Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Writer Tip #16: Three Questions



If you're a fan of AMC's hit show "The Walking Dead," you're familiar with the fact that our intrepid band of survivors always asks potential recruits three questions before they allow them to join their group.  Their questions are:  1). How many walkers have you killed?  2).  How many people have you killed?  3).  Why?

Nowadays, I have three questions I ask when I am approached by a budding independent film producer about a writing assignment.  My questions are:  1). Why do you want to make this movie?  2). Where do you think this movie will take you?  3). Who do you see distributing this movie?

I know it may seem arrogant to ask these questions, but if you're hiring me to help make your dreams come true, I need to know your dreams. How can I take you somewhere if I don't know where you are going? Generally speaking, these questions are reserved for people relatively new to the business. When I am approached by a professional, full-time producer or director, I don't bother with the questions.

One of the reasons I ask these questions is because I want to give the producer an opportunity to step back and consider whether the project has a realistic chance of accomplishing his/her goals. My experience goes beyond what you can see on the IMDB. I have also learned from the mistakes of my friends and acquaintances. I often see warning signs oblivious to the budding producer or director caught up in the dream. Generally, their local film making friends, who all anticipate working on the project, are enthusiastically encouraging them and glossing over any potential problems. That's only natural. Everybody wants to work. Sometimes a disinterested third party is needed. That's what I try to be. Many writers are happy to take a paycheck regardless of the final outcome of the project. I'm not. I have walked away from money on the table because I thought it was stealing to take it when I suspected their project was doomed to failure.

Why do you want to make this movie?

This is perhaps the most important question.  If they tell me the film is the story of their life, I know it's time to turn to the waiter and say, "Check, please!" Past experience has taught me that people who want to tell their own story usually don't have the necessary distance from the material to do so successfully. They invariably tie up the process until everything is "perfect." Nothing ever is. Such films never get made and become a colossal waste of time even if you get paid.

Another major warning sign for me is if the producer wants to star in the film.  Granted, if the producer was Brad Pitt, I would jump at the opportunity. However, if the producer is an unknown actor, I walk away. Let's be honest: If the only way said actor can score a leading role is to produce the film himself, then he definitely does not have the box office appeal necessary to earn the film a decent release. (Rendering whatever points I negotiate worthless.) I'm sorry, but I already died once. I'm living on borrowed time and it is too precious for me to waste on an ego trip. (Unless it looks like a fun project.)

I am also more hesitant to work for a director than a producer. Don't get me wrong. I have written films with directors, and I have enjoyed the process immensely and benefited greatly from their perspective.  However, my enthusiasm for a such an assignment hinges on the quality of the director's previous work. I don't necessarily feel the same way about working with a producer who has made some bad films. You can always hope and pray the producer will find a good director this time to take the project to the next level. However, when you work directly for a bad director, you don't have that hope. You have what you have.

That isn't to say I would have a problem working with someone who previously directed a bad movie or two. Sometimes you can look at a bad movie and see a spark of real directorial talent. I have worked with directors who I feel are much better than their finished work would indicate. Sometimes, directors (and writers, myself definitely included) are too hindered by circumstances outside of their control to do their best work.

Who do I want to work with?  People who have a great story to tell, and who are willing to put their egos aside for the good of the project. (And, in return, I try to put my ego aside, too.)

Where do you think this movie will take you?

I work in the indy film world. Pretty much everyone who approaches me to write a film is working a day job somewhere. Whether they admit it or not, their main goal in making a film is to get out of said day job and become full-time filmmakers. That is an admirable goal. However, the chances of achieving that goal with a low-budget indy film is minuscule. Chances are that your first film will not materially change your life. Neither will your second one. Or even the third one. Even if you win the lottery and your film makes millions of dollars at the box office, the distributor, not you, will get the bulk of the money. That's the truth.

Therefore, when someone tells me that they have one hundred thousand dollars and they plan to make a blockbuster that will change their lives, I know I am dealing with an amateur.  Of course, they don't see it that way. They'll point out the success of films like "Facing The Giants" or "The Blair Witch Project."  And, sure, there have been some amazing success stories, but the vast majority of independent films will generate no real income for the filmmakers whatsoever. (That's why you always have to get some money upfront when you write!)  If you're making a micro-budget film, the best you can hope for in return is good enough reviews to get a bigger movie the next time out. It's an old Hollywood adage that you always get paid on the next film for your previous success.

Finally, if a producer tells me they need to make this film to validate himself as a human being, I don't want to get involved either. That's asking too much of any movie. Or me.

I like to work with filmmakers with a realistic appreciation of the odds. I also like working with people who are happy with what they are currently doing. If you can't find joy being a waiter, then don't expect to be happy as a director. There's nothing magical about the film business. It doesn't turn you into a different person. Success merely magnifies what already exists within you.

Who do you see distributing this movie?

Expectations can be killers. Success is much more likely if everyone above the line is on the same page. If the producer believes the script will become a $150,000,000 summer blockbuster released by Universal, but you know in your heart of hearts that the film is at best a low-budget creature feature for SyFy, then it is best to walk away. The reverse can also be true. If you see true art in a concept that producer sees only as a genre programmer, you will also find yourself headed for disappointment. Differing expectations can be very damaging. I learned this first hand. I worked on a project that had three opportunities at financing, but all of the deals fell apart mainly because of differing expectations on the part of the principals.

The executive producer, whose life the film was based on, saw it as a seventy-million-dollar Paramount picture. The director saw the film as an indy romantic comedy that would need to do well on the  festival circuit to get a theatrical release. I saw it as a good made-for-cable movie.  As a result of these differing expectations, and a fear of loss of power by some of the producers, the film blew three chances of being made.  Never again.

Additionally, the answer to this question is very important when it comes time to discuss compensation. You're certainly going to ask for more money if the producer says the film will be a big, summer theatrical release than if it is going to be released straight to Vimeo. And you are going to discuss money if you receive a satisfactory answer to those questions because you should NEVER, EVER, EVER work for free. Remember, if you do not place a value on your time, talent and effort, no one else will.  It starts with you.

For more on that subject, check out my earlier blog: Writer Tip #3: Don't Work For Free!

Take a lesson from sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison on that subject:


Special Bonus Tip:

If a producer takes you out to lunch to discuss a project and then expects you to pay your share of the bill afterwards, be magnanimous pay for the entire meal. What you spend will be a bargain compared to the time and effort you would have wasted on their project. If someone can't afford to buy you lunch, they can't afford to make a movie.

Other Tips:

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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