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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : In Hollywood, Writer Basically Gets the Blame

March 22, 1992|John Singleton | John Singleton wrote and directed "Boyz N the Hood."

The Hollywood screenwriter is cousin to the biblical character Job.

When I attended the USC Filmic Writing program, my favorite writing instructor was Abraham Polonsky, who was blacklisted by the McCarthy witch hunts in the '50s. I was told of all the horrors that writers have endured since the beginning of modern film production. Actors who change dialogue to suit their persona and not the scene. Directors who misguide the film and turn a good screenplay into a bad movie. I had even heard of times in which writers were prohibited from visiting the sets of films they wrote. When people see a bad film, they usually say it was written badly, instead of commenting on the direction or the acting. All in all, if something is wrong with the finished product, the writer will receive the blame.

Teachers would say, if you want to be a screenwriter, get ready for a life with few triumphs and a lot of potholes.

I wrote "Boyz N the Hood" in my third year at USC. I consider these the best and worst times of my life. I had everything and nothing. Many of my fellow writing students often asked the instructors, "What do they want?" "They" meant the studios. A lot of the teachers would tell the students exactly what the studios wanted: "Action films and comedies." This left many a film student questioning whether or not a formal liberal arts education was needed to make it in a business defined by schlock films.

I aspired to be an independent filmmaker and, as a result, planned on making films "they" didn't want to make. When I wrote a screenplay, I would tell my instructors that I wasn't writing for them, or that particular class. I wrote for myself.

I had no money. Possessed no well-connected relatives in the business. And I am black. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that, the way the system worked, I would never get a film made. I wrote screenplays passionately, because they were the only way I had to make a film. Even if that film only lived on paper. In my mind, at least, it existed. And completing a screenplay was my way of validating my own existence.

I consider myself a writer first. I direct in order to protect my vision. Directing my first film gave me an even stronger respect for writing. I've learned that, if you direct on the page, it makes it easier to direct on the stage--i.e., the screen. When asked if I would allow someone else to direct a film from my screenplay of "Boyz N the Hood," I said, "No." I felt I would rather the film not be made than have someone further contribute to the already distorted visions of African-American urban life.

The treatment writers get is not exclusive to the film industry. At the USC School of Cinema-Television, the Filmic Writing program is in jeopardy. There is currently no financing available for a department chairman. While I was in school, people questioned the future of the program. I could never understand, if writers came up with all the stories, why they were on the lowest spectrum of the film school? I used to joke and say why have a Critical Studies program and not a writing program? We got too many critics and not enough good writers as it is.

So, tonight, the Writer's Guild of American honors its own with the 1992 WGA Awards. We writers gather to show respect to the achievements of the authors of some of last years' greatest written material. We might as well enjoy and respect each other as individuals no matter if we are nominated, not nominated or award winners. We are all writers. We might as well respect one another. Since it seems no one else will.

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