Internationally acclaimed development consultant Stephen Cleary talked to screenwriter Shuchi Kothari (Apron Strings, Firaaq) about the writer / producer relationship at a special SPADA Writer’s Room last November about what writers should look for and expect from a producer.
Don’t tie yourself one script
To begin, Stephen cautioned writers about becoming too attached to one project, especially at an early stage in their careers. “Although it is essential to be committed to a project, it is also essential to be committed to your career…You must always be thinking ‘how can I keep writing irrespective to what happens to this project?’ Most good writers have more than one good story in them. So you are kind of depriving the world of your genius if you get too hung up on one project, put all your eggs in one basket.”
Having a number of projects on the go offers multiple benefits – a greater likelihood of getting something made and the potential to earn more money. And having other projects to move onto should one fall over helps develop writing skill. There are times when a writer must abandon a much loved project because it may not be feasible for one or more reasons. “A financier may say ‘that writer is too much of a risk with that project at that stage in their career’” and it may be better to return to it later. Remember even if a project is never picked up, it can still showcase a writer’s talent and aid career development.
Stephen makes two judgments when reading a script: firstly, does the project flow, does it fit, will it work. Secondly, is the writer good and of interest to him. Sometimes he may not like a project but he is interested in the writer and wants to meet him or her. “Producers are looking to accumulate a talent base and most will only hold about eight or nine writers in their head, either that they’ve worked with or that they’ve noted. Part of your job when someone sees your work and doesn’t want the project is to try to get yourself on this list. The producer may be looking for a writer for another project. He may have fired a writer or have an idea for adaptation.”
Stephen split writers into three experience levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. He acknowledged the groupings were somewhat arbitrary but he also felt they had a place in the discussion because experience level is a factor in determining what a writer should look for from a producer.
Stephen believes writers just starting out need three things: ways of pushing their career forward, ways of getting their work seen by an audience, and ways of getting paid.
A novice writer must start by asking ‘when do I need a producer?’ and the answer can be found by deciding what kind of writer they are. “Some writers benefit from working immediately with other people – they like throwing ideas around. Others like working by themselves until they feel confident they’ve nailed for themselves an essential notion of what it is they are trying to do.”
Stephen suggested writers ask themselves these questions early on, before writing features. “You can do this with short films for example, because they are much quicker to write and not as important for your career, although they are important. It’s a faster way of coming to these understandings about yourself.”
Stephen warned, “Writers have unfortunate experiences with producers early in their careers. The good news is that this happens to everyone. The bad news is that there is nothing you can do about it.” He recommended writers look at projects from the perspective of a producer. There may be many reasons why a producer will not want to work with a young writer, not the least of which could be finance. Every time a financier is approached they ask, “Why should I give you money and why won’t I lose it? Every time they see a young writer or director they think it is a bigger risk.” The response to this argument, “‘It is an opportunity because they’ll find an audience because it’s new’, is valid. But it is a response financiers hear every day and they won’t make the choice to take that risk often – they’ll usually go with proven talent.”
A writer can benefit from a producer’s experience. However, an inexperienced producer can have the opposite effect. “As a young writer you’ll meet lots of producers who won’t be producers for long because they’re not very good at it and it could be your project that teaches them that. It’s a pool full of people and you want to get to the next pool with those who have made it because they are good at it.”
Stephen believes it is essential for a writer to find like-minded people, those they can ‘click’ with. Making films is hard, and often bears little or no financial reward. Stephen produced a couple of features and claims, “I would have earned more working at McDonalds. So to get through the process you need people who support and nurture you, and enthuse and excite you, people you like working with and who pick up the baton when you are tired.”
Finding these people is fundamental to a filmmaking career. “Most writers who have successful careers in the cinema have one or two other people – either producers or directors – who they’ve worked with over and over again. The second time you can work in shorthand. It’s like being married – you learn how to argue without getting divorced.”
So, Stephen posited, if a writer reaches a point where they must choose between someone they love working with or someone offering more contacts and experience, what should they do? Stephen again stressed the importance of multiple projects. “Write another project and go with both. You are a writer, not a writer of one screenplay. If you choose one [project over the other] and think you can’t split yourself then you will probably fail because you will spend years writing it and it will never get made. The only solution is to write more work.” As well as having multiple projects on the go it is helpful to have more than one producer. This can offer a broader network of contacts and, through numerous experiences, “some good and many bad, you will learn and you will filter out the riffraff.”
Stephen warned against working with just anyone. “A writer can tell pretty much straight away if a producer is ‘getting it.’ Trust that instinct because if you are going to work with people for three years on a project you want it to work.”
Understanding a producer’s expectation of a writer is also important. Producers are looking for writers that are “driven, talented and will deliver…A producer sometimes finds someone very talented but flaky and they give them up. Or someone who delivers bang on time but is not that talented so they give them up…And they want someone who is, at the very least, passionate about what they are doing.”
When a writer moves up a level what they need from a producer changes. If the writer has had one or two large projects produced and is beginning to establish themselves then a producer should be able to offer some key things: a partnership which really benefits the writing, an in-depth knowledge of the market and more contacts.
First and foremost, a producer should offer real, expert development. They may not be the person who does the development (they may employ someone else to do it) but they should provide their writers with access to this process. “They should know how to develop stories…they should not just parrot the theory but should have developed projects before and really know what they are doing.” A writer should feel that the work done together improves the writing. “They should expose you to a process that is new and will push you and lift you up a level….You know the feeling when you get into a car and the pedal is pushed down and you get pushed back in your seat? You should feel like that.”
Stephen believes that if a writer hates the development process then they are probably in it with the wrong person. The process should excite, not depress. “When you work with me you will love it, I guarantee it. It may be tough but you’ll love it. You may walk out of a meeting thinking ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do now’ but you’ll feel excited at the prospect of doing it…That’s the kind of process development can be – it is not going to give you all the anwers but the prospect of finding the answers is going to excite you.”
Secondly, an experienced producer should offer an understanding of the market. Although a writer does not need to know the market to the extent of a producer, a basic knowledge of the working arena is crucial. “The producer is the conduit to that information and to the economic realities. How much do various films gross around about and how much do they make? How will your project get financed? How many films are made in New Zealand every year? What is the difference between those developed and those made?” The larger the film’s budget, the more essential this information becomes.
Thirdly, at this level a producer should provide a writer with the contacts needed for career advancement. They should arrange introductions to collaborators and commissioners with whom a writer can form relationships essential for getting future projects off the ground.
Finally, a producer should pay up. “You shouldn’t be working for very long on a project at this level for free.”
For those writers at what Stephen terms the ‘advanced stage’ of a screenwriting career (multiple films produced), a producer should provide expert development, more contacts, an understanding of the market and payment.
The contacts should be broader. “They should introduce you to international collaborators and your circle of contacts should widen.” At this level, a writer should not work for free. Payment should be immediate.
In terms of the market, a producer should, “Give you a very precise understanding of where your film fits in the market and of who the audience is – that doesn’t mean it’s a blockbuster – it means they know where the audience is and they know how to reach them.”
Talking about your work
A writer must be able to speak about his or her work in a compelling way, a skill Stephen believes is essential. A producer can play an important part in teaching this skill. “You should learn from them how to talk compellingly about your project. It’s not pitching – it’s talking intelligently about your story so that people want to talk to you.” Stephen reassured writers by saying this skill can be learned and suggested practicing on friends and family. “If they sit there and don’t interrupt and then they are silent for a moment when you finish – you’ve got them…If you get to a point and can’t quite explain it, it is because that part is not working…Don’t sit in front of the mirror and do it – it’s useless, and don’t practice on producers because you may fail.” It is important that people enjoy meeting you and Stephen believes, “That doesn’t mean being extremely affable – it’s that you are interesting to talk to.”
Finally, Stephen discussed the receiving and interpretation of feedback. A skilled producer should filter feedback before it gets to the writer as some notes are good and others are not. However, with or without a producer it is important for a writer to know what to do with criticism and suggestions regarding their work.
Stephen believes a writer must learn to understand what lies behind the feedback. “When someone suggests something is not working they are almost always right but when they tell you how to fix it they are almost always wrong. Be very, very careful about taking suggestions literally. Firstly, they can be wrong; secondly, it is hard to be original; and thirdly, a bunch of notes can end up being your story.” If a solution is given without outlining the problem then always find the problem.
Marilyn Milgrom (Head of Development at the NZFC) pitched in with the advice, “Don’t ever be afraid to ask a producer what they mean.” While working in the UK Marilyn spent some time researching various phrases producers and developers used about scripts. She found that different people use the same phrases but meanings are many and varied. “Script development is not an exact art.”
Written by Esther Cahill-Chiaroni for Script to Screen