People come to you and they say, “Boy, we love your work. We love this and we want to buy it.” Then, as soon as they buy it, the teeth come out. You become not the father of the work, but the stepfather. All of a sudden, you’re an outsider, a villain. I have often said to these people, “Look, I’ll do the script for free if you’ll shoot my mistakes instead of yours. My mistakes are better.”
-Ray Bradbury at the American Film Institute
There comes a point in the life of every screenwriter where the writer must let go of the screenplay and trust the filmmakers to do their work. That moment is very similar to other important moments in life. I am reminded of a brilliant September day, three years ago. My eldest daughter, Alexis, was off to college for the first time. Her mother and I went through all of the rituals of that day. Unpacking her belongings from our cars and then lugging it up the stairs to her dorm. The awkward meet and greet with her roommate’s parents. Then, the parent’s orientation in the auditorium before walking back to the dorm with our daughter. Then, there was a moment when I looked at my daughter at the threshold of her dorm room. All of the lessons that we tried our hardest to impart, the soccer games and brownie scout meetings, the laughter and the tears, all flew before me in a rush. “Peter, it’s time. We are supposed to leave now.” After my wife whispered those words, I floated out of there, helpless, knowing that my daughter had now grown up and whether I liked it or not, all of those lessons were now the prologue for the beginning of her adult life. As I drove away and the floodgates opened, I prayed that we had done a good enough job as parents and that the lessons we imparted would serve our child well through college.
That moment is much like the one where one realizes that it is too late to do a re-write.
You send it in every day, pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, in this tremendous hurry to write the great American screenplay. You finish the work. Then the new work of finding a home for your material begins. Miraculously, you succeed. This is followed by the development process, begun once more, with the newfound benefactors of your work.
You are suddenly less important than before. You are suddenly on the outside looking in. The screenplay has now found a life, and you are not going to be as involved with it as you were before.
Some might tell you to be thankful for this heartache. After all, your screenplay is now in the process of becoming a picture, a full-fledged movie. It feels a lot like sending your kid off to college. You are proud, excited and happy. Yet, as all of these wonderful things are happening, you are being marginalized. Outsourced to teams of “creative executives” who each lead their own team of eager interns from U.C.L.A and N.Y.U. And as the process moves forward, you stand there, helpless.
How can you avoid this moment? To the degree that you would like to, you probably cannot. Of course, you can finance and direct the film yourself. But unless you have enough money or backing to do it correctly and with stars, for many of us, that option just isn’t worth it. (I am reminded of one of the most underrated classic lines of dialog in film history, from the film ISHTAR: “I’d rather have nothing than settle for less”) With that in mind, the question that remains is: How can I make myself indispensible as a screenwriter? The answer can be found in what not to do.
-Don’t begin your process by committee. Once that process begins, it doesn’t end. Stick to your guns and write your own story.
-Avoid the community local hero crowd during the development of your story. A gang of folks with “passion”-the most dangerous and overused word in the film business-will not help you create a story that works on film. The result is something that can be seen coming from a mile away; a plot-less, point-less, exercise in cinematic futility with stiff dialogue and cliché visuals. Don’t create by committee. You will be swayed by this “helpful” group who just want to be seen as filmmakers, as opposed to making a film with an original voice that the masses will want to see.
-If you want an apple, don’t grab it from the bushel. Pluck it from the tree. Seek out the brightest and the best – read: professionals with studio level experience-for advice.
-Prepare yourself and your resolve. Understand that screenwriting is an arduous, lonely process not intended for the weak. Embrace the harshness of this reality and march on.
-Know Thy Story. Beginning, Middle, and End. It must all come together and it must not only work, but it must satisfy the reader/audience.
-Ask yourself: “Is my story entertaining? Is my ending satisfying? Is this also the opinion of someone whose opinion I trust to be shamelessly honest and forthright?” If you rang off three yes answers, then continue. If not, then stop, and fix your story. Not on the pages of your screenplay, but in your outline, beat sheet and story notes. If you attempt to fix things on the pages of your draft, as opposed to doing a full rewrite, your screenplay will fail. Bet on that.
-Tell your story in pictures, not in words and dialogue. It’s a movie, not a novel, remember?
-To the degree that you are able to do so, enter scenes late, and exit them early. We don’t need to see that extra-long shot of sunset at magic hour just because it looks pretty and is there. All scenes must do one of two things; push plot, or reveal character. If the shot does not accomplish either one of these goals, then it is a paper baby and needs to be removed, pronto.
-Story, character, story, character, story, character… Beats, or, units of dramatic action, are placed in a certain sequence so that the images, viewed together, create a sense of tension in the minds and hearts of the audience. By revealing the plot and then the character, in a certain cadence, the audience’s engagement with the story is maintained, even maximized. This method is flexible, and as such, successive shots of character developing scenes may follow one after the other, as well as with scenes which develop plot. But if you have dozens of shots that singularly relate plot, or story, one on top of another, you are creating a snoozer. Be mindful of the need for cinematic rhythm.
-Respect cinematic structure. It is a movie, not a novel.
The rest of this is up to, as they say in Hollywood, “What the gods are eating.” You can’t control what happens to your screenplay after someone buys it. But by stubbornly holding on to your story when necessary and getting the pictures down on the page, you increase your chances of sticking around when the fun begins.
Peter Fox is the founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has lectured on Screenwriting since 2001, and has worked at Paramount, Universal, MGM and SonyTriStar Pictures. He writes for several publications and holds a M.F.A from The American Film Institute.