I recently stumbled on Stephen Harrigan's look back at his "career writing made-for-TV movies." It's worth reading in its entirety, but it takes off with Harrigan's description of the sale of his first script:
It was the agent announcing the news that the script had been sold to the brand-new theatrical wing of CBS and that Sydney Pollack—whose most recent movie had been the blockbuster comedy Tootsie—was attached to direct it.
First class flights to Los Angeles, rooms at the Miramar Sheraton, Larry’s speculations about how maybe we ought to buy a six-story office building that was for sale in downtown Austin because we would need a place to work. ... Our life as the hottest new screenwriters in Hollywood didn’t all come crashing down exactly, but it did become clear in our meetings with Pollack that we had been the beneficiaries of beginner’s luck and had no idea how to really write a screenplay. He wanted to know things like where the end of Act 2 was and what the character’s arc was. We didn’t know characters were supposed to have arcs, we didn’t know scripts were supposed to have acts, and in our guileless delight at having hit the big-time we certainly didn’t know that the leading impediment to this project ever getting made would be our continued participation in it.
I love that last line. It's the beginning of his understanding just how curious the relationship between his work and script, and the final product, could be:
It began to dawn on me during the production of that movie [The Last of His Tribe] that as much as I yearned to be part of the team, my real role was going to be that of lonely outlier. Screenwriters are less like actual filmmakers than like wedding planners: we work for months or even years making sure everything is ready, every detail is in place, but in the end it’s just not our party….
A screenplay is not a book, it’s not exactly a text, it’s not really even a thing. The physical form of a screenplay—120 or so pages held together by brass fasteners—is not to be taken seriously, because the script is in reality a sort of floating proposition, an ever-evolving set of instructions. The words “final draft” are eventually used, but since important changes are made all the way through the editing room, the idea of a final draft is notional. As a writer you are brutally reminded again and again that your script is not the end product; the movie is.
I don't think book writing offers quite the same experience, since the book continues to have your name on it, but there is this element of the thing being taken over and extended by others. The rise of self-publishing contributes to a sense of books as springing from the brows of authors, and of traditional publishers as doing little but diluting the vision of the author-auteur, and distributing piece of tree between flakes of dead cow (as William Mitchell once put it), and collecting outrageous rents for both. With movies, on the other hand, the work that others put into the film is a little more visible.
Then there's this great insight. So true.
You had to search and search until you found a story’s irreducible thread: a man on the run from a killer, a young girl growing into a woman, a victim seeking revenge. If the movie was about one thing, it could be about many things. But if you started out determined to make it about many things, it would be about nothing.