06 April 2010

I'm Not an Artist, I'm a Screenwriter!

by guest columnist Justin W. Hedges.  Follow him on Twitter.
Have you ever read I Ain't An Athlete, Lady, the book by former Philadelphia Phillies All-Star first baseman John Kruk? Not only is the overweight, un-athletic Kruk one of my favorite baseball players of all time, he also happens to have written one of my favorite books of all time. He's funny, humble, and remarkably intelligent. He also illustrates quite well how a ragtag band of Phillies dubbed Macho Row (Kruk, Darren Dalton, Mitch 'Wild Thing' Williams, Lenny Dykstra, et al.) made an improbable run to the 1993 World Series. In essence, it boiled down to one thing: teamwork. The title of this article is a tip-of-the-hat to Kruk, his book, and their excellent illustration of what I'm about to tell you.

I am not an artist. What I create when writing a screenplay is not a work of art. I am a screenwriter, and I write screenplays. Nothing more. I know this flies in the face of what many screenwriters might believe, especially unproduced ones, but it's true. Like Kruk, who saw himself as a humble, hardworking ballplayer on a baseball team, I see myself as a spoke in a wheel, a member of a team, striving towards one common goal.
From the prospective of filmmaking as art, and it most certainly is an art, I don't see the screenwriter, or the producer, or the director, or the actor for that matter, as the Artist. We are all members of the same team. Our combined efforts produce the final product, the work of art. WE are the Artist, not I, or you, or him, or her. 


Other artists are an island unto themselves: painters, sculptors, photographers, etc. Take the painter, for instance. They work alone. The idea is theirs, the outline, the color choices, all the way down the line to the finished painting put on display in a museum or gallery. No one suggests an alternative centerpiece or setting for their work. No one else suggests red rather than blue, apples over oranges, or cubism over surrealism.

In filmmaking, even when you're a multi-hyphenate, there are still multiple viewpoints, opinions, and performances that combine to produce the final piece of art. Everyone has input and places their personal stamp on the picture. In film, the final canvas is the silver screen, and the movie that appears on it, the Art.

The process from thought to final cut is totally different than the individual painter or sculptor. Someone, or a group of people, has an idea. The writer creates the outline, the sketch, of that idea. This sketch goes through several variations (drafts) as input comes in from multiple sources until it's ready to be filmed. Each individual who works on the piece adds something to its shape, its color, and ultimately its final form, from the producers to the director to the DP right down to how the actors play Guard #1 and Surly Bartender. All of these individual elements from multiple sources combine to create the Art, the film.

I also see a significant, even cancerous, downside to the thought that the screenwriter is an artist unto himself or herself. There is an implication of ownership in that thought that I don't believe exists in filmmaking and can certainly derail a project before it starts. C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-I-O-N. It's a team effort; thoughts of individual ownership can only derail that effort.

I cannot tell you how many times I've been asked if I'm afraid the producer who optioned The Brickhouse will want to change it. My answer is, "I hope he does." If he wishes to change some things, than he's taking on co-ownership with me in a creative sense. If allowed to place his personal stamp on the project, his passion for it will only grow. If denied that opportunity by my own selfish sense of 'artistic integrity,' then his passion may fade, if not disappear altogether. As a director, DP, actors, and so on are added, I hope they are afforded the same opportunity to provide input, to change what I originally wrote, not because I feel what I wrote was weak, but because I want them all to feel as passionately about this project as I do.

This is why I reject the notion that screenwriting is an art, that screenplays are art, or that filmmaking is a collaboration of individual art forms. Screenwriting is a craft that, when combined with the other individual crafts or skills of producers and directors and actors and so on, produces a final work of collaborative art that can make you laugh, cry, scream, and shout. But there is only one finished product, the film, and We, as a team, are the Artist.

As always, keep writing.

Justin W. Hedges' first feature-length screenplay,
The Brickhouse, finished as a Quarterfinalist in the 2008 American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest before being optioned by actor-writer-producer Tom Malloy of Trick Candle Productions in December 2009. His short script, Candy Corn for Annie, finished as a Top Ten Finalist in the 2009 Page International Screenwriting Awards. As he states on his popular blog, the 3 a.m. Screenwriter, Justin is a professional activity juggler: husband, father, grandfather (yes, it's true), accountant by day, screenwriter at 3 a.m. and any other time he can find. As his blog's motto states, "It's never too early, or too late, to pursue a dream."


King is a Fink said...

"WE are the artist." The whole team. Love it.

Wonderful points, Justin. Since we write together (there are two of us) we definitely see screenwriting as a collaborative effort. However, it goes further than that. To write in a vacuum without considering where your screenplay might go (or who it might end up with) is really shooting yourself in the foot.

This whole concept is something we're very mindful of right now. Thanks for your great post!

Julie & Jessica
(King is a Fink)

Ace Hunter said...

As screenwriters, I do believe we often serve as technicians in the collaborative effort of filmmaking, but we are still 'creating' something when we write, even if the idea belongs to someone else.

We are still artists within that creation, even if done by committee. 'Screenwriting' is simply the tool we use in which to create the art (like the chisel for the sculptor). We are not simply a chisel, as we add our own ideas to the filmmaking mix in order to further enhance the work.

It takes a team of ARTISTS to create this beast we call film, not just a bunch of tools hammering out a product.

Of course, there are certainly plenty of 'tools' in Hollywood...

Thoughtful post. Nice job.


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