Many times it can feel as if a producer or executive is coming at your screenplay with a sword and a club and taking no prisoners. The notes and feedback can seem like a personal attack on your talent and ability. It’s not. It’s all part of the development process. You have to please yourself with your writing, but also your co-collaborators as no screenwriter writes alone in a vacuum. As screenwriters we have a tendency to fall in love with our scenes and then struggle to detach, especially when it seems like so many others make changes to the story we’ve birthed and nurtured. Who knows the material better than the writer? You’d be surprised — everyone from the director, producer, actors, executives, financiers and even the assistants. It’s inevitable there will be changes to your script, it’s the nature of the beast, but you’ll have a much easier time if you stay open to the changes and fight to keep the spine of your script intact. The script is truly a blueprint for a film, so think of it as a living, breathing piece of material that will evolve and grow, even during production.
Learn the discipline of detachment. Do not live or die by every written word, because it’s a dangerous and exhausting journey. Dangerous because if you get upset with the producer or director and become a temperamental diva who bristles at notes or changes, you’ll be branded as “difficult” and you won’t stay on projects very long. Exhausting because it’s part of the screenwriting process and neither you nor your masterpiece is going to change the collaboration process of filmmaking. You are working in a very collaborative “art” form, one that guarantees comments and criticism from your collaborators, but try your best to welcome the response.
When you disagree with the changes or notes, pick your battles wisely, but always keep the best interest of the story in mind and your eye on the bigger picture—you staying on the project as the screenwriter and ultimately getting the film made. Do not take notes personally or let your ego get into the mix. A screenwriter must have thick skin and realize there are others at the helm who believe their creative decisions will best serve the overall project. I honestly believe everyone tries to do their best to make a good film and many times the changes make for a better script. I also believe a script can languish in development hell where the changes can damage the original story if there is too much input from too many people. A film is made three times: once when it’s written, next when it’s filmed, and finally when it’s edited. There are many chances in the process to either damage a great piece of material or make it better. Making a film is like no other art form because hundreds of artisans work together on a single artistic project.
I know it’s hard to cut what you may feel are your best scenes, but you have to be ruthless when it comes to rewrites. Scenes that do not serve the overall story and detract must go. If you’ve been hired for a screenplay assignment your job is to give the other creative partners their best chance at making a successful film. In feature films, the director is king and in television, the writer/producer/showrunner is king. If you want absolute power over your words, become a writer/producer, a playwright or novelist.
I’ve been extremely lucky to do all of the drafts on most of my produced films and my luck was a result of my good working relationship with the producers and directors who all treated me as an equal creative partner. When they needed changes, we’d have a discussion, and they would allow me to go and write the scenes. I’ve also helped the producers by being creative on a budget. I know the constraints of the project, so I’m not going to write outside those financial parameters.
We don’t always escape the jaws of the beast, because I’ve also experienced the kind of changes from producers where I was basically copying their handwritten dialogue from the script to my rewrite. That feels more like a transcriber and not a collaborator. I’ve also been on set where an actor scribbled out his dialogue and rewrote it as I sat behind him. That’s never fun, but I’m a team player and did not comment. I focused on the positive reality of my experience: I was a paid screenwriter on the set of my latest movie. That took the sting out of it really fast.
Do not become attached to your script because changes will happen. It will go through the development process and others will add their creative fingerprints on your project. Do not get upset or show anger toward your producers when they want changes, because they will brand you as difficult and you may lose the assignment. As a professional writer, be okay with the development process and know it’s out of your control. The one thing you can control is doing the best job you can every time out.
You will never fail if you always do your best and never allow your emotions or ego to get in your way. If you want a screenwriting career over for the long haul, your working relationships are extremely important and how you react to changes will determine if you are a team player. Producers like writers who are team players, so when changes arise, do your best to serve the producer and the story and help everyone to make the best film possible. It will serve everyone’s interest when the film is a success and they hire you again.
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“To this day, I get rewrite offers where they say: ‘We feel this script needs work with character, dialogue, plot and tone,’ and when you ask what’s left, they say: ‘Well, the typing is very good.'” —John Sayles
“I think of the script as an organization, like an engine. Ideally, everything contributes—nothing is in excess and everything works. I feel as thought I’ve cheated in a script unless everything has a function.” —John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King