You’ve won your first writing assignment. Perhaps on the strength of a prior spec sale.
Or, more likely, on the strength of a recommendation made by one of your contacts.
Good on you!
You’re now hired to do subsequent drafts of someone else’s screenplay. Great stuff!
On the road to being a paid professional, you’re leaving Wannabe City
‘So … How do you make sure your first professional relationship works well? I mean, if it doesn’t then you could end up returning to Wannabe Main Street. No thanks!
Once a producer or production company has hired you, they have validated your storytelling talent. At least to some extent. This does not mean, however, that the producer or company has no remaining questions or concerns about you. From their point of view, your storytelling talent is only half the issue. The other half – the other big risk factor for them – is how easy are you to work with.
Getting the reputation for being ‘difficult’ or ‘temperamental’
is not the way to make it in LA.
Especially in the face of criticisms and alternate story suggestions. What can give a producer sleepless nights is the discovery that someone is a great storyteller, yet a rotten collaborator. Getting the reputation for being ‘difficult’ or ‘temperamental’ is not the way to make it in LA.
So should I ‘bend over’ on their every story suggestion, then?
Actually … No! Someone who is that easy or rubbery will be a bigger worry than a writer who demonstrates some resistance and passion. A canny producer or exec will start having doubts that Mr Rubbery really has the conviction and staying power to stick around and perform all the rewrites that are going to be inevitable during the long development process.
As with other forms of life mastery, balance is the key. Your response to script notes (i.e. comments or concerns inserted by a producer or exec) must be a balance between being open to consider alternative possibilities and being prepared to articulate why some of the possibilities simply won’t work in this story.
Keep your cool and keep your screenwriting job
The key to expressing your objections is to be matter-of-fact, even-tempered and able to give clear reasons for your point of view. For example, instead of simply declaring – “That’s a prostitution of the whole story concept!” Better: “Jan, I can see how that ending is trendy, but the problem with it is that it goes against this story’s theme. A better way to do something like that would be to …” Being able to propose an alternative, no matter how unformed, will go down a lot better to your listener than simply shooting down her suggestion point blank.
The point about being able to clearly articulate your reasons applies to more than just your responses to script notes. It also applies to how you write your drafts. I remember a private consultation with Christopher Vogler during which he told me that when he asks clients why they put a certain character or scene in a certain place, the usual reply is “I dunno … I just thought it was a good idea …” I had worked hard on giving clear reasons for all characters, scenes, and any breaches with conventional structure. For this, I was happy to receive Chris’ nod of approval.
But excessive logic hampers their creative process!
When you’re at the stage of just doing the early redrafts of the screenplay, by all means be as ‘illogical’ as you need to be to craft a compelling story. But once you have got a draft that is almost final, then you need to be clear-headed about the ‘whys’ of your characters and plot. If you are not, you will make yourself a pain to work with from the point of view of a producer or executive. You are supposed to be a storytelling professional. So act professionally in the face of ‘why’ type questions!
be clear-headed about
the ‘whys’ of your characters and plot.
When it comes to feature films, the process of development (i.e. the period of script rewrites and film financing negotiations) is long and drawn out. It can easily take several years before the final script is locked down. Only an impatient producer on a low budget project would try to cut the development time to, say, one or two years.
As a hired writer, expect to receive multiple rounds of script notes
Usually each round will involve substantial chopping and changing of the original screenplay. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to change the ending more than once. Also be prepared to change the traits of the major characters, e.g. different gender or age, different quirks, or different verbal style.
If you are hired by a producer or production company that is at least mid tier, you will experience the additional fun of receiving not only multiple rounds of script notes, but different sets of notes within each round. By that I mean that each and every round will involve receiving separate notes from a number of different execs at roughly the same time. So as many as five execs or more may independently comment on your screenplay draft and leave it to you to iron out any contradictions or anomalies that occur in trying to accommodate everybody. Welcome to professional screenwriting!
As many as five execs or more may
independently comment on your screenplay
In summary, then, the way to stay hired – and to make yourself re-hireable – is to be collaborative and professional, rather than pigheaded and difficult. You need to be creative and analytical, yet tenacious as well.
The development process is a marathon slog. So stamina and long term focus are essential. Your first contract will be the hardest… but that’s how all pros began.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to LA producer Ben Sitzer for fact-checking this essay.
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.
Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Ben Sitzer for fact-checking.