Friday, March 17, 2006

Declaration of principles

Both the moviequill and Gregg Hurwitz have picked up on the article in this month's Vanity Fair regarding screenwriter Zach Helm and his (apparently elusive) Manifesto.

As summarized by Gregg, the article describes how Zach came to turn his back on steady, but unsatisfying, rewrite and polish work in order to get his own scripts made. After seeing how the studios' sausage is made through gigs on proposed remakes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Harvey, Zach did a curious thing for an up-and-coming screenwriter: he stopped.

Not content simply to work for work's sake, Zach drafted The Manifesto, a declaration of principles to which he would adhere come what may. The article doesn't set forth the entire tract but the gist of it is "don't settle." The quoted excerpts are illustrative:

Rule No. 1, Section One: "I will no longer allow financial need or career ambition to determine the direction of my work. I will not put myself in any position in which my work is owed to another party."

Rule No. 3, Section One: "I will not sell my work simply to the highest bidder, but instead to those parties that I feel will best represent and develop my work."

Rule No. 5, Section One: "Any deal struck in regards to my work will forgo any immediate financial gain if it may mean the surrender of creative control or participation in the work's development."

Rule No. 6, Section One: "I will not write for writing's sake. I will write only when inspired to write."

And then an even curiouser thing happened: it started to work. His first post-Manifesto script, Stranger Than Fiction, is scheduled for release in November. Starring Will Ferrell as an I.R.S. agent who suddenly is aware of a running narrative of his life playing in his head - one that only he can hear - it doesn't sound like the cruder stuff of which Will Ferrell comedies are usually made. Indeed, it doesn't sound at all like anything that gets made, with Will Ferrell or otherwise. But the point for Zach is that it was made, on his terms.

Allowing himself the freedom to fail also enabled Zach to use his rewrite money to buy back the rights to a script that he had optioned previously, but that had languished in development hell for more than five years. In short order, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium had Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman attached and will go into production later this year.

A third script, The Disassociate has Todd Phillips signed on to, er, helm. Dealing with a man who begins to question his own mental state when God begins sending him postcards (a premise that doesn't sound too far removed from Stranger Than Fiction, on its face), Helm is already drawing comparisons to Charlie Kaufman, not only because of the off-kilter subject matter but also the amount of creative control afforded to him.

Which you have to think is a good thing. Hollywood's thirst for retreads of 70's t.v. shows and classic remakes continues unslaked. There will always be scribes (usually several over double-digit drafts) to fill those well-worn shoes. But one hopes that just as many will follow Zach Helm's lead and write what they choose, find producers and directors that share their vision, and ultimately sell their work only when sure that vision will be realized on the screen.

P.S. Like Gregg and the moviequill, I too would not mind reading the whole Manifesto if anyone ever comes across it anywhere.


  • While it might even help those remakes and 70's TV shows if their writers were people who wanted the gig because they actually had something to bring to the project that would make it work, and weren't just doing it for the money.

    By Blogger Scott the Reader, at 10:54 AM  

  • Seriously. But don't you think that making most of these projects summer tentpoles cuts against the writer's best intentions (if they ever have them)? That in the end it becomes about finding the script of least resistance for Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey et al. to earn this year's big paycheck?

    I'd love to do a straight up popcorn action redux of Six [B]illion Dollar Man that dealt with the whole dark side of the war machine, national security, and the weapons industry. But you have to think that a wacky ironic take on it that makes him akin to Inspector Gadget is the one that's going to get made.

    By Blogger Chris, at 12:10 PM  

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