Thursday, May 10, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 2: First You Have to Fall Out of Love

Re-Writing is painful.  You’ve already moved heaven and earth to get to page 110.  You’ve avoided a million pitfalls that would have kept you from finishing.  You’ve finally discovered a reasonable, if circuitous, path that gets your hero all the way from A to Z, from innocence to experience, from failure to triumph, and you’re now convinced that this is the only possible path that couldn’t have led there.

You start to ask yourself some self-destructive questions:
  • Why should I have to revise this?
  • What about all the work I’ve already put into it, shouldn’t that count for something?
  • Isn’t this already better than some of those terrible scripts that have sold for big money?  Isn’t it already better than Evan Almighty? 
Needless to say, these are not productive questions.  Here are some better questions to ask yourself:
  • Would I be proud to see this on the screen exactly the way it is?  If not, why not?
  • How many different ways can I make this better? 
  • What’s the weakest scene?  How can I transform it into the strongest scene?
  • Have I ever read a screenplay that’s even better than this one?  How can I surpass that one? 
  • If a friend sent me this screenplay, would I tell him not to change a thing and send it out immediately, or would I point out a dozen ways to make it better? 
As with any job, the hope is not just to impress your boss, but your boss’s boss.  Not just to play by their rules, but to beat them at their own game.  You’ve written a script that’s good enough to send out to trusted friends, which is already a huge achievement, but now you have to write one that’s great enough to win over strangers, which is a whole lot harder.

When the guys who made Anchorman finished the first cut of the movie, they thought, “Gee, this is pretty good…but we can do a lot better”  They ended up cutting out and replacing so much material that they were able to release both versions on DVD as separate movies! 

You’ve just finished your slick, shiny, pretty new script.  You’re in love with it and you’re in love with yourself.  You’re open to making a few changes, of course…you’ll get out your chrome-polish and buff it to an even-brighter shine, if you need to, but it’s hard to mess with perfection…. 

Wait.  Stop yourself.  Instead, put your script in a drawer for a week.  Better yet, leave it out in the backyard, exposed to the elements, to get dusty, rusty and musty.  Strip the polish off of it and then, a week later, look at it for what it really is: an unvarnished mess.  Now you can strip it, sand it, and rebuild it from scratch.  But in order to do that, youre going to need lots and lots of notes.  Well pick up there tomorrow...


j.s. said...

ANCHORMAN is actually a pretty bad example of what you're talking about. It wasn't that they were expert editors discovering the true film admist an abundance of strong material like Ralph Rosenblum and Woody Allen did with ANNIE HALL. Or that they enough great work to fill two movies. They got the story so wrong in their script that the story didn't work at all, so they jettisoned it almost entirely to save the movie. When the film finally worked enough to become an unexpected hit in spite of the fact that it still had no story, they released the bonus (or original) version later. Though I guess you could argue that, had they done their due diligence 20 drafts beforehand, this might never have happened. Likewise with THE DICTATOR, which I hear has similar problems. Decent gags, but nothing to connect them worth following for 90 plus minutes.

Matt Bird said...

But that's what I meant. They realized it wasn't good enough, so they kept the basic story and replaced every scene one by one.

Annie Hall, on the other hand, would not be an example of what I'm talking about. That movie fits the tradition "revision" model: they honed and reshaped the existing material into something brilliant.

Obviously, Annie Hall is a much better movie, but it was, in some ways, a happy accident. Allen was saved by Rosenblum, who showed him he was greater than he thought he was.

Anchorman, on the other hand, provides a far more "teachable" lesson: anyone can improve their movie or screenplay better by switching out weaker material for stronger material, even if it means that you have to totally replace the original by the time you're done.

That's the sort of commitment to betterment that everyone needs to have. (You can't just bet on the hope that you'll be able to hand your material to someone else who will turn it into something genius, as Allen did!)

j.s. said...

But this is a blog primarily about storytelling as it applies to screenwriting. In that sense, ANCHORMAN is an almost total failure. And it was the MacKay film, not ANNIE HALL that was "saved" in editing. The reimagining wasn't about brilliant reshaping of the material (as in your BACK TO THE FUTURE example) so much as last minute triage.

Part of it is that I have a couple of comedy writer friends who love the movie and have learned what I take to be exactly the wrong lesson from it: If your comedy is funny enough, you don't need a story. (No one ever makes the equivalent claim for, say, an action film).

Shouldn't the lesson be more like: If you're working on a comedy spec, it likely won't star Will Ferrell and you probably won't be also directing it, and if you are directing it and screw it up so badly that it needs to be radically rethought in post this it may or may not work, so you'd do well to write it better in the first place.

And I guess I'll take issue with the fact that Rosenblum "saved" ANNIE HALL. Even in his own book he doesn't view it that way. He thinks he helped Woody turn an already very good and interesting if unwieldy comedy about his protagonist's neurotic worldview, which had a quirky romantic subplot, into a timeless classic of romantic comedy by focusing more and more in each cut on the relationship between Annie and Alvy.

And the work on ANNIE HALL was in its own way as radical as the sort of thing you're talking about here. Rosenblum recounts the active collaboration with Woody Allen that lead to the film we know now in his book, describing in detail the film's original opening sequence, almost a half hour in length. Unlike the creators of ANCHORMAN, they both liked all the stuff that was cut. But it just wasn't what the film wanted to be about.

One thing we can learn from both of these films is that it's certainly easier and cheaper to solve these kinds of problems on paper beforehand.

Matt Bird said...

Part of the problem with this series, of course, is that it's hard to cite examples of successful script revisions, because we never hear about them, so I have to cite post-production fixes as stand-ins for pre-preproduction fixes.