Twenty years ago my then agent was marketing the hell out of a spec script I’d written as a fledgling screenwriter. The screenplay was (and is) called MEETING SHAKESPEARE. It’s a story for film about a dying professor of Shakespearian studies who is taken back in time to meet Shakespeare – his icon and lodestar - by one of his students. The student is also the professor’s surrogate son. The student is, of course, a brilliant and often reckless maverick. There is a profound bond between the old man and the young man.
Of course no one believes in time travel – least of all the professor; but looking death in the face prompts him to go along with this absurdity. They are whisked back to 1616, where they are pursued by a witch finder across country to Stratford. There, they have dinner with Ann Hathaway on the eve of Shakespeare’s death April 23rd, 1616. I think it’s a sweet story. An adventure edged with substance. I filled it with all the emotion and beats and challenges that life had taught me drama should contain.
My agent – I won’t mention his name; he’s still too well known and active in the business, and is renowned as a screenwriting teacher – loved this screenplay. He took me on on the strength of it. Then he sent it to everybody and their aunty. No one bit. Too much of a hybrid, some said. Can’t see a market for it, others opined.
Then SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE came along. I had never seen a film involving Shakespeare, so I wrote one. And because I did, Tom Stoppard rewrote a script by Marc Norman about Shakespeare. John Madden signed up to direct. Judy Dench et al got involved. And the rest is mystery. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE played its part in scuppering MEETING SHAKESPEARE, oh yes.
And that’s life.
My agent said to me at the time, ‘Sometimes I think producers just don’t know what they’re doing.’ He also said, ‘Why can’t people see what’s in front of their faces?’ (He did not say these thing re SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE; these were general comments about the industry.)
Re the 2nd rhetorical question: few of us can see what’s in front of our faces because we can’t look beyond the end of our noses. Re the 1st rhetorical: he was entitled to his opinion. I think some producers know what they are doing. So do many directors. But films are ensemble pieces. Teamwork. The auteur thing is very questionable.
Do film directors get too much credit for successful films? Make your own mind up. Do they get too much criticism for flops? It varies. Each project is different.
As everyone in the film business knows, essential to the success or failure of any film is the film script. This has been said more times than can be numbered. A bad screenplay cannot be disguised by a good production; whereas a brilliant screenplay can still be discerned through a disastrous production. More, a good film screenplay will tend to stimulate a good film production.
Quality is contagious.
All too often, however, film and TV scripts can be compromised by the process of production. Too many people get involved in the script development, and too few of them are excellent screenwriters.
A perennial question is: should film directors have a say in the screenplay and order changes thereof? Should screenwriters try, on-set, to get involved in film direction? To muscle in? Leave that with you.
Good screenplays are far, far more fragile than bad ones. Dandelions and boulders. It’s incredibly easy to spoil a good script. It’s extremely hard to damage a bad one.
Good scripts are, of course, desirable (and very rare indeed). So how might they be protected from the ravages of development and pre-production? I suggest that they can’t – unless the screenwriter is also, say, the director, and this hyphenate works well, and the hyphen is a tyrant. A rational (and even decent) and very clever tyrant, perhaps, as some have described James Cameron.
Otherwise the film script, TV script, or script for the stage will just have to go out there and take its chances.
We don’t know what happened to Shakespeare’s play scripts. He may well have had his say in preserving them, as in his later years, they were recognised as works of quality. His collaborations and obvious script-doctoring works are something else. Ask the experts.
What happened to MEETING SHAKESPEARE? It’s still a bunch of zeros and ones on a hard drive. The old man got to meet Shakespeare before he died though, and the young man made it back in time to resume his love affair, and (we trust) find success. His genius was, (we hope) recognised in later life. Don’t assume, however, that your genius as a screenwriter with inevitably be recognised, or that your brilliant screenplays will make it into production intact (and still outstanding).
Screenwriting success isn't always about genius. It’s about relationships. It’s about the gift of the gab.
So learn the basics. Ignore bad screenplays. Seek out the good ones. Learn from them.
Then go join Soho House of the Groucho or The Hospital Club(s). Go to Cannes. Press the flesh.
And for Shakespeare’s sake, smile.