Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 95: There’s a draft in here

Kind and enquiring friends will often ask what I’m working on at the moment and my response is usually that I’m on a first draft of this or a fourth draft of that, which always elicits the question, tinged with surprise, of “how many drafts do you have to write?”. My response is always, “however many it takes”.

There is no magic number of drafts that it takes to get a screenplay right, no golden mean, it depends on the writer, the project and the collaborators - director and producer especially. Writers are often there on set, still tweaking dialogue, working with the lead actors and director (not that I’ve got to that stage with a feature script yet). Me, I tend to err on the side of doing the best job I know I’m capable of doing, but getting off the writing train before it goes all the way to the dangerous town of perfectionism.

I can’t speak for the rarified atmospheres of higher filmmaking climes but there are plenty of title sequences I’ve sat through where various writers' names appear, giving and indication that maybe the script was troubled or that it was a long journey or that producers and directors - all with different visions - came and went. I can only talk from personal experience of the feature scripts that I’ve worked or am working on, anything else I offer up here would be what I “think” and what I “think” you don’t want to know.

Somewhere, early on in my screenwritring apprenticeship I worked a couple of things out for myself that, I believe, have stood me in good stead and that I’d like to pass on. Today’s morsel of wisdom from the scriptwriting street-eatery of my life is this: learn to take notes.

Once you write something down on A4 or quarto paper that vaguely resembles a film screenplay, and hand it out to other people, you are going to get feedback. You are going to get constructive, destructive, insane, articulate, encouraging and disapproving feedback. You will be on the other end of written reports from the film police and more; some “well-meaning” readers will stop short of threatening to take your pens, pencils and crayons away. Many will not know what the hell they are talking about - it’s like getting your French homework marked by someone who can’t speak French.

One great tip I heard was that you only need take notice of comments from people who are signing cheques with your name on it.....not bad that one and not too far from the truth. As a writer, it also behooves me to get pretty good, pretty quickly at being able to self-appraise my own work so that I can be discerning when taking on board the comments of others and enjoying a robust conversation about the writing that everybody, believe-it-or-not, wants to be brilliant.

In his book, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell?’, screenwriter William Goldman carries out an exercise, in the last chapter which is worth the price of the publication alone. He shares with us a chunk of an original screenplay he’s written called 'The Big A', a chunk that he’s also sent to few friends/colleagues for unadulterated feedback: Peter and Bobby Farrelly (writers of There’s Something About Mary), Scott Frank (writer of Little Man Tate, Dead Again, Get Shorty, Minority Report), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Identity), Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) and John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck). He asks them to read the pages he’s written and then to “criticize the shit out of it”. Bill Goldman publishes the responses for us to read, having given us the opportunity, first, to make up our own minds about what he’s written.

And he says this: “there’s no wrong answer”.....well, that’s really helpful.

Day #95 Tip: Keep on open mind and an open notepad
I am asked to look at, and get paid to read, quite a few scripts. Whilst I accept that people know I will be giving them a hard and soft copy of my thoughts at the end of the session, do you know what really, really infuriates me? The recipient who sits down for our two hours together with no pen and pad of paper.

Look, I’m not after genuflection, I’m not needy of the pearls of wisdom that role off my tongue being seized upon with relish and adoration, but for heaven’s sake, I’m going say things that are not in the notes and you just might not remember them. Don’t call me up a week later, asking me to repeat what I said about........because you didn't write it down.

Sorry, I’m digressing

What I really want to say is this: nobody wants to work with me, the writer, when I’m defensive, obstructive, abrasive, intransigent and closed-off to ideas. Nor would anyone want to work with me for too long if I just rolled over and let them rub my tummy, saying “yes” to everything. This is a professional working realtionship, people, and we are professional people trying to enjoy relationships and work at the same time. The best meetings I’ve had are where everyone involved rolled up their metaphoric sleeves and dug their hands into the script to knead and work the material in a healthy and dynamic exchange of ideas that left me INSPIRED, left me wanting to run all the way home to get to WORK because I was a writer on fire with IDEAS.

Film is a collaborative art form, meaning “parties working together” (no wonder everyone, bar the directors that use them, hate the vanity credit [“A Film By.....”]). If, as a writer, I don’t want to collaborate, then maybe I should think about being a poet or a novellist.

Let me return to William Goldman for the final word on this: “...when they love what I’ve written, they are brilliant; when they dare to find fault, just a bunch of idiots and assholes.” When you’ve written Misery, Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, Heat and The Princess Bride, I think then, and only then, can you say that.

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