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How to avoid writing an awful screenplay

ALL MY ADULT life, I’d avoided writing screenplays. I didn’t know very many happy screenwriters. I didn’t know any, in fact: even the most successful among them, the ones who had sold pitches for six figures or seen their work solidly produced were miserable, touched with a kind of self-loathing unique to the breed. “A real writer,” says the magnificently-compensated television staff writer to the penniless novelist. “You’re a real writer.” Once, at a party, an Oscar-nominated writer/director—multiply-nominated, in various categories, for almost every film he’s ever made, winner of various other major awards likewise—turned to me and sighed. “To succeed in this business, one must make friends with despair.” It’s always been this way, and yet—

Yet, when I was offered a chance to write a script, I said yes. Of course I did. It was 1999, a period in which the narrowing window of “independent film” (scare quotes necessary to indicate I mean not truly independent cinema, but rather corporately-funded inexpensive movies) allowed the possibility of making literate adult dramas. Harvey and Bob Weinstein still ran Miramax, and the other studios—Sony, Paramount, even Warner Brothers as well as 20th Century Fox—had classics divisions. It seemed non-suicidal to attempt an adaptation of a difficult novel, an ambitious book that was, nevertheless at its core, a love story. I adored the novel, but my reasons for taking it on as a screenplay were fundamentally mercenary. As old, then, as the profession itself.

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