What does it mean to be a Hollywood screenwriter? Many of the rising star screenwriters in writer/director Daniel Snyder’s 2007 documentary “Dreams on Spec” don’t actually know. They are “just” screenwriters struggling to maintain their lifestyles while fostering their own dreams for an optioned script or even a career as a working screenwriter.
At its heart, “Dreams on Spec” gives audiences a personal look beyond the printed page at the lives led by a trio of struggling screenwriters –– David J. Stieve, writer of the thriller “Behind the Mask,” Deborah Goodwin, writer of a comedy called “When You’re Not There,” and Joe Aaron, screenwriter of a movie called “Rattled.” Throughout this Los Angeles tell-all, Snyder reveals the kind of passion, drive and sacrifice it takes trying one’s skills as a screenwriter despite the knowledge that screenwriting is, at its heart, a business of rejection.
Shot in a straightforward documentary manner, some of the most remarkable moments of this film include an in-depth examination of how a spec script, if the screenwriter is fortunate enough to sell it and have it produced, goes through the Studio system’s meat grinder and comes out somewhat unrecognizable. Such is the case with David’s “Behind the Mask.” The creative process is also peered into, depicted brilliantly with Joe taking it on for over three years while trying to keep his wife and daughter happy. And there’s the not-so-pleasant side of the screenwriter’s world, brought to light in Deborah, who frequently rides the emotional ups and downs of creativity and questioning despite her Buddhist outlook on existence.
“Dreams on Spec” also calls on the real world experiences of successful Hollywood screenwriters like Steven de Souza (“Die Hard”), Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”), Paul Guay (“Liar, Liar”), and a few others. The insights offered by these professional screenwriters helps to peel the fantasy aspect of screenwriting from the reality that lies beneath. There are even some tidbits served up by noted script doctor Carrie Fisher, as well.
A good portion of the film is dedicated to the idea of writing movies and whether or not screenwriters are simply “schmucks with Underwoods,” as Jack Warner once called them, or the most important people in the filmmaking process, as believed by Irving Thalberg. This is brought to light poignantly in one of Joe’s many monologues about how most writers append the word “just” before the word “writer” whenever they’re asked what they do for a living, which lessens the value of the job as well as the value of the writers themselves.
As a screenwriter myself, a great deal of “Dreams on Spec” reads like a refresher course, which can make it seem slightly dated in 2012. Much has changed since 2007; many of today’s screenwriters have been fed enough rejection for one lifetime and have gone the Do-It-Yourself route when it comes to their scripts, penning a few drafts of a screenplay and then producing it themselves by means of grant money or crowdfunding, the latest method of skipping out on the submission process and getting one’s script to screen without having it stagnate in development hell.
Overall, “Dreams on Spec” is a documentary that examines the movie industry, and much like Paul Osborne’s “Official Rejection,” it might not fare as well with a general audience as it would with one made up of those hoping to break into show business. But for screenwriters, past and present, seasoned or student, Snyder’s documentary serves up an important glimpse into the trials and triumphs one can expect from a life spent in front of a small screen, trusting that with each tap of the next key from first slug line to final “Fade Out” it one day makes it off the page and onto a bigger screen.
“Dreams on Spec” is available on SnagFilms.