Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Working with Directors – A Screenwriter’s Perspective

(This article originally appeared on

Unlike short film scripts, every single feature screenplay I am currently working on has a director attached. Why? From my perspective it is the single most important collaborative relationship I have. Feature scripts are notoriously hard to get right at the best of times; done in isolation, almost impossible. A healthy creative relationship between a writer and a director can elevate the material, eliminate lazy choices, enhance the visual style of the writing and, most importantly, put the story and characters through the blowtorch.

Yes, often there should be creative friction between writer and director as the ultimate and only goal is to develop the best possible screenplay to make the best possible movie. That’s why it’s critical to choose wisely when working with a director (and vice versa). Ego cannot be a factor. It should be a relationship based on equality and mutual respect. I would also add words like integrity and a shared storytelling sensibility. It also helps if you genuinely like the person as you’re going to spend a lot of time over the course of many drafts working together.

I am fortunate enough now to have a circle of directors who fit this description. But this has been through, in many ways, a process of elimination and finding my own voice. Yes, I’ve been burnt before. Perhaps that’s part of the learning process.

Understanding storytelling styles is critical – I have one director I will go to with thrillers and politically coloured fare whereas there is another who would be my first choice for science fiction or fantasy/supernatural. That’s not to say each wouldn’t be able to do the other style, just that I know what they normally gravitate to. You’re looking for a shared vision and passion for the project as that will get you through the (inevitable) doldrums of development hell.

Directors also have very different styles when developing a script. Some will be very meticulous in their notes and feedback; others more into broad brushstrokes and issues of tone. While I have to stay true to my task of writing the best possible script, I also have to accommodate those different styles. So being flexible is important even though I will always fight for what is important to the narrative spine and/or the integrity/credibility of the characters. If requested changes don’t compromise those elements then I’ll always try and accommodate the director.

For example, in a scene that introduced the female lead of a feature I had her playing netball. The scene was about how she played and how she interacted with her teammates – establishing character traits. The director’s reaction was words to the effect of, “I’m not shooting that. It would be in a big hall under fluoros and look crap.” It was changed to an outdoor hockey arena at night under light towers. From my perspective it didn’t change the intent of the scene one bit and the director was happy. He was also right - it would look more visually interesting.

Once you ‘click’ with a director you can pretty much determine how they like scenes laid out and what is likely to work or not. They also perform a vital function – the bullshit detector. I know when I’m “cheating” in a scene or a sequence but sometimes I have to be called on it; same with those scenes you fall in love with but might not actually fit - due to pacing, tone, thematically, or just a dud beat. Sometimes you try things that simply don’t work. When your head is buried in all the complexity of a script it’s vital to have a critical, objective voice.

So what do I hate when working with a director? “I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.” As a writer this drives me off the charts crazy. I don’t know how to write to that. Nor directors who give you a shopping list of things they don’t want or have only the vaguest of ideas. I’m looking for an “in” to a story and the more concrete the triggers the better. If you leave me to my own devices the danger is I’ll go off on tangents and explore what I’m currently in need of therapy for. (Okay, not true… but close!) I also dislike directors who are into “hierarchy” and/or exhibit diva behaviour. I simply don’t have the time or energy. Also, don’t be vague with notes or bullshit me. I need honest, objective feedback to make the writing and the script better. Take the time to do this. It helps the writer and ultimately reduces problem solving on set. Don’t take creative arguments personally – this isn’t about personalities it’s only about the work.

Many of you will no doubt be writer-directors so you’re trying to fulfil both roles which I would argue is well-nigh impossible to do to the same extent. In this case please make sure, with your writer hat on, you find someone who can perform the role of the objective voice that pushes you to make your script better. The director in you will be thankful, I promise!

Richard Hyde

No comments:

Post a Comment