Oh, yeah. A very important discipline on our screenwriting journey.
It’s a lovely experience writing your spec screenplay in a protected bubble—that safe haven away from the harsh realities of Hollywood. It’s a much different experience to unleash your script into the real world of professionals where you’ll receive notes, criticism, and if you’re lucky enough to be paid, be held responsible for rewrites and changes. As you navigate the choppy waters of Hollywood, you’ll survive better in the trenches if you don’t take criticism personally and you detach from the work. It also helps to detach from the outcome of your work. You’ll experience so many creative highs and lows and disappointments before your triumphs and it helps to remain on an even footing for the long haul.
I find many new screenwriters bristle at the thought of changes to their script and this reluctance will not serve them well in establishing a career as a screenwriter. If you understand the screenplay is a living and breathing blueprint, you’ll be able to put your ego aside and do your job: to write the most effective script possible and stay out-of-the-way of the story. Filmmaking is collaborative art form but some people feel threatened by the writer because we do what they can’t do. The great screenwriter Ernest Lehman said, “The director knows that the script he is carrying around on the set every day was written by someone, and that’s just not something that all directors easily digest.”
Become a multi-hyphenate if you want more creative control over your work: A writer/producer, writer/director, or write material so spectacular that no one would dare change it because it’s so damn good. They would realize any changes would ruin it. It’s rare. Some notes are ego driven by creative types who want to show everyone just how much they’re needed. The script is a target for everyone who is allowed to offer creative opinions. Detach from the feedback and suggestions. It will make your experience much easier with less anxiety.
It’s easier to detach once you learn that nothing in a script is etched in stone. Look at your overall story and do whatever it takes to make it work. Every rewrite or polish should work to better the production. Don’t live or die by every word or scene. That’s when your ego rears its ugly head. Sometimes other creative input makes for a better script and sometimes it does not. As we mostly work alone, screenwriters find it hard to look at the material objectively. We always need another set of eyes for a different prospective.
I’m not a big fan of too many cooks in the kitchen, but always listen be open to suggestions even if they clearly don’t work. Many times creative types just want to be heard and feel like they are contributing. Don’t be a complete pushover when it comes to notes, but if you’re going to fight to keep your material intact pick your battles wisely as you don’t want to be known as a writer who bristles and fights at every suggestion. Directors and producers want to work with team players and will quickly fire writers who don’t collaborate well. If you detach from the script, you’ll be more at ease to work with your collaborators. You want to become the “go to” person because you wrote the script. You’re the expert of the story. No one will ever know it better than you do—although sometimes they believe they do. I’ve been on set and sat behind an actor who scratched out his dialogue and rewrote it right in front of me. When I couldn’t tolerate the situation any longer I lumbered over to the craft service table for a nosh. What I really needed was a tumbler of scotch!
Once you detach, you can see the script from a different perspective and you’ll need that objectivity to do your best work. The most important goal is to do everything you can to help push the screenplay closer to production. A pro takes ego out of the work and gets the job done. Help don’t hinder because of your “precious” words or scenes. Many times I’ve had to cut the script to the bone and take out some of my favorite scenes. I realized these cuts were necessary for the overall success of the script. If you are lucky enough to be hired to write, it will become your job with the same schedules, responsibilities and work any job entails—except this job is putting words on paper. The longer you’re in the screenwriting game and work with directors, producers, and executives, the easier it becomes to detach from the script as you realize it’s an active blueprint and movies are not made by just one person. Detach and live to write another day.
Keep the faith and keep screenwriting.
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“It would be unthinkable for a writer to tell a director how to direct or a producer how to produce or an actor how to act or a cinematographer how to light a scene. But it is not at all unthinkable for anyone to tell a writer how to write. It comes with the territory.”—Ernest Lehman, screenwriter of North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music.
“You have to leave things wide open. There are many times when an actor comes in and just runs away with the character… many times that actor comes in and he just can’t handle it so you keep paring his part down. You’re dealing with people who breathe and talk and get mad and have a moustache and have pretty legs. Your script becomes just a guideline when you get the real people up there. You’ve got to make allowances for that, because these people have got to be credible on that screen.”—Frank Capra, director of It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life.
“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
“Collaborative effort requires sharing that tiny little space which we reserve for ourselves. We’ve got to bring it out and share it for a while, even if we put it back afterward.“—Stanley Kramer, director of The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
“The wise screen writer is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn’t take things too much to heart. He should have a touch of cynicism, but only a touch. The complete cynic is as useless to Hollywood as he is to himself. He should do the best he can without straining at it. He should be scrupulously honest about his work, but he should not expect scrupulous honesty in return. He won’t get it. And when he has had enough, he should say goodbye with a smile, because for all he knows he may want to go back.” – Raymond Chandler
“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.