Jobs Don’t Exist.

Posted June 19th, 2014 by Ben

The ever dependable Jan Caston popped up on the Screenwriter’s Network looking for a way of defining the limits of a screenwriter’s job.

“Screenwriters script stories visually, portraying action and consequence, constructing performance. But does that mean they also need to be able to act themselves? Or just thoroughly to understand the whys, whats and wherefores of bringing a production together?

Does a screenwriter need to be more (show)business-person than actor? … aren’t we most importantly the salespeople of our stories? Isn’t it equally necessary that we know how productions are financed/sourced/distributed and be able to sell our ideas within those strictures to the other specialists who bring them to the screen or stage?

Or do we?”

It’s a damn good question but it’s also the wrong question. Should writers be actors without egos or should they be producers with souls? For that matter what about the producer, does a great producer have to understand story like a writer and budgets like an accountant and people like a therapist? Is the editor a writer with a sense of rhythm or a director with a pair of scissors? Are actors the worshipful subjects of the director who is the high priestess of the holy infallible script or is the director merely a tool that enables the actor to express the truth behind the words?

The real question of course is never “what is the job?” but “what is the job this time?” Sometimes as an editor I have felt like a vital final writer giving shape to an amorphous mass of accumulated material. Sometimes I’ve been little more than the writer or director’s own hands working at distance, my decisions best made for me by the way the material has already been shot. Neither end result has been necessarily better or worse for the demands it placed on me. Sometimes as a writer director I’ve felt like the burning beating heart and source of the whole film, at other times I have just been honoured to be in the room as the cast do something entirely different and entirely better than I ever imagined.

Most importantly of all the thing you really need to understand is what part of your job you will never do better than someone else. Being a writer who is all about structure and terrible with dialogue does not mean you’re a terrible writer. It just means you need to work with great actors who can make your shitty words make sense. Being a producer who can’t actually tell if a script is any good from the words written on the page isn’t necessarily a problem if you can surround yourself with writers and directors whose artistic opinion you know you can trust.

There are as many different ways to be a writer, or director, or producer, or actor or whatever, as there are people doing the job.

  1. Jan Caston

    Ah-ha – which is why we have to be jack of all trades and master of one, then eh Ben? Unless we are required to multitask, of course! It helps so much to thoroughly understand what each member of a production is required to do – something so few ‘gurus’ talk about – and make sure we either tread on toes or avoid them’ bit like being a good ballroom dancer!

  2. Dan Selakovich

    I’m with Jan, here. A writer absolutely has to know the limits of production–whatever they may be. Especially in the indie world. And to get there, you need to know a bit of everything. How good can an editor be if he/she doesn’t know structure or performance? A writer will be better if they’ve sat in the editing room or observed an actor having a shit time with that dialogue that trips over itself. Let’s face it, you don’t get Denzel Washington (the reigning king of making bad dialogue believable) every time. As someone who salvaged movies in trouble for most of my career (working uncredited directing new scenes and re-editing the entire picture), I needed to know the writer’s job, the director’s job, and the editor’s job. There is no doubt that I’m a better writer because of it.

    Now, do you have to know all of this to be a great writer? No. But it certainly helps if you want to be a WORKING writer.

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