Every so often we here at Satellite Show come across a work that seems like its plot and characters (such as they are) were lifted right out of the pages of the ink-and-angst stained notebooks of adolescence. Sometimes we suspect that other bodily fluids might also be involved.
Many directors throughout film history have used their success as leverage to revisit pet projects they would never have been able to get greenlit at the time they were written. While that’s all well and good, if said script is from your youth, there’s a distinct possibility the reason it was turned down wasn’t just because of Hollywood conspiracy keeping your young genius from reaching the world, but because it, well, kinda sucked.
It took me a long, long time to realize this… but the stuff I wrote in high school sucks. And while it’s possible the stuff I write nowadays sucks as well, I don’t have the inflated opinion of it that I had back in the day. I also have a ton more perspective on the world and other people, for example no longer considering women to be objects of mystery that I could only relate to through sexual desire or some ideal of perfection. Writing about women where you can only visualize them as saints or whores is a hugely high school mentality, where you’re still just trying to get your feet under yourself sexually much less trying to make sense of the sudden “otherness” puberty thrust upon you. I can’t directly comment on the immaturity spectrum from the other angles of the equation, although I have a creeping feeling the one for heterosexual girls would look something like how boys/men are presented in Twilight.
Basically, my thesis is this. No one is a good writer in high school. No one. Good writing requires a level of self-awareness and maturity that just is not there at this early stage. High school is the First Draft of Life, and you never go to production with your first draft.
As high school kids (and possibly extending into college) we were self-absorbed, snot-nosed punks who thought we knew everything, and somehow convinced ourselves that going to school on a bad acne day was the end of the world. At best some of us were politically active in exceedingly naive ways.
Oh, I’m sorry, you were different? Sure you were, chief. Let’s check your high school yearbook and see what you thought was awesome at the time, including your hair. James Cameron may have yet to turn Paradise into a major motion picture, but after the success of Avatar, who’s going to stop him? Hollywood hates to take chances, but what they hate even more, paradoxically, is feeling that they missed chances, so as soon as some director or star they wouldn’t give the time of day to yesterday goes big, well, their next projects are going to be treated with a “how dare you question the genius!” attitude… in which case it all comes down to how willing and able said “genius” is at either self-policing what they’re getting pushed through, or telling people to please, please still give them notes.
This means that pet projects, even those written in the throes of callow youth, are not going to be automatic disasters, but it all depends how much someone is willing to go back to them and say things like (just pulling a generic example here…) “Hm. I like some of the ideas I had here, but I really need to revise the rest. Maybe aliens who react to water as if it were battery acid wouldn’t want to invade a planet covered by it, and fight people filled with it. I didn’t consider that when I was 15… now that I’m an adult, writing for other adults, let’s see what else I can come up with.”
I’m not saying that theoretical major motion picture came out of a script first dreamed up in high school and largely unmodified due to the ongoing hubris of its creator, but there are interview quotes out there like “I have a naive outlook on life. That’s who I am. If you met me when I was in high school, you’d see that I was the exact same kid.”
I’m not trying to say there’s no room for fun stuff in fiction and cinema, but I am saying a lot of what we thought was fun and interesting in high school, really, really, wasn’t. At best we were big fish because of the small pond we existed in. How many high school football stars are able to take their game to the pros? At least a writer has the advantage that years later they’ve (theoretically) gotten better, instead of age and busted knees working against them, but it’s a trap to revisit those glory days where teenage peers might have been cooing over your poetry and thinking all you gotta do now is copy and paste said poetry to a larger audience. Because said poetry looks like this:
“He was buried.
And he couldn’t see, only to see
that in the absence of something,
there was nothing.
And he couldn’t hear, except to hear
the silence of his own mute screams
tearing soft curls of ear.
And he couldn’t smell, but through his nostrils
decay invaded and chewed his guts
He couldn’t taste, but to lick
at the dry chalked spittle
festering in a sharply stitched mouth.
And he couldn’t feel.”
Yes, I have a whole corner of my hard drive where I’ve kept “early efforts” preserved, at first because I thought they were wonderful and poignant, and now because… well, maybe one day I might be able to turn the concept into something decent. Or maybe it’s like how I keep around the yearbook picture where I’m sporting a mullet: just for humility’s sake.
From that perspective, taking your unedited, or barely revised high school level writing and using it as the basis for stuff like major studio productions is the pinnacle of hubris. I guess it sometimes works at the box office, but you’re taking something you really ought to be guilty about and venerating it instead, and sometimes even going so far as to bitch “No one understands meeee!” when other adults call you out on your nonsense, including your lead actor.
We understand you just fine. Now grow up and do a few extra drafts of that stuff before your next pitch.
P.S. My favorite aspect of Jim Cameron’s “Paradise” script? The fact that the two high-school aged protagonists (because you know it would have starred his friends) are labeled “Man” and “Girl”. Not such a crusader for feminine equality back then, was he?