“Writing is rewriting”. Another quote about screenwriting, don’t know who said it, but applies to professional writing in general. It took me a while to accept this short mantra but now I realise that the one consistent aspect of becoming a professional scriptwriter is that you’ll always be asked to change your work. Even when you do a really good draft or come up with a different scene or change something for the better, you can always rely on a script editor or exec to go against the grain of your sensitivities and ask you, shock horror, to do some more work on your script. Quite often, the natural reaction to this is to take offence or sulk or call all script editors morons but usually, after a bit of perspective, you can see that (murmur it now) they’re right.
While it is easy to bristle at a script editor’s seemingly ill-informed advice or misconstrued criticism, they’re not actually trying to upset you or just offering a suggestion willy nilly because they’ve got nothing else to say. (I have heard of some horror stories involving inept script editors, and I’m sure they’re out there, but to date my experience has only been of intelligent, astute and hard working folk). They’re only thinking what’s right for the story. For the moment, they’re the audience sitting in the cinema seats and what they’re giving back to you is their instinctive reaction to how your story is making them feel. It’s all very well to be defensive and pout “that’s not what I meant, this script editor knows nothing” but this should be a warning that you’re not getting across what you thought was so clear on the page. (“But Julie loves her! The seething glance on page 59 is as clear as day!”)
This is not a post about script editors and their contribution but as a final aside, I worked with a script editor recently who made me so mad I was very tempted to make a voodoo doll in his guise and stick forks in it repeatedly and harshly. But I bit my lip and listened to what he had to say. And as it transpired, what he had to say was actually very good; it was just the way he said it (very patronising) that made me so defensive and angry to his suggestions. The upshot was I had to rewrite my script. The first time I had to rewrite one of my scripts, I barely changed anything but proudly submitted it as the ‘second draft’. And I think this can be a problem both in the spec market and in the development process.
I think writers are generally loathe to tinker with their work because they know every nuance and emotion involved in the story, and think it works just fine. Even when they know something’s not working, the tendency is to maybe touch up a bit of dialogue in the troubled scene but keep it there because the prospect of editing it out (and replacing it with something new) is unattractive, especially when you consider the consequences for the story’s remaining structure. But when preparing your spec to be sent out around town, it’s essential that it’s at its best, that there is no nagging sense of ‘that sequence could be better’ or whatever. Do not send your first draft. Make sure you rewrite it (they'll get you to change it later anyway).
It’s a tough discipline, proper rewriting, but to help myself learn this essential technique, I managed to option my very first screenplay by telling the producer how bad it was but laid out what changes I would write to make it better. He gave me a bit of cash and with that incentive, I was forced to chuck out the 90 pages of guff I had written and do a complete makeover on the script. This is often referred to as a “page one rewrite” where you literally start at page one and change everything bar the essential concept and characters. The second draft was wholly different but still had the idea and the characters so it was still familiar and very much ‘the same’. But more importantly, when I handed it in, I had given the producer ‘something new’ to read. This is significant. When a rewrite comes in, producers, readers, execs like to be presented with what they paid for, not a minor tinkering of some dialogue and scenes (these are typically ‘revisions’ when the basic structure has been approved so the rewrites become ‘polishes’ rather than a major overhaul of the story).
It was an extremely valuable experience for me as I learned that whatever I thought was essential to the story, or could not be changed, could actually be chucked out or revised or improved. In another script, I long held on to the opening scene thinking that there was no better way to begin the film but I was encouraged and cajoled to change it, so I did (with a grump), and they were right, goddammit. So I think it’s important to listen to what people have to say about your script, consider its implications, put the ego aside and think: ‘ok, let’s see what happens if I change things around’. Another quote, again the name escapes me, but a famous one: "You have to be prepared to kill your darlings".
A couple of years ago, I was given the horror script, Creep, to read. Written and directed by Christopher Smith. It was a good script with real potential and I recommended it but I also noted my reservations about some key elements of the story. A few months later, I was given the script again, a rewrite. I looked forward to reading it but I was disappointed because, in my opinion, there wasn’t enough significant change and it hadn’t suitably improved. That draft went into production and the final product was okay, but in my view, it could have been so much better (but well done Chris Smith for getting it made, and good luck to you).