Caitlin McCarthy Interview
by Caitlin McCarthy and Quimby Melton
Why do you think screen and television writers and their scripts have been traditionally marginalized in mainstream literary culture? Film and television are, of course, often seen as "entertainment" media and, therefore, have been traditionally marginalized as interpretive objects vis-à-vis genres like the novel. Of course, there are critically important and more or less disposable films just as there are works of haute literature and pot-boilers. But the existence of Danielle Steel's novels doesn't prevent interested parties from writing dissertations on Henry James' work. And it's hard to imagine more "literary" original works than, say, Eastern Promises or Reds.
Movies and television dominated the last century in a big way, and they continue to do so. Billions of people around the world turn to film and TV shows for entertainment, relaxation, and (sometimes) education. Many have moved away from books, particularly literary works. It's natural for literary culture lovers to blame movies and television for this "de-evolution." However, the real culprit is the average person's lifestyle. The cost of living and technology have forced people to live faster lives, with less time to devote to cultural pursuits. That being said, I believe the majority of people will read or watch something intelligent but only after you've convinced them through marketing, advertising, articles, reviews, and word-of-mouth that their time and money won't be wasted if they stop what they're doing and pay attention. If you want an audience, you have to earn their trust. Once you have their trust, they'll give your films and TV shows a chance. If you don't believe this is true, then why are people paying over $100 a month for cable channels that put on challenging programs? The average person doesn't have $100+ to throw away on junk.
It's easy to insult film and television, especially film and television writers. But such cheap shots merely highlight the naysayers' elitism and not much else. Not every bookstore is filled with masterpieces. The same goes for movie theatres and television stations. You will always find the craptacular next to the spectacular wherever you go. That's life. I never underestimate the intelligence of anyone. Give people a chance and show them why they should care about something, and guess what? Many of them will care. In addition to screenwriting, I teach English at an inner-city public high school. I've witnessed this phenomenon first-hand so I know it can happen.
In what ways do you think screen and television writers could take larger ownership stakes in the relative "literariness" of their screen/teleplays? What stands in the way of them doing so?
I have two screenplays in development. One is an original piece (Wonder Drug); the other is an adaptation (Resistance). I've gone the independent route with both screenplays and aligned myself with directors — Tom Gilroy (Spring Forward) and Si Wall (Angie and Marbella Nights) — who are talented and devoted to telling stories that provoke their audiences. It's taken me years to get these projects off the ground. I have spent thousands of dollars on contracts, entertainment lawyers, accounting for my taxes, travel for research purposes and networking, computer equipment, and other materials. I did this while working a demanding full-time job, and I constantly read other writers' work, study films, and attend readings, screenings, and film festivals. Basically, I work my tookus off to pursue my art.
It's not a choice to do this. I must do this. Writing screenplays is a passion of mine; one that won't go away. Here's my advice to anyone who wants to take larger ownership in the "literariness" of their screen/teleplays: View your projects as a marathon, not a sprint. Understand that it may take a while to set up an independent project, but it is possible. If you want to do an adaptation of a novel, buy the film rights, which will enable you to become a producer on the project. If you can't become a producer on the film for some reason, align yourself with people who know what they're doing and believe in your work.
My motto is: "No deal is better than a bad deal." Have a job that supports you so you never have to sell a script just to make money. Don't compromise yourself for money. If you're able to say, "No," to bad deals, you've given yourself an enormous amount of power in Hollywood. Many people can't say no. Be the one who can.
Lastly, believe in what you've written. You're going to run into people who talk a good game but have no idea of what they're looking at half the time. Know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. And by all means, if you keep running into "No's" for your project, find a way to make the film yourself. Read Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without a Crew for inspiration.
SCRIPTjr.nl has had some trouble securing screen/teleplays to excerpt for this first issue of SCRIPTjr.nl. The joke, of course, is that "Everyone's written a screenplay." If indeed the genre is so widely-practiced, why do you think screen/television writers are reluctant to share their work and/or subject it to analytical scrutiny?
Over the years, I've participated in live staged readings of select scenes from my screenplays. I even have a scene from Resistance up on YouTube, courtesy of the Action on Film International Film Festival.
If you've copyrighted your screenplay and registered it with the Writers Guild of America, there shouldn't be an issue with sharing an excerpt with a magazine (unless the producer or director you're working with opposes the idea).
With regard to posting an entire screenplay online, I would never do that. There is a legitimate concern among writers that someone will steal your ideas. Also, once the film is produced, many writers today publish their scripts along with a preface that describes their experiences making the film. If the script is already online, who is going to buy the book?
It's smart business to hold onto your work in its entirety. Entertainment is a business. You must be of two minds — artist and entrepreneur — if you want a long career.
Related to the previous question, do you think the democratization of the screenplay genre has been overstated? Is the form perhaps still a specialized genre more or less utilized by a handful of behind-the-scenes professionals?
There are more film schools and programs today than ever before. There's also screenwriting software that outlines, formats, even reads your work aloud! You can take seminars and join writing groups (in-person or online). The genre isn't specialized. It's getting the film made that requires something special. Writers who achieve that belong to an exclusive club.
When people say, "It's all who you know," in Hollywood, they're not kidding. Executives are very reluctant to take chances on unknowns. That's because if a film or TV show doesn't perform well, the executive who greenlighted the project will most likely lose his/her job. As an emerging screenwriter with no connections, the onus is on you to show why your project will perform well. As a writer, I've been asked by some potential financiers to provide everything from the logline, synopsis, poster tagline, and cast wish-list to the budget, audience demographics, marketing campaign, location ideas, and info about state tax incentives for filmmakers. (Just because some financiers have asked for these things doesn't mean they've received them from me. That's another article!)
Some would argue, rightfully so, that many of these things aren't the writer's job. But let's be honest: as an unknown writer, you have to make saying, "Yes" a no-brainer for financiers. Is this fair? No. But life isn't fair. Get used to it, especially in Hollywood!
David Goldsmith, SCRIPTjr.nl board member, has likened the screenplay-production process to a game of telephone. In television, writers have a good bit of power and play a much more central role in the production process. In film, though, the screenwriter turns in his/her script, collects his/her check, and enters the theatre more or less as an audience member. There, s/he watches an often alien interpretation of his/her work on screen. Does this on-going telephone game alienate screenwriters from their works? In some ways, it seems the screenwriter would, instead, return to his work and laud it as a more perfect distillation of his/her vision.
It's understood that most screenwriters will not be part of the filmmaking process once they sell the script. If you want more control, go into television or write a play, where scripts are treated like a Bible. Independent film is typically more "friendly" to screenwriters, as the productions are smaller, faster, and more hands-on for everyone involved.
Thus far, I have not felt shut out of the process with Wonder Drug and Resistance. I realize this won't always be the case, and I accept that fact. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Other people are going to have their ideas. The trick is partnering with people who are on your wavelength. That way, you never feel as if your work has been "ruined." The spirit of what you wrote remains true. The only way your script will never be changed is if you write, produce, direct, and finance a film yourself. Money is key. Whoever controls the money controls the shots, literally and figuratively.
How would one read an entertainment script form differently as a critic than, say, as a producer?
A critic has the luxury of reading the script without having to consider how to produce the film. A producer always reads a script with an eye toward production. Can the film be made within a certain budget? Will it be a return on investment?
The critic has the easier job. Anyone can be an expert from an armchair. It takes cojones to be a producer in the 21st Century.
What sort of literary legitimacy could adapted screenplays ever claim? The majority of best picture winners are, after all, adapted from novels.
I've written original and adapted screenplays. One could argue that it's more difficult to create a story from scratch. But it's also a challenge trying to adapt a book for the screen. Scripts are not supposed to be more than 120 pages long. Every page counts as a minute of screen time. If you are adapting a 300 page book, for example, you have to cut certain scenes, storylines, even characters to make a tight, compelling script. The movie is never identical to the book. It becomes another entity that hopefully shares the same spirit as the book.
As we know, film awards don't always recognize the best work. Award races are political and involve an enormous amount of campaigning and PR. Sometimes award-granting bodies get it right, sometimes they don't. The script for a small indie film could truly be the best screenplay of a given year, but it might not take home an award because not many people know about it. Does that take away from the literary merit of that script? No. I think if a tree falls in the forest, it does make a sound.
If you're a writer who is waiting for validation of an award-granting body, you're setting yourself up for unnecessary disappointment and heartbreak. Take pride in what you do, and be excited over the fact that your script got produced. When you consider how few spec scripts get produced each year, you'll realize the enormous odds you overcame. Congratulations on that!
In some ways, the alterity of entertainment scripts is fundamentally (post)colonial. Traditionally attached to, and simultaneously subjugated by, the genres they adapt and the industry for which they serve as narrative scaffolding, one could argue screen and television writers have internalized a hierarchical professional and genre structure. Producers and directors are on top of the former; novels, poetry, and plays are on top of the latter. Do you think this is a legitimate interpretation?
In a word: Yes.
There's an old joke in Hollywood: What's the difference between a writer and a maintenance worker? The maintenance worker is allowed on the set. Writers are starting to receive more respect in Hollywood. It's become very clear that the greatest actors, directors, producers, and editors can't save a movie if the script is bad. A movie can't hold up without that foundation. Because more and more people are publicly acknowledging that a great film starts with the script, writers are starting to command more money and participate more directly in the movie-making process.
If you are a smart writer, you will work towards becoming a producer on your films. Many writers are even directing their work these days. These roles give you more control over your creation. Don't be a victim of the system. Branch out from writing. Take charge of your career.
Screen and television writing as an occupation is, of course, a related topic. In the same way narratives are, Hollywood writing talent is often "borrowed" from other genres, and there seems to be a certain insecurity with respect to writers who only write screenplays. In the golden age of Hollywood, of course, novelists served tours of duty on the West Coast, writing and editing scripts, almost as a rite of passage. But even now, perhaps as a result of the internalized hierarchy mentioned in the previous question, producers frequently prefer "real" writers — that is, novelists and playwrights — write scripts. If this is the case, screenwriters would unsurprisingly feel like "fake" writers, aspire toward other genres like the novel, and see screen and television writing as a sort of literary salt mine.
I know many top novelists who are desperate to move into film. "The Great American Novel" was the dream of the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, the dream appears to be "The Great American Screenplay."
What sort of cultivation of original talent is done by studios and television stations? Are most screen/television scribes "undomesticated writers" at "the great salt lick," as W.P. Mayhew refers to himself in Barton Fink? That is, are most Hollywood writers on holiday from other genres or are there more Eric Roths and Billy Wilders out there than we know?
Film and TV studios have launched writing labs and fellowships to discover the next big thing. People from all types of backgrounds — MFA programs, mid-career professionals, writing newbies—apply to these highly competitive programs. I personally don't think of myself as an "undomesticated writer." I'm not on holiday from novels. I moved away from long-form fiction because I enjoy writing screenplays more. Sure, there are people out there who don't view screenwriting as "real art." I challenge them to write a screenplay. It's easy to judge something when you've never done it yourself.
My world will continue to turn if literary types don't value my accomplishments. I have always written for myself first and foremost. Even if my work is never produced, I'll continue to write. As I said before, it's something I must do. That kind of passion defines all artists.