Daily Dialogue — October 23, 2014

October 23rd, 2014 by

FATHER: (hoarse whisper) I… was … dis … dis …
FISCHER: I know, Dad. You were disappointed that I couldn’t be you.

The dying man SHAKES HIS HEAD with surprising energy.

FATHER: (whisper) I was disappointed… that you tried.

Inception (2010), written by Christopher Nolan

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Dying Words. Today’s suggestion by suzannepham.

Trivia: If you take the first letters of the main characters’ names – Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur, Mal and Saito – they spell “Dreams”. If you add Peter, Ariadne and Yusuf, the whole makes “Dreams Pay”, which is what they do for a mind thief.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Suzanne: “I love this dialogue because it is economical with words, and with so few words (“I was disappointed that you tried.”), it flips the entire relationship between Fischer and his dying father, which is pivotal to the plot. Fischer thought he was failing by not living up to his father’s legacy; now he understands his father wants him to make his own path.”

Why we love repetition in music… and stories

October 22nd, 2014 by

The excellent online resource FilmmakerIQ.com brought this to my attention recently:

How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.

Here is the video lesson:

I’ve written songs since I was fourteen years old. Not terribly good ones apparently because I never had much success as a singer-songwriter, but certainly enough to understand the importance of song structure, refrains, repeating musical motifs, and so forth. The science in the video clip is interesting, especially the part about how repetition in a song can engender a sense of participation with a listener. As I was thinking about it, I believe this is true in stories and movies as well.

For example, this may help to explain why sequels and remakes are so popular. People like to see similar stories and characters repeat themselves in somewhat different ways.

If it’s true that the typical college senior will have read, heard or seen 10,000 stories in their lives, then that repetition might be one of the reasons why basic story form — Beginning, Middle, End or as screenwriters call it Three Act Structure — is almost an innate sensibility among people.

Repetition also comes into play with specific writing techniques:

Set Up and Payoff: Where a writer creates an open-ended scenario, then later returns to it and resolves it, such as the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

Callback: A line of dialogue or gesture that is established, then later played out again such as “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca.

Runner: A line of dialogue or gesture that is repeated several times such as “I don’t know, it’s a mystery” in Shakespeare in Love, used four times by different characters.

Having done stand-up for two years, I experienced first-hand the value of repetition. When you do a callback, the laughs can be doubly strong because the line itself is funny in the context, but then the audience also recalls its first use, thus those who remember the original line get the second level of sell. And that is an example of active participation.

Similarly with a set up and payoff, we, as writers, invite a script reader or moviegoer to go back to the original scene, and now they can compare what they were feeling then, what they are feeling now, plus oftentimes being able to use that comparison to see how the story has changed and characters have transformed.

So repetition is a valuable feature in songs. It’s also important in screenwriting, TV, and any form of storytelling.

David Milch: “The Writer’s Voice” (Part 2)

October 22nd, 2014 by

Back in September 2010, I ran a week-long series featuring key excerpts from a memorable series of presentations by David Milch at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. Then this week, I stumbled upon this: An entire series called The Idea of the Writer by Milch now available on YouTube. In recognition of that wonderful news, I will reprise my posts and embed video from each of Milch’s presentations.

David Milch is a talented writer. Check out these credits:

Television credits (as creator)

Awards and recognition

  • 1993 Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series (Hill Street Blues)
  • 1994 Edgar Award, Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (NYPD Blue, “4B or Not 4B”)
  • 1995 Emmy Award, Best Drama Series (NYPD Blue)
  • 1995 Edgar Award, Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (NYPD Blue, “Simone Says”) (shared with Steven Bochco and Walon Green)
  • 2006 Austin Film Festival, Outstanding Television Writer Award recipient

Not to mention the 259 episodes of “N.Y.P.D. Blue” he’s credited with writing.

I did this post back in July that featured some great video of Milch sharing his thoughts about writing. At the time, I noted this:

What leaped to mind when I read the news about the new HBO series was a series of presentations Milch gave at the WGA Theater several years ago. They were covered and excerpted in the fine WGA journal “Written By” over the course of several months. I remember reading them, both fascinated and inspired by Milch’s ideas.

I contacted “Written By” and they have kindly offered to create electronic versions of the original hard copies, so I can excerpt them on GITS. Look forward to that sometime soon.

This week each day, I’ll feature some of Milch’s comments from those presentations at the WGA Theater from back in 2001, excerpted from the “Written By” journal. Here is Part 2:

A psychiatrist will tell you—well, a psychiatrist won’t tell you shit. But in psychiatric terms, the psyche is differentiated into the ego sense of self, the id—which is everything that gets us jammed up—and the super ego, which is the idea of form, or structure, or the accommodation in the world for our behavior. And the super ego is the internalization of the parental voice. Now, it’s obviously an oversimplification. But in particular, a writer—for reasons we will get to in another part of this discussion—stands in a particular kind of doubleness, typically, in his or her emotional makeup, toward experience. Stands both within it comfortably, and, for whatever combination of reasons, stands outside it. That’s the cards you’re dealt. That’s what predisposes you to be a writer as well as predisposes you to be a few other things.

Often, that doubleness is caused by a traumatic association with the idea of form. Here’s a for-instance. The Irish are regarded as a great storytelling people and also as a country full of drunks. There’s a reason for both reputations. It’s a tough country—weather’s tough, they had a lot of problems. One way you learn the doubleness that is typical of the writer is that you are both within the [tavern] and you’re standing outside wondering where the next punch is coming from.


The second maxim that I can give you, the thing that I always try to communicate to an aspiring writer, is that no one can teach you anything that you don’t already know, and each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story.

That last line is great takeaway:

…no one can teach you anything that you don’t already know, and each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story.

Day 2: David Milch on The Idea of the Writer.

For Part 1, go here.

Tomorrow Part 3 of “The Idea of the Writer” with David Milch.

Trailer: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

October 22nd, 2014 by

Brilliant new trailer for the special limited U.K. release of digitally remastered version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I saw this movie as a teenager when it was first released and it probably more than any other film concretized my love for the medium. It. Blew. My. Mind. The power of movies to immerse, amaze and evoke… that’s what I ‘got’ from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in that theater at Minot Air Force Base… and that understanding of films can work as a storytelling medium has stuck with me all these years.

As Christopher Nolan says: “There is only one Stanley Kubrick. 2001 is pure cinema.”

How ‘Birdman’ got made

October 22nd, 2014 by

Anne Thompson is one of my favorite writers about movies, her blog Thompson On Hollywood a favorite at Indiewire. Here is an example why: Yesterday Anne posted a great interview with some of the principals involved in the indie feature Birdman which has been getting rave reviews and doing huge numbers on limited screens its opening weekend. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Two companies that financed and produced Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s just-opened “Birdman,” Fox Searchlight and New Regency, also collaborated on “12 Years a Slave.” The 20-year Searchlight executive who runs production, Claudia Lewis, and New Regency president and CEO Brad Weston, who has spearheaded a surge of director-driven projects (including David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”), sat down for a Q & A at Sneak Previews.

Anne Thompson: How did your two companies end up collaborating on this film?

Claudia Lewis: Searchlight got the script first, and loved it, thought about it. It was a little out of our reach, budgetarily.

Because you have a budget cap.

Lewis: We tend to have a cap for the movies that we make. But, about two weeks after my initial meeting with Alejandro, I heard that Brad had gotten it as well, and that they were interested. So it was a loving partnership right from the start.

Brad Weston: We had worked together on a film that hadn’t been released yet, but we were just in previews on, “12 Years a Slave.” So we had just started our relationship, and it was going nicely. Regency was trying to make another movie with Alejandro, which he’s actually in his third week of shooting in Canada right now,  “The Revenant,” that had to shoot on a specific schedule of seasons and start on a specific date, in the last week of September. We had missed the window and wanted to find another picture to do with him so that we could protect the backend of when we started on “The Revenant.” So Claudia had read the script, and then Alejandro gave it to me when we knew “The Revenant” wasn’t happening, and we just decided to partner up as we were on “12 Years a Slave.”

Lewis: Also, that sense of pace, being able to put it together so quickly in order to make room for “Revenant,” was part of the exciting quality of the film. I think it shows a little bit in the film. There was a freneticism in getting it together, in the same way that the play that he’s putting together has that sort of frantic quality.

How did the script read? How did Alejandro explain his concept? Because it’s a risky thing, what he did.

Lewis: It read beautifully. The script was terrific. It went through some changes in the development process. He described it, in an Alejandro-esque way, as being the high-wire act that it turned out to be. But he knew he wanted the one-take style. He had it all in his head; the guy has everything in his head.

Weston: And most of it was cast when we got involved. We switched out a couple of actors. Originally it was Josh Brolin who was playing the Edward Norton part, and we switched that out for scheduling conflicts. But Michael was cast, Emma was cast, we added Edward, and Naomi & Zach Galifianakis were cast. What was really interesting about this script process, though, is, because of the one-shot style of the movie, we couldn’t edit the picture — it was just assembling the picture. So the editing of this film took place in the screenplay. And I think the first draft of the script was, what, 125 pages?

Lewis: It was very long.

Weston: And we shot something like 103 pages. So we went through a pretty extensive script development, cutting, because we knew that was the only time we could actually edit the picture.

Lewis: Which thrilled Alejandro, by the way. [Laughs] “We can’t touch it once it’s shot, sorry!”

Some clips from the movie:

For the rest of Anne’s blog post, go here.

Follow Anne on Twitter: @akstanwyck.

And for heaven’s sake, Declare Your Independents and go see Birdman! In a theater! This week!

Movie Trailer: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

October 22nd, 2014 by

Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons


Release Date: 13 February 2015 (USA)

Great Scene: “Zorba the Greek”

October 22nd, 2014 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today: The 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, screenplay by Mihalis Kakogiannis, novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. IMDB plot summary:

An uptight English writer traveling to Crete on a matter of business finds his life changed forever when he meets the gregarious Alexis Zorba.

The uptight Englishman Basil is played expertly by Alan Bates. But it is Zorba who steals the movie and Anthony Quinn, who played the role, was nominated for Best Actor in 1964.

The movie is an almost perfect tale of head vs. heart. Basil is the quintessential uptight Englishman who has inherited a house on Crete. Zorba a passionate, half-crazed Greek latches onto Basil in the movie’s initial scenes, as a boat carrying Basil, Zorba, and other citizens of Crete make their away across the sea in a huge storm. While the story has several subplots with a thematic backdrop of a FOOW (Fish-Out-Of-Water) acclimating himself to a foreign culture, the emotional core of the movie is the relationship between Basil and Zorba.

In Act Three, after Basil has essentially given all his money to Zorba to feed his frenetic vision of creating a system to deliver logs from up top of the island down to the sea, the edifice collapses (in another great scene). And so after all the people who showed up to celebrate scurry away amidst the destruction of Zorba’s grand scheme and Basil’s last remaining bit of wealth, the two men are left alone on the beach for this great scene:

I first saw this movie in a religious studies class at the U. of Virginia. The professor cited this scene as an example of existentialism — that in the midst of despair and seeming hopelessness, these two choose to defy rationality and dance. If you watch the movie, and track the fitful advance of understanding between these two characters, so absolutely opposite each other, then grasp the power and beauty of them dancing on the beach, I am sure you will agree — this is truly a Great Scene.

For your added enjoyment, here is some of the wit and wisdom of Alexis Zorba:

Alexis Zorba: If a woman sleeps alone, it puts a shame on all men.


Alexis Zorba: Damn it boss, I like you too much not to say it. You’ve got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else…
Basil: Or else?
Alexis Zorba: …he never dares cut the rope and be free.


Alexis Zorba: What kind of man are you, don’t you even like dolphins?


Basil: I don’t want any trouble.
Alexis Zorba: Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.


Alexis Zorba: How can I not love them? Poor weak creatures… and they take so little, a man’s hand on their breast, and they give you all they got.


Alexis Zorba: On a deaf man’s door, you can knock forever!


Alexis Zorba: No more fooling around, not in this place. We’ll pull our pants up and make a pile of money.


Alexis Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die?
Basil: I don’t know.
Alexis Zorba: What’s the use of all your damn books if they can’t answer that?
Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.
Alexis Zorba: I spit on this agony!


Alexis Zorba: All right, we go outside where God can see us better.


Alexis Zorba: Hey boss, did you ever see a more splendiferous crash?


Alexis Zorba: God has a very big heart but there is one sin he will not forgive


Alexis Zorba: If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go. I know because a very wise old Turk told me.


Alexis Zorba: Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.

And there’s this. One of the reasons I love this blog is because of the insights I receive from readers. I originally posted this Great Scene back in 2009, but just yesterday received an email from Daniel Escobar who found it… well, let him explain:

I was writing a letter and I was looking for a picture of Zorba dancing when I found your site. I read what you said about Zorba. I agree completely. I just wanted to add that a teacher in college pointed out that one of the important parts of that last scene is that after the catastrophe happens and the smoke clears, Zorba realizes the lamb is burning and excitedly runs to save what’s there. This shows us how we should be (or how a child is), that after we have a catastrophe in our lives we don’t brood about it but rather jump to the next exciting thing.

The teacher said Kazantzakis was a great admirer of Nietzsche’s and he wrote his dissertation on him. The book spends a little more time on the British guy because it is supposed to be the idea of the Apollonian (the British guy played expertly by Alan Bates) struggling with the Dionysian (Zorba, obviously); a big Nietzchean theme. Zorba the Greek in my humble opinion is one of the few instances in history when the movie is actually better than the book.

That aside, I like the idea of Zorba forgetting the catastrophe in a blink of an eye and moving on to the lamb that is cooking because I think it is a great lesson.

Nietzsche has a great aphorism which I think captures this; “Maturity is recapturing the seriousness of a child at play.” A child is totally involved and in love with his playing (with an attention we no longer have). But he knows it isn’t important and he can leave it with a blink of an eye to go do something else. It would be cool if we were like that. What choice do we have, right? Zorba is a GREAT role model.

After I responded to Daniel, he followed up with this:

I’ve thought a lot about Zorba the Greek actually. The other great sub-plot is the whole thing with how they kill the widow. Nietzsche wrote a lot about “resentment” and how it was such a powerful and ugly force in society. Do you remember when they’re in the tavern how Zorba tells Basil that they are all seething because they want her but cannot have her and so they detest her? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a movie before or after. Very penetrating observation. From there to murdering her as a mob is only a hop-skip and a jump, of course.

The whole thing with the French old maid is wonderfully written and acted. Zorba is so sweet to her and her death is so pathetic and meaningless. Tragic with a capital T. Nobody writes things like that anymore. But they should because so many people are suffering things like that in the world right now.

Also the scene where the British guy teases Zorba about how he listens to Turks and Zorba says, “I listen to you talk and I see that your legs and arms aren’t connected to your head. You don’t feel what you are saying. You are like a puppet.” Or something like that [I forget the exact words]. I always thought Zorba was supposed to be an example of someone who is RIGHT HERE; RIGHT NOW, as we should be.

I knew about Kazantzakis and his interest in existentialism, but not about his fascination with Nietzsche. That knowledge and the insights Daniel sent my way are one example of how this blog can work, an ongoing dialogue about a narrative form we all love: movies.

Thanks, Daniel!

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here. If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!

Script To Screen: “Bonnie and Clyde”

October 22nd, 2014 by

The ending sequence from the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, written by David Newman & Robert Benton.

IMDB plot summary: A somewhat romanticized account of the career of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang.

In this scene, Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) drive along the road, feeling pretty good about things. And then…


BONNIE and CLYDE's car coming down the road.  Camera sees
from CLYDE's P.O.V.  MALCOLM standing in the road, waving
him down.  The pickup truck, its back jacked up, is parked
beside him on a shoulder of the road.


	What's wrong?

	I don't know.


CLYDE reaches the spot, pulls off the road and stops the car.
He gets out.  Camera pulls back.  CLYDE talks to the old
man, BONNIE stays in the car.  Cut to a shut down the trench
of the law, tense.

Suddenly, a truck loaded with chickens comes riding down the
road from the opposite direction.  HAMER sees it from a long
way away and realizes that he cannot afford to let anything
pass between him and his quarry.  He decides the time is now.
He leaps up from the trench and yells at CLYDE.


The OLD MAN dives under his truck to hide.  The shooting

We see the chicken truck.  Two men in the front seat.  They
see ahead of them an incredible shooting match and, in
terror, they jam on the brakes and leap out of the truck.
They run as fast as they can into the meadow, away from the

The gun fight takes just seconds during which law fires
eight-seven shots at BONNIE and CLYDE, giving them absolutely
no chance.  The sound is rapid, deafening.

At no point in the gun fight do we see BONNIE and CLYDE in
motion.  We see, instead, two still photographs cut into the
sequence: one of Clyde, half out of the car, taking careful
dead aim with his gun, just as he did in the teaching scene:
one of BONNIE, in terror, a pack of cigarettes in her hand
clutched tight, looking as fragile and beautiful as she can

The noise stops at once.  Utter silence.  It has been a
massacre.  BONNIE and CLYDE never had a chance to return the
gunfire.  We see the car, a complete shambles.  We never see
BONNIE and CLYDE dead, though for a moment we discern their
bodies slumped in the car.

The camera pulls above the car until it is on a level with
the opposite side of the road.  Then, slowly, the six lawmen
stand up in the trench.  On the faces of the five deputies,
horror and shock at what they have just done.  HAMER,
however, registers no emotion.  His face is a blank.  He
lights a cigarette.  Slowly, slowly, the five men begin to
edge closer to the car to see the result.  Music, the wild
country breakdown music, begins on the sound track.

Before they reach the car, the camera swings away from them,
past them, and zooms out and above into the meadow where the
two truck drivers are standing--tiny, distant figures.

The truck drivers begin to walk toward the camera, coming
back to the road to see what happened.  They get closer and
closer to the camera until they have reached a middle
distance and, as they continue to walk at us, it is--


Here is the movie version of the scene:

Several significant changes from script to screen, the biggest one being this: “At no point in the gun fight do we see BONNIE and CLYDE in motion… We never see BONNIE and CLYDE dead, though for a moment we discern their bodies slumped in the car.”

The final version is a stunning alteration from the script because the ending of the movie is iconic, a full 36 seconds of the gangsters’ bodies being decimated by a fusillade of bullets. In fact, the last images of Bonnie and Clyde in the script are more reminiscent of another film about gangsters: The 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Butch Cassidy ending

With Bonnie and Clyde, the choice of the director made a huge difference in the way the movie was received, the violent conclusion key to the word of mouth that drove young people into theaters to see the end point of these anti-heroes. Frankly I wonder if that scene influenced the decision by screenwriter William Goldman not to show the two lead characters die on-screen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Here is the last paragraph from Goldman’s script:


THE CAMERA FREEZES THEM. And as it does, a tremenounds
fusillade of shots is heard, then another, even louder, 
and more and more shots, building its tempo and sound.
The shots continue to sound. Butch and Sundance remain

                                    FINAL FADE OUT

               THE END

The final image of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid freezes into something resembling a photograph… and the script for Bonnie and Clyde describes the characters never seen being shot, but instead an image of them as “still photographs”.

Very interesting. See what you can learn from comparing script to screen?

One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.

Daily Dialogue — October 22, 2014

October 22nd, 2014 by


Citizen Kane (1941), original screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Dying Words. Today’s suggestion by pgronk.

Trivia: William Randolph Hearst was infuriated by this movie, obviously based on his life. According to an essay written for the “New York Review of Books” by Gore Vidal “Rosebud” was Hearst’s name for long-time mistress Marion Davies’ clitoris. Some other reports claim screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz took the name from a bicycle he owned as a child. Either way, the discussions of “Rosebud’s” origin are difficult to date any earlier than the 1970s, as feared retribution by Hearst and, following his death, many of his devotees made the subject taboo.

Dialogue On Dialogue: I posted this back in 2009. Unfortunately the interview footage is no longer available, however my observations based on the footage are. Here they are:

The Internet never ceases to amaze me. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Orson Welles. I’ve never seen it before today, never even knew of its existence until I started bumping around the web. Two things about the interview. First, Welles reveals that the idea of ‘home’ is very important to him because as a child, his family moved multiple times, so he never really had what he would call a home. Second, he confesses that his least favorite thing about Citizen Kane was Rosebud — he calls it a “rather tawdry device.”

May I humbly disagree. First, Rosebud serves numerous narrative functions: framing device for the narrative, source of a mystery as well as eventually the key to solving it, the sled and the snow globe powerful visual devices, taking on talismanic significance.

But beyond that, I wonder if Welles is doing a bit of deflection here. In response to the interviewer’s question, “Is there anything that came out of that [i.e., Welles' family moving around so much] in the movie,” Welles offers a definitive no. But isn’t ‘home’ what Rosebud — the sled / snow globe — represents to Kane, that one time and one place where he was truly happy, his youthful winter wonderland, he and his friends, sledding in the snow, only to be yanked out of there by life’s sudden turn? And so isn’t it fair to think that Welles’ desire to have a single place he could call home (he says so point blank in the interview) is reflected in the experience of young Charles Foster Kane? Therefore, Rosebud can be seen to be much more than a “tawdry device,” it is precisely the whole point of Kane’s existence, constantly attempting in all his life endeavors to find some thing, some place he could call ‘home.’ Yet he could never satisfy that almost infantile need, which is why it’s so riveting to see him wandering the halls of Xanadu on the night of his death, clutching the snow globe, then offering up his final word, “Rosebud.”

And oh yeah: “Rosebud” also sets into motion one of the great cinematic mysteries, one which no one in the story – other than Kane himself – figures out. But we do in those dramatic final shots.

Yes. Some seriously famous dying words in Citizen Kane.

Reader Question: Could you provide some insight into the script development process?

October 21st, 2014 by

A question from Point Break:

I have a few questions. As rewriting is an art and not a science, when should an agent/manager/prod-co get involved in the process?

We all get scripts to a stage where we think it is ready for people to read them.

It’s difficult for unproduced writers to know when to submit, so a little insight into the development process of great scripts would be very helpful.

PB, I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting.” I suspect that is nowhere more true than with screenwriting. For example, in the recent Creative Screenwriting feature on Pixar’s process developing Toy Story 3, screenwriter Michael Arndt talks about multiple drafts he wrote (if memory serves, I believe the number was 60). And that’s with an animated movie where the script is locked up front so the actors can record the dialogue, then the animators create the characters, scenery, and all the rest. In a live-action film, rewriting can and often does go on throughout the entire production period. And then they can test the movie and determine they need to do reshoots or an alternate ending, which requires more rewriting. So if you include the original screenwriter typing FADE IN:, then INT., then deleting that to put in EXT., it’s possible to say that the revising of a screenplay never stops, not from the first instant of a story’s creation to the final cut is done in post.

Which is to say it’s a fallacy to believe that when you type FADE OUT / The End on the final draft of your spec script, it’s a finished product. In some respects, that’s only the beginning of it.

Let’s focus here on script development in terms of the writer-representative relationship. That varies from writer to writer and rep to rep. Some agents and managers are primarily involved at the front end and back end of a spec project. Per the former, that means they will sit with a writer and go through the writer’s list of original ideas to spec or develop as a pitch, giving advice about which one to focus on based upon current market conditions, goals for the writer’s career, and just generally their gut sense of which story concept works or not. Per the latter, once the writer has a draft of the script done, they’ll send it to their reps for their read and notes. Almost always, the rep will have the script covered to get the benefit of that feedback, then provide additional comments based upon their own take on the material. This process can go back and forth for several drafts.

Other reps take a much more hands-on approach, so that the writer works up drafts of a treatment, then an outline — all for review — before beginning to write a script. And then the writer may provide the rep 30 pages of the script at a time until there’s a finished draft. Then more notes and rewrites. I don’t think this is the nature of a majority of writer-rep relationships, but I do know several writers (early in their careers) who do work this way with their reps.

At some point, it’s common for a rep to ‘slip’ the script to someone to read, generally a producer or perhaps even a studio exec to get an ‘unofficial’ read. This is not only important to get a buyer’s opinion of the material; if the script is good, it can start the buzz-building process.

Now mind you, this is all writing and rewriting before the script officially goes out to buyers. Certainly there are scripts that come across an agent or manager’s desk which end up going to market with little or no rewriting, but you have to figure that’s rare. Most of the time, a writer will shape and reshape the script per their own internal editorial process and whatever approach they’ve worked out with their reps. As I say, that varies from writer to rep.

Here’s the rub: At what point and how do the writer and rep determine when the script is ready to go to market? In theory, the rep is in the employ of the writer (after all, the writer is paying the rep anywhere from 10-15% of their earnings). However script development is one of those tricky areas where that dynamic can get blurred and it can feel like the writer is working for the rep, i.e., the rep becomes the final arbiter of the script’s development.

While that may seem wrongheaded, bear in mind that in almost all cases, the rep knows the buying marketplace better than the writer. The rep is the one with the most active relationships with producers, talent, execs, etc. So basically their information is stronger. Moreover because the rep reads a lot more scripted material than a writer, especially current specs, drafts of scripts in development at studios, and so on, it’s generally safe to assume that the rep’s knowledge in this regard is broader.

On the other hand, nobody can know the particular story world of a script more intimately than the writer. And in a good writer-rep relationship, both parties have to be mindful of the writer’s passion for the project during the development process as it’s critical that the writer stay connected to and inspired by what they’re writing. In other words, a rep can not just insist on a writer slaving over rewrite after rewrite to the detriment of the writer’s emotional state.

And then there’s the bottom line: Do you think the script works as is or not? A writer may believe this last draft is pure gold. The rep may think it needs more work. Who’s to say who’s right? Maybe the writer’s correct and the rep is just nervous about going out with the script because they’re not sure they believe in it. Maybe the rep is right because the writer’s opinion is based more on the fact that they’re sick and tired of rewriting the script, not on the quality of what’s on the page.

At some point, it comes down to trust. Does the writer trust their rep’s creative judgment? Does the rep trust the writer’s creative judgment? In a perfect world, their sensibilities are in sync. Even if they’re not, my sense is that most reps will go out with a script, whether they have doubts about it or not. First, if what William Goldman says about Hollywood is true — “Nobody knows anything” — then what’s to stop an imperfect script from selling? [And by the way, are there any perfect scripts?] Second, a rep only makes money when a script sells… and it ain’t gonna sell if it ain’t out in the marketplace. And third, as one of my agents once said, “I don’t gotta smell it to sell it.”

Now again mind you, this is all before the script goes to market. So as important as it is to have an agent and/or manager, it’s even more important to have a good manager and/or agent. As a writer, you want to believe that they have your best interest in mind, that they understand story, they aren’t afraid to be honest with you, and they are willing to work with you to find some common ground approach to script development.

Then you get lucky and sell the script. Now you enter into another level of development. But that’s a whole other level of mishegas, better saved for another time.

[Originally posted July 23, 2010]