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Screenwriters Share Travails of Their Trade

May 12, 1999|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trouble with being a screenwriter is you get rewritten. Sometimes you also get overlooked, underpaid and stabbed in the back by your movie-making "collaborators." So, the question is, why write?

And that is precisely the question that was put to 25 Hollywood screenwriters recently by freelance journalist and photographer Lorain Tamara Elbert. Their answers are gathered and illustrated with informal black-and-white portraits of the writers in Elbert's new collection, "Why We Write" (Silman-James Press). "Screenwriters write," says Elbert in her introduction, "because they cherish the adventure of telling their stories."

But, oh, the effort it takes to tell them. And the sheer love of the craft that must sustain them. (According to Elbert, only 5% of the 8,500 Writers Guild members make a living from their writing.)

"Writing for film," says veteran screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, "is like diving from a moving airplane into the ocean without a parachute and while falling through the water being instructed to prepare a gourmet meal in half an hour with unfamiliar ingredients that everyone has to love."

Whew. As Tewkesbury's comrade Gary Ross notes, "No wonder writers are always complaining." And yet Ross, who wrote the screenplays for such hits as "Big," "Dave" and "Pleasantville," believes that, at its best, "nothing is more sublime" than writing. That's because, at the beginning at least, the entire story is in the screenwriter's hands. The characters are images from the screenwriter's head, every bit of dialogue direct from the writer's script. It's only when you hand in your screenplay and those unnamed but ever present "others" start turning your ideas into film that the pure, clean act of creation gets soiled.

Elbert gives her overwrought but quite successful writers time and space enough to answer her question. If they also use the opportunity to whine a bit, perhaps they can be indulged as one indulges certain highly precocious children.

Nevertheless, these are among Hollywood's top screenwriters, which means that to be included in this collection, they already have made a good amount of money. So the reader may quickly lose interest when some of the essays become not explanations of why they write but how any sane man or woman can write with all the hostile, ill-founded interference they have to put up with to get their stories on the big screen.

Daniel Waters, who wrote "Batman Returns" and other films, says no other artist is subjected to the sort of "torture" that screenwriters endure at the hands of "deeply unimaginative people determined to reduce the magic of celluloid into mundane terms their small minds can understand."

Oh, my.

Waters describes the horror in terms of his own brutal experience: "I have never written a bad ending, yet every one of my films has one."

Fortunately, this book also has testimonials from writers such as Patrick S. Duncan ("Mr. Holland's Opus," "Courage Under Fire") who couldn't be happier in his craft.

"I have never understood the pain of creation," Duncan admits early on. "I love writing. It is the best job I have ever had."

But then, he's had some fairly awful jobs--migrant worker, shoeshine boy, soldier, pizza cook and septic tank cleaner.

"I make movies in my head," Duncan marvels. "I get paid to play in a toy box limited only by imagination. I influence the world in a small way, and I am immortal--at least my work will live much longer than I.

"Can you think of a better job?"

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