An insight prompted by a Mark Brown article in The Guardian: Writers claim being excluded after creating Idris Elba’s play
I read with interest The Guardian article by Mark Brown. The short version of the story is that Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley were removed from a theatre production after four years of work. “Tree” now claims it was created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba, and has failed to acknowledge both women for their contribution.
What strikes me after reading this article is how weak Allen-Martin and Henley were made to feel, and how little power they had to have their claims recognised. Basically if you don’t have huge reserves of cash to litigate, there’s not much you can do.
Anyone who knows anything about screenwriting knows that writers are frequently replaced. A new writer is brought in to do a rewrite, or polish, punch up the dialogue, fix this hole in the plot; the list goes on. When this all goes tits-up, and there is a dispute over credit, screenwriters can turn to the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Credit Arbitration service for help. The aim of the service is to ensure “that each writer’s contribution to the shooting script is properly valued and rewarded with the correct credit.” I can find no such service for playwrights. If I’m wrong let me know. It’s probably one of those things, it feels like something the Guild should get into, but for some arcane reason they can’t.
I wish nothing but good fortune to Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley. They’re not alone, we’ve all felt the same weight, frustration, and disappointment, at one time in our life.
The first thing to say is that when I talk about writing, I mean screenwriting. I write other stuff, the kind of thing you’re reading now, but for me writing is screenwriting.
I know most of what I write sits unread. All of the screenplays I’ve written get; how is it best to say this? They get silence. Zero acknowledgement that they’ve even been opened.
That makes me feel as if it’s 1977 and I’m eight years old, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. I’m looking up at this huge expanse of grey, topped with a baffle of weather-worn pipe. It’s big, bigger than big. The kind of big that makes me feel small. So small I’m scared. Overwhelmed because, I was told this by my dad, if I ever climbed to the top, I’d be shot by the tower guards on the other side. Writing is like climbing that wall, only to find an entire squad of marksmen ignoring me.
I started writing because I wanted to direct features. I was trying to take control of my career, making choices for myself. I set off toward a place I want to live the rest of my life. I watch films, a lot of films, and I thought that was knowledge enough to let me write a screenplay. Perhaps I understood how to visualise a story, maybe, but not to create one with meaning. I know it’s possible to tell a story by presenting a series of random images. Our brains are hardwired to make connections, tell a story from what we see. Art school taught me that. But to organise a thought, and to express it dramatically, is a wall-high challenge.
A screenplay at its core is funding document. It’s the anatomy of a film, on paper, designed to raise money. The screenplay lets everyone involved know where they’re going, before they start. It has a very specific form, with certain standards, and is heavy with expectations. It has to be a compelling read, that offers insight and emotion, and inspire readers. Otherwise why would anyone invest in the film. The form is easy to master, the execution is not. To keep going, I’ve strung together things I’ve read, mixing ingredients as if baking bread. I tell myself that if I just keep writing, put in the time mastering the craft, I’ll eventually get good. When I’m good enough, I’ll be able to break through the Wall, walk past the guards, and continue my journey. I’ll get paid to write.
How likely is that? Who knows? But the space created by the answers, lets wheel after ever-rolling-tyre-of-self-doubt roll over me. The internal voice that tells me, the works not good enough. You’re an idiot. You can’t spell. You’re too slow. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Your characters are flat. The plot’s weak. You’re confusing the reader. I am forever a child, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. It doesn’t matter which way I turn, all I see is wall! I’ve written on the concrete, left evidence I was there, that I’m here, but those marks are just hand prints on the wall of a cave. It’s not a filmed piece of writing.
What’s the point? Why bother? What’s on the other side of the wall anyway? In 1977 it was the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, in all of its Cold War drab. A harsh life captured by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his 2006 film, The Lives of Others. Is that really what I want? That kind of paranoia? The pressure to conform? The logic of my metaphor has me standing in West Berlin, toe to concrete with the Wall, trying to write my way into a repressive regime. I must be mad. A sane person would just turn and walk the other way. The ambitious person might follow the Wall until they find a checkpoint. If all of their papers are in order, they’ll be allowed to enter, won’t they?
For some reason, this idea of the ambitious person makes me think of the journalist, speaking truth to power. I’m reminded of the time Noam Chomsky schooled Andrew Marr about journalists, and their grand illusion, or should that be collusion? Chomsky makes the point that unless the individual journalist shares the views of the ruling classes, they’ll never be allowed to progress within the industry. Nonconformity is weeded out. They’re only there, at the top of their profession, because their thinking aligns with the needs of the powerful. Is that what I have to do? Is that where I’m going wrong? Am I a nonconformist? Have I mistaken nonconformity for originality?
I’ve spent the weekend trying to fathom that question. The “look up” function on my Mac tells me that nonconformity is a “failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice.” When I think back to my days at art school, nonconformity was prized, the fulcrum of originality. It’s where most artists function, rejecting the old in search of the new. Art galleries are full of people who lived their entire creative life in the antithesis stage of the Hegelian dialectic. Famous artist are defined by the way their work deviated from the practice of their predecessors. The more radicle the shift the more highly they are regarded. Is that true?
Is nonconformity all about context? Does the art-world prizes a sort of radical creativity journalism does not? Could the function of journalism be governed by a different set of rules? I think the answer to all three of these questions is yes. Which prompts my next question is, do they share anything? Where do the two disciplines overlap? Could they both favour the notion of the heroic individual? Artist as the tortured genius. Journalist as the crusader speaking truth to power. Is that the connection?
Most screenplays tell the story of an heroic individual. A protagonist battling their antagonist, overcoming impossible odds, making heroic sacrifices to change their world. Things may end badly for them, but they were tested, and rose to the challenge. If I were to play the protagonist in my own story, am I battling conformity? I live in a world full of people who prize individualism. People who live their best life without realising, their best life looks just like all the other best lives. Drive around Clapham Common on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’ll see what I mean. Small groups collected on one patch of green, shoulder by foot with hundreds of similar groups. Is that what’s waiting for me beyond the Wall, the kind of individualism that encourages people to ignore fields of empty common?
If the antagonist in my story is conformity, I want to walk the two miles to find an empty stretch of beach. Plough my own furrow, not seed someone else’s. I don’t hate people. I just don’t own the need to be near them all the time, to play team sports, or drink beer on Friday night, or play Frisbee. Has it hindered my progress, stunted my growth, got in the way? I think probably yes. It wouldn’t be my antagonist if it hadn’t. So I must battle on, force my way past the fields of conformist souls.
None of this answers the question, why do I write? I writer to organise my thoughts. To quiet the continuous monologue that runs through my mind. To explain myself to anyone who will listen. To make a contribution. Change the world. Plot my own story. Find a way past that bloody wall.
I like Robert Towne’s approach. It’s like getting a calming slap across the face. I didn’t realise until recently Robert Towne had an uncredited role in writing on one of my all time favourite films, The Parallax View. If you’ve not seen it you should. It’s a great piece of 70’s conspiracy theory filmmaking.
Some interesting insights into Mr Kasdan’s work. I like what he says about being linear. “I don’t write a quick draft and then go back. I don’t like to leave anything behind me, because I’m uncomfortable with it. I tend to write a scene many times over before going on.”
How They Write A Script: Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, First Reformed). "Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take." https://t.co/y0g29OmN2o#screenwriting#writing
I collected this article because I thought “there’s a story idea in there somewhere.” Upon reflection, I’m not so sure. There are already so many films that explore themes of non-monogamy, consensual or otherwise. A story now would have to take all of these stories into account. It would have to be something more than the tensions within a relationship. Perhaps the story is in themes around shifting morality, or repressive morality. Perhaps there is a couple living happily in a life of consensual non-monogamy. A new authoritarian power with an oppressive moral code takes control. What happens to the couple? I just realised I’ve described the scenario of The Handmaid’s Tale. There is something in there, I’m just not sure what.
I could smell him before he passed me. He stalked onto the train stinking of Old Spice. The smell was so strong you could taste it, the way you taste Novocain on your tongue. He paused for a moment, looked left, then right, then tilted his head as if listening to a whisper. Specks of dandruff clung to the neckline of his grey pin-stripped suit like litter clings to the grass around a roadside picnic. The suit, probably off the peg at Next, was half a size too big across the shoulders. He wore it because he had to. It was testament. It told the world, “I’m one of you.” He knew he wasn’t. The suit was a mask, a polyester effigy of the man he wanted you to see. He cringed at the squeal of metal chafing metal, as unseen mechanisms forced the carriage doors shut. He took a breath, and tasted the humidity, savored it as if sampling wine, and not tasting the sweat of thirty souls. Beneath our feet the motors started to whir like the engines of a nineteen forties spaceship. Then the train started to move. In three long steps he was past a family of tourist, and in his spot, the zone reserved for wheelchair users. He perched on the spring-loaded seat, head pushed forward by the curve of the train. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, stretched pale skin taut over angular features. For a blink I thought of a vulture, perched on a branch, waiting for some pitiful creature to die. He checked the knot of his tie, made sure it was straight. Then dragged his thumb along the underside of the material, to the tip, and tugged gently. Held out for all to see, the tie looked like a bib splattered with offal. The choice to wear it was easy. Suits need a shirt and tie. Offered to him, wrapped in cellophane, paired with the pale pink shirt, the tie made sense. Out of the packet, here in the world, the swirling pattern clashed awkwardly with the vertical lines of his suit. The train hit a curve. Its wheels caught the track, and jerked, forcing him to adjust his footing. His shoes hid their age under a thick layer of polish. He had tortured the leather with his heavy hand, scrubbed grease into the skin, until their toes had collapsed. If he had taken the time to stuff them with paper, he could have restored their shape, given them back some of their youth. Instead he wore them deformed; who cared if they looked like a snake with an under-bite? The train jerked again. The man steadied himself. The lights above his head flooded thinning hair with neon. His hair had been tinted. He had done it himself, mistakenly washed the formula out too soon, and left his hair with a metallic undertone. Was he trying to hide his age? Was it an attempt to disguise his appearance? The train clattered over points, and started to brake. The man grabbed the handrail with his right hand. Inertia brought the bags in his left to heel. The cardboard Nespresso bag swung, rubbing itself against a decade old laptop case. The heavy cardboard stock of the bag was creased. Scuffed edges exposed the white paper beneath the coffee coloured print. It had seen more than one outing, been used a number of times. My guess, the choice to carry a bag of premium coffee, worked like the suit. It was testament, there to tell the world; “I’m better than you.” The nylon case told a different story, a tale of stoic utility. The case was a relic of the personal computing revolution. Made in the days when television screens were made in four by three; an aspect ratio that came with weight. His case was robust, designed to take the strain. The wheels let out a banshee squeal, as brakes clamped hard, slowing the train to a stop. My eyes traced the shape of the case, noticed a teardrop of blood leak from the seam. The viscous blob landed on his shoe, rolled over the leather like the bead of sweat rolling down my brow. I looked up. The man was staring right at me, his dark eyes daring me to do something. I glanced down. Another drop of blood hit the floor. The carriage doors opened. He took a step. The family of tourists got up. I took my chance, jumped off the train, and weaved my way along the platform, as passengers swapped places. With the exit in sight, I glanced back, expecting to see the man pushing past the family. Instead I saw him, still on the train, watching me. The doors started to shut. He took a step back, and let them close. I stood there, soaked in equal measure of fear and relief. The motors started to whir. The train started to move. The carriages rolled past, one after another, zum, zum, zum. Then I caught a glimpse, him back in his spot, standing in the zone reserved for wheelchair users. I stood there soaked in adrenalin, questions twisting my gut into knots. What was in the case? Was it blood dripping from the seam? Did he chase after me? Then the train was gone. I stood there, unable to move. I wanted to. Was this real? I knew I had to. Did it happen? Help me. Had I made it all up? The family of tourists chattered past, snapping me back to the day. Suddenly I was scared to be alone. I followed them off the platform, up the escalator, though the barrier, and onto the busy street. I never saw the man again. I never want to. I never travel that line. I always take another route across town. And whenever I get the smell of Old Spice, I make a dash for the nearest exit.