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Survival Tips for Collaborating with a Director When Your Screenplay Moves into Development and Production

By Mark Sanderson · April 16, 2015

If you’re blessed enough to actually sell a screenplay or get paid for an assignment job, your script will move into the important development process where hopefully your project marches toward production. This is your opportunity to shine as the ultimate collaborator and team player and you should do whatever it takes to move the project closer to the ultimate goal of production. It’s not the time to be precious with your material or a diva that bristles at the necessary changes. You want to stay involved in the development process as long as possible to help build your reputation and show your producers and director how vital it is to keep you around.

I’m blessed to have collaborated with many of the directors of my assignment screenplays because of my close working relationship with the producers. When the script finally hooks a director, the producer receives suggestions on how best to shoot the film given the director’s vision and the budget. That’s when I meet with the director and we discuss the requirements to push it closer toward production. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are veterans of the business, some with hundreds of hours of TV or dozens of films to their credit, and it’s in my best interest to listen and learn. Some of the directors have also been writers, and I’ve been fortunate they have respected that I wrote the screenplay and allowed me to do my job as they do theirs.

I’ve been lucky these directors never dictated to me what they needed as if I was an assistant, but treated me as a full collaborator. We discussed the issues and I was given a chance for my input, and then I went off and made the changes under the agreed deadline. The producers allowed this process to happen and it showed their respect for the role of the screenwriter on their project. I’ve been lucky, as this might not be the norm in Hollywood and your first time out may be different. If you do get a chance to work with directors, savor the experience and learn all you can from them as mentors.

Working with directors is an invaluable experience because you’re allowed to collaborate with the person whose job it is to put your words and story onto the screen. Give the director what he or she needs to make the film and you will be remembered as a vital part of the production. At this point in the process, you’re doing production drafts and the script becomes more of a technical document as everything is about making the script ready for the first day of shooting and beyond. Working with directors will help you become a production savvy screenwriter as you learn the realities of filmmaking, how to stay out of the way of the story, and how not overstep your responsibilities as the screenwriter.

As the director begins location scouting, the screenplay goes through more changes as you adjust the scenes to fit the real world sets. I’ve done production polishes during this period and sent back the new draft the next morning so the director could move forward with the process. This is when you build your reputation as a professional who gets the job done when promised. You don’t want to be the person holding up pre-production because that will get you fired.

Your reputation is vital during this period. I recall one morning there was an e-mail glitch with my attached draft and the director didn’t receive it when I had promised to send it. He knew something must have happened because he told me it was out of character for me to say I was going to do something and not follow through. My reputation as a professional preceded me with him because we had already worked together for a few months on the project.

I’ve also been allowed on the set during production as requested by the director and have made changes that alter the following day’s scenes. This is crunch time as the entire production awaits your changes. You have to work under pressure because the director has entrusted you to do what’s necessary under an extreme deadline—the next day. This is when you show just how vital you are to the project and become the hero who saves the scene when it’s not working. I’ve also worked with the lead actors on the set per the request of the director, making changes to dialogue, fine-tuning issues with scenes and making them better. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time, but I was living out my dreams of being a creative force on the movie during the production.

It’s also important to know everything about the directors you’re going to work with on projects. Look up their credits and watch their previous movies to get a sense of their visual style and storytelling preferences. When I was hired to be the script doctor on a Sci-Fi project that needed help, I researched the director’s similar films and when we met, he referenced various shots and techniques in his other films and I understood because of my research. He was impressed and this visual shorthand was vital to our working relationship with regards to me understanding his storytelling needs.

These collaborations pay off in so many ways that help you build your reputation and network of working professionals who may hire you again. One of the greatest compliments that I’ve received was when two directors whom I had worked with on my projects ended up at the same post-production facility editing their latest projects. They knew each other by reputation and when they started talking, somehow my name was brought up, and both had mentioned what a pleasure it was working with me. When you have two directors talking to each other about you in a positive way, it’s gold because it continues to build your reputation and that will secure your next job.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the directors whom I’ve worked with are veterans of the film business and a few have become my friends and mentors. I gained priceless experience when we collaborated together and after when we stayed in touch and they gave me an open door to ask questions and learn. As they have helped me with their mentorship, I’ve worked to do the same and mentor up and coming aspirants who seek knowledge as they gain experience. I continue to consult my director mentors for career advice and their insights about creative issues if I’m about to work with a new director. We’ve also collaborated as partners on their projects and I’ve gone on pitch meetings with them as the writer as we continue to build our working relationship as a collaborative team.

I completely agree with director/writer/actor Jerry Lewis in his book The Total Filmmaker, “Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.” If you understand what directors need to do their job, they will be grateful and keep you around during the development and production process. Be the screenwriter who goes above and beyond to help a director push the project closer to production and everyone wins. 


Mark Sanderson is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with over two-dozen screenplays written in genres ranging from comedy to drama—from his sketch comedy writing and performing as a founding member of The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his thirteen screenwriting assignments, television premieres, and worldwide distribution of his emotionally compelling films—the indie WWII feature I’ll Remember April, Lifetime Network's holiday films An Accidental Christmas and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir feature Stingers, action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and SyFy Network's Sea Snakes (aka Silent Venom), and the new thriller Mother of All Lies starring Franchesca Eastwood coming out in late 2015. Mark's films have premiered on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, SyFy, HereTV, NBC Universal and distributed globally.

Mark’s new book A Screenwriter's Journey to Success will be published in 2015 on Amazon, his new free mobile app Screenwriting Guru is available from Yapp, and his popular screenwriting blog can be found at My Blank Page. He offers screenplay consultation services on his website and check out his Youtube Channel for screenwriting videos and more advice on how to survive in Hollywood’s trenches.