The Time I ‘Made It’, Then Didn’t | Script Revolution

The Time I ‘Made It’, Then Didn’t

Introduction: 

Breaking in is tough, real tough, but once you do get that first assignment or spec sale and the drafting starts, it's a whole new struggle, especially internally as you now need to perform under pressure, pressure that's partly self-imposed. Stephen Ford, founding member of the Screenwriters Ireland Facebook Group, perfectly encapsulates the mind-state many of us fall into in this admirably honest and authentic blog post detailing his own brutal experience - CJ

I spoke to Screenwriter Colin Bateman (Murphy's Law, Driven, The Journey) just last year on a podcast that I was doing at the time called Having The Chats. I told him how his hit TV show Murphy's Law, starring James Nesbit, was a favourite of mine as a kid - he shared with me how he created the show, then was subsequently fired after the first season, although the ratings remained steady. He joked that "Any episodes where you see Jimmy with that moustache, they were not written by me". I asked him about the moment in his Screenwriting career when he finally thought "This is it, I'm here now, I've made it". His reply shocked me as he went on to explain that even after his previous movie Driven starring Jason Sudeikis and Lee Pace and Judy Greer, which was a moderate financial and critical success, he was still just "sitting around waiting for the phone to ring". He has now written a play based on his own son's troubles with mental health that is currently playing throughout Northern Ireland - he's also working on a TV version.

This brings me back to 2019, when I thought that I had finally “made it”. A freelance producer who was behind a bunch of low budget movies had posted a job in my Facebook group Screenwriters Ireland, looking for someone to write a Heist/Thriller feature for he and his director friend. I was suspicious, to say the least. He read a few short scripts of mine and decided to offer me the job, sending me a contract and everything to sign - it said that I would be paid an undisclosed amount upon completion of the script and once the funds for the movie were finalised. Of course, I asked around about this producer and he checked out just fine - he was on IMDB and had done movies with some B-movie actors. So naturally, I became excited.

The day that I signed the contract, I was walking home from work with the biggest smile on my face and thinking “This is it, this is fucking it, I’ve made it!”. I got home and even my girlfriend was delighted, all those years of being stuck in writers’ limbo having paid off. We thought we might even be financially set now for the first time ever. The producer even said to me “This is the beginning of great things for you, it’s going to open a lot of doors for you in Hollywood, I have a lot of contacts” etc etc. I couldn’t contain my excitement; it was a fucking dream come true.

About a week later, I had a call with the producer where he told me that he wanted the story to be in the vein of a 1981 Heist movie where the heist is the opening and the rest of the story plays backwards - he advised me to watch it. I HATED this idea, but I agreed anyway. Then, I had a call with the director where he pitched the overall story and characters to me and said that he wanted it to be in the vein of two completely different 90s crime movies. You already see the problem here, right? Now, I was given free rein to change characters and certain story elements, but it was made very clear to me that I had to keep the overall opening premise and somehow build around that with action similar to those other movies. I mean, they are three completely different movies, God damn it! So with that, I set about incorporating both visions into the script. You can only imagine how that went.

Every day in work that I had a break or even a few minutes to spare, I was writing the script or planning certain stages of it. I had made the mistake of over-estimating my own confidence and skills by telling the director that I’d have the first draft done in two weeks. I immediately regretted that decision. You see in truth, I hadn’t written a feature in about three years, and it’d been maybe even longer since I’d written a feature to final draft completion! Not that you ever forget how to do it, but I’d spent a lot of time away from the keyboard to all of a sudden just jump back in, and to a paid writing gig no less! I mean I’d written a few short scripts but come on, if we’re being blunt here, they don’t really count.

I also made the mistake of telling EVERYONE about this script that I was writing, which only put more pressure on me. At the same time, I was starting to gain more responsibility in my actual paying job. This left me with very little time to write and before I knew it, that deadline of two weeks only continued to be extended up until the point where the director told me “There’s no hurry, you’re our guy, take your time”. I wasn’t sure whether to feel important or start worrying. On the other hand, I was struggling with the script anyway. It wasn’t all down to time. I just couldn’t crack the fucking thing. Here I was, with the possibility of this life-altering opportunity, and I couldn’t even get past the first twelve pages - I was stuck. I was making mistakes that I hadn’t made since college, like reading over the pages and then deleting them, only to start again and follow the exact same pattern.

And then, Covid-19 hit. This wasn’t necessarily bad for my script because if anything, it gave me more free time to write it. It was my own personal struggles with quarantine, along with my daughter being diagnosed as autistic, that knocked me back a few steps. But again, both producer and director were very understanding and assured me “You’re still our guy, don’t worry". Well, I was worried, very worried. I was telling them that I nearly had half of the first draft completed when essentially, I was back to the planning stages. See, when the director first pitched it to me, it sounded too familiar to those two 90s crime movies. So naturally, every page I wrote had those two movies, plus the 80s one, stuck in my fucking head - again, three completely different movies! I was just finding it very difficult to open with the heist and track back to an action-packed story. The director wanted an action-packed heist with an action-packed story and the producer wanted a fantastical heist that had never been done before with everything else built around that - this just completely confused me and increased the pressure.

Months later, with about ten pages now that didn’t have an opening heist anywhere to be seen, I got back in touch with the director and told him that I was having trouble trying to crack the script, so I briefly explained the story to him. He didn’t seem keen on it, but he insisted “We have full faith in you, we trust you’ll make it great etc etc”. I was also told at the beginning that it wouldn’t have any female characters in it because it was more of a “lads movie”. I wasn’t overjoyed about this as the strongest people in my own life have always been women - no one inspires me more than my mother, my wife and my daughter. So I tried to incorporate a love interest somewhere into the story, only further complicating matters for myself.

While I waited to hear back from the director or producer or both as they were busy on other projects and I felt like I desperately needed them to tell me that everything would be ok, I continued to keep tweaking the story and trying to get the words down. At the time, we were campaigning for my daughter to get help from our useless Government, so that was taking up most of my time and then the script was put on hold once again. But as before, the director and producer told me “We understand, don’t worry, you’re still our guy” etc etc. The problem was, I’d spent so long on the script now that I just couldn’t even think about it anymore, so I went back to writing shorts - the easy way out. The short Horror script that I had written, which had gotten me the job in the first place due to my writing style, had just won second place in the Florida Short Script Challenge. I waited for “the phone to ring”, but as I’ve said already, shorts don’t matter. In fact, I had independent Horror maestro Zoe Kavanagh attached to that same short as director for the past two years before she just recently dropped out due to scheduling issues with a sequel to her popular debut film Taryn Barker: Demon Hunter, and I still have nowhere near the amount of cash saved that I need to get it made anyway (but that’s a story for a different day).

Jump forward to early 2021 and something stirs inside me that makes me not want to give up on this script. I check back in with the producer and director, assuring them that no one else can make this script as good as I will make it and that it’d be a mistake to let anyone else even try. I tell them, once again, to give me two weeks and I’ll have something for you. I know, right? What was I thinking! Then, I catch Covid-19 and am bed-ridden for two straight weeks with every symptom under the sun. Now either my luck is cosmically bad, or the powers-that-be DID NOT want me to keep going at this fucking script. The producer tells me “Hey, you’re still our guy, don’t worry, these things happen, rest up”. So as soon as I’m better, I work harder than I ever have before to finally get this script done. Yep, I hit the same brick walls over and over and over and over again. I don’t even know if it was writers block or just more of an over-thinking on my part, or maybe I just wasn’t up to the challenge to begin with?

So finally, I get to summer 2021 and I’m told by the producer “We have a script done, we’re shooting in a few months, we just couldn’t wait any longer”. I obviously apologised until I was blue in the face because I felt as if I had let them down and fucked it all up, to which he replied that of course I had not. The worst part was, I actually felt sort of RELIEVED, like I could breathe again for the first time in what felt like forever. I got straight back to writing several ideas that I had in my head and there was a freedom then that nothing could match, the freedom that I had no deadline or expectations, I could just write whatever I wanted to write. And that’s something that the great Colin McKeown once told me, that sometimes going from writing for yourself to writing for someone else can be a big struggle - the fun is almost taken out of it. If I had been hired to write a Horror feature then I would’ve been on the ball, but I realised that deep down, I didn’t want to write this crime flick. It’s a bit of a predicament as far as the nature of our business goes, isn’t it? I mean if your goal is be a paid writer, to see your movie on the screen no matter what the budget, then can we be so picky?

What I’m getting at here, and what I’ve now come to realise, is that I don’t think there is ever a moment in your writing career when you can firmly say “I have made it”. It seems to me that any number of things can go wrong at any stage that can completely throw you back off the tracks and waiting for that big old success train to arrive once again. I mean wasn’t it Hollywood big wig Christopher McQuarie who said that after he won the Oscar for The Usual Suspects, he was still waiting around for the phone to ring. There’s just no guarantee that the phone will ever keep ringing. Always have a backup plan, always have a couple of scripts on hand - never write just one script with the expectation that it’ll propel you to stardom because chances are, your first script sucks. Oh, and maybe don’t make any promises that you know you won’t be able to keep. In this business, it seems like there are more downs than ups.

Ok, so I’m sure most of you are thinking right now that I fucked that whole job opportunity up myself and that you’d have done a better job than me - you might even be right. Maybe I just went through a series of unfortunate events in my personal life or maybe I just wasn’t good enough to get the job done. I personally think that everything happens for a specific reason, so I believe that my time will come even bigger and better than before. But as of right now, I’m back to the glorious freedom of being an unemployed Screenwriter.

Yeah, fun times!

About The Author

Stephen Ford's picture
Real name: 

Stephen is a talented, autistic creative who has more than ten years experience in the world of Screenwriting. He has a Level 5 Certificate from Inchicore College of Further Education in Creative Writing & Cultural Studies and a Level 6 Certificate from Dun Laoghaire College of Further Education in TV & Digital Film.

After college, Stephen spent the next couple of years further learning the craft of Screenwriting and even entered into several competitions. Until in 2018, when...Read more

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Comments

John Hunter's picture

Writing can be brutal and there are many things beyond your control. In the greater scheme of things, it can and does often come down the dollars and cents - Time and Money, Shillings and Pounds. If you can put yourself on the other side of the table, try to imagine what the people signing the checks were looking at. If you acted like a professional and write good stuff (when not being struck down by the plague), I'm sure you'll get another chance.