Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Drafts, changes, and notes

In an attempt to look like I run a respectable screenwriting blog here, I'm answering a question that was sent in (okay, it was a comment, but "sent in" sounds better) by Andy. Hello Andy! Andy wrote:

Could you tell us things like how long they give you to do another draft/amendments, and what happens if they suggest something that you really hate. Also who has the last say - the writer or the director or the producer? Or the distributer even?

If you've sold a script or a pitch, you normally get about 8 weeks to do a first draft. Once they've read this draft, they'll come back to you with more notes, and you then do the revisions, which you usually get 4 weeks to do, or half the first draft time. "Revisions" isn't a plural thing, it just means another mini-draft, based on their notes and/or your discussions with them. It doesn't mean a complete rewrite, or at least, haha, it shouldn't. But most companies like to get as much work out of you for as little money and time as they can ("we love it, but could you just do these tiny few changes, nothing major, take you about an hour, tops..." - substitute "fortnight" for "hour"). Then, depending on your contract, they'll either move forward (attach a director, etc), get you to do another draft, or smile politely and tell you that your services will no longer be required.

Doing a draft or revisions will involve the infamous "notes". You've heard about notes. "We love the script! It's amazing! Perfect! Here are our notes." Okay, it's not always like that - I've been lucky so far, in that I only ever got notes from a few people at once. For Severance, I mainly dealt with 3 film company people at the start, and then one person from that team along with the director and producer. So usually 3 people at a time. For Curfew, I've been working with one guy, with occasional meetings with the big boss, and the financing boss. We've all heard the horror stories of writers getting notes from the execs, the director, the producer, the actors, etc, etc - all different, all contradicting each other. No idea what I would do in that situation, hopefully I'll never have to figure it out. I'll fall off that bridge if I come to it.

Because Severance was a spec script, there were some suggestions made to improve it when they first bought it, all of which I really liked - except for one small thing. It wasn't a huge deal, didn't change the story or the flow, it was just a small shock moment that could have been played one of two ways. I thought it didn't work their way, and even showed them two versions of it to prove my point. They still felt it was better their way around. Fair enough, I thought, I'll go with the majority view. So I did it their way. And now I prefer it the way it is. If it had been a big thing that I thought fucked the whole movie up, then of course I would have had to make a stand, and argue my case fully. And that's all you can do - if they suggest something that you think is awful, just say so, without being arsey about it. Explain in detail why and how it isn't right for the story, but try and offer a different solution. Sometimes, as the saying goes, they don't want the thing that they want, they just want a different thing. Again, I've been lucky with notes. All the notes I got for Severance were great, and improved it no end.

As for final say, the writer has final say up to a point. You don't have to write anything you don't want to. But if they feel that they're not getting anywhere with you, then they don't have to keep you on after your contracted drafts. If you're able to have proper discussions with people though, there shouldn't really be problems like that, and you should all be in agreement on what needs to go into the draft. When I was working with the film company, then they ultimately were the bosses. Once the director and producer came on board, then it was still a team effort, but they were pretty much in charge, because they were responsible for making the movie into a physical thing. Once you finish all your drafts, the movie making process takes over, and it passes out of your hands. You can still take part in the process, help out and so on, but once that script is locked down, budgeted and so on, you have to leave it alone. Unless they need you to come on set and fix stuff while they're shooting it, which I imagine is a whole different kettle of fish. The distributors generally have no say, as they usually see the finished product and decide whether they want to buy the distribution rights.

Again, it's about finding the solution to the problem they're highlighting - maybe it's not the solution they came up with, but if it works, they'll be happy with it. Obviously, there may be situations where you're working with complete idiots with no idea what they're doing, but I don't know how to deal with that yet. I'll let you know if I work with any...

Hope that's answered the drafts and notes question properly, feel free to chip in if anything's unclear, or if you have your own experiences with this side of things.

9 comments:

james henry said...

Good post, thanks.

The collaborative nature of screenwriting is often overlooked - so often it's depicted as one lonely genius struggling against the idiocies of the film executives (and of course it's usually depicted that way by writers). But if anyone comes up with an idea that makes the film better, why not include it? It makes you look better too. Also, when you've included good ideas by others, it makes it easier to take a stand against the bad ones.

Often you have to bend as the supple willow - particularly as, unless you're directing it as well, you're going to have to hand it over to someone else anyway. And if you're handing it over to people you think will fuck up your vision, you probably shouldn't have sold it to them in the first place (or have been canny enough to get your name taken off it)...

I say all this having sold millions of film scripts, whilst relaxing in my castle while elephants frolic on the lawn, of course.

Danny Stack said...

Nice one James, and the Other James...

Anonymous said...

Great post!

So even if you have pitched an idea you only have 8 weeks to hand in a first draft? Do they allow for the 'first drafts are generally crap'thing? Or don't you really hand in a first draft (ie you've already done numerous revisions etc).

ARE first drafts generally crap?

I wonder if those people who give you notes compare their notes with other people? I suppose they must do so that you don't get conflicting opinions.

Fascinating insight.

Cheers mate.

Andy

Piers said...

"ARE first drafts generally crap?"

Mine are. At least they are if by first draft you mean "the script that exists when you first type the words FADE OUT."

I tend to call the one that's handed to other people to look at my first draft, and the one that only I get to look at Draft Zero.

Like King Ghidrah, if you will.

"Draft Zero is approaching!"

james henry said...

Also sounds like a euphamism for a particularly bad fart, which in the case of my early screenplay drafts, is highly appropriate...

James Moran said...

Andy: Yep, whether it's starting from scratch or a new draft of a full script, you get 8 weeks... Usually. And no, you don't EVER hand in your actual first draft, you go over it several times, get feedback, make sure it's as good as possible - and that is your proper first draft...

As for people comparing notes: In an ideal world, yes, they should. In my experience, it's all gone well, and I've been given one set of notes that contain everyone's thoughts. Which is perfect.

Anonymous said...

F$ck, 8 weeks doesn't sound long to do all that work... none of that putting it in a drawer for a month thing that people always seem to recommend then!

cheers mate, looking forward to going to watch Severance.


Andy

James Moran said...

Well, for most first timers, you'll be selling a spec script. It's pretty unheard of for a first timer to flog a pitch or an outline. So you can take as long as you like on the spec, put it away for a month, etc, and get it perfect. Then when it sells, you have 8 weeks to do a rewrite. Which should be plenty, if you've spent long enough on the spec originally...

Anonymous said...

Ah right, course. Much less overwhelming.

A