Aspects of this might have been mentioned in other posts, but it is something I turn over in my head excessively, like a crazy person, either for past meetings that could have been more efficient or future projects. Of course, each creative person will approach a project in whatever way allows them to function and thrive and finally be satisfied somewhat and feel ownership for the results. The following is just what seems to work for me, but feel free to copy and use or revise to suit yourself:
FOUNDATION PRINCIPLE OF PROJECTS:
It is better to have no movie than to have the wrong movie. Whether the story was broken with a group or written by an individual, once it is read and the tires are kicked in terms of story continuity and it suits the taste of the team leader or director, this is where the project is defined. The more general a goal, the easier it is to attract collaborators. The more specific it becomes, usually that weeds people out so that only those most appropriate for it are involved. So this is all about making sure nobody feels misled and needless upset on location under a time crunch is reduced. No sense fixing something that is not broken. There is what John Cleese calls open system and closed system of working, the latter being the point where choices have been made and you get on with it.
Every investor, crew member, and actor – anyone involved – has to have one thing in common: They all must be willing to make the same movie as the director. If the director has to – as part of a written agreement with an investor – initial every page of the screenplay to indicate he or she will indeed make the movie as described, that is a workable condition. To initial the ether for the sake of promising improvisation would not be possible.
To be involved has to be an INFORMED choice, which requires reading the script so that all concerned know about anything controversial in the planned content. Though my own politics may be left of the middle, I show no respect for the extreme right nor the extreme left. Reading 100 pages of screenplay may be work, but nothing compared to the efforts of making a movie. Anyone interested is welcome to look at storyboard sketches also. Exceptions to the rule might be background performers who only have t know the parameters of the event where they are needed to gather and none should be admitted (even friends who just want to get a message to someone and go) without signing in as part of the waiver / release for their image; It is too easy for someone to decide to hang around, be lost in the shuffle, and end up on screen without release which could compromise the production. If you can reconcile yourself to the material, any rude jokes for example, triggering content, ideology or lack thereof, that is when to move forward and embrace the experience.
Conversely, should somebody not like the screenplay, my writing, my storyboarding approach to directing and have no confidence in the work or myself, then I would not have a leg to stand on with such a person who why would I walk into the burning house of working with him/her? So this brings us back to the primary principle of wanting to or being willing to make the same movie the director wants to make.
*** END OF MANIFESTO ***
Some people thrive on chaos. That is NOT what this project will be about, nor will it be a repository for random shtick. The fiscally responsible Roger Corman approach for low budget is to lock the script and storyboard everything so that the crew can anticipate in advance of a shoot what equipment is needed to achieve the shots and how much time is needed so that we can make the day.
Should the bulk of casting or crewing come from the same person, it is especially vital that this individual meet the above criteria and want to make the same movie. Otherwise the project can deteriorate into a popularity contest or an unstable democracy. The one nod to democracy should be the informed choice made at the outset whether or not to participate. “You have to follow your own gut. No hard feelings if you don’t want to be part of this.”
That is a sincere response to those who opt out or attempt to coerce a script change or omission to suit his or her personal peccadillo. I consider it a polite lie, but have said it myself. Many people I know lean so far to the left they would ban and erase every performance of “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” So there would be a natural clash with me.
My policy is this: John Cleese, a co-founder of Monty Python, perhaps put it best quoting his friend and a co-author Robin Snynner of Life and How to Survive It:
“If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behaviors.”
This applies to trying to block or erase anything that may set off anxiety for those who have survived trauma. Good intentions or not. Survivors have suffered loss of control, so they may act out in one form or another by exerting whatever control over others – if only on social media or campaigning to have something banned, censored or pulled from the airwaves or public spaces. For this reason, the sensibility of outrage culture is suspect and needs to be resisted. This is a big part of the joy and satisfaction of my own writing, which may not apply if you are not burdened by my style or quirks. The story and plot of a movie just a container for specific lines or shots I am passionate about putting into the world. I don’t especially embrace the “kill your darlings” credo because so much of my writing is JUST little darlings.
If they are delivered “fast and flat” as Barry Sonnenfeld like his comedy dialogue, that is usually best for anything I write. Like a pebble skimming the surface of the water. When people read, they may come to a dead stop after a risky quip, but the movie doesn’t. If a table reading is organized it has to be without anyone checking their phone for texts and everyone engaged and energized so it isn’t just an intellectual recitation of content but we are selling ourselves on the potential fun tone (or whatever tone you prefer). A cold read may be a challenge some actors like, but it doesn’t serve to make the table read engaging. You want to catch any words tough to pronounce or any speed bumps. But even saying that, coordinating a table read can be exhausting. But at least it can get across a version of the proposed content so that anyone attending or hearing a recording of the audio at least can get an idea of the music of the pacing in various runs of dialogue and what it really is they are making an informed choice to join.
Between 1998 and 2006, I joined and left or got dis-invited from five writer’s groups. This is not counting participation and reviewing scripts on zoetrope.com and triggerstreet.com. Typically these groups are started by people who want feedback for their own output and in some cases there is a bit of a control issue. The last group I was involved in during those years had evolved through LIFT the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto. Here is a group that rents equipment and facilities to non-commercial, personal films. But the screenwriting circle was run by a guy who wanted only writers trying to write for sale to the industry. This meant a lot of reiteration of the Robert McKee and Syd Field kind of plot paradigm and nothing from the inside out or with insight into the writers. There is the tired old chestnut distinguishing between a rule and a principle. Today, there is increased talk about how the classic commercial paradigm is too confining. I once used the word “dogmatic” and he asked me to define it. I did, but couldn’t get over the air that he believed he was setting me up for embarrassment in case I failed to define it.
I happened to leave that group after my father passed away, when I wasn’t focusing on writing and had some personal issues to work through. I had no real deadline and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing for the sake of writing. I was then told it was supposed to be my turn to submit, so I did send the current draft of a feature script without combing through it for a final proof read. This became an issue. Again, this might have been another set up, this time seeing if I was truly leaving the group over grief. Suffice to say, the tone of a meeting was set by this insufferable jackass. I had a run of dialogue between deliberately named characters Mack and Beth, and one might reasonably assume people would understand this is not an oversight, but the quality of laughter when it was brought up suggested the handiwork of the moderator. His friend and second-in-charge of the group has gone on to make a handful of features. But the head moderator of the group seems to have gone on to post some seemingly fake credits on imdb. Ultimately, after each meeting the group would go for a beer nearby and I attended a couple of times but I had a night shift to attend in those days and so I couldn’t fully make the commitment to join and socialize, so that made me a bit of the odd man out and opened the possibility of letting my image be created for me. I do remember a short being presented for discussion and I praised it for being satirical. The woman who had written it flatly told me, “I didn’t intend it as hilarious” so a few years later when she won the Toronto Urban Film Festival with it pretty much as written and Atom Egoyan was quoted as calling it great satire I was happy without being able to say I told you so.
Many of these little groups – some of which involved cold live readings, but mostly discussion of drafts or sections of drafts – seemed ineffective. If I am given half an hour of a feature (25-30 pages) for comment I am unable to thoughtfully factor in the context. If we are asking each other to read a full draft, and the discussion is less about the specific dialogue and more about the broad strokes, then it may be more practical to show each other four page outlines that clearly show how the real estate of story and plot are to be spent over the first act, the two halves of the second act, and then the third act, what the turning points are and how key problems are solved. The trouble is that most studios or filmmakers would love to get their hands on a true story outline that solves the broad strokes, just so they can have someone expand on it and steamroll the original writer into oblivion. Most movies are professionally produced and often directed with style and the screenplay or plot is the weakest link. The full drafts often submitted for the group to read and give notes on (including many of my own) are typically not ready to be seen by anyone. They are too frequently knocked off because there is a sudden opening in the queue and something is due.
I also found that it is best to invite specific writers you respect if you build a group. Especially now, there is more division over how to approach humor and sensitive subject matter that it can detract from getting a useful tracking of how people follow a script and where interest levels peak or drop and what is muddled. One group I had been invited to because I had filmed at one of the members’ houses and I had sat in during a reading and apparently my acting was well received. This lasted until I had submitted something and a couple of members were concerned that I had not taken the same screenwriting course they had – one that apparently cautioned writers to banish anything “problematic” from a story or description, or anything that was not flaming progressive. The friend who had brought me in was delicate when telling me this. Sometimes this kind of turn of events doesn’t come with a satisfying explanation. I had to connect my own dots. I looked back at my last draft where I was describing – for example – a cleaning lady who hated dirt. I had drawn blank on the word “pristine” so I wrote in a place-holder “perfectly white” referring to her hands, but forgetting to put an asterisk on either side of the place-holder for later editing. Even something like that could have someone to get the wrong idea.
My take on writers in general is that many are gold rush seekers, and some just want to have the identity of writer, but most of us are interested in ourselves and the bubble around us. They say you know someone by the company he or she keeps. I was in that last screenwriting group for three years, and I am somewhat on speaking terms with one of the members but couldn’t confidently say many of the names even if I remember drafts of their scripts I’ve read. I’m not even sure I like many of the writers I know. I am certain that taking random opinions to heart has caused me to waste time exploring drafts of my work that were dead ends. Meanwhile there are times I have written coverage on someone’s script and they appreciate that it is getting into how the themes are used and what personal issues the writer brought into it. A story or script might be a message or clue from the unconscious, just as the initial spark of an idea and its euphoria is the tip of that iceberg hinting that the rest might be stored in the writer’s mind and that he or she is the person to develop it.
Jim Jarmush has said he will write a first draft in longhand and hand this to a typist and shoot that. Woody Allen claims to use an old typewriter, then maybe circles a few things on it with pen for corrections and lets someone else retype it. Meanwhile some of us are puttering away at multiple drafts instead of getting on with it. One script I had been paid for each time I did a rewrite (for which I’m grateful) had been set aside by the producer and needed my encouragement. It had table readings and yet no urgency of production until world events made the core premise dated. I think initially a previous writer would not provide an electronic version because he wanted control. So I retyped that draft and made some adjustments along the way and gave both a pdf and editable office document to the producer. I had recommended printing it out and writing in concerns or edit notes onto that so that I could see the changes at a glance and go through it in the file to apply changes without unnecessary time-consuming re-reading. But a poor typist was brought in to use different software and generate a new draft I had trouble wading through and could not embrace as a potential director. I really needed to be able to track at a glance what had been dropped or changed and I was angry with the unseen typist who had made so many mistakes that this draft could not be presented to anyone. To this day, I offer ideas on fixes but I know if I do it there is a psychological commitment. Not having the last word is one thing, and wanting to make a different movie is another. Even though I certainly want to see my friend have something to show for all the time and money that has already gone into generating the material.
During all that same time, over ten years, my clown epic had been refined to a point where I was livid when I discovered some key people wanted to do improvisation instead of the dialogue I had crafted. That would have been too unwieldy and rob me of true closure that vindicated my writing. But other filmmakers have their premise and draw in their collaborators and jump into pre-production without a finished script and have a leap of faith about improvisation. I know myself enough to know that would not be my cup of tea. I like to have a common point of reference, a final script. I wonder if skipping those screenwriting support circles might have allowed me to just blunder ahead with whatever crazy drafts I had and make features fifteen years earlier. I do know that if you are in a group just because you answered an open call or you belong to a co-up that entitles you to participate it won’t be as useful as notes from someone whose work you respect and who cares enough about the craft to ask what you mean if something is unclear and who may even care if you exist. If you love the craft of screenwriting and some of its architectural demands then it won’t be so personal that it is uncomfortable – it is just about how information is set up and how prepared the reader/audience will be for what happens next.
In your twenties and thirties, a screenwriting group might be a way to network. It might also be a way to push people away with failing to be progressive enough or passionate enough with political opinions. It is a double-edged sword. Identity politics can wear you out. And if you have notes on a script and by the time a circle comes around to you others have already said what you had prepared it will seem like a waste of time. The funny thing is that a playwright I respect had once stated in a blog that, “You should not respond to feedback on a script right away. Just take the notes and think on them and decide what is useful and what is not.” Something like that. And yet how many times after a table read or screenwriting discussion do we expect writers to answer questions or justify something in the script? Maybe at the outset, the writer should ask what kind of feedback is helpful (tracking one’s interest in the scenes, characters, content) and that you have no intention of asking questions, only noting them to look over later.
Sometimes doing several stabs at a outline is more useful than any feedback. Really kicking the tires of the story without generating a huge word count and getting lost in the weeds. I encourage people to write but the concept of peers and peer review isn’t something to take as having blanket value. Some say even random feedback is akin to what you get from the general audience anyway, but there is a skill to reading and evaluating just as there is a talent and craft needed for the writing itself. Some people are armchair studio executives and others will putter with writing, off and on, like playing the lottery.
For years I could spend time reading scripts and noting my observations and generating substantial reviews on-line and in return getting reviews for my own scripts that were minimum word count b.s. proof that the person just skimmed the script. I know if I have spent a couple of hours reading a script or anything else (especially with an open word file for my notes and first impressions as I go) I will have something to say. Making room for a lot of writers in a group to present their work for feedback requires commitment. I might prefer to e-mail my notes if I can’t attend a meeting and be denied the e-mail address of the writer of the month because the moderator wants all discussion verbal and oral face to face. (Really to make sure his/her role and authority as moderator is not rendered irrelevant.) Even though that is not practical. Ultimately, some people might feel they need a sense of community and people to have a beer with or vent with but in practical terms a screenwriter circle is not practical. Maybe one great script with a circle of producers and financers would be ideal.
While in college, I contacted a filmmaker from my hometown and showed him some writing samples for the hell of it. I had only met him as an extra on a feature he did, and that scene didn’t make the final cut. I had written a couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation spec episodes because that show accepted submissions from fans, and I had written an original feature called Crotch, about a pornographer who has to retire as a condition of his pending marriage. They were, for good or ill, writing samples. He invited me over to see an idea he might want me to work on. When I got there and he pointed to the title and couple of paragraphs, I had a sinking feeling and had to say no because it seemed too exploitative. I didn’t like the title and the two paragraphs seemed to represent two different stories.
A short time later, he called saying that he had to show an investor a four page outline and could I help by knocking one off in the next couple of days. Back then I had a naive can-do attitude and felt I should try to meet the challenge, even while I was a full time student. I went to the school’s Mac lab and knocked off four pages from handwritten notes I had made in my travels. I sent this off, either as an e-mail or maybe he picked it up where I was living in second year. He made his deadline and next began to write a partial draft which was mostly a first act and a few other scenes. He wanted to know if in a couple of weeks I could build that into a full draft. I actually recognized at least one line from my Crotch script. But I again took the challenge to name that tune in a short space of time. He was acting in one of my short films, so at a rehearsal I handed him a 123 page draft. I could get into detail with character names and which elements I introduced, but I don’t want to open old wounds by naming the project. One of the paradoxes of movie-making is that you may have a bad experience with people you otherwise like.
He showed the long draft to various unnamed people and then gave me their notes, a few of which were contradictory and many of which were against the use of overt “jokes.” Ultimately, the next few drafts were about 100 pages.
Then between semesters he had me bus down to Toronto for a couple of weeks to stay with him and his family in a guest room and generate a final draft. He presented me with something to sign and which he also signed a copy of, with his wife as witness that stated story by him and screenplay by himself and me as an agreement that this was how the credit would read. At that point in the process, I had already contributed enough to justify this. There was a table reading, and then several days of pulling the script apart and putting the pages on a wall of the office and scrutinizing the flow of it. Another writer strolled in one day to look at what we had done and he ostensibly had been hired to do a “step outline” which seemed like a step backward. It turned out that what he had brought was a sample of his own start on an actual draft. His approach for the opening had an entirely different gimmick. I don’t believe any of his work ended up in the draft but it gave me a strong gut sense of how when someone is being paid for work their output is given more consideration than the grind of ideas that come from the underpaid or free writer.
When I returned home, after a week or so he also visited our mutual home town and presented me with the latest draft. It threw me because it had material from the earliest version and it seemed like a huge regression. I likely said some things in anger. Then he said that our work on his home computer had gotten deleted and apparently even the floppy back-up we had used over those two weeks had a problem and he had to revert back to the older incomplete version. It seemed implausible and I was depressed about it. I mean how could both the computer and the back up floppy have been corrupted?
Today I might e-mail a back-up, which has its own drawbacks. You might have a collaborator or friend with a huge archive of drafts you don’t want anyone to see.
Then two big movies came out with a similar premise or setting to the one we had been writing. This director/producer decided to shelve his project and focus on something else. None of his investors were interested now.
Eighteen years later, give or take, I happen to be chatting with this person while I am working at a security guard post and he mentions that he has only a few more days left shooting this film and names the title. And this is the first I have heard that he got someone to finance the movie all those years later. I might have wanted to set foot in the home of the protagonists and meet them. But then the question might come up about why I might be so interested. When there was a screening, I was invited. I brought a friend who had been familiar with the background and recognized my sense of humor that had survived in certain scenes. I left a comment alluding to my only credit being in the special thanks list and wondering what the answer would be if someone asked what I was thanked for. Shortly after that screening there were things going on in his personal life that made it impossible to broach the subject. I also had an aneurysm by then. But another screening eventually happened and this time three people asked about the writing in the Q & A and each time there was a version of the story that did not mention my involvement. I was tempted to stand up and field those questions.
Eventually, I sent him a Facebook message with my concerns and reminding him of some contributions right down to spelling the word Valentine backward to create a character name which he then shortened a bit. He agreed to meet, gave me a copy of the movie and a very small check for $200 which was what had been due for the two weeks I had written at his place nearly two decades before. I agreed to a small credit on imdb which I won’t disclose here but it was not co-writer which was indeed the truth.
My only conclusion from this is that it is generally unwise to start with someone else’s idea, which causes you as writer to have to get “right” the vision the person claims to have. Your own unconscious will be working on that person’s story for months or years and it can take a toll. If you are getting paid up front and going through an agent so these agreements can’t be swept under the carpet, great. There may have been positive aspects to this kind of collaboration, because someone else cares about it being done. But it should be done with eyes open and also not over the internet. I remember also jumping at the chance to write some radio dramas for someone only to discover it was a project that fell apart and the call had gone out to many writers anyway so it was all the more speculative. Better to put your passion into something you control, and then direct it yourself. If that is an option.
Giving feedback on writing can take insight and a certain talent of its own. If you are willing to take the time to compose a screenplay, it might also be worth letting people know the kind of feedback you need. Maybe you just want to track how the reader feels or is engaged or bored from scene to scene. You may want to know whether you are clear enough or whether your ambiguity or withholding of information engages curiosity or frustration.
You may know that a screenwriting circle you belong to tends to discuss only the broad strokes, so asking them to read a four page outline might help kick the tires on your story. Too many drafts that are not ready for feedback, full of typos, are submitted for premature feedback and it can hurt the writer’s image. A table reading where actors are determined to go through it cold may mean discovering speed bumps that could have been ironed out in advance. If one reader is busy checking text messages during the read and misses cues, a screenplay that relies on rhythm can lose its charm. Any gathering of people should be the chance to hear the script work. But another problem with table readings is that if the screenplay is so dialogue heavy it plays like a radio drama those listening will consider it a huge success but it will not be cinematic. It will be pictures of people talking. This doesn’t allow a cinema director much to work with.
Also, figure out how to break the news to prospective actors that you ideally plan to shoot what you wrote so that the writing is vindicated instead of replaced with paraphrasing or improvisation to placate cast members who want to avoid learning dialogue. It can be hellish to find out someone doesn’t get the stylized approach to your patter or a heightened language or they are just used to generating their own material and believe the written word to be arbitrary. They may feel vocal characteristics of actors are not enough to distinguish them and that what one character takes a few words to convey another should need half a page. Improvisation can take longer and may not inter-cut properly. For a low-budget film, straying from the script means having the ground shift under the feet of the director. And as common as it may be, a writer may have to fight for fidelity to the work and to avoid a committee sensibility.
Maybe the most commonly read draft or output of a script should not have everything in it. You might create a second document with embellishments that might have thrown some readers. I once forgot the word “pristine” for a cleaning lady’s hand and used as a place holder “perfectly white” and forgot to replace it. That may have been taken the wrong way by someone. I also had a domino effect after hearing someone’s long-delayed feedback that a couple of jokes were (in his mind) “punching down” and I could only reply, “You have to follow your own gut. No hard feelings if you don’t want to do the movie.” Some subjective and philosophical issues and interpretations have to be handled outside of the script. You either will allow someone else to decide what stays and what goes based on their sensitivity or you want the script to represent your own risks, tastes, and point of view. You might want to avoid what the Chinese call beizuo or the false virtue signalling that goes on so much in Western culture.