Friday, December 19, 2008

0 to 110 in 60 Seconds

FIRST: I have *finally* finished the first draft of the remake project, handed it in, and now kicking myself over all of the things I forget to write in the script. I’m actually planning on doing a touch up on the script while they are reading it. But mostly I’m happy with it, even though the whole project has been a challenge. Sometime in the future I may blog about the difficulties of remakes - do you remain faithful to the original or try to do something different and interesting?

SECOND: Between part 3 of my Writer’s Bloc interview and John August’s great blog entry on real world deadlines, you probably have a lot of questions about deadlines, and Grant was first to ask in the comments section. Because I’m sure many of you have the same question, and the answer is probably too long for the comments section, I’m answering here.

Grant has a good method for writing a script that allows him three weeks of prep time to really work out his characters and story before going to script. I have said this before - most people jump into their scripts way too soon, and don’t know their story and characters well enough - and it shows. Characters are inconsistent - or sketchy, and often the script wanders around looking for the story. Sometimes the best way to tell the story isn’t used - and it’s told in the easiest (and dullest) way. So spending the time to realy think through the story and characters before you go to script is a great thing....

But how does that work with real world deadlines?

Though in the interview I talk about a couple of times where I’ve had 2 weeks to write a script, that’s not how it normally works. Depending on the project, you are usually given a month to 12 weeks - sometimes more, in your contract. But, as John August mentions in his blog entry, just because they give you several months in your contract doesn’t mean they want you to wait until the last minute to turn in the script. I know a pair of writers who turn in their scripts at the very last minute... and I think their careers have suffered because of it. Just like anything else - you don’t want to wait until the last minute. Usually what will happen is the producer will call for a progress report, and though they sound happy and cheerful, what they really mean is “Where the hell is my script, slacker?” I got that call on the remake project because, even though I have a good prep method for writing scripts, I screwed up by abandoning it with this one. Instead of taking a couple of days to completely re-outline and write up a new treatment after getting the last minute changes, I thought I could just work those things out while writing the script... and boy was I wrong! I spent *weeks* trying to make the script work with the last minute changes - writing, throwing away, rewriting, reworking, throwing away, rewriting scenes. Much like my protagonist, I learned a valuable lesson.

When you are working on an assignment, usually it works in steps... and that means you won’t have to do everything at once. The first step is a treatment, and on many of the projects I’ve done I’ve had as little as a week - but never less than that. (Actually, I have had less time on one of those 2 week brain killer projects - but that’s unusual.) So much of your prep work will take place in that week. If you can figure out the basic story and characters and then do a beat sheet that you can turn into a treatment in 7 days, you’ll be okay. Most of the time they wanted about a 15 page treatment, and I could write that in a day from a beat sheet. Though you may need to compress some of your prep work to get that treatment done within the week, and you may end up skipping some steps... and maybe even putting in some long hours. But here’s your ace in the hole...

Once you turn in your treatment, there is a “reading period” - usually a week, or as long as the time allotted to write the treatment. That’s right - it takes them as long to read it as it took you to write it. Some of them probably move their lips while reading and have to look up “hard words” in the dictionary. But what this means to you - you have another week of prep for the script. While they are reading, you aren’t working on your tan in Mazatlan, you are doing all of the prep work that you couldn’t accomplish in that one week where you had to write the treatment. So you may turn in your treatment with a limited understanding of your characters and work that out while they are reading, or that place in the story you couldn’t quite figure out - so you faked your way through it in the treatment, you now have a week to figure out how to make it work.

None of this is leisurely. Whatever writer said that his wife didn’t understand that when he was looking out the window for an entire afternoon - he *was* working... well, that guy isn’t going to be spending as much time looking out the window. You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to inspire yourself. You have to work your butt off. The good thing about writing on a tight deadline - even though you may be pulling a lot of all-nighters and might become a stranger to friends and family, it’ll be over before you know it!

The thing about treatments - though WGA MBA says a producer can not reject a treatment and force you to rewrite treatments until they accept it, I would rather do a reasonable number of treatments (which means do some work for free) and get the story right before we move on to script, than go directly to script with a bunch of notes that completely change everything about the story... and have my first draft of the script be kind of a story experiment that everyone realizes doesn’t work... and you end up replaced by some other writer before there’s a story everyone agrees on. It seems like less work in the long run to write a few treatments than to have every draft be a completely different story with completely different characters. Sometime I will tell the story of my year writing treatments and scripts for a producer... you need to know when to say no!

Okay, so two weeks after they fire the starter gun, you have a meeting where they talk about the treatment they had a week to read - and often didn’t read - and if they want to go directly to script without continuing to play around with treatments, they’ll send you off to write. Your contract will a writing period for the first draft and a reading period for them to read it... or read the coverage... or have their assistant give them a 2 minute briefing on the way to the meeting. My 2 week situations have all been about meeting an airdate or production start date... and whenever there’s a hard deadline - be it 3 weeks or 3 months - it’s all about some real reason why they need the finished script. Whether it’s a pre-production date or a window for a star or a funding source - they need the script, so you need to get the rear in gear and write it. If there isn’t a hard deadline, and you’re just going by your contract - the producer will want it sooner rather than later - even though they may sit on it without reading it for weeks. Once they’ve commissioned the script, they want to see it as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean do a half assed job writing it - turning in crap on time is still turning in crap - but it does mean getting the work done as soon as possible.

I guess everything depends on how rough your rough draft is. Rewrites are part of a step deal, too - but that first draft you turn in has to be something that looks and reads like a script. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be good enough. Even though I’ve just turned in my first draft, while they are reading, I am tweaking. As long as that first draft reads okay, you’ll be doing the second draft... and that will be much better because you’ve been working while they were reading.

The main thing to do is not worry. Okay, worry a little. The first time you have to make some deadline, you may think it’s impossible - and you may go crazy getting the work done and panic every other day... but once you’ve handed in the draft on time, you realize you *can* do it. It’s like sky diving or bunjee jumping - the first time you are sure you will die. Once you survive, you have the confidence to do it again. You figure out how to adapt to whatever the situation is.

One thing I’ve learned about writing scripts on a deadline - you find some specific skill you have that is “coasting” - Oddly, I learned from NINJA BUSTERS and DROID GUNNER that I am pretty good at buddy banter off the top of my head - so if I have to write a script fast, I want it to be a buddy action script so that I can use that odd skill to turn out some pages that everybody likes quickly. I’ve also learned that my subconscious comes up with some great things when I don’t have time to think - and I’m sure yours will, too. And you will also discover that you will be able to come up with some great ideas on the fly - I never thought I could come up with anything off the top of my head (except hair pulled from the approaching deadline) but I come up with some amazing things when I’m in the middle of a scene - one trick of mine is to come up with *details* that may later pay off, and if they don’t - they are still good details.

Most of the time you will be given a reasonable amount of time to write your first draft. The producer does want the script as soon as possible, but they also want a good script. This *is* a business. There are deadlines. You need to be able to write on a schedule and get work done on time. You’ll get the hang of it.

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How To Study A Script.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Burger King on the run... Friday - mom's home cooking.
Pages: No pages yesterday, but I finished the danged script!


Emily Blake said...

Today has been a really informative day around the Scribosphere. Good post.

E.C. Henry said...

Bill, if I ever have kids I want you to be the one who teaches 'em how to ride a bike. Thanks for the insight into the "real world" of an "I'm actually getting paid for this" screenwriter. Your posts are always a pleasure.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

ObiDonWan said...

I hope someday you can actually print some of the notes you've received on a submission. I'd like to get an idea of how wild they can get, since I've only ever had one person making suggestions on what I write and cannot imagine, even tho you've said, how conflicting and disparate they might be from more than one "boss".

The Moviequill said...

"that first draft you turn in has to be something that looks and reads like a script. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be good enough"

does that apply to the spec world too or should I be striving for perfection in order to get ahead of the newbies who only went for the "good enough?" reason being I wonder if I bust my ass doing too many rewrites

Grant said...


Thanks for the detailed answer. For some reason both yours and John's comments made me think you'd get a call asking about the status. You'd say something like "I just got through the first 30 pages of the rough draft." And they'd come back with "Cool, why don't you just send them over? I want to get a feel of how things are going." When of course it's a real rough draft, and isn't ready for the world. Which would lead to disaster the way I write. I just plow through the rough draft, writing down random notes as I go, and backtrack after I finish up the ugly beast.

I'm glad to see that's not generally the case.



I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a spec "first draft" is really the "polish" version.

wcmartell said...

Yes - for a spec, you want them to read the version where you spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.

And here's my rule: NO matter what a producer says, never hand in part of a script. Here's why: They will give you notes on, let's say the first 30 pages, that will completely change the story. You will never get past 30 pages! When you turn in the new first 30 pages, you will get notes again, and contine rewriting the first 30 pages until you turn into butter. And never get to Fade Out. Tell the producer you don't like to show your work until you're finished - and stand firm on that.

- Bill

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