The great director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo) said, “… some of the stuff handed to you on paper is perfectly good to read, but isn’t any good on the set.” It’s either praise or blame for the screenwriter, but there are many good reasons why it doesn’t work on the set.
If you’ve ever had to experience the on set changes as a screenwriter, they are always rough because everyone turns to you (if you are lucky enough to be allowed on the set) for all the answers about why the scene doesn’t work. It’s not the time for excuses. You have to dig deep and this is when your experience will save you from being thrown into a creative pit and not being able effectively write yourself out. The pressure is on and you must be at your best to deliver what is needed as to not hold up the production. You are the “go to” person and now you get to save the day.
The scene may not work because the screenwriter probably never had access to the set or the locations. Now with the production on location, the office location in the scene doesn’t overlook the river the way the screenwriter envisioned—it overlooks the park and the action must be rewritten or cheated to make the scene work. I once worked as a script doctor on a project and was lucky the producers gave me dozens of detailed photos of the proposed locations to use as my guide when rewriting. The visuals helped me tremendously and I rewrote scenes that could actually work in the desert town location and didn’t just come from my imagination.
Another reason the scene may not work on the set is because there may be a question about the screenwriter’s research. This happened to me when the technical expert hired by the producers to be on the set, disputed my scene for authenticity. I was left reeling without any backup. I had done my detailed research to the best of my ability, but the consultant disputed my dialogue on the set right before the scene was filmed. This should have been vetted during pre-production when the “expert” read the script for technical authenticity. That was his job. My job was to do enough research to tell an effective story. Apparently “something” slipped through the cracks. Never assume anything when involved with a film production. Everyone is looking at their particular role in the production and in my opinion, the screenwriter is the one who must see “the big picture.” No one will ever know the script as intimately as the screenwriter. We’ve created, lived and breathed every motivation and line of dialogue.
The decision was made on set to change the dialogue and they went ahead and shot the scene. I still defend my research to this day. It was pointless for me to argue and defend my research on the set. It would have taken away precious time and made me look like a defensive screenwriter. Everyone expects that from us, but we do have the power to change that negative stereotype of constantly defending our work. Regardless of circumstances for the rewrites, it’s crunch time, so put your ego and blame aside, and do the rewrites because you need to make the changes quickly to not hold up production. Be the writer hero who saves the scene and crafts it into a masterpiece under pressure. The producer, director and actors will love you and want to keep you around. This is how you build your reputation of being a team player because you’re putting the film ahead of your personal issues.
You may become frustrated with the process of rewriting, but if your emotions show they will not invite you back. Think of the script as a fluid document and even more when production starts. Things change quickly on set and if you are lucky enough to be asked to say on the project, it’s your job to do everything you can to make it smooth sailing. Whenever you get a chance to hang around a set, observe and learn about the realities of production. It will help you with your screenwriting and writing with the practicalities of production in mind. A reader’s draft is great, but what happens when you move into development and into a production draft. Do you possess the talent and experience to deliver the goods.
If you are blessed to be part of the development and later the production process, stay on your toes and come prepared to work. When problems arise on set with the screenplay, the producer, director and actors are going to blame you for the issues and expect you to fix them. They will never take any responsibility for missing something in the script or giving notes that generated the issue in the first place. It’s your problem now because you are the writer. They act as if you worked alone on the screenplay without any guidance during the development process. Suck it up, make the changes and get production on schedule again.
The legendary filmmaker Jerry Lewis said it perfectly in his book The Total Filmmaker: “Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp. ”
Do your best to be the writer who understands and is willing to go above and beyond to make the scene or the script better. No one likes to work with a temperamental writer who grimaces at every dialogue change. This is the reason why producers and directors generally don’t allow the screenwriter on the set. There are just too many tiny changes to a script during production. If you feel that script rewrites are death by a thousand cuts, you will not survive one day on a movie set.
When the script moves into production, do yourself a great service by doing everything you can to service the story and not yourself. I’ve executed volumes of script rewrites from notes given by my producers, executives and directors. My rewrite record on a screenwriting assignment is eight drafts. These rewrites were from location changes in the production, casting changes, and changes in the story direction and character relationships. I usually execute the rewrites, beat by beat and try to address them in a detailed order. Again, when you change one set up, it 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 rewriting comes from a lack of clarity within the story. If something is not clear, it may need to be heightened. Sometimes it only takes a small tweak to bring an important issue to the forefront of the story. Maybe a character’s actions or motivations need to be changed. Many times the scene needs massaging to create more conflict and you need to go back and ask yourself, “What do my characters want, why at this point, and how can I prevent them from having it?” Your characters reveal more about themselves when faced with a dilemma.
You’re usually allowed one crack at rewriting your second draft and if you haven’t mastered the process, they will fire you and bring in another writer. It’s business, not personal. Producers don’t have time to deal with a writer who is unable to effectively do the rewrites. I’ve been hired several times to work as a script doctor on projects that I did not write. They fired the original writers because they exhausted their ability to effectively make the rewrites from the notes.
If you embrace the fact that screenwriting is all about rewriting, especially if you stay on during production. This is when you have to be on your “A” game and show the director and producers your value and professionalism. Go above and beyond to get it right. You must master the rewriting process if you want to stay on a project, work on the set, and eventually see your name in the credits. If you build your reputation as a collaborative team player who can masterfully execute rewrites in development, pre-production and during production, you’ll work again. This discipline is called keeping your eye on the bigger picture.
Did you just finish your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation/editing? Check out my professional services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website. You never get a second chance to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make sure you make the time to get it right.
“The work of the director and the writer should be a fruitful if not always happy marriage. One cannot function without the other. But without denying the director his rightful place, I think the writer has the tougher of the two roles. It is relatively easier to get it on the screen if the script is good, even with production or cast problems. At the same time, it is seldom that a good director can save a bad script. He can help it, but not save it. Conversely, he can take a good script and ruin it, perhaps because or because of a technical lack. Yet the really good script is like well-made building. It is difficult to destroy completely. It all begins with the writer.”—Jerry Lewis