How do some of the most acclaimed screenwriters handle the rewriting process for each screenplay they write?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
1. Writing Is Rewriting
David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel) discusses the most common mistake that novice screenwriters make when they finish that first screenplay. “Writing is rewriting. And it’s true that a lot of beginning writers will finish their draft and will say, ‘It’s great. It’s perfect.’ And it’s not. I find that a script after four or five drafts will get quite good.”
Rewriting is essential. No script is ever complete on the first draft. The writing process must continue with the rewrites that follow. But you can overwrite a script with too many drafts as well.
2. Too Many Rewrites Can Hinder the Screenplay — Or Reveal a Hard Truth
Peter Morgan (Queen, Rush) points out the truth that too many rewrites can ruin a script. “Endlessly rewriting a script probably, to me, is a way of digging yourself further and further into a hole. If it’s good, there will be something good in it after two drafts. And if you’re still scratching away after ten drafts, I think you should write a different one.”
The hard truth that screenwriters often deal with is that the concept they thought was brilliant was either overly contrived, boring, or not well-developed enough to sit down and write yet.
Hossein Amini (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman) commented on rewriting fatigue that you can suffer from as well. “Each draft you write, obviously you do lose some enthusiasm.”
Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Michael Clayton) adds, “It’s a benefit of working quickly. If you work on something too long, something that was really exciting and cool… you forget what was cool after a long time. Your idea that was so exciting, you’ve looked at it a thousand times, and it’s not that cool anymore. And you need to finish, or you need to get an outside reader, or you need to move to another phase of the process before you really remember how cool it was.”
3. Rewrite Like an Editor Edits a Film
Amini pointed out an important perspective that all screenwriters should consider, especially during the rewriting process. “Another thing I’d recommend is to spend some time in an editing room as a screenwriter because I think you’d learn a lot about what’s needed and what’s not — and what gets thrown out.”
Rewriting like an editor edits a film is one of the best ways to learn how to not only rewrite a screenplay but how to write one. You learn about pacing and how to structure a cinematic story.
4. Learn How to Take — and Sometimes Not Take — Notes
Gilroy points out that most screenwriters don’t really want to know how someone feels about their script after reading it. Screenwriters want to hear that they’re brilliant. They want to feel good about themselves. But the most important step is to learn how to take feedback and notes. “It takes a lot of time to learn how to take notes and how to get the benefit out of them. How to take notes from people you really respect and how to take notes from people that you despise and don’t respect at all.”
Morgan says, “When you’re starting out, of course, you’re going to want to take notes because that’s what you think makes people happy. What you don’t realize is that very often people don’t believe in the notes that they’re giving. They’re giving you notes because what they hope it will do is stimulate you to think more deeply about the project. And so sometimes notes are a way of giving you a jolt. And it may be that they think that they want you to answer the note that they’ve given you, but they’re not writers. So I think what they really just want is to stimulate you.”
Goyer builds on Morgan’s revelation. “Sometimes the solution that is offered is ludicrous, but the problem that they’re pointing out is a valid problem. And you have to try and look beyond the idiocy of the solution you’re being offered and think, ‘Oh, but people keep bumping on this so maybe it is a problem.'” He continues, “I’ve found that if you get the same note, even if the solution is different from four or five different people, then it’s not them, it’s you or your script.”
Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes) states that you need to find the perfect balance between taking notes and protecting the screenplay. “The most challenging thing is often keeping the many people involved happy and protecting the script. Your job is to protect it. And being both open to collaboration and being protective is a sometimes delicate dance.”
5. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
Amini offers some outstanding advice for screenwriters. “I really advise people starting out to be incredibly patient. To keep writing and not to wait for that first script to get commissioned and made. Send it out unto the world and hope for the best, but, in the meantime, move onto the next one.”
Learn a few more tips, hear some further elaboration, and understand the writing schedules of these acclaimed screenwriters by watching the full video below!
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