Screenwriters Roundtable, Part 3: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John SwetnamFebruary 6th, 2013 by Scott
A special treat this week as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.
This is the second screenwriters roundtable, following up on one we did last year [which you can read here]. Hopefully this will become an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, as well as benefit from the many insights into the craft these writers share.
I will be running the series all week long. Here is Part 3 which focuses on the rewriting process:
Scott: Another topic. Obviously writing is rewriting, probably nowhere more pertinent than to screenwriting. How do you go about rewriting your scripts?
Greg Russo: Rewriting yourself or rewriting others?
Scott: Let’s start with rewriting yourself. You’ve finished a draft. Now what?
F. Scott Frazier: For me, I’ve always said that I’m a decent writer, but a really good rewriter. I actually spend most of my time rewriting instead of not writing. I think it just comes down to I have the whole script in front of me, from my really fast draft that I put together. My process is usually, I wake up in the morning and I just start reading the script from the beginning. Anything that I want to change, I change. I stop writing six hours later.
Wherever I am in the script, the first couple of days it’s like, 10 pages, 15 pages, 20 pages, and then I just do that over and over again until I end up at the point where I’m getting to the end of the script. If I can read through the script a couple times, without making major changes, I think I’m pretty close to done.
John Swetnam: I used to be nervous about getting notes, and having to rewrite, but all rewriting is, is trying to make your script better. It’s a good process. I like to rewrite if I’m making the script better. If I get a bunch of notes, and I’m like, “Holy shit, that makes the script better,” then you do more rewrites.
The hardest part is trying to figure out how to know when you’ve done enough, or when you think it’s as good as it’s going to get. I think that’s the hardest thing I deal with. I always get to a point where I think it’s really, really good and then someone will give me a note. I’ll go, “Shit, that would make it way better.” Then I get excited to rewrite it because I know that the script’s going to be better.
At the end of the day, that’s the whole point.
Chris McCoy: When it comes to rewriting, the most valuable thing I’ve found is to have three people you really trust read it, as opposed to throwing the script out to 15 people. Pick three smart friends who you want to impress and listen to their notes.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah, I’m totally the same way. My scripts usually only go to one or two people. If I’m still in the middle of them, very few people read them. I know their tastes explicitly, I know exactly how they think and why they like things.
Justin Rhodes: I’ll tell you something that I do whenever I’m doing a rewrite and it’s a substantial rewrite or it’s something that you would actually call a new draft, not just tweaks. I start a new file and I print the old draft out, and I only put back what I feel like physically putting back again.
Scott: You literally retype it in.
Justin Rhodes: I literally retype it in to a new file, and I print a hard copy of the old one. I write all the notes and things on the hard copy version and I type the new one in, and that forces me back into that fresh approach to writing. I don’t know what you call it, that mental posture or that frame of mind, so that you’re engaging those formative muscles again, rather than just moving words around.
I find I get better work done faster that way than the other way, because it’s too easy to sometimes leave things there that you like because they’re there, because they’re in the document. If you force yourself to put it back, every single word of the script goes back through your filter again.
Scott: It’s almost like you create these little thresholds all along the way. You’ve got to make a commitment to say do I really want to type that in?
Justin Rhodes: Right. It also allows me to feel like I’m writing it again, as opposed to I’m changing this thing that’s already there, which for me, was a mental hang-up for a long time, because it’s like how do I change it, it’s already there? Can’t you see it? Whereas if it’s a plain document, it’s only there if I put it there, for some reason, that trick helps me.
F. Scott Frazier: I always like to start new documents for every draft. It’s helpful.
Scott: Do other people do that, too? Start a fresh new document for a rewrite?
John Swetnam: I also do that in the beginning. The first three or four rewrites will be new documents. I like that idea of printing it out. That’s kind of cool. Justin, you should write a book.
Greg Russo: I may be alone, but am I the only one who rewrites as they go?
Justin Rhodes: No, I do that too.
Greg Russo: I stole it from Eric Roth. It’s the idea where you write five pages one day, next day go back and rewrite what you wrote, add five more, next day you go back, rewrite ten, and continue until you’re done. I find I have a much more solid “first” draft – albeit it’s really a “7th” or “8th” draft by that point. The Judd Apatow idea of the vomit draft absolutely terrifies me. I could never just blast out a draft like that…
Chris Borrelli: I do a version of that. I do the vomit draft, but it takes months. I just like to get it on paper, and I’d write it probably in a month or two. I’ll reread it, and usually I know of that self‑hating thing as I reread them, I’m like, some of this is pretty good. I’m going to keep probably 60 percent of this. I go through and go through.
When I finish a draft, and it sounds like we’re all this way or a version of this way, when I finish a draft, I’m never like, “OK, that’s done.” It’s sort of this big game hunter, I’m happy to have the script in front of me.
Then from there, I feel more and more confident about removing scenes, cutting lines, and by the end, I like to think just about every line, and not just the dialogue, even descriptions in my scripts, I can explain there’s a reason for virtually every sentence there. There is a very definite reason that I didn’t cut it, by the time I’m proud of it, I’ve considered cutting every single word many times.
John Swetnam: Borrelli, in your vomit draft, when you’re doing that really fast first draft, do you not read the day’s before pages when you start the next day?
Chris Borrelli: This is interesting because we had talked about this at the beginning, we all have different processes, and even different scripts, but I often don’t. At the same time, I’m making notes as I go. I’ll have more notes than pages of script sometimes. I mean a ridiculous amount of notes, some written at three in the morning when I wake up. Some scribbled on pieces of paper around my place. Some on grocery lists, which looks really bizarre. But it just gets there. I’m always hopping back and forth.
It all comes back to the script being in your head. That’s when I think the magic happens. It’s in your head and you’re working on it. I don’t rewrite like you guys do, that way. But I’m going through and I’m pretty good about not being precious at the end. I want to cut everything. I want to cut everything out, cut it way lean and way down.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah. The easiest changes I ever make are just cutting stuff.
Chris Borrelli: It feels good.
F. Scott Frazier: If I cut stuff, I don’t have to rewrite it.
Chris McCoy: I might be the only one that does this, but if I’m 30 or 40 pages in, I’ll print it out and go back through it by hand and make my corrections on the page, because I always feel like visually, that’s the way it’s going to be hitting the reader. Just to feel it out and make sure it looks right, I find correcting it by hand is more intimate.
F. Scott Frazier: I’m obsessive about the look of the script, the physical look of reading the script. I’m obsessive about that.
Scott: You mean on the page, white space versus black ink?
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah. Just the way it looks. Almost to a degree that I really shouldn’t be obsessed with it, but I will cut and change entire paragraphs just because I don’t like the physical way the paragraph looks on the page.
Chris McCoy: Yeah. I feel like all my characters are always named like Ted and Ben, because it saves space.
Scott: How many of you do that, are fighting for space? Fighting for lines?
Chris McCoy: My general rule is I try to never have a block of text more than three lines.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah.
Chris Borrelli: Me, too.
Chris McCoy: At least in terms of action paragraphs.
Scott: How much of this is just personal aesthetics and how much of this is thinking, “A script reader’s got to read this on the other end?” And make it more comfortable and more readable for them.
Chris McCoy: I was a reader for two years before I sold anything. If I looked at page after page with a huge blocks of text, a feeling of dread would overcome me so powerfully that it would color my opinion of the script. It doesn’t feel like a script.
F. Scott Frazier: For me, the way that I think about it is that whenever I’m writing action, I always think of each paragraph as a different shot. The breaks in between each paragraph are a new edit in the movie. Sometimes there are shots that are longer than others. Sometimes I do four or five lines, but most of the time, I’m a three‑line action guy, all the way. It just feels like it has the cadence of a movie, if that makes sense. That you’re reading it, and it feels like that’s where the edits are coming in.
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Justin Rhodes.
Justin Rhodes writes and lives in Los Angeles. In 2012 he sold his spec THE JOIN to Legendary Pictures. His naval thriller IN ENEMY WATERS, produced by Temple Hill and sold as a pitch in 2011, is out to directors at Lionsgate.
In 2011 he sold his spec SECOND SUN to Warner Bros and saw the theatrical release of the indie comedy GRASSROOTS, which he co-wrote for director Stephen Gyllenhaal starring Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, and Cedric the Entertainer.
Upcoming projects include UNMANNED, a sci-fi war movie produced by Chris Morgan and Keanu Reeves, a news article adaptation for producer Scott Stuber and Bluegrass Film, and THE BREACH, a book adaptation for producers Lorenzo DiBonaventura and David Goyer.
For my interview with Justin, go here.
Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.
F. Scott Frazier: @ScreenWritten
Chris McCoy: @thatthere
Justin Rhodes: @twopointfour
John Swetnam: @JohnSwetnam
Many thanks to Laura Stoltz (@LeStoltz) for logistical help with the roundtable. Laura is one of my UNC former students, currently an assistant at Haven Entertainment, and a talented writer in her own right.
For Part 1 of the roundtable, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
Tomorrow: Part 3 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.