Screenwriting is a “team sport” where you are usually working alone. This often leads to confusion - some new screenwriters don’t understand when they need to be focused on individual accomplishment and when they need to be part of the team. Adding to the confusion is that there is a gray area where you need to fight for your individual accomplishments but still be loyal to the team, and times when you should consider the team even though you are at the individual accomplishment phase of the game. See, you’re probably already confused! So let’s take a look at how this works...
Basically, before you make the team you need to focus on individual accomplishment. Just like if you were trying out for a football team or basketball team, it’s all about you doing *your* best and being the best of the group trying out. If this were a sports tryout (I think some pro football teams still have open tryouts), even though some of the people you are competing against may make it onto the team and you may be working *with* them, at this phase you are in competition against them - and if one of them stumbles and goes down, you don’t help them up. You run past them and win.
But once you have made the team, the focus is on what is best for the team... and sometimes you have to sacrifice for the team. How many basketball and football players can we name who showboat? They bring the team down by not passing the ball and not being team players. It’s all about *them* being the star - and the team suffers. Hey, that’s true in screenwriting, too - and I’ll explain how these analogies apply in just a minute. Once you have made the team - you need to be a team player.
Before you sell your script, it is all about individual accomplishment.
After the script is sold, it is all about being a team player.
Except for the gray areas.
PLAYING WITH YOURSELF
When you are writing a spec screenplay, it is all about writing the absolute best screenplay possible. Whatever makes your screenplay better - you do that. I have a Script Tip in rotation that was adapted to be part of the Action Book revision called “You Can’t Do That In A Movie!” about those scenes and moments that sell the script... but are usually the first to be cut once the script is sold.
In “Night Hunter” the scene that sold the script was one where the protagonist (who is the last of the vampire hunters) talks about the horrors of his job - which include killing children who are vampires. They may be hundreds of years old and may have fed off thousands of humans... but they still look like kids. Killing them is not easy. Everyone loved that scene and talked about that scene... but after that script sold and we had our first rewrite meeting it was the first scene they wanted cut. Can’t have the hero killing children!
Similar thing with “Hard Evidence”, where the scene was not about how difficult it was to kill... but how easy it was. The protagonist in that story was a nice guy businessman who was forced to kill a criminal who was making his life hell... and admitted to his best friend that instead of feeling guilt and remorse, he felt elation. He had solved a problem. You are supposed to feel bad after you kill someone, but he felt *great*! Again, this was the scene that sold the screenplay - the scene they talked to me about in the first couple of meetings as their favorite scene... and the first scene that got cut in rewrites. Though, actually, I convinced them not to cut these scene but to give the dangerous dialogue to the best friend.
And just about every screenplay I have sold has had some scene in it that made such a powerful impact on the reader that they recommended the script to the producers... who were also impacted by that scene (or scenes) and bought the script... and later wanted that scene cut because it was too dangerous. That scene was all about individual accomplishment, but the producers feared it may not be a team player.
*Without* those scenes those screenplays would never have sold.
Before the script sells - it is all about individual accomplishment.
Though we are still writing *movies*, at this phase our job is to amaze them with *our* amazing skills, and not be a team player. We don’t want to pull our punches or soften our story or do anything that will make the script tame or bland or unusual. Or job here is to make it the *unusual* script - the amazing script - the one in a million script. And those are probably pretty close to the odds of selling a screenplay - one in a million. So you need to push the envelope to stand out...
FREE THROW PIROUETTES
The “gray area” here is that we are still writing movies. Those scenes that stand out also have to belong in the story - you can’t just paste something outrageous onto the story to make it sell... that will probably make it *not* sell. My two examples above are scenes that belong in those stories and completely fit the tone and story and expectations of those stories. I fought against having them cut... but had to take one for the team. Just adding some over-the-top violence or weird-ass stuff that isn’t necessary to the story is not going to get your script sold. You *always* want to be true to the script. If you are trying out for the team and you do some ballet when you are shooting free throws, you aren’t going to impress anyone. You’re just going to look weird.
If you mix oil-and-water tones or write some story that is so unusual no one can figure out what the hell it is, your script may stand out in the wrong way. I read a script that was a fun buddy comedy... until the extremely violent and graphic torture scene that was so detailed I thought I might barf halfway through the scene. That scene didn’t fit the rest of the script at all. That *scene* was not a team player in the script! You always want your scenes to make the script *better*, not sabotage it. I’ve also read scripts that were like no movie ever made and had me wondering if the writer had ever actually *seen* a movie. The goal of the individual achievement phase is to show that you can write the most amazing *movie screenplay* ever written. The basketball team isn’t going to hire you because you do amazing pirouettes - they care about your basketball skills.
TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM
Once you have sold the screenplay, you are on the team - and now when that runner stumbles your job may be to stop and help them up. You are not fighting for your script anymore, you are fighting for *the movie*... and the movie may end up completely different than the screenplay you sold them.
I have been interviewed by Variety and was featured in the Hollywood Reporter’s Writers Special Issue once... but the only “news link” that has ever been submitted to my IMDB page is a blog where the blogger was deeply offended by a script tip where I talk about the reality of rewrites. In their little blogger bubble they thought that once a screenplay sold it would never be changed at all - and make it to the screen exactly as the writer envisioned it. That is not a team player...
And here is where some of the confusion sets in.
Before you sell the screenplay *you* are the boss and you should make that screenplay the absolute greatest screenplay ever written and not pull any punches or water it down or anything else that makes it less than the greatest.
After you sell the screenplay? You are not the boss. You no longer own the screenplay. You are an employee of the producer... and now your job may seem like the *opposite* of what it was only a couple of days ago. Now your job is to conform the screenplay to what the producer needs it to be.
I think I have a tip that talks a bit about my TREACHEROUS script that I rewrote for every star that was attached (or that the producer was going after to try to attach). The original version of that script was about a retired athlete - the inspiration for the story was a newspaper article I read about a pro football player who had spent all of his money and now owned and operated a diner in Oakland, CA. Sometimes he worked as the fry cook. He had bought the place as an investment when he was rich... and now it was all that he had left. Burned out used-to-be character. That was my lead. By the time they made the film I had done dozens of rewrites for each attached star and now the lead was played by C. Thomas Howell - who was in his 30s. So my job was to be a team player and make the *movie* the best it could be - and that meant rewriting that lead role for a youthful guy in his early 30s. Keeping the original version of the protagonist would hurt the film - who would believe that C. Thomas Howell was and old retired guy?
And the same thing happens in just about every production - once the screenplay has sold it becomes part of the movie, and you need to make it work as part of that movie. HARD EVIDENCE was a spec script that sold to a producer who made USA Network Movies Of The Week. That meant that part of my rewrite was putting in the commercial breaks. Here’s the thing - if I had written that screenplay with the commercial breaks already there, I’m not sure they would have bought it. That’s kind of a cart-before-the-horse thing. I know for sure that if I had removed that dangerous scene they would *not* have bought it, because they told me that’s the reason why they bought it... and then a couple of meetings later told me to get rid of that scene, Gregory Harrison isn’t going to play some guy who is *happy* about killing people... and USA Network isn’t going to let that scene air. As a team player, I had to “fix that” so that the *movie* would be the greatest it could be.
By the way, on HARD EVIDENCE that wasn’t the only scene that was changed. Though that film is the closest to any of my screenplays, all kinds of things changed for the good of the movie. The original script took place in Los Angeles and Ensenada, Mexico... but the producers were going to shoot in Canada, so all of the locations had to change. Plus, because a Movie Of The Week doesn’t just play on TV, the PG-13 sex scenes in my script were pushed up to what seemed like a pretty hard R for the video and international release. I didn’t know about that until *after* I’d sent my parents a copy of the video. But one of the elements of *any* film is that it will play in a variety of different markets and there will probably be additional footage shot to comply with that. One of my films had that typical cops-in-a-strip-club scene and they shot the R rated version with strippers taking it off in the background... and the PG version with them dancing in bikinis. That way the film could play on TV and airplanes and sell to any country where they had strict censorship.
You don’t *write* the scene with the strippers wearing bikinis or burquas, but they might film it that way. Because the video aftermarket is big business on an MOW, you probably will write the R rated scenes so that they can shoot them. If they don’t shoot those scenes when they shoot the rest of the movie they’ll be in a heap-o-trouble when they do foreign sales or domestic video deals. I know on some of my projects there has been a TV cut and a video cut - with the video cut being 10-12 minutes longer. People would rather see the R rated or unrated version of the film than the tame version that played on TV. If those scenes are not already in the screenplay, you’ll probably end up writing them in order to be a team player.
And here’s where that blogger comes in and calls you a hack because they don’t realize that once you sell the script you go from individual accomplishment to team player - from owner of the screenplay to employee - from doing what is best for the screenplay to doing what will be best for the film. The gray area here is that you are not some mindless do-as-you-are-told-and-don’t-ask-questions team player, you are the expert at the writing part of the movie and part of your job is to fight for *what is best for the film*. If your script was about a gritty burned out male homicide detective and they cast Anna Faris in that role, your job is to make it the very best script with that casting... and that may mean you fight for some gritty scenes they want to get rid of. But if those scenes will make the *Anna Faris version* better, you want them in the film. Just because you are now a team player doesn’t mean that you don’t use your individual skills - you just use them in service of the team... and to make the *movie* great. Your script may have been “A”, the movie may end up “Z”, so now your job is to make it the best “Z” ever! That’s not hacking, that’s being a team player - and many writers are great at individual accomplishment and awful at being a team player. They can’t get over that the role they wrote for Clint Eastwood is now going to be played by Anna Faris. They just can’t switch gears like that, so they fight to keep it a Clint Eastwood movie even though it now stars Anna Faris... and that means that instead of making it a great movie, the result of their fight ends up making it a *bad* movie. Instead of seeing the big picture, they only see *their* part of the movie. They are showboating... and they will bring down the team.
Once you have made the team, your job is to make the film the best film ever - even if it is a different film that your screenplay. If there are changes that will damage the film, your job is to fight those changes. But if there is something in your original screenplay that works against the film version - your job is to let go of that scene or element and do what is best for the film version. That isn’t hacking at all - it’s just making sure the *film version* is the greatest it can be, and that means you are playing for the team and not against it. If your story was about an old criminal who gets sprung from prison for 48 hours to help a cop capture the criminal's old gang, and they hire a 20 something stand up comic as the criminal - fighting to keep the criminal an old timer is *hurting* the film. They have already cast the 20 something stand up comic, and that's what the story is *now* - so your job is to make it the best screenplay ever about a funny 20 something crook on a 48 hour pass. Yeah, 48 HOURS was originally about an old guy like the 80s version of Robert Mitchum... but they cast Eddie Murphy. For the "team" to be successful, the script now has to be perfect for Eddie Murphy... even if that changes everything in your original screenplay. You are now playing for the team.
But to make that team in the first place, you need to be great at individual accomplishment and *not* write what you think they may want (you don’t really know exactly what they want) and *not* pull your punches, and *not* water down the story or make it safe and bland - you want to make it the very best screenplay it can ever be. Selling that script is a one in a million deal, and you need to make sure that your screenplay isn’t just good (many screenplays are good), but absolutely the greatest screenplay there is. No one buys a good screenplay because it fits their needs - there are *thousands* of good screenplays that fit their needs (unless it’s one of those InkTip adverts looking for a western with dance numbers that can be shot in Iceland and stars little people and was written by a Canadian) - so your script has to be the GREATEST SCRIPT OUT THERE and after they buy it (and you are a team player) they will have you make the changes so that it conforms to their needs,
Or, they will hire you to write that western with dance numbers...
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