Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Film Courage Plus: Writing On Deadline

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. As they have been releasing the interview segments from 2015 every week or so, I have dug back into their archives and tweeted some of the segments from 2014... so they won't be forgotten. There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the fifth one. I'm still not sure whether the article should come before or after the clip, so this time around it's *before* the clip - you can tell me which way you think would work best in the comments section.

Screenwriting means working on a deadline... sometimes an insane deadline:

I know you don’t want to hear this, but most spec scripts (screenplays written to sell) are never sold... they are “job applications” for paid writing assignments. You know, adapting some comic book or novel or board game or toy or whatever into a movie script. The *job* of writing. And like every job, there are deadlines.

Writers like to fantasize about quitting the day job and just sitting at home in their Pjs writing whenever the inspiration strikes. Being an artist. But reality is completely different - for a professional writer, writing becomes their day job and they have all of those things they hated from the old day job. Idiot bosses? Yeah, there are producers I’ve worked for who make my old day job bosses look like geniuses. Catty co-workers who blame you for their mistakes? You will encounter those, too - true story: on one of my films for a cable network the director came up with a scene that was so expensive it would bust the budget. I told him there was no way the producer would keep this scene in the script, because it not only served no story purpose it would cost as much as every other scene in the script combined. I suspected it was just come power play on the part of the director - to see how far he could push the producer, to see if he could get his way - but I told him I didn’t want to write the scene. He insisted. I wrote the scene. The next story meeting, the producer turned to me and said he was surprised that I would write a scene like that into the script; didn’t I know this was a cable film not a summer blockbuster? Before I could say it was the director’s idea, that director turned to the producer and said, “I told Bill it was a budget buster, but he didn’t listen and wrote it anyway.” And you thought your day job was bad! But the other thing from your day job you will have to deal with are deadlines. You can’t just write when inspiration strikes, you have to write to get things finished on time.

And the closer the project gets to production, the more those deadlines become etched in stone.

One of the production companies I wrote HBO World Premiere Movies for was Royal Oaks (no longer with us) and they were a factory for cable movies. At one point they were making 36 movies a year for a variety of cable networks. That was in the mid-1990s when every new start up network had their own movies, and when established networks like USA Network had 48 original movies a year. Add in Lifetime and all of the rest and there was this insane need to MOWs, and Royal Oaks supplied a chunk of them. Oh, and they also made movies for Studio’s Home Entertainment Divisions (direct to video). There was a “big board” on the wall that showed all of the projects and where they were at on the road from idea to finished film delivered to the network or studio. 36 films with 36 deadlines. And within each large deadline (delivery) were smaller deadlines - like the treatment and each draft of the screenplay. As I’ve said before, on a movie for HBO like STEEL SHARKS before I even pitched the story there was an airdate. A time slot at HBO that the movie would fill. If I didn’t get the screenplay finished in time, they wouldn’t finish making the movie in time... and HBO would be showing a test pattern or something on March 26th at 9pm.

You may not want to think of making movies as if it’s a factory, but at a production company or a studio that’s exactly what it is. They make movies as a consumer product just like some other company makes shoes... in fact, there was a point in time where a shoe company owned a studio! If you think that big studios don’t have big boards like Royal Oaks did, tell me - what are the release dates for the next ten Marvel movies? How about the next five STAR WARS movies? Okay, how about the next three FAST & FURIOUS movies? All of those deadlines! Most of those projects don’t have screenplays or writers or even story ideas! But they already have deadlines. That’s the film business! It is a business!

So you will need to get used to working on a deadline.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Stephen King

“If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter,” Dan Poynter


LAZY WRITERS!


I have self imposed deadlines on my spec screenplays, and try to treat them as if they were any other (real world) deadline. The reason why is that without a deadline I wouldn’t get anything done... I have to be my own boss and crack the whip on myself. Just as my protagonists wouldn’t be rushing to disarm a bomb if that big red LED cliche timer was set for five years from now, I wouldn’t have any real reason to finish a script if there was no deadline and my natural laziness would take over. And I am naturally lazy. I think most of us are. Our default mode is - check out Facebook and then maybe get lost reading articles on something you find mildly interesting and then maybe watch a little TV and then... hey, time for bed! I can do nothing like a pro! But a pro writer needs to write - so I have deadlines and page quotas and write as if it’s my job, because it *is* my job.

And even if it is not your job now, you *want* it to be your job, right?

That means you will need to be able to write quality material on a deadline.

There are folks on message boards who think being forced to write on a deadline results in bad writing. They are probably not going to make it as a professional. Actually, they *could* make it as a professional if they quit fighting the idea of deadlines and just accept that is part of the job and they’ll have to learn how to incorporate deadlines into their writing. People always fight against what they fear - they proclaim that “X is the downfall of creativity!” because they know they are not good at X and they fear X so they want to avoid doing X at all costs. Hey, the world isn’t going to bend to you, you will have to bend to the world. You will have to grow and learn and figure out how to deal with X like everyone else has. Just the way things are. In real life there are deadlines, and fighting against the idea of deadlines is not going to make them vanish. There are still those big boards at production companies and studios listing the release dates for movies that have yet to be written, and when you land one of those jobs you will have to make the deadline no matter what Douglas Adams may have said.

TWO METHODS


There are two methods to make deadlines - Slow & Steady and Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! You know these two methods from when you were in school and had homework. Slow & Steady is the recommended method - what your mom and teachers told you to do - and what I will tell you is the best way to do things. Not that you will listen... but it makes me feel better to know that I’ve told you.

Slow & Steady: In another of the Film Courage segments I talk about How To Be Productive (Even If You Have A Life) and talk about how I managed to write 3 screenplays a year while working a day job (and having a life) by writing one good page a day. Just one. Because those single pages add up to 3 screenplays by the end of the year. Once I “went pro” I used the same method, just upped the number of pages per day to 5. Five pages a day is a screenplay in a month. Yeah - a first draft, but still a screenplay. And that will result in you making almost every deadline you will encounter as a professional screenwriter. In the BREAKING IN Blue Book we look at assignments and deadlines, and how you will often “stack” assignments (take more than one job, because you never know if anyone will ever hire you again) and being able to do a draft in a month will cover you even if you stack a couple of assignments. You will make your deadlines. Slow & Steady wins the race.

The other method - the one your mom and teachers warned you about - is Holy Crap This Is Due Tomorrow! and you know how that works when you pulled those all nighters after procrastinating for a couple of weeks and not doing your homework. You didn’t use the Slow & Steady method, so the only thing left is to just drink a whole pot of coffee or a six pack of Mountain Dews and write the damned thing. There are people who prefer this method to Slow & Steady, but I’m always afraid I’m going to end up with 30 pages to write and 5 minutes to write it in... and I’m just not that fast. I’m also afraid that I’ll burn out halfway through or that some unforseen event will sidetrack me. Heck, when I stacked a couple of projects with tight deadlines once, I ended up with walking pneumonia afterwards. I’d worked myself into exhaustion. What if that exhausting and pneumonia had struck when I was only halfway done with the script? I’d have missed the deadline!

One of the things that helps me on tight deadlines is that the Slow & Steady method creates a confidence that the Holy Crap method does not. If I know I can write 5 pages a day, every day, and not suffer burn out... I can adjust that up to 10 pages a day if need be. And I’ve had those crazy deadlines where I needed to turn out 10 great pages a day to make my deadline because there was a Start Shooting date on the big board. I think I talk about some of these deadlines in this Film Courage segment.

But in the real world of screenwriting, you will need to know how to use both methods. Because even though Slow & Steady is preferable, you may end up with some insane real world production deadline like I had on GRID RUNNERS when they had to scrap the Act 3 I had written due to a change in location and I had to write a brand new Act 3 *overnight*. There was literally a production crew sleeping while I was writing, and when they woke up in the morning and went to the set to shoot that day’s scenes? Well, I had to have finished writing them, get them to the production office so that they could make copies, and then those copies had to be sent to the set so that they could film them. The closer your project gets to production, the more important making those deadlines becomes! When the project is *in production* missing a deadline means the cast and crew have nothing to do (but are still being paid) and the film may crash and burn as a result. Yes, movies get shut down when the screenwriter misses a deadline. You may cost the production company tens of millions of dollars! Do you think they’re going to hire you again after that? That *anyone* is going to hire you again? So you need to be able to use both the Slow & Steady method and the Holy Crap method as a professional screenwriter, and I really think that using the Slow & Steady helps a lot when you need to do the Holy Crap method. But maybe that’s just me. No one really cares which method you use, as long as you make the deadlines.

Because, like any other job, this one has deadlines. Often hard deadlines where a cast and crew is waiting for you to finish so that they can start. So start training for those deadlines *now*!

Good luck and keep writing!

Oh, and instead of a tip jar... if you liked this why not buy a book over there? Thanks! -->

- Bill

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