Whenever I finish the first draft of a screenplay, I get depressed.
It's not the whole "Post-Olympics Syndrome" thing, though, where an athlete'll come down hard after attaining the goal they've been after for decades.
It's more that I've worked for months and months on an idea I've probably been mulling over my entire life, and then I finish and realize what a teeny-tiny thing it is that I've done. That movies are so hard to get made that my latest screenplay will most likely only ever be a thing that's read by a dozen or so friends and family, and then shelved. That this will most likely be just another on the list of unproduced titles I've been pounding out over the past five-ish years.
And even if it does get made, it'll be transmogrified into an entirely different animal than what I've envisioned in my head. Other creatives will come along and maybe make it worse, maybe better. But either way, my little brain-baby will die.
Maybe that is what it's like to win Olympic gold. Maybe every "That's it! I did it!" is inevitably followed by a "Wait a minute... that's it?"
As vastly different as gold medals and screenplays are, maybe that's all anyone ever gets to feel when they achieve something monumental. Maybe the writer of Ecclesiastes was right, and everything is meaningless under the sun (and, we presume, the moon).
Let's take the case of Ehren Kruger.
In 1996, Ehren Kruger achieved what most wannabe screenwriters would consider the pinnacle of the amateur screenwriting world: he received a Nicholl Fellowship for his screenplay "ARLINGTON ROAD." This means that he beat out thousands of other amateur scripts, and the Academy of Motion Pictures paid him thirty grand on the condition that he write another script over the next year. Not only that, but his script sold, got produced, and won him some awards. Critical reception wasn't unanimously wonderful, but it wasn't terrible, either.
He was twenty-four years old.
So how do you think he felt? Barely more than a kid, and he had a bunch of money in the bank from what was probably a very early screenplay, hordes of agents slobbering for a chance to represent him, respected directors and producers calling to tell him he's awesome.
He probably felt scared, and a bit depressed. And, like writers everywhere, he probably countered these feelings by burying himself in work. Over the next couple years, Kruger wrote a few more screenplays that got produced. He felt awesome, then terrible, then awesome again as he achieved that elusive pipe dream I myself have been slaving after and yearning for for the past five-ish years: a professional screenwriting career.
In time, I think, he most likely learned that the absolute best moment of all was that split-second when, at the age of twenty-four, he'd found out that he had won the most prestigious prize in all of amateur screenwriting. The euphoria, my friends. Just imagine it.
But that was 1996.
In the ten years that followed, Kruger was hired again and again to write screenplays that were subsequently produced. But with each successive experience, the euphoria has to have diminished. It's the same high, after all. The critics were mostly unkind (die critics, die!), and Kruger's aspirations of joining the screenwriting greats he most admired had to have faded.
So he started writing TRANSFORMERS movies for Michael Bay.
Now, all you Bay-haters out there can just shut up. Making movies is really, really hard, and Michael Bay has figured out how to make a very specific kind of movie that makes a lot of money, and to make it very, very well. We don't need critics to tell us that much of his more recent work isn't going to be earning a place on AFI's top 100... but until you've gone out and tried to make a movie yourself... well, I have made a feature film, and I'll applaud anyone with the gumption to attempt it.*
My point is that when Kruger was a young writer like me, desperately wishing for someone to just pay all his countless hours of work some attention, there's no way he thought that in ten years he'd be taking millions of dollars to write movies that'd make billions, but be fairly-universally panned as monstrous cow-stinkies.
Or maybe he did.
I've not been in this business all that long, but I've already met a few folks who make no bones about why they're here: to make a lot of money, and make it fast. And 1996 was the absolute BOOM time of big-money script sales. So maybe Kruger was just in it for the money. To each their own, I suppose. But if I'm given my druthers, I know I don't want to be making huge money writing forgettable films. Life's too short, and I have too many super-talented artist friends who'd judge the heck out of me.
I want to make a living of some kind, yes, but I want to do it while writing and making films that move people. That drive them through an emotional wringer and deposit them on the other side just a tiny bit changed. A tiny bit more empathetic. A tiny bit (dare I hope it?) more loving.
There's a lesson for me, though, in what I'm admittedly only guessing is Ehren Kruger's experience: financially rewarded or no, produced or no, critically lauded or no... as long as I spend any of my creative energy chasing some elusive "out there" achievement, I will only ever be as happy as the next fractional, euphoric moment. Kruger attained what for me is currently a goal - winning a super-prestigious contest and thereby getting a whole lot of attention for his work. But even if that were to happen for me (and contests are such a crapshoot of tastes that chances are practically nil), the trajectory-of-achievement I'd hope for that to kick off is certainly not guaranteed.
Better to stay in this moment right now - to focus on what I know matters the most: significant relationships with the people I love.
You have to be nutty to write, and part of that nuttiness is always going to be a yearning after an audience. With film, that audience has to be stupidly large, or you don't get to make more movies. How to set aside the desire - the hope for results - and just sink into the love of it? How, how, how?
When you figure it out... let me know.
- - -
*As a frugal little penny-pincher from the Amazon, I certainly wish they'd find better ways to spend those hundreds of millions of dollars than on Bay's money-grabbers, but still... better they spend it on messy, confused motion pictures than on bullets and (literal) bombs.
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