Think of development hell as an infinite spin cycle. You are going to the Best Party Ever as soon as your laundry is done. Your amazingly cool shirt is too damp to wear but if you can just wait another 15 minutes… Oh good, it’s dry! But the wash cycle has left a spot on it, so you have to run it through again. It only takes 45 minutes: there’s still plenty of time to get to the party. Then the cat hoicks up a bile-yellow hairball on your jeans. That’s okay, you have another pair! Then your shoe breaks. But your hobby is cobbling (I think I said a really true thing about the entire indie film industry right there). You fix your shoe with a leather needle you had squirreled away in your junk drawer. You feel triumphant because you knew that needle would come in handy someday, no matter that it pokes you in the finger and makes you bleed all over your shoes.
And you dress and you’re sweaty and hopeful and excited, and you arrive at the Best Party Ever — and no one else is there. They all met another script that is throwing an Even Better Party than yours. You are not invited.
This happened for about eight years with OtherLife.
My experience of indie development hell is:
Hell is other people’s checkbooks.
Hell is other people’s schedules.
Hell is other people’s need to attach themselves to 57,000 projects, thereby ensuring from their perspective that they will not miss whatever turns out to be the best party. This means you get two seconds of their attention per year, but because they are attached, you have to run things by them. Bonus points when they promise to read the script this weekend and get back to you on Monday, which ensures that you are too anxious on Monday to get any meaningful work done. About a year later you realize that “Monday” means “no.”
Hell is other people’s belief that female-driven films don’t interest men and therefore will not make any money. Apparently women do not go to the movies or have any desire to see realistic, complex women characters in films. Apparently all men who go to the movies are 15 years old, straight, and interested only in breasts and blowjobs. And if any grownup men did go to the movies, they would want to see movies about themselves because men are more interesting than women. Don’t believe it? When’s the last time you saw an interesting movie about a woman? The people who tell you these things are some of the same people who complain with no apparent irony that there are no interesting movies being made anymore.
Hell is other people’s egos.
Hell is your ego.
Hell is your belief that you will never write a film that will interest anyone because you are an unproven untrained middle-aged woman who wants to write about women, and we know how well that usually turns out.
Hell is your disbelief that you have to justify the reality of your women characters to so many producers, managers, executives and readers. When you get notes about the character not being likable because she raises her voice to a man, you have a vertiginous moment of feeling like you in are in a movie yourself.
Hell is your lack of experience which makes it very hard to separate good notes from bad ones. When you try to hide this lack of experience by treating all notes as equally important, your script becomes what is technically known as a giant spaghetti mess. You are the writer. This is your fault. In all seriousness, it is.
The hard part of development hell is knowing that if I were a better writer, my script would make people put aside their other 56,999 projects, stop tweaking, dive in and get this fucker made. But development hell happens a lot in indie productions because the script is almost there, has a good concept or a compelling character, and with a little work…It’s almost dry. It just needs a little spin.
There are plenty of reasons movies go off the development rails. OtherLife was set up at a major studio and then put into turnaround, meaning that the studio decided so firmly not to make the film that they wrote off the costs and sent the script home from the party. Turnaround is bad because it sends a signal that the script may not be strong enough to engender confident financing: even if the script is not the real problem, the signal of unconfidence is still a real signal.
Also, if someone else wants to make the script, they now have to take on those sunk development costs. In spite of this, OtherLife was nearly financed multiple times by multiple people with big checkbooks who would have signed off on all those zeros if only we could get (insert Big Famous Name) to direct or star. We showed the script to a lot of those Big Names. We had a lot of conversations about notes, about improvements, about tweaking this or that element of the script to make it better.
Development hell happens because people have faith in your script. It happens because people commit and work hard and keep trying. It happens because an amazing director (I’ve had four) with one or two films under their belt sees your film as a great opportunity to actually get something interesting made… with a little work. It happens because a producer (the count of OtherLife producers is in the double digits) who wants to make great films finds something in yours that they think could be worth investing months or years of their lives in trying to realize. We had a couple of people who were just slipstreaming on the script, one of whom attached themselves because someone at a party mentioned it and they thought they might be missing out on an opportunity (this is a true story). Those people directly contributed to slowdowns in development. Development demons, if you will. But most of the people who have crossed paths with OtherLife have been good, smart, creative, passionate folks who want to make movies because it’s hard and meaningful and fun. Those people are goddesses and gods to me, every single one of them who ever touched this script or believed in the project.
We were close-but-no-cigar so many times, and some of those people who believed in the script stopped believing, and moved on. Sometimes that was my fault: I was the writer who couldn’t make the script better. That’s a special hell.
But I’m learning (more about which soon). That’s part of what these journals are for: to figure out what I’ve learned, to get better, and to share those lessons so that maybe other writers can benefit. Today I will say that development hell brings its own set of lessons. One of the biggest is that as a writer, so much of development is outside your zone of control — those schedules, those egos, those dollars. So the part that’s in your control — the writing — had better be fucking perfect. No excuses. No matter what. Sometimes all you can be in charge of is whether you suck it up and do it again and learn. So be the great big boss of that.