My first film release OR how I learned to ignore reviews and get on with my life
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
2022 has been a big year. I’ve celebrated lots of things. I became an American citizen. I finished writing my first novel. And I had my first movie released to the public.
It’s been a long journey to get here. I began writing my first screenplay in the dorm rooms of Sundial Court, the halls of residence for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I was studying to be an actor in 2002. The pages weren’t very good but they were a start nonetheless. I spent the next 10 years trying to become an actor, and when that no longer made me happy, I found a new love in screenwriting.
I met my long-term writing partner and dear friend, Ben Lustig, in 2008, and we began writing together about six months later. We spent ages trying to break in. But slowly, we did. Inch by painful inch. We determined that we were going to be well-paid Hollywood screenwriters with big credits to our names. We write big, bold, high-concept movies and always longed for the day we could watch one of our movies or show ideas on the big or little screen.
We broke in big in 2014, with a four studio bidding war, with a script we wrote called Winter’s Knight. We had high hopes it would get made. The studio was saying all the right things. Directors had been hired. We’d even been replaced as writers! But, as so often happens in Hollywood, and much to our heartbreak, it languished in development. The directors moved on to another project, the head of the studio changed, and the project still sits on a hard drive.
And that’s so hard for a screenwriter. The screenwriter is the architect. They see the movie in their mind, and they want, so very much, for other people to see that movie. When it doesn’t happen, it’s like someone going MIA. They could still be alive, but you suspect they’re probably gone. You hold out a sliver of hope, but the reality is, they’re not coming home.
Me and Ben have had a lot of ups and downs in the last eight years of our career. We’ve been attached, and even written some very big projects. We wrote a pilot of John Scalzi’s excellent Old Man’s War book series. We sold both a movie and a TV show based on the classic 1960s comic book series, THUNDER AGENTS, and had the project announced at New York Comic Con by Stan Lee and UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon (true story). We wrote a killer pilot for the live-action adaptation of Final Fantasy, which to this date is one of the best things we’ve ever written. We sold an awesome animated show to Amazon about Romans, Barbarians, and Werewolves.
But still nothing was made.
Until The Princess.
We had written The Princess on spec in 2019, and began developing it with our buddy, Derek Kolstad (of John Wick fame), and set it up with Original Film (The Fast and the Furious). We attached the fabulous Joey King to play the titular role, and in October of 2020, 20th Century Studios bought it with the promise that they were going to make it for Hulu.
The Princess had essentially always been an action film set in a single location, that blended the frenetic level-by-level fighting of The Raid, but in a medieval fairytale setting. We wanted to take the classic Disney tropes of a princess in a tower but reimagine them R-rated and in live action. We wanted to honour our wives and daughters and create a heroine who fights for not only the safety of her kingdom but for her place in a world that has treated women as pieces of property.
In the initial drafts, we created a rich backstory for the kingdom and the world. The Princess had an older brother, a Rob Stark type, who believed in his younger sister, and trained her to be a warrior unknown to their parents. It featured a shadowy cult who were bankrolling the main villain, Julius. It was full of flashbacks that told a rich story of a patriarchy, of a young princess trying to find her place in the world, and of an arranged marriage put together by a king fearful of the continuation of his kingdom’s legacy.
When we sold it and we did studio notes on it, a lot of this stuff was stripped out. This is the nature of working for studios, and it can be a hard pill for the writer to swallow.
But why can’t you just keep all that stuff in? You’re the writer, right?
Well, we tried to. But let’s go back to the analogy of the writer as architect and even builder of a home. Once you have sold that script or home to a buyer, they own it. They can do whatever they want with it. And because you want to keep the studio happy, and keep as much of it as possible feeling like you, you take their notes, and do them as best you can. But imagine that you bought a home, and wanted to make some changes to it. You want to tear down a wall, or add a window, or convert the garage. That’s your right to do so. If the architect came back after you’d done these things and said “Hey, you can’t do that. That’s my house!”, you’d say “No. It isn’t. This is my house. I paid for it, and I’ll do with it whatever the hell I want.” Now sure, could you consult with the architect, and see if taking the wall down in the living room would cause structural issues? Yes, (and you probably should) but at the end of the day, it’s still your house, to do with as you please, even if it falls down as a result.
So, the notes were taken, and we tried as best we could to keep it ours. But it wasn’t ours anymore. It belonged to someone else.
At this point, we were fired off of our own script, and another writer was brought in. This is very common in Hollywood. There are myriad reasons why. Sometimes, studios want a fresh voice on the project. Sometimes, the studio head needs some kind of insurance. “It’s not my fault the movie flopped, I hired several writers!” Sometimes the current writer just isn’t working out.
In this case, as was told to us on the phone when it happened, they wanted a female voice to come and work on some of the dialogue.
And sure, having a female voice on a project written by two guys about a woman is probably not a bad thing per se. But it’s always tough to be fired off of a project you created from the ground up.
A director was hired, whom we had no contact with until they were almost ready to shoot.
But the movie got made! The other writer was given the great privilege to be out on set, in Bulgaria, for two weeks, while we got email updates about its progress. Again, hard to take, but you have to be a grown-up about these things.
During this time, as co-producers, we got to see the script changes. A lot of it was gutted, but the core of it remained. A lot of the scenes were all still there, but the dialogue was almost completely changed. I would say to the tune of 98%. There are maybe two lines in the finished film that we wrote. The world was leaner, less complicated. No more shadowy cult. No more older brother. I would say there was less plot, and fewer meaningful character moments, but it still resembled the house we designed.
We got to visit the set in Bulgaria in August of 2021, and seeing it all come to life was one of the joys of my life. Finally, something I’d seen only in my head was real. People had built a castle. And it was better than I imagined. Sure they weren’t saying the lines as we’d written them, but they were close enough.
In December of 2021, we got notice from the studio of a Notice of Tentative Writing Credit, whereby the studio let’s any writer who’s written on the film what they think the on-screen credits should be (the words you see at the end of the film, over black, with stirring music).
They wanted to give the other writer first credit, and Ben and I secondary credit.
However, after an credit arbitration (a post for another day), fellow members of the Writers Guild of America, after looking at all of the drafts of the script, decided that we should receive sole credit for the film. And so it’s just our names on it, even though, yes, a lot of things were changed.
So this film, out in the world, which to be clear, I’m very proud of, and also is very different from the script me and Ben wrote, is only attributed to us.
Now you may say, “hey that’s not fair! This other writer did all this work. Why don’t they get credit?” Again, a post for another day, but suffice it to say there are huge financial benefits to reaching sole credit, as well as other benefits such as sequel rights, etc. But again, a post for another day.
Anyway, the film comes out. And the reviews come in.
Aaaaaand they were mixed. Reviewers either really liked it, or they thought it was the worst thing they’ve ever seen. And I suddenly remembered that having a film out in the world comes with people’s opinions of it.
But if we were going to claim sole authorship of this movie, then that comes with the good and the bad of that.
The general views of negative reviews were along the lines of:
“The action is great, but the writing is awful!”
“The Director does a great job with a poor script!”
“The Premise is great, but the screenplay is bad!”
These paraphrased quotes were part of several reviews. And it made me realize something.
Reviewers have absolutely no idea how a movie gets made.
How can you say the action is good, but the script is bad? What do you think a script is? Just dialogue? Who writes the action?
Every single action sequence in the film was written out, in script format, by me and Ben, or later the other hired writer.
And what do you think a director does? Because our director helped develop the script for 6 months without us. But he doesn’t get blamed for the script, he gets praise.
And if the premise is great, that IS part of the screenplay.
All of this was bouncing through my mind until I suddenly realised that because reviewers don’t know how a film is made, their opinion doesn’t matter to me. Many write with the knowledge of film, and sure many are extremely knowledgeable of film as an art form on the whole. But they have absolutely no idea what development looks like, and I don’t think they understand what a screenwriter actually does or how a film goes from page to screen.
All that said, should they review the film as a whole, and look at who wrote the script? Sure. But the quotes above belay an ignorance of filmmaking and development.
“But” you’ll say “you aren’t commenting on the positive reviews.” No. You’re right. I’m not. Which has led me to a big breakthrough in my life.
Which is: I don’t care what reviewers have to say. At all. I stopped reading all of them a few days after the release. Because yes, if a review is bad, they don’t know how a film is made. And if a review is good, they still don’t know how a film is made.
Sure it bumps up my ego. But an ego is a fragile thing. And when a negative review comes along, that ego is knocked right back down again. Why should I base my happiness on someone else’s opinion of a film I wrote on?
I was also reminded of some sages advice from my acting days. An acting teacher once said to me “Never read your reviews. The bad ones make you feel crummy about yourself, and the good ones breed arrogance. Neither are helpful to you as an artist.”
And so I ignored reviews and continue to.
I’m proud that a movie me and Ben wrote is finally out in the world and I’ve come to realize that the thing I’d placed on a pedestal, that being a “made movie”, wasn’t and isn’t the thing that is going to fundamentally make me happy in my life.
Happiness comes from somewhere else.
And honestly, I’m a lot happier for simply that realization.
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