How To Ruin A Screenplay
I don’t have children. But I am a writer, which is kind of the same thing. Now, before parents everywhere start asking me if I ever have to change my screenplay’s diaper or stay up all night trying to calm a colicky short story, I said KIND OF the same thing, not exactly the same thing.
As a writer, I worry if I’m doing a good enough job bringing my ‘baby’ into the world. I wonder if I’m raising it right, filling it with the right kinds of thoughts, ideas and morals. I spend a lot of sleepless nights fretting over it, and I dread the day when I send it out into the world to be accepted or rejected.
Being a playwright is a special kind of torture. Because, when you’ve finally finished your script – once it’s polished to a multiple-draft shine— you hand it over to a director, cast and crew and let them have their artistic way with it. It’s like a painter passing off the brush and letting someone else do final coloring and shading or a band letting their buddy play bass on their album— it requires a lot of trust and faith to let other people help bring your piece to life.
Over the course of what I would loosely and self-mockingly refer to as my ‘career,’ I’ve had good experiences with this and dreadful ones. The trouble is always that the good ones fade in my memory, while the bad ones remain in crisp, sharp relief, every detail defined and clear.
I wrote a play a few years ago that was selected for production by a Chicago theater company. A ghost story thriller, it combined techniques from film and the world of magic to create what I thought was a truly unique live theater experience. It was a complicated and complex show, and three months before rehearsals were set to begin, I handed off the final draft of my script, making sure to tell the director and producer that, just because it was my final draft, that didn’t mean I expected it to be the final draft, and that they should feel free to have me make edits, changes or re-writes as needed. Then I kicked back with a glass of single-malt scotch, put some Mozart on the record player, began re-reading Don Quixote for the tenth time and other pretentious writerly things I don’t actually do.
A few days after I sent the script, I heard back that they were thrilled with the draft and eager to hold auditions, and that they would be in touch if they needed any script changes. I continued to check in as the days flew by on the calendar. And they kept telling me that things were going great, and no changes were needed from me.
Then, about a month before opening, my emails and calls to the director began to go unanswered. They must just be really busy with getting the show ready, I told myself. But I knew better. That was a warning sign. Like a new friend telling me he just doesn’t get the whole Beatles thing. And by the time it was two weeks to opening, I was getting pretty tired of being ignored.
I sent an email to the producer, who promptly responded, telling me he’d make sure the director got in touch with me ASAP, which she did, later that day. Her email was full of apologies and excitement at how well things were going. But buried in her message was the revelation that she and the cast had made some “minor changes” to the script. Like re-writing the entire opening and ending as well as changing the time period and adding a “bunch of jokes” to a thriller. You know, little things like that.
Before long, a pretty heated argument ensued. I’m not saying I behaved calmly and conducted myself with the highest level of decorum and respect, because I didn’t. But when you spend four years bringing up baby only to have its adopted family do what felt to me like the artistic equivalent of locking it in a closet and feeding it sawdust — well, let’s just say I thought about driving down to Chicago and challenging the director to a knife fight more than once.
After a few days and dozens of heated exchanges I was left with no choice but to exercise the nuclear option and pull the rights to my script. It was ugly, and our friendship and professional relationship never recovered. But nobody gets to mess my baby up but me.
It was several years before another play of mine was produced, and this time it was at my new artistic home, Renegade Theater Company. The difference here was that the entire cast and crew were my close friends and people I trusted completely as artists, and vice versa. This time the process was smooth and a ridiculous amount of fun. We played with feminine care products, made a man pin another man to the ground while wearing leopard underwear and got to eat free Domino’s pizza every night. It was everything making art should be. People even came to see it.
In fact, it was such a fun process, that I’m currently hard at work on a new draft of my ghost story thriller. It’s got a new name (Ghost Light) a new setting (a haunted vaudeville theater) and a new creative team behind it. A team I trust completely.
And now I find I’m looking forward to the day where my baby is all grown up and I send it out to play with some of the coolest kids I know.
Andy Bennett is a local writer, actor and director. If you ever want to challenge him to a knife fight, you can usually find him at the Teatro Zuccone.