Monday, March 21, 2011

Rewriting Your Screenplay & The Five Stages of Grief

Today I finished the first rewrite on The Assignment.    And I'm very happy with it.  After I worked my way through the five stages of rewriting grief (see below) and got down to business, it was actually fun.

As is normal with assignments the schedule spelled out in my contract has no baring on reality.  In my contract I have six weeks to work on a rewrite.  I got these notes on March 3rd and because the studio needed to start budgeting the movie I was asked if I could turn it around before the end of the month. 

"Sure no, problem," should be the answer for any writer wanting to continue their relationship with their current employer.  But this time it really wasn't a problem.   The notes were pretty straight forward and didn't require much heavy lifting. 

Over the weekend, (yes, over the weekend) I had another request to see if I could possibly turn it in even sooner. 

I'm not complaining, I'm just warning you.  This is how it really is.  Just because my spec (which has now been in a holding pattern on a shelf, lingering in the first draft for many a moon) is taking forever to complete, you don't have that luxury on assignment.    I don't want to give any of you the wrong idea. 

Luckily, despite the entire family having the flu and having been bed-ridden for a week,  I was able to deliver way ahead of schedule.  I simply put in a few brutal near-round-the-clock writing sessions and passed up St. Paddy day celebrations all together.  (And let me tell you passing up socially acceptable excuses to drink is pretty tough to do.) 

So today it goes back to the studio 19 days after getting the notes.  In otherwords, less than half the time my contract gives me to pull it off.   Seven of those days were chalked up to illness (but I did brain storm and research) and three were dedicated to waiting in doctor's offices with my flu-ridden son (where I did nothing but worry and panic and didn't think about the script for one second.)

My rewriting writing process went like this:  The five stages of grief.   The Stages of Grief

For those of you following this blog like hawks, (ha, ha, ha) you may have noticed I previously alluded to rewriting and the seven stages of grief.  Well, I discovered you could do it in five. 

Ain't that what rewriting is all about?

Stage One:  Denial

This stage actually starts before you get your notes.  It happens the moment you've typed Fade Out.  You think, "It's perfect.  They are going to love it.  They aren't going to have any notes.  It's going straight to A-list actors who will also love it and have no changes, the director will send me a gift just for bringing this brilliance into the world and it will be thrown into production before I can catch my breath."

Stage Two:  Anger

This stage starts when you get your notes and realize that all the dumb ass delusions you've been harboring have just self-destructed leaving egg dripping on your face.

Stage Three:  Bargaining

This stage is when you first start getting into the notes and your immediate gut reaction is to try to talk the note giver into seeing it the way you originally wrote it.  As though, even though they didn't get it when the read it - if you only explained it a little better that would make all the difference.  This is also followed by trying to convince them of compromises that land somewhere between what you want and what they want.   This is the most dangerous stage - because you can't really listen to your gut and be open to beneficial new ideas inspired by their feedback and your knowledge of material if you simply have your dukes up.

Stage Four:  Depression

This is the stage where I usually take a night off to drink one or two more than usual, curse whomever gave the notes, curse myself for being so limited and wallow in the lazy, fat, gross feeling of "but I don't wanna....."  Imagine an obese toddler, smeared in peanut butter and lying exhausted on the ground after a spazmotic tantrum.

Stage Five:  Acceptance

This is usually when the commencement check has hit the bank.  You remember the contract you have in your file draw and that the clock is ticking on delivery.  You realize, "Hey this is my job, I've got to do this." And then you simply find that one little tiny way back into the script.  That one line, one scene, one idea that opens up a path to the next and the next and the next.  That's acceptance.

In stages one through four you are looking at the whole beast at once and that will kill you.  In stage five, you're back to taking it step-by-step.  That's always the key. 

Happy Writing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rewriting: How Do You Know You're Doing It Right?

I am rewriting three projects right now:  An assignment (which gets priority because I have a contract), a treatment (which I will soon land a contract for) and my spec.   

Which do you think is the most fun to work on? 

Is it the assignment because you have a clear directive?  They are paying you to write and so you simply have to do what they say? 


Because the first draft was my opportunity to tell the story I wanted to tell. Now because of shooting requirements, cast requirements, marketing requirements and various other elements that are necessary, but not exactly dramatically driven, I'm being asked to implement things that defy my internal logic. 

So, that's hard. Because I have to do what I think is not quite as strong, but make it even stronger than it was to begin with in the first draft. 

I also have to incorporate some dramatic ideas that I don't agree with, but that the producers feel strongly about.  That's what I'm paid to do.   Somehow, I have to make their ideas flow seamlessly into my own vision or guess what?  The man with the hook comes out and the next writer is given a chance to do what they asked me to do.  Not going to happen.  It's hard.  But that's the job.

So, is the most enjoyable rewriting process on the treatment where I'm trying to land a gig?  I mean that's got to be more fun because I'm more partnering with the producer and we're wrestling through it together? 


Because in this instance, I'm trying to create a story to match the inspiration in the producer's head.  It's like a mystery and I'm trying to solve the case.  But each time I write a version, I fall in love with the story and the characters, only to have another level of the mystery revealed.  We're getting closer, in fact, I think we're one draft away from finding our common ground. But each pass becomes more difficult because there are more parts of the story that we both want to keep, while adding or changing other key elements.  It's a big puzzle.  I love a challenge, but it's only fun once the puzzle has been cracked.  So you find yourself elated that you've solved it and bounced back down to the floor with the realization that you have to jump in and try again.

Okay - so the easiest, most fun, most rewarding rewrite has to be on my own spec.  Right?  I mean I'm in control, I don't have to write to other people's ideas, I don't have to make choices I disagree with - I'm my own boss.  That's it, right?  Oh the joy of freedom. 


Yes, on the spec I'm the one who said, "Gee, those notes do make sense." And I was the one that eventually saw that the script could get better.  I'm the one leading myself back to the grind stone.  But, it's also a land of infinite possibilities and your stranded there, alone with your own wildly crazed brain.  (No wonder why I loved Lost.)  It's enough to make you wish you were writing this spec on assignment - then at least you could have someone to complain about. 

The bottom line is that regardless of whether the changes are being ordered by a studio, suggested by a producer or come from my own need to make it better, the one thing they all have in common is that I don't want to do any of them.  All rewriting starts with a big pout.  It's how quickly you let that go and get down to business that makes you a professional.

So...  How do you know if you're doing your rewrite right?    It hurts. 

Next Post:  Rewriting otherwise known as The Seven Stages of Grief.