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

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Adventures on the Edges

So occasionally, over the past few months, I've been helping a friend (okay, a former exec from a company I used to work for, who is now trying to make it as an independent producer, who I am friendly with. And who is younger than me, of course, sigh.) with a project he has been working on.

He optioned a dark thriller from a writer, and has been throwing me a little money to give him notes on how to make it better.

(By a little money, I mean mid-three digits. Total. Not a lot, but more per pass than my $60 script notes offer. Because basically, he has no money.)

His original offer was $1000 to rewrite the damn thing, but I was rather leery of this, because A) The script needed a lot of work, and B) It should be the original writer doing that work, and C) That's way too much work for $1000, particularly since it wouldn't include writing credit along with it.

So I threw him notes on a draft, and sure enough he got the original writer to make some changes, and then I threw him notes on the next draft, and the next. The script coming together more and more each time, plus the guy had friends looking at it, and putting in their two cents.

So I read the latest draft, and it's closer. Still not there yet, but closer.

The problem was that the original writer was burned out on it, and told the producer to make any further changes himself. The producer isn't really a writer, but he knows that changes have to be made (because my latest set of "this is what the script needs to work" notes were pretty dead on, and because at 117 pages it is bloated and puffy), and he's rolling up his sleeves, and getting ready to do it himself.

So my dilemma was this --

There's a good idea here, that could be a movie, and I can see sequences in my head, that aren't going to get written unless I write them. There's a whole cool subplot that really needs to be added, that I find myself making notes on about how to do right.

This, of course, is the moment you know you are hooked. And for me, maybe I needed to be hooked. Because I haven't worked much on my own stuff in the past few months, and any writing that gets me excited has to be a good thing.

So I shot off an e-mail to the producer, offering to do a pass myself. To add in all the fixes that I suggested in my last set of notes, throw in the cool subplot, and try to tighten up every scene to get the script to flow better.

He, of course, said thank you.

Still no writing credit. Probably no more immediate money. But if the movie ever gets made, if it helps his career get started, it'll help mine as well.

So fuck it. I've been writing on spec my whole life. I can rewrite on spec too. Plus, again, given the limited actual hours I've probably put into thinking about this script over the past few months, even if it goes nowhere the money I have seen still covers it.

So I curled up with the script on my new laptop (which is finally getting some extended use), and started reworking stuff from page one, with the little asterix thingy turned on to let him know where the changes are.

Putting in the fixes was really sort of easy; I'd identified the problem areas, he added a few thoughts of his own, and I reworked the scenes. The subplot was fun to add, and if this movie is ever made, the new sequences definitely provide a lot of the most memorable scenes, plus some nudity and gore for the kids.

The interesting part was the tightening-down process. My notes had generally focused on getting the story right; I wasn't going to harp on tightening everything else down until the structure worked.

But as I started going through the script, looking for extraneous things to cut, I realized they were all over the place.


#1) If you are writing a horror/thriller, you really don't need scads of dialogue that just makes the same minor exposition points over and over.

For some reason, the writer was obsessed about explaining how this one woman is raising her younger brother, and why she is friends with this other woman, and that's fine, but establish it and move on. Don't keep having characters blandly talk about it.

#2) There's really no reason to have characters talk to each other on the phone about what just happened, especially since the audience just saw what happened. I get that this happens in real life, but wow did it play redundantly here, and there was a LOT of it.

Ironically, there's a beat in this script where phone service goes out. So I just moved it 30 pages earlier. Boom. No way to make phone calls, so no phone calls. All of these incredibly pointless scenes, gone.

How much of this was there? Well, the script started out at 117 pages, and I added probably 3-4 pages of new subplot stuff. And by the end, the script was a nice, tight 105.

So if I did nothing else, I did THAT.

The one really happy thing about the whole experience though, was that I did it all -- the entire free rewrite/polish -- last night. I was in the zone. I curled up with this script for about 6 total hours, and took it up about four notches. I was focused, and utterly absorbed, and it all just flowed.

So if I can't find this zone with my current script, maybe it's the script, and I need to move on.

One final note. I also am realizing more and more that I am exactly like my father. Who has some unpublished work of his own stuck away somewhere, but spent most of his career working for United Press International.

As an editor.

Cleaning up other people's stories. Taking out the fat, and tightening them up.

So maybe it's in the genes. Along with the gray hair, and the grumpy driving, and the inability to hit a curve ball.


At 11:47 AM, Blogger Brett said...

Or maybe it's easier to kill someone else's darlings.

Either way, cool beans.

Now-- get back in there.


At 12:51 PM, Blogger Webs said...

I'm an editor, too. I might not be willing to admit it yet, but I have more than once thought that we editors might be more valuable in a co-writing partnership.

My co-written shorts have received a measure of acclaim. My solo feature specs earn a more mixed reaction.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Great stuff. It is nice when you find that zone.

Fingers crossed that this gets you some future work with a credit.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

my friend and i used to refer to this difference as invention vs innovation.

according to a new business consulting website:

- invention is the creation of a new concept.

- innovation is reducing that concept to practice, and making it a commercial success.

there is a very important place in this world for editors. one might liken them to innovators. writers absolutely need them, and i would have no problem having a writing career that consisted entirely of reworking other people's material.

it's interesting that in almost every other form of writing (journalistic, editorial, novelists), there are editors. but screenwriting is like the wild west of creative writing, where the writer is expected to be judge, jury and executioner.

i think in many of my endeavors that im better at editing/reworking/improving than i am at originating. i don't think it's because it's easier to kill other people's darlings, though that might be a factor. i think it's simply different skill sets.

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Sounds like you really nailed it.

At 8:12 PM, Blogger wcdixon said...

great post - and since writing isn't just about writing but about rewriting (I include story editing in that second part)...what you did is as importance to the process as what the original writer did. Well done.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Systemaddict said...


Heck, it doesn't matter where it comes from, when you find it- stay in it.

You can look at the work and be proud. And I'd be damned shocked if the producer doesn't look at the newly tightened script and think "Well, Jesus, should just had Scott write one all along".

That can only be a good thing...sometimes "free passes" get you into places you couldn't get into before.

Good work man

At 3:41 AM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

Some people poo-poo consulting, rewriting, and so on; but I find it incredibly satisfying. You take something that is broken and fix it; what could be more satisfying than that? It's just...awesome to see how something that was UGLY before becomes a thing of beauty.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

Okay, here's the question that has been nagging at me recently... Why do these guys option stuff that needs a significant amount of work if there are scripts out there that don't need that much work?

I ask this, because (as I mentioned in a post on some other message board) a producer friend of mine was just given a list of almost 30 projects with stars attached and some directors attached... but the scripts are all non-commercial or seriously need work. All are from unproduced writers. Meanwhile, an actor friend just let me flip through a script he's just signed to do... and it's a complete mess. He hopes it will be rewritten before they film it. Again and again these first drafts and rough drafts and scripts that need work are getting picked up by producers...

When there really are good scripts out there that are ready to go (yes, I have some - but I've also read some by other writers that have great ideas and are well written).

And any writer who is "burned out" by his own script needs to rethink his career. Seriously.

The idea of being an "editor" isn't anything to worry about. I realized the other day that I am a "comedian" - I observe life and comment on it. This is strange, because I'm Mr. You Need To Be Creative... but most of what I do as a writer is *reactive* rather than *active*. I kind of edit life and put it on a page.

That's a viable way to be a screenwriter.

- Bill


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