Housekeeping January 22nd, 2008

Every now and then people send me specific questions about screenwriting, about Ghog Day, and about my very private personal life. Glad to share. In fact, I’ve just started a place on the blog for questions and answers (see above: “ask Danny”; “ask Phil.”)   Have a party.

To kick off this new feature, here are a few questions recently submitted by a curious stranger: 

1. On the occasions you have polished scripts, do you tend to fiddle based on rules or instinct? 

Instinct.  But I’m aware that the studio gatekeepers have read McKee and Field et al and will look at my script through that lens.  So, I write with instinct, but part of my instinct is to write the kind of piece that these guys may actually be willing to make.  

We’ve all seen so many movies, certain rhythms are familiar to us, so even if you’re using nothing but instinct there’s a good chance it conforms to everybody’s rules anyway.

2. Has Groundhog Day “set you up for life”?  A dreadfully intrusive question which I have no right to ask. But I am so terribly curious… 

You are making me to laugh.  No.  It was a fine payday for a young writer and I continue to get lunch money every year from the sale of DVDs and such, but its greatest financial value to me was the many subsequent job opportunities it created.  The legendary million dollar script sales don’t seem to happen very often or to very many.  No such thing as “net profits”, either, so even with Ghog Day’s long success there are apparently no profits for me to share in.  You sure you wanna get into this business? Given that a person can’t count on selling a screenplay to make money, I hope you pick something to write that you personally enjoy working on, or what’s the point?  

Not to be gushy, but do what you love and you’ll probably be in a better place than if you, say, do what you are hoping will get you love.  

3. You submit a script you’re particularly fond of. Big Cheese likes it, but wants you to do a re-write. You confidently say “sure” and sweep out of the room. But do you ever then sit down at your desk and think, “Holy shit, how am I going to do this? How can I improve on something I loved the first time? Ain’t I just chopping and changing for the sake of it?

Big Cheese always asks you to do a rewrite. This is Big Cheese’s primary purpose. The old joke in Hollywood is that the Big Cheese reads a script and his response is, “I love it! Who can we get to rewrite it?”

The way I look at it is this: The draft I wrote before submitting it to the marketplace is MINE. It exists. I had the pleasure of writing it to my own tastes and desires, and nobody is every going to take that away from me.

But once my “child” has entered the “school-yard”,  he’s going to grow and change and become his own person, influenced by people and experiences beyond my parental control. I continue to care, to wield my influence to the best of my ability; but this is no longer the script of my pure vision. It now belongs to the process. The studio exec now thinks of this as his/her script. So does the actor, if there is an actor involved. So does the director, if there is a director involved. Everyone now owns the script, but not THIS script – they own their own version, fulfilling their own particular tastes and agendas.  They believe that they see their version clearly, but everybody thinks they see things clearly until someone actually writes it down.  

After the Big Cheese (BC) asks for a rewrite, nobody “sweeps out of the room”. Everybody in the room (BC, BC’s secretary, BC’s development exec, and sometimes several more people) pulls out their notes on your script and begins to tell you how it needs to be different.

Sometimes the suggestions they give are a little difficult to understand.

Example: I was once hired to write a movie that would feature the talents of a supremely talented non-verbal physical comedian whom they (the studio) had decided to make into a movie-star. I wrote a silent movie. The actor loved it. The director loved it. The studio loved it, and gave me only one significant note for the rewrite: “Can there be talking?” 

I’ve also been told that a thriller I wrote with a female protagonist was wonderful and original – but it had to change so that the guy could be the hero.

Why do they buy a silent movie for its unique special-ness only to turn it into another talkie?Why do they buy a unique thriller with a female protagonist only to turn it into another guy-hero thriller? These are the kinds of questions that turn screenwriters into alcoholics and pencil salesmen. 

It is so hard to make a movie in Hollywood – so difficult to get a movie made – that the goal almost everybody has is to get a movie made. Not to get a great movie made – although that is some peoples’ method – or even a particular movie made. Just to get a movie made. In pursuit of this goal, a producer will make any sacrifice, including all of the good parts of your script.

I have found it helpful to get beyond the absurdity of the whole process and just do the work. Solving puzzles is kind of fun – how do you write a silent movie with talking? – so once I’ve gotten past trying to save my original brilliance from oblivion, simply trying to take BC’s notes and give him what he wants is a worthy challenge.

As it turns out, the suggestions they give you in these meetings are close to worthless when taken literally, however they honestly reflect a hesitation in the read. There is a bump in the road, a flaw in my craft. Their suggestion may not be a workable fix to the bump, but usually they’re not suggesting a fix unless there IS a bump. That I always take seriously.

And emotionally? How does a writer deal with “fixing”something that seems to be working just fine?

I allow myself a brief time of frustrated, righteous indignation, and then I get to work. It usually takes no time to forget about the “old” script and to once again get excited by the new one. Besides, the first draft of the screenplay may do its job in describing an excellent movie; but if it doesn’t do its other job – attracting a powerful ally who can help you get the movie made – then it’s really only doing part of its job, and isn’t a perfect screenplay after all. 


Comment by A Long
2008-01-24 12:13:20

It’s a little disheartening to learn “Groundhog Day ” didn’t set you up for life. Even so, you seem surprisingly without resentment over that injustice.

Given my understanding of the entertainment industry it amazes me that good films, shows, etc. are ever made. Hats off to those of you who keep plugging away trying to make the gems.

Even if you’re not getting wealthy at it, you are at least earning some fame. (And/or working with the famous.) I guess that’s something–although It reminds me of a Kin Hubbard line that went approximately, “You’ll know you are famous when some insane person thinks he is you.”

Comment by Jim Leff
2009-11-12 07:42:36

I write articles and books, not screenplays. So my Big Cheeses/existence banes are editors. And I agree strongly with your insight that dumb changes are invariably inflicted on passages that were weak or flawed to begin with. The trick is, indeed, to ignore the proposed fix and do your own surgery….but to do so in a spirit of humble acknowledgement that the actual problem stemmed from you.

I’ll also share the all-time worst copy edit ever inflicted on my work. While writing about the phenomenally complex and ever-changing flavor of some dish in a restaurant I was reviewing, I described it as “an Everlasting Gobstopperish experience”. The copy editor nixed the caps and added a comma after “everlasting”.

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