I thought I could now ask for the minimum Equity (stage actors union) wages along with the rest of the cast.

I was turned down and began to get vocal about it until a friend in the cast pulled me aside and said, "Matt, you might win this battle, but you're going to get kicked out of the war if you're not careful."

It was sage advice. You don't know how long your life is going to go on for, but the longer you are here the more you find yourself wanting to keep off the streets, pay your rent with some left over for coffee and a movie.

Screenwriting is not iron work, or nursing, or firefighting. Where once you're in, you've got a pretty decent chance at job longevity. Relatively speaking.

Screenwriting belongs to that part of the entertainment business where you're in and then you're out within the same 24 hours.

If you want back in the war, choose your battles with care.

The "Ake"

Ninety-odd percent of you are making ends meet through other work as you write your scripts. I am no different. Many of my jobs have been film-industry related, but there was a period when I fell into other work and before I knew it I was a firefighter and EMT.

It's good work -- No, it's great work.

In addition to the job, where every day held the potential for something totally unexpected and exciting, I felt like I was holding my own weight in our over-populated world. I was a positive contributor.

And I found success in a way I hadn't found success in the movie world. A regular paycheck, recognition by my peers, pushing personal boundaries, travel to exotic locales (I landed one gig working as a firefighter for the U.S. Antarctic program. Cold, but still exotic.)

Now, before I continue, if any of you screenwriters find this happens for you -- that you fall into other work that feeds your spirit, fills your wallet, puts you in rooms filled with supportive peers -- throw out your typewriter, or iPad, or pen and paper immediately and don't move. Keep that job!

I didn't take this advice.

I took a break from emergency services to return to writing screenplays because I find peace in trying to create other worlds. But it's the only part of the process I do enjoy. Trying to network myself and sell my work, I find I trip over myself. I either fight the wrong battles, or the right battles too late.

Like trying to get a long ago/galaxy far away credit to help build upon my argument I belong in the game.

It's not only about writing a great script.

And if you learn this lesson late but still feel you must keep writing, then suck it up and keep going, knowing you're the old guy at the club, or become something useful, meaningful, fulfilling, and truly awe-inspiring to the rest of us.

Cold, wet, tired, and happy.  My friend Kurt post fire in winter.

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