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How to Ruin a Script – Life as a Working TV Director

Note: As a regular contributor to early editions of movieScope Magazine, Canadian born director Ron Oliver offered a glimse of  life as a working, Emmy-nominated television director. His observations were without fail both humourous and insightful and are republished on this site with permission. 

“He ruined my script,” the strident young woman announced over her cocktail, completely unaware that the man she was talking to at the horror writers’ convention was, in fact, the best friend of the director she was lambasting. “He just completely ruined it.”

When this story was related to me, the accused, shortly thereafter, I was sorely tempted to call the writer, the one whose deathless prose I had apparently managed to murder after all, and give her the old what-for. The original script in question, the first draft of which had been a meandering knock-off of about fifteen other equally dismal sexy female vampire movies, came to me from a low-budget producer who, by some twist of fate, had ended up owning a box—literally, a cardboard box—chock full of the kind of bottom-of-the-video-shelf-tripe that one only watches while suffering from a hangover.

The producer had managed to sell this project as part of a package to a consortium of unwitting overseas investors based entirely on some artwork and his verbal pitches— in this case, “Charlie’s Angels meets The Lost Boys”—and when he had sat down to actually read the screenplay in question, realised he had a problem.

Instead of the horror-action-comedy he had promised his money men (several of whom it was rumoured had made their fortunes the old-fashioned way—fraud, embezzlement and murder—and were not likely to take kindly to the old bait and switch), what he had was one hundred and twenty pages of a plot-free feminist screed punctuated by half a dozen fight scenes featuring the kind of lavish special effects and elaborate wire work which would have given mega-mogul Joel Silver pause.

And our producer had just under a million bucks to do it.

So, with his blessing and a healthy ration of Belvedere Vodka, I sat down at my computer with a production schedule, a budget and a list of locations and spent the next three days knocking out a script based on the original, using all the same characters, the same premise, even many of the same themes, to come up with the movie we made. Powered by an enthusiastic cast and a tireless crew, many of whom slept in the abandoned indoor mini-golf course we called home, we made the film in twelve days.

It is currently at your local DVD store, has enjoyed an extremely healthy run on that cable network for guys, and given that it features sexy women in leather and lingerie, some enthusiastic if not-too-groundbreaking fight scenes and lots and lots of gore (including a rather nasty castration by fangs and a pair of bloodsucking breasts), managed to make it onto several guilty pleasures lists the year of its release.

I mention this, dear reader, not as an “I told you so” but rather as an illustration of the sometimes challenging relationship between the writer and the director. Having been both, and having written for other directors as well, I can perhaps shed a little light onto that endless wrestling match which has eternally waged at the end of the title scroll. (And at no time am I going to comment on the illustrative fact that while the recent Writers Guild strike lasted for three months, the Directors Guild negotiations, from first handshake to last, took all of four days…)

The writer’s lot is certainly an unenviable one; the pressures of staring at a blank computer screen, trying to come up with just the right series of words and images to tell a tale, is enough to drive even the sanest among us stark raving mad. And given the writer’s natural inclination toward introversion, not to mention the fact that most of them are still living in their parents’ basement, it is a lonely profession to say the least.

Good stories, however, are about human interaction, something that, in this hands-off era of Facebook and its virtual relationships—the e-Life, as it were—seems to have become almost an anathema to my fellow keyboard jockeys. The messiness of civilisation, the residual damage, both good and bad, of the endless collisions of human existence are in my opinion the only reason to write at all.

But having Red Bulled my way over the years through script after tedious homage laden script in an endless search for material, I am sorry to report that the airtight lifestyle of our current species of scribe does not seem to lend itself to anything more than a series of reports on the movies they have watched, the TV shows they have seen and the blogs they have scrolled while sitting alone in their regular corner at Starbucks, earphones pumping the recycled sounds of Coldplay into their brains.

I suppose it is sacrilegious to suggest that all the time and energy spent studying the latest Robert McKee tome or attending yet another How To course in screenwriting is for naught, but surely the erstwhile Ernest Lehmans out there would be better served by doing a little less writing and a little more living first.

This is not to say that the director has it all figured out either.

In his or her role as Ringmaster of the circus, the director’s world is almost entirely one of extroversion, of continuous, non-stop human exchange, to the point of distraction. With upwards of one hundred people asking a thousand questions a day, and with the director needing to answer those questions (right or wrong never seems to matter, by the way; they just want an ANSWER!), the very idea of taking a moment to reflect or gather one’s thoughts in some kind of logical order is practically a call to mutiny. This is where the importance of pre-production becomes immediately apparent; unless one has had the chance to think the entire movie through, from top to tail, one is literally shooting from the hip—for better or for worse.

And quite often, the worse means falling back on old tricks and old methods that, while technically sound, do not necessarily suit the material at hand; sometimes they can defeat the purpose of an entire scene.

I recall once filming three or four pages of mostly expositional dialogue between two actors, staging it in a series of intricate camera moves and elaborate blocking, foolishly thinking I was helping the script by giving it some visual pizzazz. As the camera crew scurried around the set following my inanely complicated orders, the actors rehearsed their lines quietly in a corner, just leaning against a piece of furniture. Eavesdropping, I heard an honesty and truth come out of the text that had not been there before and, while my faults may be many, I do know enough to put on the brakes when I am heading toward a cliff. I stopped everything, brought the crew back to the set, and restaged the entire scene as the actors were doing it, the two of them just standing there talking, with a simple, single moving shot which ended in a close-up on the one with the last word.

It worked flawlessly. Sometimes, and I say this knowing full well that every writer out there is about to nod quite smugly, the director just needs to get out of the way.

But wouldn’t it be better if, instead of getting out of the way, the director and the writer could work hand in hand? In the case of the writer SLASH director, this is practically a foregone conclusion of course. It is surely no coincidence that the writer/producer driven world of television has been an endless series of static shots and talking heads, at least until the recent explosion on the scene of the brilliant J. J. (Lost, Alias) Abrams, a writer/DIRECTOR/producer who has brought some much needed visual style to our TV sets.

However, when the writer and director are two distinct entities, both with hopefully healthy egos, a certain détente is required.
The writer, responsible for giving birth, as it were, needs to understand that at a certain point this kid is going to have to walk on its own. By the same token, the director must prepare the youngster for the world at large, hopefully by carefully guiding it down the path to adulthood without grabbing it by the throat and slamming it against the nearest tree. Unfortunately, there are no road maps for this particular journey.

Several years ago I met with a writer to discuss the changes I wanted in his script for a large scaled family film based on a classic and much loved novel. Following what I thought had been a frank and friendly chat—he was, after all, an experienced screenwriter with several produced credits and was certainly used to some constructive criticism—he sent me a long e-mail telling me he had felt belittled, betrayed and otherwise generally beaten up by our talk.

Surprised that he had taken my comments so personally, and having had a bad feeling about the entire venture from the get-go, I called the producer and bowed out of the project. (I will admit to a bit of schadenfreude when they made the film anyway, without changing a word of the script, and it not only tanked financially but also managed to alienate critics, adults and kids alike…)
Contrast this with a recent experience I had with a young lady whose delightful if slightly muddled romantic comedy I had been hired to direct. After several tipsy dinners full of laughter, arguments and tears as we reworked the script together it became an enchanting ratings hit for the network and an utterly wonderful time for all of us.

Same methods, different results. It is all about human interaction, I suppose; some of us are good at it, some of us are not. But it is finally all about respecting each other’s territory, and the strengths and weaknesses inherent within, and finding some way to communicate; the ultimate function of art.

With this in mind, I sought out the young woman whose script I had ruined, tracking her down by way of her website. I had thought to, at the very most, ask her what she felt I had done wrong or, at the very least, simply apologise for doing what I thought was right.
But there, among some rather one-sided discussions of her work, both cinematic and literary, I was surprised to discover that while she publicly lamented what had happened to her precious screenplay, she apparently did not harbour enough shame to keep her from posting the positive reviews for the DVD.

The notices were quite good, actually, and most of them commented on the slightly tongue-in-cheek qualities of the performances, the sometimes-witty screenplay and the robust energy of the direction. We managed to look pretty good together, the writer and myself, even if we had only managed to do it while apart. Not bad for a ruined script. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 9

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One Response to How to Ruin a Script – Life as a Working TV Director

  1. Johnnyboy Reply

    January 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Well, I had a bad experience with a screenplay I had written. To make a long story short, I was forced to change the ending, the director reduced a fight scene to a slap, the actors were grossly miscast, the idiot who edited my movie did a lousy job of it, and inappropriate (not to mention copyrighted and illegally used) music was utilized as the sound track. Yes My movie did get some good reviews, but as far as I’m concerned, it was crap. (to put it nicely.) I decided to wash my hands of this abomination and distance myself from not only the movie, but those who ruined it.

    Unlike the person in this story, I have no plans to post the positive reviews.

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