How to Please Others But Still Be True to Your Work
Write for yourself. That is, perhaps, the truest and most helpful bit of advice I can give a screenwriter. If the material that you’re writing is not meaningful to you, how can it possibly be meaningful to anyone else? But there are other factors, often unexpected, you might have to deal with when you get close to production. Here’s how one—though frustrating at first—actually resulted in a better script.
My long-time writing partner, Dwight Moody, and I wrote the screenplay for Detour with the awareness that I was going to direct it. The story is about an advertising executive, Jackson Alder, who gets trapped inside his car during a catastrophic mudslide. Once pre-production of the film began, our writing opened itself up to numerous opinions and external factors—after all, filmmaking is a collaborative art form.
One of these factors that, literally, threw a power tool into things, was product placement. This isn’t something most screenwriters think about while writing, nor should they, in a perfect world. But the world isn’t perfect and it takes money to make movies, and in some cases, that money comes from companies that want to place their products into your films.
The following excerpt from my book, DETOUR: Hollywood, delves into how we dealt with this factor:
Approximately one year into getting Detour on its feet (it ultimately took five), my producers and I began solidifying the funds for the film. It was at this point that I was told we’d be receiving upwards of $400,000 from a product placement company that one of the producers had pitched the project to. This, evidently, meant that we would have to incorporate products into the film that I had not anticipated playing roles in the story.
The props that I had written into the film all had narrative significance: Jackson uses the seemingly benign objects in his vehicle in increasingly inventive ways as a means of escaping his situation. The props mattered. They were designed to become more and more personified as the film progressed; therefore any prop just sitting around that Jackson doesn’t use—especially if it boasted a brand name—would scream product placement and consequently take the viewer out of the film. The entire set was the cramped quarters of a sports utility vehicle, after all.
This was the beginning of the end for this avenue of funding. Nevertheless, Dwight and I were prepared to incorporate a brand name power drill into the story. We were told that this one power drill was worth a couple hundred thousand dollars if we wrote it into the film. When you hear something like this, you stop to consider it. However, I insisted that the drill could not work—that was my stipulation if we were to write it in—because if it worked it would make the character’s struggle too easy, and drama is not supposed to be easy. However, he could use the drill bits to aid him in his tasks.
The production company that was involved with Detour at the time had a good relationship with this particular product placement business and they ended up negotiating a deal with them. One of the deal points, in addition to the power drill, was to write a role into the movie for the wife of the owner of the business. To make matters worse, I was told about this after it was negotiated. I was clearly surprised that this deal was made without consulting me, the writer who would be writing the role, not to mention the fact: This movie is about one man trapped in a car. How was I supposed to write another character into a script that was written primarily as a story with one character?!
It was staggering. But after various ups and downs along the way, I refused to be surprised by anything anymore. Dwight and I started to brainstorm writing another role. Even though we were irritated that we even had to humor this request, we actually came up with a scenario that ended up helping the script in the long run.
I’m a firm believer that limitations breed creativity, no matter how terrible or invasive those limitations may at first seem. There will always be obstacles in making a film, but we must learn to embrace them—we must consider them opportunities to think about our story in different ways and from different perspectives.
The role for this actress, along with other ideas, opened up another dimension of the story that involved dreams and hallucinations and flashbacks via the use of the character’s cell phone. All of these ideas ultimately enhanced the story. This role, specifically, turned out to be the role of Jackson’s boss at his advertising agency. By exploring our main character’s subconscious life on screen, we were able to open him up even more to the audience—the more that the audience understands the emotional state of a character, the more they will empathize with him, and ultimately relate to him. This notion was extremely important to us because the majority of the movie was one man in a car—if the audience couldn’t relate to him, we didn’t have a movie.
We eventually parted ways with this particular production company, which included parting ways with the product placement company. However, the role we were asked to write remained in the script, was filmed and is featured in the final cut of the movie that you can rent or buy today (or at least see the trailer below). To me, this is a good example of being painted into a corner and forcing yourself to think in ways you didn’t have to think before. Such a situation is a catalyst for good ideas; it sets the neurons firing in your brain and will, 99 percent of the time, present solutions to problems that you didn’t even know existed.
While we must write for ourselves, we must also write for others. Both tenets are equally important in the medium of film. If what works for you also works for others, well, then you’re on track. And turning an obstacle into an opportunity can lead you in the right direction.
And here’s the trailer to Detour: