Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation, Addendum: You Sometime Have to Work on Projects You Hate (And it Might Be “Your” Project)

In the comments on this post, we debated about whether it ever makes sense to work on projects you hate.  Ultimately, I would say that my answer is a sad yes, in some bad situations.

No, you probably should knock yourself out trying to get hired for an opening writing assignment you hate, for several reasons:
  • It’ll be hard to crack the story if you don’t have a healthy respect for it.
  • You’ll be unlikely to get the job because they’ll detect your lack of enthusiasm.
  • You don’t want to be miserable while you’re writing it, because you’ll get bogged down over and over.
But you do have to at least be able to write projects you hate.  Why?  Because of this very unfortunate fact: in the years between the sale and the finished movie, every script you sell will at some point become a project you hate, even if only for a while.

Simon Kinberg has seemingly spent his whole career living the dream.  He sold his film school thesis screenplay Mr. and Mrs. Smith to Hollywood, then made millions rewriting other people’s projects while his own script attracted every big name in town.  (For a long time, it was supposed to star Will Smith and Nicole Kidman!)

Even more impressive, by the time the finished movie came out, he was still the only listed screenwriter, which is almost unheard of.  Now, in point of fact, he had been fired several times, and other writers had re-written it a dozen different ways, but each time the studio changed their minds and reverted back to his latest version.

As hard as that was to take, it was even worse when he didn’t get fired, because each new director demanded he re-write his script to fit their vision, even when he wildly disagreed with their take.

One of the most acclaimed directors in town decided that the story should be a metaphor for domestic violence, and the spies should keep sending each other to the emergency room where they could make mirthless jokes about how the other ran into a doorknob.  It turned Kinberg’s stomach to write these scenes, but he did it anyway, because, by this point, he knew that this director would inevitably pass and he would soon be working for someone else, and he just wanted to stay attached until that happened.  In the end, he was glad he did.

This is a job.  Like any other job, you do better work when you believe in what you do, but you can’t demand the right to be gung ho about every assignment every day.  Sometimes, you just have to keep your head down, do it their way, and trust that, somehow, everything will work out alright.

(...But whatever you do, don’t say, “Okay then, I’ll write it in a way that shows them how bad their idea is.”  Inevitably, one of two things will happen:
  • They’ll instantly detect that you tanked it, then fire and bad-mouth you.
  • Or, even worse, they’ll love your purposely-bad version, and you’ll be stuck with it.
Instead, you really have to try your best to make their bad idea work.  Ironically, if they can tell that you really tried, they’ll be far more like to admit that their version just doesn't work.)

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