Screenwriting is always rewriting…
January 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
Yes, it took me a few scripts into my journey to surrender to it, but it’s true and a part of the process—writing is all about the rewrite. A script can always be improved and punched-up. The real issue happens when there are too many changes, it becomes frustrating and you want to actually punch something. Immediately go to your quiet place and get on with your task because the “perfect finish” only happens when your script is done with principal photography and you are working on your next project.
Screenplays live or die by their execution. It’s all about the writing and the rewriting. A good idea + a bad script from that idea = unsuccessful screenwriter. It’s an ongoing process with script notes. I’ve had to make script revisions during pre-production and on even the set during shooting. The set changes are always rough as everyone turns to you for all the answers about why the scene doesn’t work. It’s either praise or blame for the screenwriter. Again, the scene may not work because early on the producers gave you notes to change it from your original draft, and now these changes have returned to haunt you. It’s crunch time, so put your ego and blame aside and get to work because you need to make the changes quickly and not hold up production. Be the hero who saves the scene and crafts it into a masterpiece. The producer, director and actors will love you.
Don’t fight your producers, executives or director about script notes or changes. Do your best to be the writer who understands and is willing to do anything to make the scene or script better. A team player who is considered a creative collaborator stays on a project much longer than a temperamental diva who grimaces at every dialogue change. That’s why producers and directors generally don’t allow the writer on the set. There are just too many tiny changes to a script during production. If you aren’t a team player and feel that script changes are death by a thousand cuts, you will not last a day on a movie set. The minute your frustration shows, they will not invite you back. Part of being a screenwriting professional is acting like one. “Smiles everyone, smiles!” Think about the free crew meals you’ll be missing! When the script moves into production, do yourself a great service by seeing that everything you do services the story and not yourself or your ego.
I’ve executed countless laundry lists of script notes from my producers, executives and even directors. My record for rewrites on a writing assignment is eight drafts. Now those were not complete rewrites, but polishes and changes to scenes. The changes were due to location changes, casting changes, and changes in the story direction and character’s relationships. Many times the producers have allowed me to open the script differently and in a way that I did not consider before. I usually execute the notes beat by beat and try to address them in a detailed order. Again, changing one thing in the set up changes a payoff deeper in the script, so be careful about taking out something without being aware of the consequences later.
Many times the real issue is with the character’s motivations or clarity with the story. Something is not clear and needs to be heightened — sometimes it’s only a small tweak to bring an important issue to the forefront of the story. Or a character’s actions or motivations may need to be changed. Many times the scene needs massaging and you need to go back and ask yourself, “What do my characters want and how can I prevent them from getting it?” It creates drama, conflict and advances the story.
If you want to be a working screenwriter in Hollywood, you must learn the craft of executing notes quickly and effectively. You’ll usually get one crack at your second draft and if you haven’t mastered the art of rewriting, they will fire you. It’s business, not personal. Producers don’t have time to deal with a writer who is unable to effectively make the necessary changes needed. I’ve been hired several times to work on a script written by another, as the original writer exhausted their ability to effectively make the revisions. Sometimes the easiest changes are, “let’s play the bar scene outside on the mountain top.” Scene heading change! At least the scene plays the same, now it’s just outside so they don’t have to rent a bar and fill it with extras. Smart production changes.
Writing your own spec script is one thing, being hired for a script assignment, working from a treatment you didn’t create, and then executing script notes is an entirely different talent. It’s an ability that you must have if you want to stay on a project and eventually see your name in the credits. Masterfully execute script notes and become a writer who is a team player and you’ll work again. This also helps to build a solid reputation—because your reputation means everything if you want to work in this business.
Remember, screenwriting is all about the rewriting. Scriptcat out!
Latin. Literally translated: “scraped tablet. “ Thus, the “blank slate.” Romans used to write on wax-covered wooden tablets, which were erased by scraping with the flat end of the stylus. John Locke used the term to describe the human mind at birth, before it had acquired any knowledge. Today Scientists recognize that the brain is pre-programmed to process sensory input, motor control, emotions, and natural responses. The brain then learns and refines these abilities, based on the environment.
Rewriting? Do you need professional and in-depth script consultation/editing? Check out my screenplay consultation services. Click on the icon below for the link to my website.
“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly. Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”—Robert McKee, “Story”
“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back.” — Oscar Wilde
“I find that when you open on a group of people sitting down and talking, the scene sits down with them. The best antidote for that is an entrance. Begin the scene with someone entering, and somehow it’s more interesting.”—Howard Hawks
“I rewrote the ending of “Farewell to Arms” 39 times before I was satisfied.” — Ernest Hemingway
“Much of good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so that they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction. The longer you can hold off putting a word down on paper, the better you are. Rewriting is largely cleaning up things that aren’t clear to you, or trying to shorten a scene that’s too long, or realizing now that you’ve written scenes at the end of the story, maybe the scenes at the beginning should be a little different to help set up a scene that comes at the end.“—Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
“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
“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, The Lady Killers, Sweet Smell of Success.
“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.”—Ernest Hemingway