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

Photo of Nancy Nigrosh By Nancy Nigrosh | Thompson on Hollywood September 12, 2013 at 2:42PM

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.
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Diablo Cody on the set of her directing debut, "Paradise"
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.
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.

This article is related to: Features, Features, Screenwriters, Elmore Leonard, Diablo Cody, Diablo Cody, Nancy Nigrosh


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