I’ve spent that last two weeks “ghost writing” a screenplay for a friend. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is not meant as a term to describe “those who emulate M. Night Shyamalan.” Though I suppose it could. Instead, it means that someone hires someone else to write something (a book, play, article, script) under their name. In other words, nobody ever knows that the person who got the “written by” credit did not actually write the script. Meanwhile, the person who actually did write the script gets no credit whatsoever, but gets paid. If we wanted to delve deeper into the term, it could also imply that the person who does the writing might be “dead” while the person who has hired the ghost (and can see them and their talent while others cannot) has a career that is “alive.” But that’s a depressing notion, so let’s not go that deep.
So my friend called me frantically two weeks ago and asked for my help. He’s a producer who also presents himself as a writer sometimes and he had managed to get a company to pay for a screenplay. The only problem was though he had managed to get through a first draft, it was not any good and he had no time to fix it because of other more pressing projects. Not to mention he was stuck. So he called me and asked for my help. Of course, I wanted to help out a friend, but it presented a bit of a quandary. If I took on the project, that would mean a little more money in my pocket (during an especially challenging time) but it would also mean that I would be doing a lot of work which someone else would get all the credit for. Furthermore, the script was in seriously bad shape, mainly because my friend, though good at coming up with ideas, is still in the rookie league when it comes to actually knowing how to write a script. Which means that if I helped him, I would only be promoting the false impression that he can actually write a script.
But my friend was desperate. I could hear the shakiness in his voice: “They want a draft by the end of the month. I’m screwed. I’ll do anything, just tell me you can do it.” I looked around my desk. A stack of bills. My work calendar with too many blank spaces. My own script, staring back at me, saying “Please, pay attention to me and only me. I need you more.” But those bills…
I told my friend I’d have to think about it. I printed out his script and read through it again. It was a mess. Scenes that made no sense, characters that were overwritten and one-dimensional. But at its core, there was a good story there, something I could mold into a movie with some heart. I couldn’t leave him stranded with this 120 page bucket of rocks when I knew there was some gold in there. If I could just get it out. The more I thought about the story, the more ideas came to me. I knew I could fix this script. It may not end up perfect, but it would be a helluva lot better than before.
So I called my friend back and told him I’d do it. I spent the next ten days going through the script, slashing and burning huge chunks of dialogue while trying to get the core of the story to shine through. While I occasionally shook my head at the notion that I was only helping make someone else look good and was now, in fact, officially a whore, the process was strangely liberating at the same time. Of course, I wanted to make the best script I could but… I didn’t have to. It was a first draft and nobody would ever know I wrote it. (Of course, the flip side is that if the movie goes on to be a big hit, nobody will ever know I wrote it either!) But in this business, you can’t take the future for granted anyway. Most scripts never get made so all you can do, whether it’s your own script or somebody else’s, is try your best. Which is what I did, albeit anonymously. In Hollywood, a lot of writers get paid a lot of money to do this very same thing. Sweeten some dialogue, round out some characters, etc. I couldn't help thinking to myself, I could do this....
When I finally finished, the script was down to a slim 92 pages from a whopping 125. (For those of you who don’t know, losing that kind of script-weight is a good thing, usually). I sent the script to my very relieved and grateful friend, who will now spend the weekend reading it. And hopefully like it. Of course, even if he doesn’t, too bad. The script is done. The ghost has vanished.