Monday, 20 February 2012

An interesting thing happened this week! I was approached by the publisher of the first edition of my novel and asked if I would be interested in writing film screenplays and treatments based on books which they had published for other authors. My first thought was: would that be something that I would want to do?
     As a trained screenwriter (I have an MA in Screenwriting from the Northern Film School), writing a screenplay based on another person’s novel, or biography, or whatever, is something I am quite capable of doing. And I have done it on a couple of occasions in the past, once using a lengthy taped interview with the person whose story formed the basis of the screenplay which then became my third feature film (the one that got into cinemas across the country). The second time was when I was asked to consider making a fiction film based on an actor’s published autobiography. I used his autobiography as my source material and wrote a feature length screenplay based on it. That screenplay has not yet been made into a film as we are still waiting for the budget to be raised but that’s another story.
     So, a question occurs: did I enjoy the process of creating a screenplay based on something written by someone else or told to me by someone else? Answer: yes, I did. So what’s the problem, I hear you ask! And I agree. If they’re offering me a reasonable fee for doing this, and they are, why don’t I just say YES! I would be getting paid for doing something I enjoy doing.
     Well, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, is it? And the reason why is because I’m wondering whether it is perhaps a little less satisfying from a creative point of view to write a screenplay based on something written by someone else – the ideas that form the main basis of what you are writing have come from someone else’s creative mind, not yours. In a sense, in translating the story into another format, you are simply doing a technical job.
     And if that was all there was to it, then I would probably say no. But actually, there is quite a big difference between a novel and a screenplay in terms of what works and what doesn’t, it’s not just a matter of format. The conversion of a novel into a screenplay, and vice-versa, requires more than some technical know how about formats. It requires an understanding of what makes stories work when they are in printed format and what makes them work when they are in what is primarily a visual format, and that requires the application of creativity.     
     There’s even a sense in which more creativity is required because you have fixed bounds within which you have to work. Yes, you can stray away from the original story a bit, even add and remove things, but the essence of the story must be the same and that’s a limiting factor. Having thought about this and now having articulated those thoughts, I think that, on purely creative grounds, I don’t have a problem with saying yes to the proposal.
    But there is another consideration which might get in the way because, if I agree to do this, it will probably take up all of my free time over an elapsed period of around two to three months, i.e. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else, other than the day job (which is what keeps me afloat financially) and maybe a few other unavoidable things connected with my activities as an author and a film maker, which would effectively mean that, whilst working on the commissioned screenplay, I would not be able to work on my next novel or spend any time trying to get my next film into production.
     So, what to do? I want to get on with writing my next novel and I also want to try and get Rough Cut into production as my fourth feature film, both of which will have to go on the back burner for two or three months if I take a commission to write a screenplay for someone else.
     As I write this, I have made no final decision on the matter and the good thing is that I don’t have to until I actually get offered a specific screenwriting commission. Hopefully, when that happens, I’ll have a clearer view of what I want to do. Maybe!


  1. Owen, What a great dilemma to have and thanks for sharing it! As a contractor who is largely dependent on others for work offers I've had to be careful about turning down work when it's offered. Fortunately, I'm in the position of having as much work as I need and want. It's mostly repeat work for regular clients so I must be doing something right. Isn't that what you're hearing from those who have approached you about this new screenplay. As a movie buff, I totally support the view that a screenwriter is far more than a mere technician. A great screenplay can lift a mediocre storyline to similar greatness no matter what the quality of source material may be. Indeed, it could be argued that it's the screenwriter's creativity that makes great movies as much as the cinematography, direction, editing etc. How often have we seen, good stories spoilt in the conversion process regardless of the quality of rest of the production team. On a practical note, if you're own next efforts are being delayed whilst capital is built, perhaps spending 2-3 months earning for screenwriting would be time well spent and may actually shorten the delay overall. As you say, it's not a decision you need to make until a firm offer of work comes in. Meanwhile, you could always toss a coin! You know what they say, when the coin is in the air, you know which side you want it to fall!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts JP. I too am very reluctant to turn down paid work so I'll almost certainly say yes, if and when a specific job appears. I think I would enjoy it, and it's never a bad thing to be paid for doing something you enjoy, is it?