The Humiliating World Of The Professional Screenwriter

John Niven is the author of the scabrous music industry satire, Kill Your Friends. He’s also a screenwriter for hire. As the film adaptation of his novel is prepared for release, he recalls less happy Hollywood collaborations, like the time his comedy road movie was relocated to Serbia for tax reasons, or the one when a famous actor decided to spice up a horror script by inserting sex with dead people...

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“So, you land in Germany, or wherever, and the PR meets you at the airport and you get the courtesy car into town, where you sit on the hotel balcony, smoking, and you do the interviews, saying the same things over and over and the only thing that changes is the type of recording device: iPhone, Dictaphone, MP3 player. So you…”

I’d thought of opening this piece about film-making and film promotion with a Jay McInerney-esque account of a recent trip to the Fantasy Film Festival in Berlin, for the European premiere of a movie I’ve written. For what the second person narration gives you, in a literary sense, is a cold ennui, detachment — a sense of the relentless depersonalisation that working in Hollywood and promoting a movie around the world often entails. (That punishing chain of “ands” in the opening paragraph, interspersed with a few “ifs” and “buts”, actually feels very much like the development part of the movie-making process.) But, when it comes to Kill Your Friends, the movie of my first novel, out this November starring Nicholas Hoult, it doesn’t feel that way at all. There’s no ennui. I feel extremely attached. This time, and excuse me for this, it’s personal.

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It doesn’t always feel like this. Martin Amis said that the hack and the whore have much in common, “The late nights, the forced jollity... you have to keep on doing it even when you don’t feel like it.” You could easily add the jobbing screenwriter to this list. And, reader, I’ve done it for the money.
“Hey, how about this? OK, OK.” The actor stands up.

Hollywood, early summer 2012: we’re in a meeting room at a production company’s office in Santa Monica. There’s me and my screenwriting partner Nick and the producer and a fairly well-known actor. Nick and I are spending a few months “out there”, living in the Hollywood Hills, working on a screenplay and taking meetings, playing golf and driving about in our rental car and doing the whole British-screenwriters-putting-it-about-in-LA thing. Anyway, back to that room. We’re “spitballing” as they say out there, throwing around story ideas for a horror movie they’re thinking about hiring us to write. We’re trying to come up with a revenge motivation for the killer.

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“So maybe his, like, his girlfriend?” the actor says. “Maybe she got raped by these guys back in the day?” He looks at us.

“OK,” we say. “Maybe.” (It is important to remember that there are no bad ideas at the spitballing stage. In theory, you are in a safe place where you can throw out any notion no matter how ludicrous. What, you think no one fought a snigger when the guy jumped up and said, “I’VE GOT IT — THE SHARK JUMPS UP ON THE BOAT AND BREAKS IT IN HALF!”)

“No, no — it’s worse than that,” the actor says, getting into it now, “they... they fucked her to death.” Nick and I look at each other. “Ah,” one of us says, “they had, umm, sex with her until she died?” One of us would have had a notebook. We probably wrote this down.

“Yeah. No. Wait, wait, how about this. How about this — they’re fucking her and she’s dead. But they don’t know it. And they’re still fucking her.”

“Umm,” I say. “So, basically, you’re suggesting we open the movie with a flashback to a necrophiliac gangbang?”

I have to confess incredulity is openly having a party on my face now.

There’s a pause. He grins and spreads his hands. “Hey,” the actor says. “What am I? A writer?”

William Goldman famously wrote that if you just wrote screenplays for a living then he might well covet your bank balance, but he wouldn’t give you two bits for your soul. Goldman also wrote novels (Marathon Man, Magic) and felt that they were a place where he could play God with no intrusion or committee meetings. For making movies is the ultimate form of art by committee. Like Goldman I do both. I write novels on my own and screenplays with Nick. (More recently branching out to write with others. I’m currently collaborating with Caitlin Moran on the screenplay for the movie of her novel How to Build a Girl. Sadly, Cat is barkingly sane and we’ve yet to have our “how about a necrophiliac gangbang?” moment.) We’ve been doing this together for 10 years now. In fact, we wrote two screenplays together before I wrote Kill Your Friends. The second screenplay we wrote was optioned and very nearly went into production before the financing fell apart at the last moment. The third screenplay we wrote together, a comic road movie, was made into a $13m action film in 2009. (I’m not going to tell you the title of it or who was in it because it wasn’t a very good film and I don’t want to badmouth something I got paid handsomely for. After you take the money, you kind of have to shut your mouth.)

We’re obviously not at any stage of the game where Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams are looking over their shoulders, but we’re not totally chopped liver either, again as they say out there. We have management in LA. We had a movie made, which moves you up a whole level, even when the results are appalling. (After the — disastrous — opening of the action movie we wrote, we asked our manager to get us a bunch of meetings, figuring we’d better get our next job soon, before anyone saw the movie. In one of these meetings a producer said to us, “Hey, you wrote a great script and the director fucked you. Happens every week out here.”) We do rewrites and polishes on other people’s work. Being a novelist is the day job, it’s pretty much what I get up every morning and do, it’s what I feel married to. Screenwriting is the mistress.

Why have the mistress when it causes you such untold pain and grief? Well, as novelists from Faulkner on down have known, there’s the money for one thing. The publishing industry is not, it is fair to say, in the most robust shape it’s ever been in. For a non-genre novel, hardback sales anywhere over the 10,000 mark are considered incredibly healthy these days. A UK advance for a novel of between 30 and 50 grand is considered pretty good going. In LA, you’d get that for spending three weeks “polishing” someone else’s dialogue. As opposed to anywhere between a year and three years of your life writing a book. And some other kind soul would already have done all the heavy lifting — they’d have created characters and a storyline and all that other stuff that takes a lot of time. But there is another, loftier, reason.

In our action film, the one that was such a howling, screeching turkey, there was one scene, just one, that made it onto the screen pretty much intact. That was played just as we’d intended it to be. I can still remember the collective laughter and gasp of the 300 or so people in the theatre, the laughter of hundreds of people experiencing the same thing at the same time. I remember Nick and me looking at each other and going, “Wow.” And you’ll never get that from writing a novel.

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***

When the spec script for our comedy road movie was being sold, when we were being romanced, we were told how much they (producer and director) loved it. How they weren’t going to change a thing. (This is all the Hollywood equivalent of “I won’t come in your mouth/the cheque’s in the post/we’ll sort it out in the edit.”) Then, after the deal was done, the notes started, some of them big enough to raise an eyebrow. Then an interesting phone call.

“Yeah, hi guys. We want you to take another pass at the script and this time we’re going to set the movie in Serbia.”

“Excuse me?” The movie we’d written was set on the Eastern seaboard of the US.

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“Serbia.”

“You mean you’re going to shoot some exteriors there? Have them double for the United States?”

“No. We’re setting the movie in Serbia now.”

“But you still want all the central characters to be American?” The enormous ramifications of this began to hit us.

“Yeah.”

“But why are they all in Serbia? They go and visit someone’s mum at one point. What’s she doing there?”

“Hey, you’re the writers. Figure it out.”

What had happened was that they got some huge tax break to set the movie there. The $13m budget would, we were told, look like 30 on the screen. We tried to explain that it didn’t matter if it looked like $300m — if the movie didn’t make any sense, who was going to give a shit? We were shouted down and reminded that contractually we owed them another draft. We got on with it, doing work that we knew was damaging our work.

Fast-forward 18 months and Nick and I are sitting in the back row of the Arc Light cinema off Hollywood Boulevard for the premiere. It is the first time we will have seen a frame of the film. There have been several rewrites of the script by other people. We’ve heard of much “improvising” on set. The lights go down.

***


Well, I’ve endured worse times. But not many, and none that didn’t involve dentists or doctors. After 30 minutes, I was saying to Nick, “Who’s that? Where are they going? Why are they doing that?” I had no idea what was going on and I’d written the movie. (There it was on the credits: WRITTEN BY NICK BALL AND JOHN NIVEN.) If you’d wandered in off the street you’d have thought that you were watching a cross between Memento and Jacob’s Ladder. And you’d just double-dropped some powerful microdots.

We stumbled out into the hot LA night afterwards. I wandered up and down numb. Nick later said I looked exactly like Ned Beatty in Deliverance when he stumbles back into shot having just been raped: jaw dangling, eyes vacantly horrified. Which was exactly how I felt. “Peter,” I said to one of our managers. “You’re an old school Hollywood guy. You must have seen this kind of thing happen before.”

“Oh yeah,” Peter said. “I have. But this...” he sighed. “This is extreme.”

Just the words you want to hear after the premiere of your own film.


***

Nowadays, when I see a terrible film, when I see a coughing, spluttering cinematic turkey spraying filth all over the screen, my reaction is one of tender sympathy, of affection. Because I know how incredibly hard it is to get the thing made at all. And I look at the writer’s name, or names, at the bottom and feel great love for them. Because they didn’t start out saying, “Hey, let’s write a demented, incoherent mess that will make people want to throw ordure at the screen.” They wanted to write Chinatown. Taxi Driver. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off even. Eventually, a couple of years later, I put much of this experience into my new novel, Straight White Male. At one point, Kennedy Marr, the novelist/screenwriter central character, reflects that: “Hollywood was a crapshoot. You put together a cast like Kevin Kline, Harvey Keitel, Rod Steiger, Susan Sarandon and Alan Rickman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and a veteran producer like Norman Jewison and you got The January Man — an abortion that takes £4m at the box office. Alternatively, you put a rookie director together with a B-list cast and no shooting script and you got fucking Jaws.”

I love LA, I really do. Sunshine, palm trees, the food is great. If you avoid rush hour or weekends — which, let’s face it, being a screenwriter you can do — you can drive out to Malibu in 45 minutes and hit the beach. But, after a few months, after dozens and dozens of meetings, after all the “generals” and “pitches” and the hours spent in the car, sweltering on the 101, or gridlocked Santa Monica Boulevard, I came to realise what I really love doing. I love writing. And if you’re having three or four meetings around town in a day, that’s a lot of time you’re not writing. And if an executive says “yes” to one of your pitches, well, yeah, you’ll get some money. But then you’ll have to write an outline, then a treatment, then a first draft and then a second. And every one of these stages will be accompanied by, you guessed it, more notes and more meetings.

In our down time when we were in LA, Nick and I wrote a new spec script. Now, once you are a paid “pro” writer some managers and agents don’t like you doing this: you should get the money upfront before starting work. But we did it because that’s what we like doing. And now the script’s getting some “traction”. (Again, as they say “out there”. I don’t want you to think I habitually talk like this.) It’s been optioned, a major producer and a great director are attached and they’re looking for cast. And we had a lot of fun doing it. Just the two of us in a room, making each other laugh. No driving. No valet parking. No lunches or dinners and saying, “I see your point” or, “Great idea!” while listening to the most titanic wall of arse you have ever heard in your life.

It reminded me of a remark of Woody Allen’s. He said something to the effect that, if you are a writer or a director all you want to do is the work. You want to make the film as painlessly and quickly as possible and move onto the next one. However, if you are an executive you want to have all the meetings. You want to have the lunches and dinners because that’s why you go into the business in the first place. To hang out with “talent”. To be a bit “creative”. And this is why projects take three and five and 10 years to get done. Because everyone wants to hang out, being creative.

But let’s return to Berlin, and the premiere of Kill Your Friends. The cinema is packed, standing room only. My spine is already pre-arched, already tensed, ready for the hell of watching something you have created with an audience. The action-movie-this-is-extreme experience is still very much fresh in my mind. And then it happens, just a couple of minutes in: laughter. Grateful, unforced, communal laughter.

There is more, much more. There is cheering, screaming and applause, too. It feels surreal as we sit there — writer, producers, director — among this German audience who seem to love every twist and turn of the film, up to and including [main character] Stelfox describing a record as “the biggest insult to humanity since a roomful of Nazis chuckled over the blueprints for Auschwitz.” It all feels, indeed, like the bit in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, where Zero Mostel turns to Gene Wilder and says, “Where did we go right?”

This time, stumbling out of the theatre after the premiere, my expression is less Ned Beatty in Deliverance and more like another character from a post-gang-rape scene of recent cinema history. I look more like Bruce Willis after he escapes unscathed from the basement of his would-be hillbilly buggerers in Pulp Fiction. I’m grinning from ear to ear, hardly able to believe my luck as I gun my imaginary chopper off into the night, saying to myself, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead...” 

Kill Your Friends is out on 6 November

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