Posted by: Greg | June 16, 2010

Get Over It and Just Keep Writing

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve read six or seven screenplays. I will admit I do this because I like to see how movies are written. I enjoy reading the descriptions of scenes and how much the writers put down to give enough of an image for the director to film. This past week I read Batman Begins, The Incredibles, and The Hangover. All three were phenomenal scripts. All three entertained me in different ways. But one stood out from the others. It wasn’t the dynamic action scene. It wasn’t the mystery and intrigue of the plot. It was the fact that what I read barely resembled the film I saw. The movie in question was The Hangover.

But Greg, it’s a comedy. Everyone knows comedies have parts where the director wants different lines from the actors. Everyone knows actors will improvise if they do not find the line something their character would say. Everyone knows another writer or writing team is hired to “punch up” a script. (Note: this applies to all scripts not just comedies!)

Yes, all of the above is true and I’m alright with this.

What? Why? What about that situation is okay?

If my comedy script or action script gets produced and Steve Carell or Bruce Willis improves a line, I will just say “Yes, sir that’s fantastic.” I’m not doing that to suck up. These are professional actors and have been in the industry for decades, they have a little more knowledge of what does and does NOT work. The same goes for directors. Film is a collaboration for art. I welcome further advice. I welcome others ideas. The various groups of people involved have wonderful things to offer the film. (Yes, sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen ruin the dinner, but it is still the largest collaborative art form!) I am too new in this field to expect my script to be what I see in the theaters. An easy way around the issue is to just direct it myself, but I have no wish to direct. I just want to write.

So, I started pondering the issues with The Hangover and what happens from sold script to final film? I was intrigued. Really no tiger in the bathroom? No baby? No police car in the valet? If all of these changes are made to a purchased product, is the original screenwriter recognized as a writer? Who gets their name on the credits? Why bust my butt if my script isn’t going to be the one I see on the screen?

I interviewed a script analyst, Xandy Sussan, of CoverMyScript, and a script reader, Mike Lee, from Screenwriting Foxhole. I learned of these two helpful people from Twitter and Scriptchat. (All four locations are highly informative places to learn about the art & craft of screenwriting and to meet fellow screenwriters!) Xandy and Mike provided me with some fantastic insights like issues of writing and rewrites not clearly explained in my screenwriting books or brutal honesty of what happens out there in Hollywood.

Although maybe some things should stay behind the curtain! I’m not sure if they were trying to scare me off or being perfectly blunt for an overly sensitive writer. (Honestly, I think overly sensitive screenwriters should have Don Rickles stand behind them during a writing session. Nothing better than being berated by a master to knock out one’s sensitivity.)

After picking their brains with a few questions a clearer understanding of the screenwriters place in Hollywood became apparent. We sit pretty close to the bottom of the totem pole. It doesn’t thrill me too much, but I can appreciate what it means when the whole process is complete. (Think of all the names seen during a film’s final credits, a few of them got their input in the final cut.) Xandy says,

“while you’re slaving away making your script “art,” it’s really a utilitarian blue print for a group to make art from. So, yes it needs to be well written and beautifully executed, but you always have to remember that you’re outlining instructions for what people are to do. Movies do not exist in a vacuum. They are made from collaboration, whether you like it or not. You’re giving a team of people a “How-to-Build-Art” step-by-step and then it’s up to them to follow your instructions and get the project done. The difference is who works on it with you. Good people = A good result, especially in the beginning. But most of the time, you don’t get to choose who you work with. You only get to start choosing when you’re big and fancy.”

I’m alright with doing a couple rewrites based of what the buyers expect of my script. I understand there are better writers out there and they are brought in for specific reasons such as improved jokes or snappy dialogue. I’m comfortable enough in the knowledge of my own writing skills to shake hands and take a check. If I can’t make the changes in the script to your liking, please pay me for my time and energy. Thank you for the opportunity maybe we can work on another project together. (The more articles I read about writers and writing credits the more I realize that you’re usually fired before you get the chance to be polite and turn away!)

This line of thinking brings me to “Writing credit” on a script. If all these people get their fingers in the pie, who gets recognized? There are set rules defined by the WGA. Mike explained,”The WGA determines who gets credit for a screenplay based on what % of work makes it into the final.” Hey, I like the sound of this. I kind of already assume some changes will be made for funnier lines or something. Of course Xandy found a way to bring reality crashing down on me again. She sent me this link regarding The A-Team and it’s 11 writers. Yes, that’s correct 11 writers. Pay close attention to who ended up with “Writing credit”, the director and his writing partner and one other guy. Not the original writer. So, 3 out of 11 get credit.

Reading between the lines of Xandy and Mike’s responses it’s clear, as a screenwriter, there is only one place to be appreciated in the industry, as a Script Doctor. No, I am not referring to the people you hire to help improve your screenplay before selling it. These elusive people go beyond just adding a few jokes or witty lines. They do rewrites, polishes, and “punch ups”. They do their jobs. They do them effectively and efficiently. They have great reputations and because of their reputations they can get their script made they way they want it. Well, almost…the directors, producers, and actors get some say.

I feel better knowing all this before I start making my marketing plan to get my scripts out. I will bust my butt for recognition within the industry and for the realization of a nice check. I am not scared of having someone rewrite me. Hell, I even expect it. I don’t feel overwhelmed with wishing what I write will get on the screen. I think that is a colossal waste of time.

Mike put it best to bring humor to the somewhat bleak life of an early screenwriter:

The thing to remember is yes, you’re getting screwed but you’ve received a big pay day and you’ve established a track record which means you can pitch directly to studios. Enough of that and maybe YOU’LL be the one they call in to rewrite the other guy’s crap.

I actually have something to aim for beyond just being a screenwriter. I want to be the one called in to “doctor” up a script. Looks like my future will be dealing with other people’s crap! I can’t wait!



  1. Interesting. I was just reading “Backstage” and Jane Lynch of “Glee” fame talked about how she turned down “40 Year Old Virgin” at first because “it read like shit”. What was in the movie wasn’t anything like the script, down to her character–which was written for a man.

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