Surviving the Rewrite: Part-Two by Diane Duane

In Part One of "Surviving the Rewrite," Diane offered advice on how to tackle the rewrite. Here are a few more things to consider when rewriting your script.

Even if you never intend to submit your script to anyone, you need to pretend that you’re going to, for the eventual sale is the closing move of the screenplay game, and no script that ignores it can be well written. Nobody in this business gets to wave their hands in the air as regards to production issues and say, “We’ll worry about that after the script sells.” A realistic attitude toward the nuts and bolts of production is what sets the old pros, or the promising new intake, apart from the rank newbies. And one word in your ear here: while it’s fun to fantasize about impressing some world-famous director, what’s true in the screen world is that most of the time it’s producers who commission films (and hire/pay the directors).

So think about it. What’s your script’s budget going to be–big, small, in between? And if you don’t know what big, small and in-between budget numbers look like–at least as ballpark figures–get busy finding out. Online or in printed form, dip into the trades like Variety and Hollywood Reporter for this info. Online, get friendly with IMDb, an invaluable tool. Use it and other online resources to examine the shooting histories of favorite movies and find out how much they cost, and what that translates into in “now money” if they were made a while back.

Once you have a sense of what the numbers look like these days, take a new hard look at your screenplay and start working out what you might need to change to make it more affordable. Have you written scenes so expensive in terms of sets or location work that they would bankrupt George Lucas? Have you created situations that cannot possibly be expressed without using CGI techniques that are presently prohibitively expensive? Yes, I know that they’ll probably be cheaper by the time your film is made. But if you say that with a straight face to the prospective producer of your script, she or he will immediately start considering how to get rid of you and bring in some rewrite artist who’s more closely in touch with reality.

The corollary to this: No producer anywhere on this planet will beat you up for trying to save her or him money. There is never enough money in any production to do all the things the producer really wants to do, and a producer who knows that the writer is trying to be helpful at the budget end will find ways to keep you around. Where you can make changes in your script to save money, do it before the producer starts wishing you had and is getting ready to toss your script onto the ever-growing pile of rejects.

Now, I can just hear you screaming inside your head (as I’ve screamed many a time) “But all these changes are ruining my script! What about my vision?!” Again I have to remind you that this is a cooperative art, a committee job. You may be the first member of the committee, but if “your vision” is going to be shared some day by millions of others, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s now going to have to become “our vision” to a great many people: besides your producers, at least one director (and there may be several), not to mention a film studio and/or distributor. (An utterly pragmatic screenwriter once told me that one highly effective way to keep some aspect of “your vision” in the frame was to get the director to think she thought of it first. But this is an exercise for the advanced student, and one that can backfire, so be warned.)

So while you’re completing your rewrite, keep in mind that part of your job—if you want to get the thing filmed—is to make your work as congenial and accessible as possible to your fellow committee members by removing as many reasons as you possibly can for them to say “no” right away. This is a more delicate part of the rewrite, perhaps, than any other. In particular, the careful observer of the movie business will be perfectly aware that film is trend-sensitive. Some specific kind of story, or storytelling, will somehow become hot, have four or five films about it made, and then be cast aside without warning. Generally speaking, if you’re getting ready to send your script out, it’ll be wise if it avoids not only what’s recently been hot but now is cold, but also what’s hot right now. If your script does by accident have, at the heart of the story you always wanted to tell, something that’s hot at the moment, look carefully at what you’ve done and then in rewrite make sure that your script contains an angle that you’re sure no one’s used before, the character twist that no one will see coming, a true gamechanger. 

And don’t be disappointed if you don’t find it quickly. Take your time. Think: reason it out. There’s way too much nonsense flying around out there about “muses” and inspiration and the creative spark, and not nearly enough about sitting down and figuring out the solution to a problem, methodically and with care. You don’t need to be divinely inspired to build a bookshelf. You just need to take your time figuring out how to saw the planks, and where to hammer the nails in.

Eventually you’ll come to the end of your rewrite. There will come a point when you’ll realize that for the time being at least, there’s nothing further to do, and you’ll rightly step back and let your script rest. If you are one of those who have been writing your screenplay for sheer pleasure, then here you genuinely need to congratulate yourself. Many would-be screenwriters never make it through even one pass of the grueling process you’ve just survived. You have played the game, insofar as you could, exactly the way that those of us play it everyday do.

If, however, you’ve been writing with an intent to see your film made, then this is where you have to get to grips with the fact that, if you’re lucky, you will be going through this process again and again, many times,. When you get sick of it all, you need to console yourself–and steel yourself to the next pass–by the knowledge that all over the planet, thousands of us are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with you in spirit, scribbling on pads or hammering away at keyboards, going through the very same purgatory. And truly, the word isn’t a bad one for what’s involved here. The rewrite is about purging your script of all the things that don’t work: of taking away everything that doesn’t look or act like part of a successful movie. Each of these purges will teach you something new about your craft; as Heisenberg could have told you, the relationship between the scriptwriter and the script cannot be one-way.

And someday, if you’ve done your work honestly, and if the stars align correctly–for not just skill but also luck can play a part in this process–someday you will see your work run on a screen in front of other human beings in a theater. If you’re lucky, at the end of it they’ll stand up and cheer. I’ve been there. I can tell you that there is no drug like it on the planet for producing so sheer a rush of joy to the brain. And when it happens, you will know: The rewrites got you there.

Get out there. Rewrite. And good luck!

Diane Duane’s first screen work was for Hanna-Barbera in the 1980s, when she and Scrappy-Doo entered the workplace together. Since then she has screenwritten for characters ranging from Batman to Barbie and from Scrooge McDuck to Siegfried the Volsung. She has storyedited in both live action and animated television, and has written for the BBC and numerous other European networks and production entities. Her most recently aired screen work is the November 2010 SyFy movie-of-the-week The Lost Future, starring Sean Bean. Her ScriptFrenzy script, Dead and Breakfast, can be read at DianeDuane.com.