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Memo to Screenwriters #3: Being Solely Identified by Your Scripts Leads to Permanent Identity Crisis

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by Nancy Nigrosh
September 12, 2013 2:42 PM
16 Comments
  • |
Diablo Cody on the set of her directing debut, "Paradise"

Like so many others, Elmore Leonard, god bless him, praised writers for their “perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out.”  Of course writers might think he was only referring to writing, especially when coupled with his memetic 10th rule: “if it looks like writing, re-write it.” Taking this credo too literally is certain to drive writers even further into the ivory tower of the introvert. Justified, indeed.

Elmore Leonard’s fans don’t have to have read his work extensively or at all, to uh, “know” him. He presents himself as a look-us-in-the-eye type, not some remote artist alone in a tower being celebrated from afar. In other words, Leonard exists to us as a man, not solely as a writer. His appeal extends beyond what’s on the page -- the other half of the career equation. Even an opposite icon like J.D. Salinger’s controlled seclusion and rejection of immortal author conventions are just as famous as the characters he created. We know what these writers look like. We can even imagine what their opinions on various topics might be. Even though they are no longer alive and writing, they still speak through the media in identities separate and apart from their work.

Elmore Leonard on stage in 2012 with "Justified" stars Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.

I was recently asked about the difference between a screenwriter’s identity and a screenwriter’s voice. Simply put, in a screenplay it’s the “voice” collected into pages that’s put up for sale. If the writer’s persona has been left behind embedded in the pages, versus used portably as a sustainable tool the writer can re-use, then the writer has to start from scratch with every screenplay to gain back any kind of self referral as an artist. Imagine if the DIY self-published authors of today followed the technique traditionally used by screenwriters to simply type their name under the title as reference to authorship with no personal outreach to their readers.

Instead it’s typical for DIYs to directly engage with their readers, communicating whistle-stop style to gain converts. Tweets become campaign waves; blog tours, virtual handshaking -- which serve before or after any work is read to exponentially expand the writer’s off-page identity. DIY scribes understand that any discriminating buyer for their work will, without question, consult a website algorithm then mentally measure the writer’s metadata before making a purchase. In a contemporary Hollywood universe, any kind of screenplay buyer does the same.

Consider the more familiar difference in how a film director develops identity in a traditional film business scenario. There’s discoverable emphasis on the director’s background and training with critical analysis of themes associated with that director’s work. There’s an easy dialogue flow about where and how that director grew up; which filmmakers influenced them; who their mentors were. There‘s no expectation that a page they wrote or even piece of film they directed could solely speak for them by proxy. Directors aren’t conflicted about their human persona being a key component to their professional role. When they aren’t directing they’re visibly participating in far ranging community outreach to exercise their essential uniqueness and creative values.

If screenwriters demand exclusive evaluative focus on the pages they “just sit there and grind out” without including interactive public behavior to identify themselves as unique storytelling masters the way Elmore Leonard and some other writers do, the screenwriter’s identity becomes dependent on how that material fares in a finite Hollywood marketplace. In this traditional film business scenario the emphasis on material necessarily becomes about cost: the cost for the rights, cost of re-writing and cost of producing it. The page is what has value, not the man or woman who wrote it, who are bound to become less important. The ensuing professional relationship composition is calculated to take power away from the screenwriter.

Some folks might be waiting for the WGA to conduct a blind study to see if kick-ass public identity development works. It might be simpler and faster to take a look at Diablo Cody’s career or Tony Kushner’s.

Ms. Cody created a public persona different from the one she grew up with that she believed was more authentic. Working at an office, she started stripping while also blogging about it. Note that she didn’t blog in any way about a screenwriting career. She showed up online as herself and attracted the attention of an alert film producer, who encouraged her as a writer. Activist Tony Kushner also shows up consistently as himself. His opinion is often sought about topics of concern, not just Hollywood-centric ones. We know about these artists’ human personas, which not only influences their writing, but attracts the notice of their worlds at large, thus creating anticipation of their work.

16 Comments

  • Bonnie Bruckheimer | September 21, 2013 9:42 AMReply

    Wonderful article, Nancy. I'll share this with my USC writing students... my class has producers, directors, writers, etc. Thanks, bb

  • Angela Rinaldi | September 17, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    Good advice here. The voice is what immediately engages a reader in novels. So much of what you wrote about is what beginning writers need to pay attention to.

  • Merrily Kane | September 17, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    Nancy, as always, this is a most inciteful and oh so truthful article. The difference between a screemplay and a brilliant screenplay is its voice.

  • Betty Kelly Sargent | September 16, 2013 7:13 AMReply

    Terrific article, Nancy. I had the great privilege of being Elmore Leonard's book editor years ago, and even before he became a celebrated writer, he was always just himself -- warm, funny, laid back, direct, modest and kind. This came through in everything he wrote, and was at the heart of his great success.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | September 17, 2013 9:26 PM

    Betty,
    Thanks for firsthand insight into EL.

  • Graham Kaye | September 16, 2013 5:11 AMReply

    Nancy:

    Your article made me think back to a time when the art of selling material became more of a balancing act between an agent and their client. For me it started with Joe Eszterhas, after that instead of the typical front page story of the sale, the personal delving and the nightlife of the writer's starting it's renaissance. It continued with the $4,000,000 sale of Shane Black's "The
    Long Kiss Goodnight", and continued with the sale of Troy Duffy's "Boondock Saints" where I thought it jumped the shark when Harvey beat out his competitors by agreeing to purchase the bar that Troy worked in as stipulation to take it off the table at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night. I don't miss it, or the mason jar of tums I kept next to my paper bible of the time, better known as the Hollywood Creative Directory. Great article Nancy.

  • Jim Strain | September 15, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    As always, spot on, Nancy!

  • APL | September 15, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    NN, I imagine that for a writer your message might be like hitting the refresh key on computer.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | September 16, 2013 3:01 AM

    nice image, APL, thanks.

  • Madame Wisdom | September 13, 2013 11:30 PMReply

    Ah yes Lady Nigrosh! After many years in the trench warfare of Hollywood, I can agree heartily that a huge personality goes together well in the room with a talented author. The key in my mind is not simply flagrant self promotion of course, but that a truly unique persona has an unusual life outside of typing and that that life reaches beyond the limits of formulaic thinking simply because the individual is as fascinating as their work. This is the horse leading the cart then, not just the idea that one can tweet relentlessly in a virtual life, but have a real one.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | September 14, 2013 5:27 PM

    MW,
    Having a visible personality -- of any size or scope --- is always an advantage in any business. DIY writers avidly make good use of the many inlets and outlets readily available online
    to express themselves beyond the their writing - to gain advocacy as writers. Screenwriters have the same opportunities to accomplish the same thing. Yet they still subscribe to a mid 20th century model of only injecting all their personality into their pages, and deliberately reveal very little else about themselves in any other venue.

  • Marcy Prager | September 13, 2013 7:03 AMReply

    Nancy,
    You are a brilliant writer! A great writer of books or screenplays has to have his/her soul woven into it to make it authentic. Our experiences and feelings define who we are. It is truly a gift to be able to bring ourselves into our writing. The photograph shows the respect and awe Timothy and Walton feel for Elmor Leonard. Your words show your "awe" for him and give him the respect he deserves.

  • Tristine | September 13, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    Nancy, you have always had your finger on the pulse of the time; you still do.

  • Chuck Martin | September 13, 2013 12:28 AMReply

    Nancy
    You are one of the most intelligent, creative commentators on the planet about literary work and writing; both screenplays and novels. As a writer, I greatly benefit from you ideas and wonderful perspective.

  • Neal | September 12, 2013 10:36 PMReply

    I tried stripping. Didn't work for me. Or anyone else.

    This is good advice. The PR war starts at home.

    Everything is changing, and that means fresh opportunity for some.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | September 13, 2013 4:35 AM

    Neal,
    Thanks for going all Jungian on this. Nail firmly hit on head!

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