A FIGURE sits cross legged on the grimy floor, hunched over a keyboard. Hands peck at the keys with two-fingered urgency. A constant stream of indecipherable babble accompanies the keystrokes
Around the figure are strewn the remnants of screenwriting manuals – McKee, Field, Snyder, Goldman – they’re all there. Along with pile upon pile of dog-eared screenplays.
Thousands upon thousand of words that will never see the light of day…
The door shatters and in burst Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, guns drawn. They survey the mess and take stock of this John Doe, this pitiful screenwriter who hasn’t even moved as he cackles at his own literary genius…
Okay, so not all screenwriters are crazy people who hide in darkened rooms creating their masterpieces. Some of us occasionally write outdoors.
My point is this, until that door bursts open and someone else enters the scene, notably a producer and a director, your words are going nowhere real fast.
And the moment that happens there is one essential truth you must understand and embrace – THOSE WORDS WILL CHANGE.
They have to. Otherwise they will end up like the hundreds of notebooks in John Doe’s apartment in Se7en – morbid curiosities and keepsakes.
Yes, I’m talking about collaboration, the essential component of being a screenwriter. There really is no room for ego – okay, that’s not true, we all have egos and we fight for our stories tooth and nail when someone wants to hurt one of our babies. I’m talking about the “this is the best thing since [insert best thing ever of choice] and you cannot change a single word or I’ll [insert description of imagined physical acts of violence]” kind of ego that only limits your script.
Thing is, if you’re lucky, you get to work with really smart people who will help make your words better.
Sure, you’ll have battles, the odd argument, and knock down drag down slanging matches occasionally but the goal MUST ALWAYS BE to make the project the best it can be. If that’s not your end point; if your ego can’t handle that, than what the hell are you doing being a screenwriter?
Which brings me to the short script I’ve written which is now listed as “Sixth Draft, Fourth Revision” and commences shooting this Friday some 11 months after its inception.
The story evolved from two, unrelated improvised scenes from actors at a youth film school.
Once I worked out the link between those two scenes, one of which clearly suggested a back story and a possible climax/resolution, the structure quickly fell into place. Three drafts were written then I stopped because I knew there was no point continuing to make changes until a director was attached.
When a director came on board the inevitable happened – he had a different idea for the ending and wanted to take out two characters.
The first I was a little leery of because it changed the tone of the story but we talked it through and I incorporated the idea into subsequent drafts. Removing the two male characters? I had tried to service as many roles as I thought the story could hold given the rationale for the entire process was to provide opportunities for the youth film school actors. But being a well known ‘serial killer’ those two characters swiftly felt the sting of my backspace bar.
Most of all, none of these changes affected the STRUCTURE. That would have been something I’d have dug my heels in to protect so we were fine. By the sixth draft the story was all there and working well. Now came the fine detail. Or, as the writer might put it, the pedantic whims of the director; or as the director might put it, tidying up of the writer’s excesses! Yes, there was plenty of banter back and forth as we argued over individual beats, lines of dialogue and occasionally even specific words!
Hence the revision numbers. If there are major changes to a script I will use a new draft number. If it is minor alterations or a polish I call it a revision of the current draft number.
It’s a continuing evolution though:
I sat in on the auditions for the four female roles. Watched as the director played around with scenes and slight changes came out of that process.
Then a read through/workshop with the selected cast just before Christmas where again revelations were made as the material was worked by the actors and director.
Finally, two rehearsal sessions in the last week where the entire script was put through its paces with some rudimentary blocking and tweaks to dialogue.
It’s amazing what you discover when you are reading your own big print and you can hear the repetitive use of certain words; an overuse of adverbs and stumble over inelegant phrasing.
The actors also help point out dialogue that isn’t sitting well or clunky parts that may have been lost in the early revisions as we stripped lines out only to go back and tinker with additions later.
While I can clearly see the entire film in my head (hurry the day when they can plug a digital projector into a screenwriter's brain stem!), observing the physicality of the performances helps with the 'geography' within a scene and refining the order of beats. Especially in this script where the climax is quite long and has many moving parts that all have to hit home in the right order to work effectively.
This is all very useful to me as the writer. Again, the only goal is to make the project as good as it can be. For example, you swallow your ego when an actor voices a concern about whether a line you have written may come across as “corny” and let them explore other ways of saying it. No skin off my nose if it helps make the scene play better.
Now I wait to hear if I can change the Title Page to those magic two words: Shooting Script.
Even then, with a 5 day shoot scheduled commencing this Friday, I know there will still be changes to be made dictated by a variety of factors from locations to things that nobody can possibly foresee at the moment. The unpredictably of filmmaking!
Thank you to all the people over the last 11 months who have made this such a pleasurable experience. My work is largely done so now I let the actors and crew do their thing and make the words we have toiled so hard over come to life. I very much look forward to seeing the result.