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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Writing is Rewriting

Forgive my absence today, Wavers. My writing partner and I are deep into a rewrite of a script set to go out to buyers after Sundance. We're having a lot of fun with it but it is time consuming.

The story of this psychological thriller is a long one. I came up with the idea probably five years ago, based on a newspaper article I read about a local man waiting for a heart donor. I was writing comedies at the time so I just wrote down one or two sentences about the idea and shelved it. I was just about to graduate from the two year program at The Writer's Boot Camp when one evening I mentioned the idea to some of my writer friends. They were completely excited about the idea. So I outlined it and then got in touch with the talented writer who is now my partner. He had written a number of psychological thriller novels and I knew he'd bring so much to the table. We wrote the script in just a few weeks and felt we had a strong draft. It didn't take us long to get a manager and we were off to the races. The script went out wide and we had a interest from some major players. One of which was a producer at Fox. We decided to work with that producer and we went into development, i.e., several weeks and months of rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. The script improved with every pass but over time, the producer got more interested in another, "hotter" script and we got bumped. So much for that. Months of our time. Down the drain. We were disappointed and yet we did have a better script for the experience. Except now the script had nowhere to go: too many eyes had already seen it. Into a drawer it went. For almost two years.

Until about a month ago when a friend of mine passed it to a producer known for hating every script he reads. Sort of a useless favor, I thought. Except - he liked it. And the rewrites were on - again. Tweak it this way - tweak it that way. No, no - too far. Bring it back. It's like trying to steer a ship into a dock. A very big, slow moving ship. Again, the script has benefitted but I kid you not, this is easily the 35th draft of the script since its inception almost five years ago.

It has been written and rewritten and rewritten again and reinvented and tweaked to make it scarier and more R-rated and less scary and more PG-13. But the bones of the story have always remained. It has been a lesson in taking notes and a lesson in executing those notes to the best of our understanding. There have been notes that we didn't agree with and that we stood our ground on. There have been notes that we hit ourselves on the head over because it hadn't occurred to us.

And now - we're back at it again. We did a draft about two weeks ago. Big changes. But not quite what the producer wanted. We made things too pointed in the first act. Then we did another draft, softening the first act and making the first act break BIGGER. We took our set pieces and added more "stuff." We tweaked the character arc of the protagonist. Which had a trickle down effect and forced changes in almost every scene of the script.

We've made changes with a chainsaw - losing entire scenes wholesale. We've made changes with a scalpel, tweaking single lines of dialogue toward a connotative meaning. We've used a sledgehammer on some of our set pieces - and a laser on others. Some drafts have clearly been better than others - other drafts have been six of one and a half dozen of another - it just depends on subjective tastes.

You can go crazy rewriting a script this many times. Seriously. It's tempting to get sloppy and lose sight of the fundamental DNA of the script that you originally envisioned. It has been an intense lesson in listening to, interpreting and enacting notes.

We've had to reconsider entire sequences and replace them with new material. We've had to repurpose sequences, moments and even single lines of dialogue. When you have this many drafts on file, you have almost a library of scenes and sequences to repurpose. The producer we're working with now has impeccable taste and I think (or hope) that the script is now in better shape than it ever has been to possibly - maybe - hopefully - get sold. The producer is a well respected heavy hitter and so it's going out to the big boys. We don't currently have rep but have already had a couple of offers. Know what? I don't feel like giving anyone a percentage of a sale, should we be so lucky. We've done all the heavy lifting and we have a good lawyer.

You know what has made this experience a good one for us and for those we have worked with? A willingness to bury our darlings, a sharp ear when interpreting notes and a resulting toolbox full of laser beams, chainsaws, sledgehammers and scalpels. But possibly most importantly, we have maintained a love of the fundamental story we wanted to tell. Even after all these drafts. We'll see what happens after Sundance. Maybe we'll finally make that homerun. Maybe not. But I'll tell you one thing - we're better writers for this experience. We've proven to be writers who are good to work with. We listen to notes carefully and we deliver drafts quickly. We're good in a room and we are totally focused on one thing and one thing only - writing a draft that is the best iteration of the story we wanted to tell.

Are you willing to take notes - over and over and over again on your script? To hack away scenes or sequences that you were really fond of? To totally reinvent, reimagine and repurpose them? To be totally flexible and yet totally focused on the essence of your story? And then to not even be sure that you'll ever earn a dime for any of it? It's a tall order.

Upon occasion I work with writers who are loathe to take notes, make changes or totally reimagine a scene, act or even a premise. To which I generally observe - silly preciousness will get you nowhere. Get limber, my friends. Get real limber. Do your writing yoga every day. Be willing to do anything to elevate your script to its highest creative potential.

You might as well. Writing IS rewriting.

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Michelle Goode said...

Wow - what an insightful blog entry!

Congratulations on your perseverance and the wonderful result of your hard work! I hope you get rep!

Thank you for the advice you have given here - those questions at the end really make you realise how you have to be 100% flexible in order to make it...

E.C. Henry said...

I'll second Michelle Goode's sentiments, congradulations on your perserverance. I hope you see the $$ fruits of your labor, Julie. Your own story of "life in the trenches" is inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

Thank you so much for your good wishes, Michelle! See newest post re reps or the lack of them.

EC - thank you so much too, you're very sweet. But - I can't help it - I'm so's congraTulations. No "d" in that word.Commit that to memory so mama doesn't have to thump you on the head with a cupcake. :)

Christian M. Howell said...

Great post. It reminds me of why I have two stacks of scripts.

Stack 1 is filled with ideas that I love but are designed to be what a producer wants, rewrites and all.

Stack 2 is filled with ideas that I would spend my last cent on. Ones that I anguished over, changed, stripped, rethought, but in the end are exactly what I believe in. I wouldn't change anything about them.

That may be counter-productive but I also wouldn't actually sell them without being attached as the director.

I got serious about this not because of the trappings of 250 against 500 but the chance to tell a story that I know will touch the people I made it for.

For me that's all there is. I love commercial fare, I love action, I love mystery, but in the end I think I'm the Clint Eastwood type of film maker. I love stories about people who have a tragedy befall them and how they respond to it.

I love to take a regular story and fill it with characters that stand without the plot, meaning that the Trailer moment is worth more than the extravagant set-piece.

By trailer moment I mean that look, or that line or that image. After all, you don't want to have your whole set piece as the trailer so you snip out those parts that people will remember.

Like when the passenger says look out right before the car takes flight in glorious slow motion.

Or when the girl looks into the camera and gives a raspberry in response to a slight, etc.

Or the lone tear that trails down an eye as a car leaves.

I am a firm believer in those moments and with enough of them, no one will even care what the story is about.

I mean, what was Juno really about? A girl who gives up a kid for adoption or a girl who wisecracks through life with an assorted group of support humorists who just happens to have gotten pregnant?

Anyway, I do agree that you need to be able to kill your babies at the request of someone who's paying, but at the same time you HAVE TO be true to your original story or you may as well just write another.

I had that happen twice. I wrote an action story about a father and son and it branched off into two different movies. The other time was the story of a drug dealer - my first attempt at VO.

As far as rep, I have a prominent lawyer I can call if I need to and I know a manager or two, but I will probably never look for rep.

I guess I hope that my hard work will have them look for me.

Merry Xmas


Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul.

Luzid said...

Julie, this is a valuable post, because it suggests something I think a lot of hopefuls don't realize -- that "while silly preciousness" won't pay off, insane amounts of free rewrites might not either.

I long ago decided I would be fine with doing a free rewrite or two in order to get a script ready to go out -- but 35 drafts? At what point do you stop and tell the producer asking for yet another "freewrite" that you'd like to see some coin for your efforts?

We should all know what to expect. Is your situation normal?

JPS said...

As Julie's writing partner, I'd just like to reinforce the fact that these 35 or so rewrites were not page-one rewrites. Most involved some tweaking, as the spine of the story--the whole narrative thrust of it--was what was attracting people's attention. That always remained in place. The work we did was either character work, arc work, or really just a matter of changing the stress of the piece.

I don't believe this process is in any way anomalous to what happens to and with other writers in Hollywood. (Just to add: I recently completed my sixth novel, a 694-pager. Citing economic realities, my agent requested that I try to bring this down to a more realistic length, a request reinforced by a friend I have in sales at one of the big publishing groups in NY. In three weeks I took it down to 449 pages, and in fact I lost nothing but a subplot that really wasn't vital, a lot of repeated dialogue, and gained in the process a tighter, smarter book. But it was major surgery.)

What is important is that we have some heavy-hitters interested in this, and right now we have a script that is solidly, marketably good.