I took that Love Languages test years ago, when it was all the rage, and was not at all surprised to discover that one of mine is “Words of Affirmation.” I’m a writer, after all, so words mean a lot to me. A well-written note will remain in my nightstand drawer for years. And while I think that the whole self-esteem movement has watered down the sincerity of words of affirmation, those words are still important, and I try to make an effort to speak appreciation when I can – to a parent whose child was a joy to have at my house, to a manager whose great employee served us at a restaurant, and especially to creative people who are trudging along in a brilliant endeavor.
Screenwriting is a very isolated job. I spend a lot of time alone behind a computer, so I also crave feedback. I need to know I’m not doing all of this in a void. I’ve spent some time lately thinking about what that feedback means, because I received a compliment recently that was joyous and humbling at the same time.
My screenwriting mentor once told me that the highest compliment a script can receive is when the reader says, “It’s a movie.” That means you did your job making it commercial, visual, emotional and viable. You brought the movie experience to the page, and that is one difficult job.
The best compliment a movie can receive is… well… good luck finding one. I’ve had a few movies out in the world, and for a while I hoped for someone to tell me they were good. Or enjoyable. Or at least they didn’t change the channel. A few visits to the Amazon or IMDB review sections later, I realized that a) you should never visit the Amazon or IMDB review sections and b) you’re never going to please everybody. You’ll have just as many one-star reviews as five-star reviews. For every “this was great!” there is something pretty ugly. (See my post “What Makes a Movie ‘Good’?” for more on that.)
Laying all that aside, I do think that the best compliment I’ll ever received as a screenwriter is when someone says, “Thank you for writing this movie.”
In May I went for a visit to the set of Moms’ Night Out, a family comedy I wrote and that Jon and Andy Erwin (along with a cast of amazing actors) have just turned into something brilliant. (A post on this visit is coming soon with more details.)
While I was on set, I was given that compliment for the first time, and it rang in my ears like the best words ever spoken. “Thank you for writing this movie.” I heard it from a couple different people – an actor, a crew member, an executive. One of them was Sean Astin, and let me tell you, That. Was. Awesome. (I had to hold back from saying “oh-my-gosh-thank-you-and-Goonies-is-my-favorite-and-I-really-want-to-write-one-like-that-someday-and-Lord-of-the-Rings-is-my-other-favorite-and-Sam-is-my-favorite-character-so-you-are-just-my-favorite-and-thank-YOU-for-all-those-movies!!!” I refrained. But that was what was running in my head so I’m pretty sure I only managed to squeak “Thanks” or “Nice to meet you” or something like that.)
I think the reason this compliment meant so much more to me than something like “you’re a genius” or “this is the best script ever written” (besides the fact that I know neither of those is true) is that it demonstrates that the work had value to the compliment giver. The story meant something to them that inspired gratitude. Maybe it gave them joy, maybe it gave them encouragement & hope, maybe a new outlook.
Now I’m ruined. Everything I write now will have to be put to this test. Will it make someone thankful they watched it? That’s the whole reason I became a screenwriter. To create a shared experience that would move people in some positive way. There will always be smarter, more creative writers than me, but in my opinion, the power to touch hearts is the bigger reward. To accomplish that, in turn, makes me thankful.
Moms’ Night Out is about a group of harried moms whose much-needed night out is hijacked by their overwhelming sense of responsibility. While some ridiculous hijinks ensue, I think the best parts are those small, funny moments when the audience will think “that happened to me!” and will be able to find joy in the beautiful mess of family life. I hope that when moms (and those who love them) see it, they will laugh a little at themselves, have a good time, and leave with a new sense of community, hope and fun.
I hope they will hear the Words of Affirmation directed at them in the movie and take them to heart. That would definitely be the best compliment this mom and screenwriter could ever receive.