Don't Mistake Words for Writing

Question: Does a screenwriter lack creative control?
Robert\r\n McKee: The words that you wrote to put into the character’s mouth, \r\nthe dialogue, that may or may not get to the screen the way you wrote it\r\n because actors often cut, editors cut, there will be improvisations and\r\n whatnot.  So, you must not mistake words for writing.
What you\r\n write in terms of characters, in terms of story, in terms of the events\r\n in their lives, in terms of the meaning of everything, and the \r\nemotional impact of the storytelling, that is 80% of writing, dialogue \r\nand description is a relatively minor part of the creative process in \r\nthe performance arts of television and film.  And so, it’s overstating \r\nit and a bit of self-pitying to think that the poor screenwriter, or \r\ntelevision writer doesn’t get what they wrote to the screen because \r\ntheir dialogue gets paraphrased.  I mean if you think that, if somebody \r\nwriting for the screen actually thinks that their greatest creative \r\nefforts is in dialogue, then they should be writing for the stage where \r\nevery single word of your dialogue, by law, has to be spoken by the \r\nactors.  So, it just overstates it.
And I’ll tell you another \r\nlittle dirty secret about film and television, if you were to take a \r\nfinished film, 90% of the time, or a finished TV show, 90% of the time, \r\nand transcribe a screenplay from it, and then compare that to the \r\nscreenplay from which they worked, what the writer sold, okay?  You’d \r\nsee clearly that the screenplay that is finally embedded in the finished\r\n work is far better than the one they started from.  And so that, in \r\nfact, the screenplay gets better and better and better as it goes \r\nthrough pre-production, production, and post-production.  But when it \r\ndoes, as it does 90% of the time, the writer says nothing and just lets \r\nthe world assume that that is exactly what they wrote, the way it was \r\nfinally done.  Okay?  When there are changes that are detrimental, and \r\nthat happens too, then screenwriters and television writers moan and \r\ngroan that they didn’t shoot it the way I wrote it, but they don’t moan \r\nand groan when they didn’t shoot it the way I wrote it and it’s better.
So,\r\n we mustn’t feel sorry for film and television writers.  They understand\r\n the reality that in fact polish and revision... it’s going to be edited\r\n finally... that there’s other artists between them and the finished \r\nproduct.  If they care about that so deeply, then they should be writing\r\n novels.
Does a script that is never \r\nmade into a film have inherent value?
Robert McKee: \r\nThe vast, vast majority of all novels written never get published.  The \r\nvast, vast majority of all plays written never get performed.  The vast,\r\n vast majority of paintings painted never get hung on a wall.  The vast,\r\n vast majority of songs written never get sung in public.  I mean, \r\nthat’s the nature of things.  Okay?  And so, again, that screenwriting \r\nis like everything else in the arts is a tautology.  And so, yeah, of \r\ncourse the vast number of every act of creativity in whatever art form \r\nnever reaches the world because the vast majority of all of it is shit. \r\nAnd then there’s those poor little gems of things that never—that do get\r\n buried, unfortunately.  And then a lot of crap does get to the world.  \r\nAnd so, it’s all unfair.  It’s just all unfair.  Okay? 

But, the\r\n question is, does writing a screenplay that never gets made is it of \r\nvalue?  Of course, it’s enormously valuable.  Because, to generalize \r\nagain, most screenwriters, even the most talented of screenwriters, \r\ntheir first 10 screenplays that they write never get  made.  Oliver \r\nStone, Lawrence Kasdan, Akiva Goldsman, I mean on and on.  I could name \r\nbrilliant screenwriters who are now very successful who spent the first \r\n10, even 15, years of their writing lives writing screenplays that \r\nnobody wanted, and/or novels that probably nobody published and so \r\nforth.  And so that unproduced screenplay, or unpublished novel is \r\nenormously beneficial to the writer because you have to fail, you have \r\nto create at least 10 unproduced—be willing, at least, to produce—10 \r\nunproduced major works of story art in order to master the art form, in \r\norder to grow up.
I mean, if you start writing when you are \r\nabout 20 – I mean, I used to write when I was in college, grad school.  \r\nAnd I had a wonderful teacher, Kenneth Rowe.  And I read my plays and I \r\nlooked at them and I thought, my God, this is the work of a really \r\nimmature person.  But then I was immature.  There was nothing I could do\r\n about that.  Okay?  And it took another 15 years of life to, when I \r\nwent back to writing, to be able to write something of quality.  So \r\nwhile you’re writing screenplays or novels nobody wants, you’re also \r\nliving, gathering insight into yourself as a human being and all that \r\nbecomes material for your future writing.  So, indeed, those unproduced,\r\n unpublished works are extremely important.  They have to be written in \r\norder for the writer to finally achieve their first success.
I \r\nmean, you read about these things in the paper that a 23-year old writer\r\n gets first novel published, or memoir published or first screenplay \r\nproduced. And so these things happen, and they’re just there to annoy \r\nthe really good writers that are going to take 10 years to make it.  But\r\n when they finally do, they’re going to produce works of real quality.  \r\nSo, sure.  Those unproduced works are very important.

Dialogue and description are relatively minor parts of the creative process in television and film.

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