How do you approach rewrites?

Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me, Carolina, Army Wives):  Rewrites are necessary, but can be difficult.  Only the first draft is really yours.  It’s pure.  But once you hand it in, it becomes a group effort, and you have to let it go.  It becomes a collaboration where you must learn what you can live with and what you can't.  If you're working with good producers, the script can get better than you might have written it on your own.  Unfortunately, if you're working with so-so producers, the script can also become worse.  The moral of the story then is to be careful who you get into bed with.  Choose wisely.  My goal is to stay on the project as long as I can and hopefully see it through to the end.  Unfortunately, that isn't common in this business.  Loyalty to the first or original writer isn’t something many practice, so you have to be prepared that the first pure draft will undergo many changes, including writers after you.  So I tend to remember we all have the same goal—to get the movie made.  That helps me keep focused. 

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Tomorrow By Midnight, Shattered Lies, Pretty Cool, Corpses,  Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing) : I like to walk away from a script for a little while before I start a rewrite. If you’re too close to the project, it’s impossible to judge it properly. I like to distance myself from it for a few weeks and then look at it fresh. Now, if you’re forced to do a rewrite based on someone else’s notes, that’s a whole different story. If you agree with the notes and they make the script better, you are very lucky. Most of the time, I’ve found the notes to be of little value and can make the script much worse if you’re not careful. Destroying a good script from bad notes is a horrible situation, and I’ve been through it. Very frustrating. If it gets too bad, I try to walk away. I had one script that I was hired to write based on a comic book that the producers owned the rights to, but hated. I pitched an idea and they hired me. They wanted to read the script as I wrote it (ten to fifteen pages at a time). I hate to work this way but was forced to comply. Anyway, they’re reading the pages and are very positive. When I finally turned in the last pages, they tell me that they want the script to be less E.T. and more The Crow! I was shocked at this meeting and excused myself to put money in the car meter to stop myself from blowing up at them. They liked the characters and situations but wanted the tone and mood to be darker. Basically, my rewrite was adding a lot of adjectives to the script to emphasize dark and gloomy. It was a joke. The script was never produced.

Steve Latshaw (Invisible Dad, Crash Point Zero, U.S. Seals: Dead or Alive):  By and large, I enjoy the rewriting process...the editing and honing.  The only time it becomes a pain is when you’re being asked to make massive structural changes.  On assignment gigs, the first draft is yours and the rest are theirs.  Budget issues trigger rewrites...casting issues.  I did a movie in 1999 called Rangers.  At the 11th hour, literally one day before shooting started, the producers wanted a new character created for what’s known as a “geezer” part.  This is basically a walk-and-talk part for an established name actor to give the movie a little more sheen and sales value.  Donald Sutherland on the park bench in JFK is a good example.  In our case, we put Corbin Bernsen (who’s no geezer) into our park.  I wrote ten pages that night and they shot him out in, I think, half a day.

Brent Maddock (Batteries Not Included, Tremors, The Wild Wild West): If I’m rewriting myself, I show myself no mercy.  If I’ve been hired to rewrite someone else, I approach the job gingerly.  The goal should never be to change anything that works.  It’s not about putting your fingerprints all over somebody else’s work.  So, you need to approach the task of rewriting by first understanding what it is about the script that works.  Then be sure you don’t destroy that in the process of making things “better.”  Too many screenplays have been rewritten to death in Hollywood.  The irony is often that when a studio is spending money on one writer after another it gets difficult for the studio executive (i.e., the worried person giving all the script notes) to admit, or even realize, that the script may have gotten better from versions one through four, but then proceeded to get worse from versions five through whatever.  Hard for the desperately upwardly-mobile executive to admit, “Oops!  I just spent a million bucks on rewrites that have made things worse!”  So, instead of going back to the version that works best, they commit the studio to pouring its 100 million bucks into making yet another stupid movie that could have been good.  Steve and I wrote The Wild, Wild West.  The difference between our script and the sad, muddled, rewritten thing they actually shot tells you all you need to know about why the studio system is so dysfunctional.

John Rogers (Rush Hour 3, Catwoman, The Core, American Outlaws): Very methodically.  I have a physics degree I don't use much, but it taught me to parse out components of problems.  What is the problem that needs to be rewritten?  How can you accomplish that in the most effective way (often while trying not to damage the rest of the script you like)?  To tell you the truth, when I do a first draft, I usually reread and rewrite the entire script as written up to that day.  So, as my manager jokes, "Your first draft is most people's eighth draft."  As a result, I rarely go through a formal rewrite process except when dealing with notes.

David J. Schow (The Crow, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3):  Many of my screenwriting jobs—probably half—have been punching up or rethinking prior drafts by others.  I've been on both sides of the Writers Guild arbitration process for credits, which is an ugly and medieval thing.  You must "marry" the project emotionally in order to do any good at a rewrite, and that's the same level of commitment you bring to an original.  So the emotion is the same.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): Well, in respect to my own work, I do very few rewrites because, as a general rule, if something isn't working, I can't move forward on a draft. I need to see the whole thing laid out, working, from beginning to end. This business of “just get to the end, then go back and fix it”—I've never been able to do that.  I don't even understand how you can.  I mean, if the problem is that something needs to be set up and it's not there, how can you simply write out something on page sixty as if the earlier set up is in place without going back and putting it in? Or, if a character needs to be adjusted, what do you do?  Just change the character half-way through and proceed on to the end without going back and making the change from the beginning? How can you do that? At any rate, I can't.  So, if something needs to be changed or adjusted, I have to go back and make those changes from the start—even, on occasion, I've thrown away whole incomplete drafts because things weren't working. I did that twice on “Slow Man.”  I threw away, I think, forty pages.  Then I threw away sixty pages.  It wasn't working. Something was missing. It wasn't right.  Finally, when I figured out what was missing, I was able to write the final version in ten days—and, I think, I did one small polish on that —and that was the draft that sold.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge): I approach them with as “Zen” an approach as possible.  When I’m rewriting my own work—on my own—I don’t really consider it rewriting.  It’s when the rewrite is “formal” (e.g., incorporating producers’ notes) that things get delicate.  The best way to deal with it is to leave your ego at the door, and be as collaborative as possible—but to never betray yourself or your vision for the project.  If you and the producers don’t see eye-to-eye on critical issues, it’s probably better if you moved on...saves both of you the time and aggravation. 

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What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

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From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…I enjoyed reading Q & A: The Working Screenwriter. The content became a discussion in my mind. Years ago when I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most. I felt as though established writers were talking to me and giving me their personal advice. I learned from them and improved my craft. The same was true when I read these interviews…”

If you want to stir your creative juices, bolster your confidence, and gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a working screenwriter in today’s film industry, you’ll find Q & A: The Working Screenwriter essential reading!

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