Getting to Page One: A Producer’s Take On the Writing Process by Stephanie Watanabe

As a creative producer, I work with a lot of writers and one of the most common hurdles I see them face is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Let’s be honest, starting the writing process can be excruciating. Beginning is the hardest part of any journey, but that’s where a good producer and a bit of collaboration can help set the wheels in motion.

I know, I know. You might be thinking of all the horror stories (or first-hand experiences) of producers giving terrible, irrelevant notes or even (yikes!) trying to write the screenplay for you. But this doesn’t have to be the norm. A good producer knows that their role is to help a writer dig deep, get clear, define their creative vision, and then inspire them to action.

A good producer needs your creative genius—just like eventually you need a producer to get your script made into a film. The relationship is mutually beneficial, but it doesn’t come without a healthy dose of creative tension. Creative tension is not a bad thing! It exists in writer/producer meetings, on set and in the editing room and this tension shouldn’t stall or suffocate creativity, if anything it should make the project better.

Here is a list of my own best practices that I’ve found helpful when working with a writer to get from page zero to page one:

  1. Get Clear: Some writers approach me with nothing more than the seed of a brilliant idea (or multiple seeds). They have the idea, but don’t know where to start. This is where your producer comes in handy by asking questions, igniting the spark, and helping to get those creative juices flowing. Half of my job is to ask the hard questions: Is this a world you can authentically write? Do you wake up thinking about this idea? Is the story living inside you? A producer can help gently coax these answers out of you. I always say you should never write a movie that you yourself would not pay to see. The material should speak to your soul. If it doesn’t, then move on. Sometimes just having another person to ask the hard questions and bounce ideas around is enough to ignite the fire and help you get clear.

  2. Outline: Some writers approach a producer with just the idea while others come to the table with a synopsis, treatment or even a “beat sheet,” outlining the general story points of their future screenplay. Either way, an outline is a necessity for most writers.

    The reason I call myself a “creative producer” is because I enjoy helping a writer navigate their story. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is sit down for a few hours and hash out the overall structure. We put the story beats up on a whiteboard in sequential order, and then talk out each individual beat together.

    Talking with another person, out loud, does wonders for making all of the pieces gel. The process helps the writer to get crystal clear on the story, the characters, and the overall flow. From here, you should have a very substantial platform from which to begin writing.

  3. Staying On Target: Checking in with your producer is key—even when you’re in the thick of writing! Everyone’s writing process is different, but I find that most writers like to go into a “cave”, fly solo uninterrupted and write, until the script comes together.

    Though there’s something to be said for isolated creative time, I also think it’s vitally important to have on-going meetings set up with your producer. You can decide what feels right in terms of frequency, but my suggestion is to meet at least every two weeks to go over new material.

    Stories often live deep in the psyche of the writer and sometimes can get lost in translation on the page. A producer can help keep you on track, or get you unstuck, and can tell you if something isn’t coming across on the page. They can also be a sounding board for potential plot twists, new characters, story arc’s, etc. You should utilize your producer during the writing process…they’re there to help.

  4. Good Ol’ Notes: Possibly one of the most dreaded areas for writers…getting notes. It’s understandable why so many writers loathe getting notes from producers or executives. The notes can be vague, unclear, unfocused, and flat out ridiculous at times. Bad notes are tough to swallow. But consider this—a producer’s notes are based on her experience and opinions. They’re completely subjective. Period. And since you’ll never be able to please everyone, my best advice is to listen, be open to constructive feedback, take what works for you, and leave the rest.

    A great way to deal with notes is to come prepared! The tendency for a lot of producers is to come up with their own “creative” suggestions to fix what’s not working. At this point, being the prepared writer you are, tell them how grateful you are for their suggestions, but this is why that idea won’t work. It’s important to know your material inside and out. Tell us why our ideas won’t work. Or conversely, if you think we’ve got a great idea or want to collaborate and work it out together—let’s rock ‘n roll!

Stephanie Watanabe is a creative producer and trusted advisor to artists and entrepreneurs. She spent several years working the L.A. scene. She did time at Creative Artists Agency, a production company at Disney and earned her M.F.A. in Producing at the American Film Institute. After relocating to the city by the Bay, she switched gears and began producing events for Paula Le Duc Fine Catering and co-founded Atelier Joya, a boutique event design & floral studio. Watanabe also produced events for Lucasfilm, Yahoo, and Google, along with hundreds of weddings and social events. She’s a natural born producer with a hefty set of skills, but believes there’s always more to learn. In 2009 she co-founded Berkeley based Georgie Girl Pictures. Stephanie is currently developing a doc, a few features and music videos while also teaching, coaching and advising artists and entrepreneurs and will launch her own branded lifestyle blog in June 2011.