On movies, control, and women’s work.
TW: Swearing, and use of the word “bitch.” Not my favorite word, but unfortunately has to be used in this context because I’m quoting what others have said. Also TW for a ton of sexism, again, in narratives I’m quoting/describing.
"Hey, just thought I’d say that I love your books (I’ve only read the city of bones and now working my way through the city of ashes) and I was just wondering, did you have any control over how the film was made?? as I was kinda annoyed about how much it deviated from the book. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good film (great cast to be honest), it just didn’t seem to match the book at all. I really hope I don’t sound rude, I was just wondering :3 thanks — [redacted]"
The thing about this question is that the answer is complicated. (I’ve usually seen this framed as either “Cassie had no control” or “Cassie had 100% control over everything!”) but the answer is more layered than that.
Movies are put together by a lot of people: they are in fact put together by a lot of departments. I did have influence over casting. (Not final say. Not ever final say over anything. But influence, yes.) Because casting is one department, and I and the casting director enjoyed working with each other. I’ve often talked about being asked about sets and props, because that’s a different department, and I did get asked about those things. Those are the things I usually talk about in interviews when I’m asked about this, because that’s where I had the most input.
As for the storyline and script, I got asked what I thought, and I gave notes and my opinion. I gave I would guess about 100 pages of notes over the course of the film. The thing about scripts and screenplays is that everyone gives notes. All the producers give notes. The studio people give notes. Usually everyone’s drowning in notes. My notes were not any more important than anyone else’s notes.
There were only a few issues that were “walk-away” issues for me — whitewashing Magnus, straightwashing Alec — and those were listened to, and so I stayed and tried to give my opinion and accepted that it would be taken some of the time and not taken at other times. It’s also not as if I was a huge expert on filmmaking — I knew that scripts get rewritten as the movie is filmed, but when I sat down and saw the final cut I was still surprised at how completely different it was from the last script I’d seen and even how different it was from what I’d seen filmed on set. Months had passed and the whole thing had changed. I wasn’t mad at anyone about it. I knew that I had no official say in anything regarding the film and that they were not required to keep me updated. And while it was strange to see, I knew I wasn’t objective, I knew I wasn’t a film-maker, and I decided that the best thing I could do was stand back and let my readers, and movie-watchers in general, make up their own minds about it when they saw it. I gave notes — I always gave notes — because that is what “having input” means.
I know that it can be confusing, because I have always tried to give the people in charge credit for including me at all, for even letting me on set — lots of times authors are banned from the sets of films made from their books (lest they go mad and destroy things, who knows.) And black and white — no control or all control — is easier to understand than “some meaningful input about some things, but not about others.”
I have seen a lot of negative commentary about a joke I made in an interview about being “interfere-y” — and usually I would dump it in the tick-box of “standard internet misogynistic noise” but I do think it’s worth addressing, briefly, that this is something of a no-win situation.
One narrative seems to be that I “bragged a lot” about my control over the film until the film came out and critics didn’t like it, and then I suddenly about faced and claimed I had no control at all. Except that never actually happened. I made one tweet, which all this is based on, where I said “I had very little control. I would tell @MortalMovie your thoughts” to a fan who did not like the movie, and who had said, “How could you let this happen to your books?”
Now, I probably should have been more specific, though it’s hard in something as small as a twitter space, in asking her about what she was upset about — maybe it was casting, in which case I guess I did have some influence, but I suspected it was storytelling, where I had much less and where the idea that I could “let” things happen or “prevent” anything from happening just isn’t true. It would have been one thing if that had been the first time I said it, but : Here is what I posted in July, long before the movie came out. It details the areas in which I did not have control over the film, and the way in which being a creator in a situation where you have no legal right over an adaptation is a dicey business:
“When you’re in a position, like I am and was, where you have no official title or job as regards the film adaptation of your book, you respond to the questions that are asked of you, and you try hard not to interfere unless asked to, because (as my mom always used to say) unasked-for advice is criticism. And the only thing that constantly criticizing a lot will get you is cut neatly out of the process, so that you may win your war to get Alec a sweater with holes in it, but you will never be there for the one about casting Magnus with an Asian actor because everyone will have stopped talking to you by then. Which they have a right to do.”
Here is where I posted eight months ago to say I had never seen the film, and that I could not “make promises about a final product I don’t have control over.”
Here is where I posted one year ago to say ” I have always tried to be clear that I don’t control the final edit of the film (or any edit.)”
Here is where I posted about Raphael being cut from the movie, and how I was sad about it. This was a year ago. (“ (This isn’t a decision I made or have any control over — when you give over your movie rights you have to accept that decisions about how to adapt your books will be made without you.”)
Nothing I have said since the movie’s release has been any different from exactly what I have said for the past year and a half. (And indeed, it is kind of weird even to imagine why I would about-face, since it would only be completely harmful to me and my career — it wouldn’t be so much a move of selfishness as total stupidity. The City of Ashes movie is still on the cards: why would I want to alienate the people making it? Why would I want to annoy them considering they also own Magisterium and I’m writing a screenplay for them right now? That would be dumb and bad for me on a million levels. There’s just no advantage to it. None.)
I thought about it for a while — I’m used to bizarre internet narratives about female creators that have no roots in reality (I’ve always enjoyed the one about how Holly is in love with me. It saddens me that this is not true.) But while they don’t have roots in reality, they do have roots in sexism, and that makes them worth thinking about.
I thought about how much the word bragging was used to describe how I talked about the movie, though I’ve never thought of the movie as an achievement of mine, or me as being anything but randomly lucky to have a movie made of my books. I thought about the fact that this “bragging” was being applied to the publicity I was doing for the movie — publicity being a specific, professional requirement for creators, but one that, when the creators are female, is often tagged as “bragging” or “boasting” because the fundamental aspect of publicity — that you are working to get attention, which is what publicity is, is antithetical to the way women are supposed to behave (never, ever, ever as if they want attention. Only the worst kind of women want attention, and if they do somehow wind up getting attention, they should be humble, grateful and apologetic for having accidentally wound up being paid attention to. Which is a bitter Catch-22 when publicity and being in public are a requirement of your job (I actually am fairly shy and for a long time hated doing publicity and appearances; I used to throw up before them. And I still saw constant comments along the lines of “Look at that bitch, loving the attention!”)
I realized that somehow my joke about being “interferey” was being rewritten as a narrative of me bragging about Controlling All Aspects Of the Film, as if I were the Moriarty of film-making. And I thought: how weird, that there is a contingent of people who think it is actively wrong for a writer to give her opinion to moviemakers about the movie based on her books, when that opinion is solicited? (I was told my opinion was welcome, so I gave it — I gave it a lot, which is why I joked about being “interferey.”) I don’t know how more clearly to explain it, but being asked for one’s opinion does not mean that that opinion is going to be taken. I was not anyone’s boss. I could not make anyone make a change — no matter what, not under any circumstances — to the film unless it was a change they wanted to make. No matter how much I “interfered”, I interfered by giving my opinion, not by breaking into the editing studio at night and re-splicing together all the film so it ran in a different order.
And I would interfere again — a lot of the things I gave my opinion about were things like not casting Magnus white, and preserving the introduction of the gay love story in the film. Yes, I gave my opinion about other things — but just because I gave my opinion didn’t mean they had to listen to it! Hollywood is not exactly programmed to take opinions from women and implement them. You have to have an almost inhuman amount of money and power for that. I guess it just saddens me to see that the reaction to a woman saying “I gave my opinion!” boils down to “Shut up, bitch, shut up, shut up.”
At first I thought it was especially odd given that the opinion I was giving was about my own work and not say, someone else’s, but then I realized that the problem was that it was about my work. Because saying you gave an opinion about your work — indicating you were willing to even have an argument about it, especially an argument with men — indicates that you think your work has value, and for a woman to think her work has any value is one of the worst things she can do, especially online. If I say “I care about my work and I’d like to see it represented accurately, because there are a lot of people attached to the story as it stands” — that’s bragging, and that’s bad. (How dare I be so uppity? How dare I think I have fans? Though of course, if I were to say I didn’t, then I would be a bitch for not acknowledging them.)
I thought about saying “I stand by the movie” but then I realized that was ridiculous because the movie isn’t a political movement, it’s a filmed adaptation of a book, and it seems weird to alter what I’ve been saying for the past year and a half for the benefit of a small handful of people who will read this and say “Yes, of course, women should give their opinions, except for bitches who we don’t like, and everything they do is bad, because it’s easier to pre-judge it for our own convenience than actually think about how these issues are complicated” because — that’s what they always do. But for the sake of my readers, who I do care about, and the idea that this particular lie might be something that upset them, it seemed worth clarifying.
And they were like, “But you didn’t.”
And I said, “The internet is strange.” Then Jamie told us about someone who had sent him an enormous cheese and a pair of handcuffs.
I realize I have wandered far from the original question and probably scared the original askers (rest assured, askers, that none of this is about you, and your question was completely fine) but in watching people discuss my behavior as if I were a monster and realizing that there was literally no way to avoid that (if I say I had influence over casting, I’m bragging, but if I say I didn’t have control over the storyline, I’m “jumping ship” and betraying the film, even though I’m only saying the same thing I’ve said approximately 1,000 times over the past year. And even though there’s no such thing as “the film” that can be betrayed, but rather a loose agglomeration of producers, studio execs, distributors domestic and foreign, and a director, none of whom care if I say “I didn’t have control over the film” because 1) I’ve said it before a bajillion times and 2) they know it’s true) … has reminded me why I’m a feminist.
The “jumping ship” narrative is especially toxic because it indicates that what is important about what a woman does is that she be nice, and be grateful (to, I think the idea was, the producers: the point at which you are judging a female creator for not being, in your opinion, sufficiently grateful to billionaire male Hollywood producers for paying attention to her is the time when you have left our galaxy far behind), and shut the fuck up even if that means lying. (I see that a lot about female creators: the narrative of “she should have said this.” Whether this is true or is not true is apparently irrelevant.)
I like loud, talky, angry, interferey women. I think that’s how women have to be, or they don’t get listened to. I think deliberately and with malice aforethought taking the words of female creators and twisting them to reinforce the idea that women shouldn’t talk, and if they do talk they shouldn’t talk about their work, and if they do talk about their work they should say only negative and apologetic things, and they should take on themselves, actively, blame that does not belong to them because being blamed is a woman’s job actively contributes to silencing women and crushing their desire to create and to share those creations. And I think it is a shame when this is a thing that is done by other women.
To answer the original question: I did not have control over the film. I’ve said that a thousand times, and I know it’s confusing, because I have thanked the moviemakers for letting me have input. For listening to me at all. I have talked about having influence and being asked questions and being allowed to contribute and collaborate. But those things are not control. Control in Hollywood over a film is actually a legal issue. If you have a certain amount of control over decision-making, or if you wrote a certain amount of the script, you must legally be credited. There is a pretty easy way to tell if an author has control over a movie: look for a producer credit or a co-writing credit attached to their name. If there isn’t one*, if all it says is “based on the books by”, then you can assume no, they didn’t have control over the movie. In the end, it isn’t a matter of he-said-she-said, or sound bytes in interviews, or hastily dashed off tweets, but what’s in black and white in a contract and on the screen. When I said I did not have control, that is a contractual fact, and that is what I mean when I say it.
And now to close out with a quote from Owen King, sent to me by a fellow writer who read this essay before I posted it.
"Guy character: "[My movie] can’t suck because it can’t. Because I’m not making it to suck. Who goes into something that they really care about, that’s really personal to them, and thinks, Oh well, it’ll be okay if it sucks?"
His girlfriend: “All I can say to that, my dear, is that you’ve clearly never been a woman.”
***If there is one, they might not have control either; sometimes EP credits can be pretty nominal. Holly reminded me of this, because she is in love with me.