Filmmaking is like politics. You have to work with people who may have opposite views from you, and they will fight tooth and nail to have things their way. Granted, when it comes to politics, that’s taking the optimistic view.
Cinema is a collaborative medium, and the process is not just about stitching together the moments that were carefully created and captured on set: it’s also about all the compromises you’ve had to make which sit at all levels on the scale of bitterness.
We’re here to create art (hopefully). The daily grind of a shoot is tough. It can be especially tough for an unprepared writer who leaves the safe, albeit, daunting space of the blank page, the unsavoury deals a director needs to make.
It also turns out that those conflicts you may have with fellow creatives are just the tip of the iceberg. A filmmaker has responsibilities towards a great number of other parties: those can be investors, studios, distributors… you name it. And there are ways to negotiate these too.
Spaceman from Pluto
We’re now at a point in history when Back to the Future has entirely taken place in the past. Robert Zemeckis’s zany trilogy now sits in a league of its own in the pantheon of great films. Many cult classics tend to be cheesy films that don’t showcase great filmmaking (or even good). The Back to the Future films are, however, examples of both great filmmaking and incredibly entertaining cinema. (An unmissable article from “Cinephilia and Beyond” goes behind the scenes.)
It also seems inconceivable that the BTTF films should bear any other name. However, the head of Universal was really worried. While Steven Spielberg, who produced the franchise that his protege Robert Zemeckis co-wrote and directed, enjoyed a good personal relationship with the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg, the latter was worried about the title. So much so that he once sent a memo to Spielberg and Zemeckis suggesting that they change the title to Spaceman from Pluto, as a reference to the nuclear protection Marty wears.
Zemeckis was worried as he didn’t think the new title did as good a job at conveying the genre (or blend of multiple genres) the film belonged to. Spielberg decided to handle it himself and advised the director not to worry. In a gutsy move, the legendary filmmaker replied to the memo as though it had been a joke, saying “thank you for the humorous note, keep them coming”. Sheinberg was so embarrassed he never brought up a change of title ever again.
That move was equal parts sheer nerve and an outlandish level of confidence — something we should all aspire to.
While Mel Brooks’s film output is not as prolific as Spielberg or Zemeckis, his efforts are equally notable, having helmed such comedy classics as The Producers (his first film, for which he won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, beating Kubrick’s 2001 and The Battle of Algiers), Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Most of his films are spoofs of a given genre. The latter was a loving take on the classic horror films such as James Whale’s Frankenstein. Knowing that the studio would be risk-adverse (that was the 70s, so imagine now), Brooks let the first creative meeting go swimmingly, got ready to leave once all was agreed on and mentioned in passing: “Oh and it’s going to be in black and white”. Done deal.
Blazing Saddles was controversial with the studio as well. Upon seeing a rough cut, an executive gave so many notes that the film was going to be turned into a short if they followed them all. He realised that and proceeded to throwing the notes in the bin. A collaborator exclaimed: “well filed”
Back to you
These are the skills that are necessary to negotiate an environment that’s conducive to you doing your best work. It’s not a part of your creative skill set, but it’s necessary survival skills in a business that’s getting tougher and tougher.
Whatever level you operate at, knowing that what you need to get will be best negotiated when discussing with an executive that you “happened to run into” in a corridor when they’re coming back from lunch, as opposed to when they’re going for lunch or just in a traditional meeting will make all the difference.