a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Glimpse Into Development Hell

So one of the companies I read for (a fairly major production company) gave me an interesting assignment this week.

They gave me four drafts of a script they have in development. The first was dated in November 2002, the last in April 2003.

My job was to do a somewhat-detailed synopsis of the first one (it came out to about 4 pages long). And then, while doing a synopsis of each of the subsequent ones, I had to put all of the new stuff in bold.

I never did this before, but it's actually very effective. It's a good way to track how various drafts ebb and flow, because in bold the changes really pop out.

I wish I had done this for some of the scripts I have written, because it also makes it easier to dig back into drafts and find stuff that was lost along the way.

But the really interesting this about this assignment? It really gave an insight into the development of a script. I'd read one draft, think about the work it needed, and then I'd read the next draft, and see if it got it.

These four scripts were actually the latest in a long line; I know this because the examples they gave me of what they wanted the synopses to look like were of three earlier drafts of the same script, one a year from 1999, 2000 and 2001.

From what I can tell, the script was originally written by two guys. A third guy was brought in, to do at least one pass at it. The drafts I had were all the work of a fourth guy. None of the names are familiar.

Glancing at the plot from the earlier drafts, it's clear that the fourth guy did some decent work early. It's a comedy, and the changes to the story are smarter; among other things, a goofy-seeming subplot involving mobsters was excised.

But even the first of the four drafts I got was far from perfect. Call it 50% there. Some funny gags, but the two main characters really aren't developed well, though they have the potential to be. Basically, the main storyline just isn't there yet, and there is a lot of funny stuff that could come out of the characters if what the characters were doing made any sense.

But as I'm reading the next three drafts, it just becomes apparent that what is really wrong with the script just isn't being addressed much at all.

There are changes, definitely, and some are smart ones, though a few seem to miss the point. There are some new running gags, that add laughs even if they are still a bit underexplored. There are some ideas that should be the basis of major comic subplots.

Each draft, the script is better. The problem? It's not that much better.

Even comedies need to be based around a solid storyline. But the changes here really aren't addressing the story; they are just moving around some of the details. Whatever writer #4 brought to the table, he did it in the first draft I read. If that one was 50%, maybe by the fourth draft it's 52% there.

So this might be a good example of the development scenario that no one really talks about much, that is probably really common.

Everyone likes to argue whether development improves a script, or ruins it. Here, it's really not doing either. It's just adding draft after draft to a potentially-interesting idea with story and character problems, in which the drafts really aren't addressing these problems, just coming up with a few more gags to hang on it.

And sadly, this is probably how bad movies are made. Because if a name comedian wanted to do this, they'd probably just make it. And it wouldn't be a terrible movie, but it wouldn't be a very good one either.

I guess the idea that they are having me do this is a sign that maybe someone wants to go back and try to figure out how to make the script work. So in theory someone realizes that at this point it doesn't.


The sad irony?

They are paying me just to do the four synopses. They don't want any analysis.

Oh well. Here's hoping that writer #5 doesn't worry about rearranging the deck chairs, and goes down to plug the leak instead.


At 9:04 AM, Anonymous glassblowerscat said...

Definitely one of the problems with "rearranging the deck chairs" is that you want to start doing it too early. When you do, you start getting excited about your stunning feng shui, and you forget that one of the chairs has a broken leg and that it rained last night, so all the cushions need to be dried out.

I may have gone too far with that analogy. See what I mean?

It's always good to address the biggest needs first, I think. Then when you get around to addressing the other stuff, it's so much more fun. And rewarding.

At 9:06 AM, Anonymous Lucy said...

I cannot count how many times I've done in-depth analysis of drafts only to have them returned to me with minor story details rearranged! Still, that's better than the drafts that come back to me with nothing changed at all... that really has happened!!

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

It's too bad you can't offer to do a rewrite yourself.

What they should do -- and it's difficult I bet -- is step back and ask this question: What's the core concept that keeps them throwing money at this script? Then see what someone can do with that concept without the baggage of the previous drafts.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

But wouldn't each new writer submit a new treatment/outline showing what they are going to be doing to "fix" the problems?

Why wouldn't the rpoduction company ask that of the writer BEFORE he goes in and "rearranges the deck chairs"...


No war, or script is won without a plan.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just do your own pass and put it in the stack.

Who knows?

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

There are a number of reasons why this isn't feasible.

Number one is that there isn't a stack. I've never even met anyone at this company. They send me scripts, I cover them, the scripts go in the dumpster, I get paid.

As far as they know, I could be a 12-year-old savant.

Number two is that the script doesn't thrill me enough to even take the time out to spec them notes on it, much less make a wild, completely unlikely pitch to rewrite the damn thing.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Amazing. Kind of makes me want to go write copy machine manuals.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Konrad West said...

That pretty much explains most all Jim Carrey/ Chris Rock/ Ray Romano/ insert-famous-comedian-here movies.


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