Sunday, October 4, 2009

Putting the "Re" in the "Write"

There is an old three-part joke about the movie business that goes like this: How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? “Does it have to be a light bulb?” How many directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to hold the light bulb and three grips to turn the throne. And finally: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb? “You can’t change the light bulb!!”

Every summer, I mentor a fresh crop of novice screenwriters in a lab I helped found a few years ago. In these sessions, I try to give these young writers some constructive criticism about their work and if possible, prepare them for the rough and tumble profession they hope to be a part of. Often I can see the misery and resentment registering on their faces as I suggest possible cuts or problems in the logic or tone. I feel bad for them, but writing in Hollywood is not a business for the thin-skinned. Better they learn it now.

One of the first things that I try to impress upon them is this: Great scripts are not written. They are rewritten. Screenwriting is not literature. A script is not a great, weighty tome chiseled in stone. A screenplay is a living breathing organism that will evolve (for better or worse) as it morphs from a pile of paper into a piece of celluloid projected on a screen in front of an paying audience. If you are lucky enough to write a script that someone is actually interested in, that’s a good thing. What many young writers don’t see coming is that they and their script are about to be launched on a journey… In most cases, a rather long journey in which a great many people will be coming along for the ride. And these new people will all have many, many ideas on how this wonderful script of yours could be made “even better.”

As you might have already guessed, the term “better” is highly subjective. To a producer, better often means cheaper and easier to shoot. To a studio executive, better usually means a script that resembles another film that was recently a big hit. To a director, better sometimes means a substantial change in the tone or direction of the story; maybe more toward something that reflects the director’s personality or career goals. To a movie star, better almost always means more heroic actions or “funnier” lines for the lead character.

I always try to be gentle when handing out my suggestions to novice writers. I remember how painful and traumatic my first rewrites were. The whole process of churning out even a first draft was sort of harrowing. By the time I had a version that I felt brave enough to show to anybody, I was ready to quit work. Part of me felt like I had cheated death; that it was nothing short of a miracle that I had managed to assemble all of these spare parts in to a vehicle that actually ran. The idea that someone was now asking me to disassemble the car and put it back together again was terrifying. It seemed impossible. Instead, I would spring to its defense. It will work! Really, it will! I swear it!

In those early days, getting notes on one of my scripts was the artistic equivalent of water-boarding. Even now, I tend to get a knot in my stomach when I hear the term “one little change.” For those who don’t actually write scripts, suggesting “one little change” probably doesn’t seem such a big deal. After all, why can’t the hero be a woman instead of a man? How hard could it be to alter a lead character’s age, race or planetary origin? Was I aware how much cheaper it is to shoot in New Orleans rather than New York. And wouldn’t it be more "fun" if the whole movie took place in a high school? Maybe with some sort of hip-hop element? There! That shouldn’t take long!

Highly sensitive, young artiste that I was, I often wondered why, if these folks liked my script so much, they wanted to change it. Couldn't they just leave it alone? Couldn't they all just dutifully line-up behind my vision and shoot it the way I wrote it? That, of course, is laughable to me now. People surrender huge chunks of their lives to be in this business. Of course they want input. Plus, movies are such risky and tremendously expensive ventures that any factor that will help them get produced, has to be seriously considered.

I recently heard that a director has expressed interest in attaching himself to a script I wrote and is already looking for a new writer to “fix it.” This, without having had a single conversation with me about whatever his concerns might be. Sadly, this is nothing new. In many cases, it’s considered cost-effective to shit-can the original writer, just so that no valuable time has to be wasted debating anything with him or her. Better to move on to a new writer who probably wants or needs the job and is all too willing to agree with whatever changes the producer or director would like to see.

Before I start sounding too defensive here, let me say that rewrites can also be a huge blessing. Over the years, I’ve worked with some very smart and savvy people who taught me that certain scenes, jokes and characters I thought I couldn’t live without were in fact, quite dispensable. Rewrites also taught me a lesson that’s come in rather handy in life: sometimes other people have great ideas. If I can set my ego aside and actually listen, these suggestions can occasionally do wonders for my script. Although I may not be thrilled by these ideas initially, often after a few days, I started loving the changes and become oddly willing to take full credit for them! It has also helped me to realize that studio executives and producers have only one objective - to get films MADE. Their jobs depend on it. And ultimately so does mine.

These days, I no longer view screenwriting as a job that is ever “done.” In the best of all possible worlds, it’s a successful juggling act. And a process. Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to get paid to participate in that process – and that is a very good thing indeed. If I truly need to establish my literary cred by controlling the content and tone of my work, nobody is stopping me from writing the next great American novel. Who knows? Maybe I’ll just do that sometime. I actually had an idea the other day that I think might be worthy of the Booker Prize. It's about these aliens that come to earth in search of hip-hop, and crash land into a New Orleans high school...

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


Sarah L. Knapp said...

As someone starting just starting out in this business, it's nice to hear some truth - that's not just venting. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

You've done a great service to all writers, new and old, by writing this down so clearly. And of course, including New Orleans!

michelle said...

I just finished a writing job where after a couple note sessions I felt like I had my ass handed to me! I really had to learn how to set my ego aside, especially since I'm the one "taking the car apart" multiple times, and started to feel like no one knew what the hell they were talking about - except

At the end of this process I learned that I was ONE part of the process and that folks did know what they were talking about - sometimes - and it was my job to blend all their "great ideas" into an enjoyable, believable, and salable script.