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Script Gods Must Die
Creative Control:
Who Pays The Piper, Calls The Tune

The eternally galling thing about being a screenwriter is the loss of control as a given. The reason for this indignity? Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Whether it be a $200+ million dollar Studio film or a $2,000 buck 2-day micro, whoever comes up with the money, in general, gets creative control.

Notice I hedged the bet with "in general".

This age-old conflict isn't lost on writers. The eternal warfare between directors like Fellini and Orson Wells with their producers is legendary. Giving away control of your vision? For a price? It's a hard thing for anyone to reconcile, let alone masters like these.

So how do you reconcile it? And must you?

When I first started writing in London in the 80's, I was writing poetry. It was just me and my pretentions, cranking away pretty lousy stuff on a daily basis. I controlled this process from A to Z. I would write what I wanted, when I wanted to write it. Yes! Why? Because nobody gave a shit. Because my stuff was bad. Had I submitted my stuff and if, by some miracle, was published, yes, I would have have had to answer to an editor. But, as a poet, you pretty much control the creative.

In the 90's I morphed into a playwright. Here again, I wrote what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it. Subject matter was my domain. I had several companies interested in my stuff and sure, when we did staged readings I would have to take notes and rewrite for the theater companies paying the bills. But the playwright is much higher up on the priority pyramid than the screenwriter. These truly were creative content discussions. Theater is the realm of words. Thus, the playwright will always be stronger than the writer of moving images.

On an Indie-budgeted movie, the chances are slim to none that you, as the writer, will be asked to be involved in the post-production process. There's simply no place for you.

When we signed the paperwork for JANE DOE we signed a contract that was quite explicit: For XYZ dollars invested by Unapix Entertainment, Unapix would get, among other things, FINAL CUT. That meant that as director I would control the creative aspect until the Rough cut, then would agree to sign over the final vision of the movie to Unapix.

Why on earth would I do that?

Well, the $150,000 they ponied up had a small part to do with it. That sort of moneyis convincing in and of itself. Also, money helps in creating illusions, or mirages, as the Desert tribesmen of WakuWaku call them. For instance, that the producers are "on the same page as us, creatively". $150,000 dollars will help you talk yourself into that story. But understand clearly what happens when you take their money. When you take their money you give up creative control. And when you give up control, you put yourself at the will and mercy of others.

Life Lesson 12Z: Knowing who you're getting into bed with-who your collaborators are-will determine the life of a movie itself. Its success or failure springs directly from this.

JANE DOE was doomed the morning after I delivered the Rough Cut to Niki Nikita at Unapix. She turned to me and said she "couldn't fathom" my vision. Changes would need to be made. She then proceeded to "put a pin in it"-notating where the changes would happen.

And I could do nothing, nothing at all. I had signed away that right when I took their money. I was contractually obligated to be in the edit room as she assumed the captain's chair next to my editor and, in the course of a few weeks, completely unwound my movie. I am not the first director to lose control of a project and I won't be the last, but until it happens to you you can't know how painful it is. I think I described it back then in my usual understated, Sicilian way, telling folks that was Niki hacking the limbs off my child. What was worse was actually having to be in the room where the slaughter was happening. I would be behind the editor and Niki on a couch as they worked. Once an hour or so, Niki would turn and ask what I thought of this cut or that addition.

Or, as Bob Dylan once wrote: "You're gonna have to serve somebody." This is what happens when you don't know your collaborators, when you take money and give away creative control to the wrong people. Mediocrity ensues.

The beauty of micro-budget is the changing dynamic of control. When you don't need other people's money, when you can marshall the resources you need to make your movie yourself, when the barriers of entry fall, then a revolution is truly upon us.

I learned a hard lesson with JANE DOE and wasn't about to make the same mistake with CHAT. The circumstances were vastly different. Boris and I had known each other for years. We had been creative collaborators on two previous projects. We had a shorthand built in, a knowledge of how the other guy worked. Most importantly, we had trust. It's the only reason I signed away final control of CHAT.

You have to draw up legal paperwork, even with a partner you trust. You need it in writing, what the responsibilities are for each partner, what the percentages are should a sale be made. Be safe, get it in writing.

With micro-budget, the landscape shifts, but the rule still stands: Who pays the piper, calls the tune. Boris was directing, and was bringing the largest share of money to project, both with his own investment, and in investors he was bringing in. For this, he wanted Final Cut. I, as writer and producer, would be given a generous back end piece, but I had to agree to give us final control. Was I OK with that? If I wasn't, Boris and I would have to go our separate ways. I would have to raise the money solo and have to direct. The road would have become much, much tougher. Knowing and trusting Boris, I signed the paperwork.

I told you about the edit room hell of JANE DOE. The difference with CHAT can be found in a single example. Our lead character, Falcon, has photophobia-a disease of the cornea causing severe pain when he is exposed to light. There's a scene in a bar when the waitress lights a candle flame. Falcon says: "What do you see, when you look at that." The response is: "A candle. Nothing. What do you see?" Falcon replies: "Something else." Falcon then cups the candle flame and doesn't move his hand away. She looks at him, alarmed by his burning flesh.

When it came time to shoot this we couldn't get the effect we wanted. The candle melted in a way that the actor just couldn't control it and maintain a level of safety. We had to move on to another scene before getting the look we wanted. So, when it came time to edit, Boris had few options and did the best he could, keeping the scene intact. When he showed me the rough cut I told him it had to be cut, it was completely unbelievable, no audience would buy it.

Boris disagreed. He wanted to keep it. And Boris, having final cut control, would use his "directorial prerogtive" to keep it even though I disagreed. So, what's different?

The difference is massive, actually. First, Boris asked for my opinion. On every scene of the movie he asked for my opinion. This wasn't some contractual thing. And guess what? He made changes based on 7 out of 10 of my suggestions. But what about the 3 out of 10 we had differences, like this flame scene? We would screen the rough cut to an objective audience (something Niki Nikita never did, not caring for anyone's opinion but her own). We will be ask specific questions of our audience about scenes we can't agree on. And Boris is nothing if not scientific. He likes emperical evidence, as do I. If the majority of folks in that screening tell us the candle scene isn't working, then OUT IT GOES. Doesn't matter who was right or wrong. Only thing that matter is making a better movie. And that, my friends, is what micro-budget does. It puts the writer back into the equation.

Micro-budget changes the dynamic of movie-making control.

Writers can pay the piper now, writer can call the tune. Oh yeah!

Paul Peditto

PAUL PEDITTO wrote and directed Jane Doe, an A-PIX Films release starring Calista Flockhart. The film was awarded Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival and grossed over 2 million dollars.

Six of his screenplays have been optioned, among them Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poet's Society).

He has won semi-finalist honors at Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting Awards and Slamdance.

Other imdb credits include Home In The Heartland, and The Group, which was accepted at multiple film festivals around the country.

Four of his stage plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Company, two of which were presented on National Public Radio's "Chicago Theaters On The Air" series. Over 25 productions of his theatrical work have been performed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York. His adaptation of Nelson Algren's Never Come Morning won 9 Joseph Jefferson Citations including Best Play and Best Adaptation. His adaptation of Ben Hecht's 1,001 Afternoons In Chicago is a two-time Jefferson Award nominee. Pura Vida, a stage play based on his novel, was produced at Chicago's Live Bait Theater, earning a feature article in the New York Times.

He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, professionally consulting on thousands of screenplays since 2002. His book Writing Screenplays is now available for purchase.