If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Get Shorty, I recommend a viewing. It’s one of Travolta’s wisest post Pulp Fiction moves, which is owed, in large part, to Scott Frank’s adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel (RIP, EL). Frank adapted another Leonard gem, Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, was one of the writers on Spielberg’s Minority Report, and shares credit with Mark Bomback on this summer’s The Wolverine, to name a few. BAFTA Guru posted a twenty-five minute video of Scott in their The Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, full of stories and advice from one the industry’s top screenwriters.
SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS
By far, my favorite moment of the lecture is Frank’s satirical commentary on the state of the industry for young writers. If you work hard and have a little luck come your way, you might be fortunate enough to live the life. From there, it’s just a simple roll of the dice whether you’re Brody or Quint.
Some lower level development exec, who works for the producer right out of Wesleyan, gives the writer notes and sends him off again with the notes, and the writer dutifully executes these notes, and then young development exec suggests a couple more things based on how one of their other scripts was recently received at the studio, and the writer makes these changes, and then the development exec finally hands the script in to the producer who hasn’t been in a single story meeting since they sold the idea to the studio, but is in lots of meetings at the producer’s guild where he’s on the board and they’re busy trying to limit the number of producing credits on movies to those who only actually produce, anyway, I digress.
The producer reads the script and asks, ‘What is this?! This is a whole other movie! We can’t turn this into the studio!’ And the development exec goes back to the writer and says, ‘The producer hated it and wants it to be more like what we pitched.’ And the writer says, ‘but I followed the outline and made all of your changes.’ And the development exec says, ‘yeah, I know, but he wants a new script.’ And he writer asks, timidly, his voice barely above a whisper, if he can possibly be paid for the delivery of the work he’s done. And the development exec explains that in order for that to happen, they’d have to turn the script in to the studio, and the studio doesn’t want to do that now, and fuck up his chances, because the first impression is everything…. everything… everything…
The writer says, ‘but I’m broke, and I need the money, so can I take another job?’ And the development exec says, ‘No way! We’ve been waiting nine weeks for this as is.’ And the writer says, ‘then I have to turn it into the studio so I can get paid.’ And so now, the producer, who’s not bothered to talk to the writer, or been in any meetings up to this point, calls the writer’s agent and says ‘Your client’s being difficult! If he keeps this up, he’s not going to work in this hemisphere ever again. Certainly not from me.’ And the agent, who is very young and also a bit of a pussy, and just wants to keep it all flowing, asks the writer, can’t he just do a quick draft of what they want, because if he doesn’t, no one will work with him. And so the writer does the best he can, not really sure what he’s doing, because he’s well and truly on his own. But he does the best he can because his wife is going to have a baby and he doesn’t want to be perceived as difficult. So he turns in this new draft, which the producer, after two more drafts from the writer, finally signs off on and they turn it into the mid-level studio exec assigned to the project who reads it, and says she likes a lot of it, but it’s not really what they agreed to and can they have a meeting to go over it. So, they bring the writer in for the meeting with the mid-level studio exec, a junior studio exec with a pad, the producer, the development exec who works for the producer, and anyone else who happens to be in the building, and they go over the script, and they tell the writer they can’t turn the script in to the head of the studio because they know he’ll hate it as written, but if the writer makes a few small changes, but key changes, they think it has a good shot. And the writer, who’s stunned, calls his agent from the parking lot, can’t he get paid for delivery now. And the agent says, you got to do this if you want your movie made, and if you get your movie made, you going to be worth a lot more than what you’re owed right now, so consider this an investment in yourself.’ And so the writer dutifully executes all the notes and turns the script in, yet again. And the studio exec hands it upstairs, to the head of the studio, without reading it, because the lower-level studio exec read it and assured her that it was fine, thus covering the mid-level studio exec’s ass, and the head of the studio only reads scripts on Sunday between 11am and 3pm, reads it and says he loves the idea for the movie, but hates the script and who’s available to replace the writer.
IMPORTANCE OF OPENING
The opening of your script should establish the world of story. In our latest podcast, we discussed Back to the Future. It opens with rock ‘n roll and Doc Brown manipulating time. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the opening deals with the failed pursuit of a suspect that ends with one officer dead and the protagonist left with a crippling case of acrophobia. An opening can be simple, too, as is the case with Gladiator. A man walks through a wheat field, his hand lightly stroking the spikelets. So, when Frank says he doesn’t start writing until he knows what he’s fading in on, I couldn’t agree more: The opening means everything.
I can’t move forward until I’ve written my opening scene. I spend more time on the opening that any other scene by far.
Scott Frank and Brian Helgeland seem like polar opposites (click here for Helgeland’s BAFTA lecture). Perhaps it’s easier to say Frank’s the passive version of Helgeland. After all, they trust their instinct over others, and in the end, arrive at the same place. A producer once explained to me that screenwriters are paid for their opinion, regardless of what’s popular at the moment. The job is collaboration and sometimes that means pushing back.
More than any other form of writing, screenwriting, for better or for worse, is collaborative. Invariably, the second draft will be worse than the first draft. Be ready for it, don’t panic, but it will reek. As the saying goes, you try to please everyone, you please no one. What happens is, I do this draft, I listen to this person or that person, I rewrite for an actor who doesn’t commit , I rewrite for a budget that’s made up, I rewrite based on the notes that studio heads scribbled while reading my script in the midst of eleven or twelve others. I have my own problems with the script that I’m trying to fix. The producer gets a last minute “thought.” I try that. I try everything, I put it all in there, and it’s awful.
And then a strange thing happens to me, every single time and has for twenty-eight years. Rather that get depressed, I always, without fail, get angry at myself for being so weak and pathetic for not having the conversation when we were, you know, having the conversation. And then I start a new file and I call it “my draft” and everybody’s ideas, everybody’s thoughts, everybody else’s things they want me to try, all get pushed aside. They all become like the radio in the next room: I can hear them, I’m aware of them, but they’re not distracting me. I wish I could skip the second draft altogether. I wish there was someway to magically go from a first drat to a third draft. I wish I could better defend the work in the room. And I wish I could be smarter.