Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 3: Turn on a Dime

My film school should have more accurately been called “Film Fantasy Camp”.  Whenever one student would gingerly suggest that another might want to re-conceive a troubled project, the teachers would explode with anger: That’s a bad note!  You can’t suggest major changes!  You’re supposed to be helping your peers perfect their own unique and personal vision, not impose foreign, external notions of how movies “should” work!

And that would have been true ...if we’d been on a “Screenwriting Cruise” with a bunch of moonlighting dentists who wanted to finally write those dream projects they’d been tinkering with, and then use their savings to turn those screenplays into a real-life, honest-to-gosh movies.

But we were kids, borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, and desperate to pay them off one day by selling screenplays to willing buyers.  For those of us who made it the marketplace, here’s what we discovered: There is no “i” in film. Writers are not there to please themselves, and producers aren’t there to please themselves, either.  They are both supposed to serve the same god: that aforementioned foreign, external notion of how movies work.

The best book about the reality of working in Hollywood is “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” by Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon.  In their very first chapter, they say:
  • Why do you need to be writing compulsively?  Because so much of your work will be thrown away.
  • To survive in the studio system, you cannot fall in love with everything you write.  Be prepared to throw LOTS of it away and start over from scratch.  As a studio writer, you are more contractor than artiste.  Look at it as though they have hired you “write” them a new kitchen or bathroom.  Don’t let it break your heart when you have to throw out a week’s worth of writing.  It happens all the time, for reasons you can’t predict—the star of the film hay have just made a CROQUET film and subsequently will not GOLF or even hold a MALLET in your film because it will seem as if they’ve “done that before.”  So you will have to rewrite an entire sequence.  You will be rewriting all the time.  Learn to love it.  Or at least not hate it.  And most importantly, LEARN from your rewriting.  Keep making the script better.
As Lennon and Ben Garant continually point out, this doesn’t mean that the system is broken.  Casablanca was written this way.  The ending was totally re-written while Bogart and Bergman were standing on the tarmac.  Moves are collaborative, and they’re supposed to be.

But graduates of my school find themselves totally unprepared for this reality.  Now they have to learn real re-writing from scratch, which is going to be almost impossible because not only have they not been taught it, they’ve been explicitly told they shouldn’t have to learn it.  Good luck paying back those loans.

You have to be able to turn on a dime, not only because that’s a good way to serve your producers but because that’s a good way to serve your script.  Re-write scenes from scratch all the time, just for the hell of it.  Maybe there’s a better version.

Running into a problem on page 90?  Maybe you should trying changing a plot twist on page 60, and re-writing the last 30 pages.  Why not?  You aren’t running out of room on a 5-inch floppy disk.  You’ll still have all the older versions saved.  Re-writing those 30 pages might be productive, or it might not, but at least you’re writing.  You may or may not be making your script any better, but as long as you’re writing pages, you’re definitely making yourself a better writer, and that’s what really matters.

No comments: