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Bill Nicholson’s Speech at the launch of the International Screenwriters’ Festival

Monday 30th January 2006

I’m here, I suppose, as a representative screenwriter - nothing grander than that - but it would be true to say that I have puzzled about screenwriting a lot. What I puzzle about is why we screenwriters have such a shitty life.

Even though things have gone moderately well for me - I think I have a success rate of something like 30%, which is not bad - that’s still 70% failure. And by failure I mean total, abject failure. I mean scripts in drawers that never get seen again; scripts into which I’ve poured my life blood.

Every writer knows all about that; but here’s the puzzle. Why is it that everybody I know, everybody who comes onto my website, everybody I meet in a taxi, wants to be a screenwriter? There seem to be thousands and thousands of people who either are or are becoming screenwriters. And yet every time I meet a producer he says to me, “I have a project, but I can’t find a writer. Where are the writers? There are no writers.” This gives rise to a strange and haunting image. Armies of wannabe screenwriters are marching away with their heads held high and smiling into a mist, and none of them are coming back. It’s like a scene from the first world war. It’s tragic. Somewhere there’s a swamp in which flounders the dying youth of British screenwriting talent.

I’ve been puzzling about why this is, and I think there may be a very straightforward explanation. I know this has applied to me. Whether it applies more widely, I don’t know.

I was raised in the British high cultural tradition. I did Eng Lit at Cambridge. I love writers. I love books. I wanted to be a writer because of the writers that I’ve loved. When I think about why I want to be a writer, I realise, being a writer is the ultimate ego trip. What you actually do, whatever you write about, you’re writing about yourself. Everybody gives you an enormous amount of attention, and everything that you’ve written is some sort of reflection of your personality. As a real writer, as I used to think, i.e. as a writer of books, you’re encouraged to develop your own voice, your own style, your own personality. It is in fact you yourself that you’re expressing when you write.

So you go with this sense of what it is to be a writer into the film business. I think you can see where this is leading. You go, specifically in my case, to Hollywood. I should make it clear that everything I say relates primarily to the Hollywood system. It does not relate to the production of indie movies, where a very talented writer, possibly a writer/director, can manage on a very small budget to do something that is entirely under their own control, and that remains their own vision, and speaks with their own voice. I applaud that , but I’m not now talking about that, because the only problem you’ve got with that is you need sheer blinding talent. If you’ve got sheer blinding talent, you will have a career. But what about the rest of us, who slog along and want to make a life in the business? We head for Hollywood with this dream of what it is to be a writer - and we find to our amazement that the people in Hollywood don’t want to hear our voice, and don’t want to know about our style. As for expressing our self through our movies, they say, “Listen, buster, we’re not going to spend millions of dollars expressing your self. That’s not what you’re here to do. You’re here to create a movie that will sell, that will get people to go to the pictures, and that will pay back the investors who put the money in.” Now, what do we do, we Brit writers faced with this attitude? We have various options.

The common option is to say, “These fuckers are just commercial morons, and I’m not going to have anything more to do with them. I’m going back to a proper world where art if appreciated.” Now that would be a very understandable reaction. So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we say that? Well, there are a couple of answers, I think. One is, we want the money. Everybody thinks that’s the only answer. I swear to you it isn’t. I truly believe it isn’t. I think what draws us like moths to the flame is, we want to be part of these giant pictures that girdle the globe, and that enter the consciousness of everybody all around the world. It’s the most extraordinary feeling. I had a little bit of a feeling of it when I was part of Gladiator, many years ago now. That movie - everybody saw it, everybody responded to it, everybody had a feeling about it. So every time I met somebody and said that I was one of the people who had worked on Gladiator - and I emphasise that I was just that, just one of the people - it was a thrill. It felt as if I had connected with this gigantic global audience. Now, we all know that most of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood is no good. But occasionally there’s some very, very good stuff comes out, and when that happens, it’s astonishing. They’ve got the muscle to push it all around the world. And to be part of that is an astonishing thrill. And that’s what keeps us going.

I’ve been writing screenplays for twenty-two years now, if you include the years doing BBC dramas. I’m 58 yrs old. So I think I can call myself a veteran. Also I really have thought quite a bit about what you have to do to survive. So now I’m addressing the writers among you. Those of you who’ve already cracked Hollywood won’t need to hear this, you’ll know all about it. Those of you who don’t want to hear can get a drink at the back. For everybody else, this is my theory about how British screenwriters can do a great deal better in the system; and also, I think, write better screenplays.

When you go to Hollywood as a Brit you’ve got three major problems. The first is ego, which I’ve mentioned. We go as writers who see ourselves as the centre of the action. That is not going to work. We are not the centre of the action. I would like to be, I wish I was. It just isn’t so. Everything you write can be changed by others. Your entire work can be re-written. Right now, as we speak, I have two screenplays, one I wrote for Universal, one I wrote for Sony, both that I’ve poured my lifeblood into, draft after draft, year after year, because I will not let go until I am physically kicked off, and I have been physically kicked off both of them. One of them is now being rewritten by Akiva Goldsman, who’s a very distinguished screenwriter, currently doing the Da Vinci Code. The other is being rewritten by William Goldman. So I have to bask in the kind of distant reflected glory of the people who are, even now, trampling on my babies. That is what happens. So if you go to Hollywood with your ego waving, you will be crushed, and you will limp home weeping, and you will end up doing something else, and frankly, so you should.

So what you have to do is something else. You take your ego and you wrap it in a nice soft silk scarf and you pop it in the drawer with all your early manuscripts that have never been seen; and you let it stay there. That’s the first thing you have to do.

The second thing is about teamwork. We don’t like teamwork in this country. We think that the author is king. I write plays as well. As the playwright I am the king. I love that. People don’t change the lines without asking me. Can you imagine? It’s fantastic. In the film business, it’s not like that. You are a member of a team. Now by that I do not mean that you’re going to be put in a room with seven other writers, like they do on the sitcoms. No, no, no, you’ll be all alone as always. Lonely and miserable. But everything you do will be pored over by the team who’s producing the movie – the production team, the development executives, and if you’re lucky enough to get that far, the director. And if you’re lucky enough to get even further, the actors. And all these people feel that they have the right to play a part in the creation in your script. And they do. Now this may run against the ethic that is held here. You can stamp on me and say, “No, they don’t. The writer should be sacrosanct.” But I don’t believe it. An enormous amount of money goes into the making of a film. Why should one of the people there control the whole thing? It ain’t gonna work. So you have to accept you’re a member of a team, and everything you do is subject to other people. Not everybody perhaps, but there are quite a number who are entitled to come in and beat up your script and tell you how to make it better. Now, okay, they can screw it up. That happens. But it’s not been my usual experience. Right now, I’m working on ‘The Golden Age’. I’m onto draft 13, I think, and every meeting I go to I spin out a draft. In these drafts the changes are getting less and less, and we’re getting closer and closer. We start shooting in April. Every time I go to a meeting, there I am in Oxford Street, sitting around a table with the production team, and somebody says, “You know, I’ve been reading over the weekend, and I was thinking about that sequence there, and I’ve had an idea.” Then they give me the idea and I think, “Jesus, that is a very good idea. Why didn’t I think of that? Am I an idiot?” The minute they say it, it’s so obvious. But what can you do? Steal it. Take it. That’s what I do. Okay, it’s a great idea. I put it into the script. On the phone, I’m writing a film for Ridley Scott, I’m on the phone with his team in Los Angeles and he’s got a new guy working for him called Michael Costigan, who’s very, very good, and this guy is so bright and he’s talking to me on the phone about my draft and he says, “You know, I’ve been thinking you could do this, this, this.” And he’s right. It’s the most brilliant, brilliant, idea. So what do I do? I put it in the script. That’s what I mean by teamwork. I think it can be made to work. It’s not as alienating as you may think.

The third thing you have to adjust your attitude to if you’re going to work in this system is money. And I don’t mean the money that you’re paid. That’s simple. For all of us screenwriters, we’re the lucky ones, we get paid even when the whole thing goes down in flames. We get paid before the producers get paid. It’s really easy for us, on money. What I mean by adjusting our ideas on money is, our attitude to the money that finances the movie. If you go into the movie business saying, “I am the artist and the money people are the enemy. These are the people who are trying to screw me, they are trying to take my work of art and turn it in to some monstrous commercial bull”, if that’s your attitude, don’t go there. You’ve got to make friends with the money. You’ve got to go there and say, “These people, who are getting the money are getting it to make the film I’m working on. If I need to do anything to help them get the money I should do that.” Now, that doesn’t mean that you rewrite it so that you have a porn star in it. You have a point at which you stop, obviously; but you do say to yourself, it is reasonable and proper and right that they say to me, “We can’t finance it like this; we can finance it like that.” In other words, you as a writer, as an artist, in film, must be an artist-producer. You have to combine these two functions. You can’t be a child. You can’t sit there saying, “I just want to do all the fun stuff and daddy can worry about all the rest of it.” It’s not like that. You’ve got to get serious about how your film is going to get made. And that is an attitude that in my experience a lot of British writers do not have. Now you’re entitled to say, that’s why Nicholson writes such rubbish scripts. And there are many other people who write scripts that have an absolute zip of originality that I don’t have. Fair enough. If you can get your films made, that’s the best way to go. But the whole mass of the business works the way I’m describing. You have to make compromises because of the money, and you should respect that and enjoy it. You should be on your producer’s side. Right now, on ‘The Golden Age’, I get told, “We’ve got to lose 3 million. Where’s it going to go?” What am I going to do? I’m not going to wet myself. I’m not going to squeal. I say, “Okay, we’ve got to lose 3 million - tell me where the money’s spread? Show me where the expensive bits are. Lets try and find the 3M, and I’ll rewrite you something that will do the same job and will lose the 3M.” That is part of my job as a writer. That’s why - I secretly think - I’m constantly in work. I don’t think its talent. I’m just useful, you know. And I actually fit in with these people who have to make the thing happen.

So those are the three things that I would urge all writers to consider. You’ll notice that I’ve said nothing at all about technique, or structure, or how you actually write a screenplay, because I don’t know. None of us know. I don’t think it’s worth reading any of those books about how to do it. I think it’s not worth going to any of the courses. I think what you need is a good strong idea, and you need good people round you. If you’ve got good people round you, this team I’m talking about, and if you’re prepared to rewrite, to rewrite and rewrite, it will get better and better and better, and it will happen. Anyway, that’s been my experience, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done. It’s also, and this is the other curiosity about it, it’s made it more fun.

A lot of people think that it’s torture to be told what to do. It is hard. It’s very hard to be criticised. I feel, at the age of 58, as if I’ve never left school. As if teacher is still marking my essays, because that’s what it feels like. To all of you who are producers here, I’m sure you know, that’s in effect what you’re doing to the writers. You’re saying, “Well, you’ve got a beta plus here. You’ve done quite well, but I think we could do with a little bit more. And your punctuation isn’t so good.” And we writers have to swallow all of this, and take it in a good spirit - because it actually makes the damn thing better. Now if we can train a generation of screenwriters who are not afraid to work this way - But perhaps you all work this way, I don’t know. I get the feeling from the producers I speak to that a lot of writers have heart attacks when told that their work isn’t good and has to be reworked. It’s partly to do with confidence. You need a lot of confidence to say, “Okay, I’ll go back into it, I’ll reinvent that bit that isn’t working. I won’t do exactly what you say, because that’s not our job as writers. Our job is not to take dictation from the producers.” That’s right. If the producers could do that, they wouldn’t need you. They’d be the writers. Our job is to hear what’s wrong, work out whether we agree with it, and usually I find that I do, and come up with a solution. So I say to the producers I work with, "Tell me what’s wrong, don’t tell me how to fix it. Let me come back to you and I will try to fix it for you. If you don’t like my fix, I will try again and I will try again, and I will try again.” If we can develop a whole body of screenwriters with that mentality, which is very pragmatic, very craft-based, very open to everybody else who wants to make a contribution - including by the way, some people who you may not want to have contributions from at all, like the actors - but I have found - do we have any actors here? I don’t think we have any actors? - I think all of you who have worked in the business will have had the frustration of actors who refuse to say lines - I had this with Russell Crowe on Gladiator - I remember him saying, “Your lines are garbage but I’m the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage sound good” - and you know what? He is the greatest actor in the world, or one of them. He’s very, very good, and probably my lines were garbage, so he was just talking straight. But you have to be able to deal with that as well and you have to be able to roll with that, as well. So if we can spread that word, I think we will begin to develop a body of screenwriters here who are global, who can make screenplays that can go all over the world. But to do that, what we need is not just the kind of slightly aggressive ideas I’ve been putting forward now - we need to help each other. We need confidence. And that is very, very hard. We need to feel that we’re among friends. That we can share our anxieties, our problems and our scripts, and get support, and not feel that we’ll have our ideas stolen or that people will piss all over us. I would love to see some place where screenwriters can actually meet and talk and say, “Look, I’m working on this, what do you think?” And share the problems. Because the basis of everything I’m saying is confidence.

To have an ego under control, you have to be confident. To accept criticism, you have to be confident. To take in other ideas, you have to be confident. Where the hell are we to get confidence from? We’re all terrified of failure. But I think we can give it to each other. It’s in that spirit that I welcome this initiative that David and the others have put together. I really hope that it gets off the ground, because frankly, it’s a lonely business being a screenwriter. It’s like being a gladiator. You sit all alone in a cage for a very long time and then they throw lions at you. It’s very, very tough. So let’s form some kind of body between us, that shares experiences, including, by the way, the experiences of producers. I’d love to be able to ring somebody up and say, “Have you ever worked with that poisonous toad?” And my fellow screenwriter might say, “Yes, I did, and he looks like a poisonous toad, but he delivers.” You know, we need this kind of information. You producers have all got it. You producers all ring each other up and say, “What’s this writer like?” “Oh, he’s shit, you don’t want him.” Well, we need it as well. And so anything that can give us more of a unity and more of an opportunity to work together, I applaud. Beyond that, frankly, all we’ve got is our talent.

Okay, that’s it.

Bill Nicholson