Last week I pointed out a post on Geoff LaTulippe's new blog which peeled by the curtain on the studio development process, and it appears that I wasn't the only one impressed with it. On Twitter, screenwriter Eric Heisserer made a passing comment that suggested he'd be interested in writing a similar piece. Seeing an opportunity, I reached out to Eric and offered to host his essay here. He responded with a piece that should be a must-read for anyone eager to understand what it's like to be a working writer on a studio film.
Eric Heisserer is the writer behind the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as Final Destination 5 and the 2011 prequel The Thing. Next year, he'll make his directorial debut on the Hurricane Katrina drama Hours. Long-time readers of the blog might remember Eric from one of my earliest interviews, which can be found in two parts here and here.
Massive, massive thanks to Eric for this piece, by the way.
My friend Geoff LaTulippe recently posted on his blog about the process of working on a studio project, in an effort to help people understand how a bad movie doesn’t equate to a bad writer at the heart of it. Geoff illustrated the evolution/devolution of a script as it went through the gauntlet from first draft to production rewrites. (Play Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” while you read it.)
I want to chime in and echo some of what Geoff said, and provide a few specific examples of what it means to be a “professional writer” on a studio project and how one deals with elements beyond one’s control, while working to improve the things that are still within one’s influence. As in most parts of life, this is a hard lesson.
You are brought in to pitch on a big studio project. It is most likely a remake, adaptation, or sequel. The studios have property and rights, and the way for them to hold onto those rights or to do something corporate-like and “leverage intellectual assets” is to dig into their own libraries. These are the jobs.
Your agent tells you this is a great opportunity to get in good with a major studio. This is where the money is. This is how you will pay rent without taking a day job. In other words, don’t screw this up.
The good news is: You’ve been brought in because someone already loves your writing. Maybe it’s the production company set to make the movie. Maybe it’s someone among the top brass at the studio. Whatever the case, you feel good—someone’s read and loved your script. Your voice is what they want.
You pitch your take on their project, and it’s one you really want to write. You’re passionate and invested. Later you’ll realize that passion and excitement will often count more than story logic and in-depth character work. You get hired, and sent off to write your first draft with a few notes from the studio based on your pitch and/or outline.
The first draft is where you prove yourself. This is one of the two drafts you will come to love most, because right now it has just your voice; your singular intended tone.
That first notes meeting is illuminating. You learn right away who actually read your previous script and who didn’t. You also discover what the other people involved want the movie to be. NOTE: Rarely will everyone want to make the same movie. You’ll get notes like “Can we make it more like [popular movie]?” Or, “This feels like it should be more in the [obscure art film] neighborhood.”
You are sent off to rewrite. You struggle keeping the movie together as a single organism versus a mixed-breed that may not work. (The phrase “fish with wings” is slang I learned about this problem; it’s a fish that can’t swim and a bird that can’t fly.) Hopefully you get it to a stage where it’s ready to be turned in again.
Perhaps finally this is the stage where it goes to the top studio execs. You attend another notes session and are tasked with notes you feel you’ve already addressed. Things like, “I don’t know what the characters are feeling,” or “What is this person’s arc and why is it so hard to figure out?” Or occasionally, “This character isn’t likeable.” The notes can seem harsh if you take them as personal criticism. You must not. You must focus on the work.
You must also know you’re likely at a crossroads. You can work hard to address these notes for the chance to continue being the writer, or you can push against them and walk away from the project (or be fired). This second full pass is where you’re tested. The biggest problem is realizing that some readers on the studio level don’t understand subtext. Or rather, they get it when they’re seeing a finished film, but with all the scripts they read (or coverage thereof) they have no subtext radar. It all blows by them. (Not every exec is like this, but it’s a common problem, and can sometimes extend to producers and other people in the process.)
About this time, your agent calls again and says: Don’t screw this up. For both of you.
Your new job: Spell out all the things you so artfully seeded through innuendo and subtle suggestion. Now you’re writing things in ALL CAPS and talking about how this is THE TURNING POINT FOR YOUR CHARACTER because she realizes SHE MUST BETRAY HER FRIEND to SAVE HER FAMILY. If you learned how to write from a certain LOST writer, you’ll be doing this already, along with statements like HOLY SHIT, this is the MOST HEARTBREAKING MOMENT WE’VE EVER SEEN.
Reading the draft back to yourself makes your teeth hurt. This isn’t representative of your writing, it’s more like a transcript of some frat boy describing your script to his buddies. And yet this draft goes over like gangbusters at the studio. You are called and thanked by the studio, and then the producer. Once a director/movie star/both get on board, it’s all systems go for this project.
Maybe that work has already been done, in which case, you’re getting notes from those people as well. If an actor is involved, the draft the studio loves to death will rankle the movie star. Why? Because in this draft you’ve written out all the subtext and given the actor no room for them to do their job. Actors hate drafts like this. It’s like a photograph of a starving child in some third-world country holding up a flag that reads “FEEL SAD.” Actors don’t want to be told how to play the role any more than directors want you to tell them how to direct. Your job is to do so as quietly and subtly as possible. HINT at where the camera will be versus saying “WE DOLLY IN for a tight MCU on our hero…” And so on.
You luck out and are triggered for an optional rewrite step in your contract, and now have notes from various branches. The director wants the movie to feel more like it was in the first draft. The studio sees potential of this movie being more like some blockbuster and pushes you to make it quite different from that first draft. The actor has all sorts of thoughts, some of which are absolutely crazy, one or two which are brilliant but completely different from what either the studio or director wants.
Now you’re feeling burnout, you’ve gone through dozens of drafts no one has seen, all in an attempt to keep this movie together. And you can’t crack it. You can’t make everyone happy, it just won’t work out. So you hedge your bets and go with whatever makes the best movie in your mind. If you have a halfway decent relationship with your director, here is where you have a private dinner meeting with them and discuss the elephant in the room and why you made the choices you did. With luck, the director understands and will fight the good fight.
All the while, you may see several studio execs come and go, and other people involved are likely fighting their own battles. During the life cycle of THE THING (2011), we had five different execs assigned to us, one of whom lasted for only a month. Each of them had a different opinion of what the movie should be. Science fiction. Horror. Creature feature. One of them pushed hard to make the movie 3D. Every part of the movie is at risk of being abandoned or altered; nothing is ever guaranteed.
The studio may ultimately like your latest draft but you aren’t seen as a “closer” in the business or your name isn’t big enough to be seen as “story insurance,” so they bring in someone else to tackle a few elements in the script. That writer lasts for two weeks and is replaced with another, to appease some new notes from the new studio exec / the big-name supporting actor / the director’s latest idea during prep.
The last time you see your script, a frightening amount of your dialogue has been rewritten, scene locations have been moved around, there may be one or two new characters or a couple fewer characters, which subtly imbalance something you’d kept in harmony for the last ten months and three studio drafts. Most heartbreaking may be the clever setups/callbacks you’d written in that are now orphaned or widowed. And of course, all over the place you still see the SUBTEXT HAMMER describing action BLUNTLY so the speed-reader will NOT MISS THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SCENE.
There is some great new stuff in there, too, you have to admit. Another writer had a clever idea with a subplot. Or a better ear for comedic dialogue. But you’ll realize that sometimes changes happen because people are just too used to the story after reading the script over and over. There’s no mystery anymore. Changes don’t always happen to make things better. Sometimes it’s just to make them different; new.
This is typically your least favorite draft. In your eyes, it’s a wreck. And you fear it will get worse during production or reshoots, trying to find its new form. The movie at this point needs to shed its wings or its fish scales and commit to being one thing.
Invariably, this is the draft that is leaked to the Internet. With just your name on it. Your writing is excoriated online by fans. They point out everything you already know is problematic with this draft, plus a few other problems. One or two clever commenters will wonder aloud why you didn’t do this or that with the characters… choices you made in your first draft. Still others will discuss why the script isn’t more like the source material, or why it should be very different from it, or why any of a thousand decisions were made.
You can’t tell them anything. You can’t point to the twelve hundred script pages and notes where you explored all of these ideas and discovered why using them was a Bad Plan. Your significant other tells you you shouldn’t be reading comments online in the first place, what are you, crazy?
The movie is released. Maybe it gets a good Rotten Tomatoes score but a low audience CinemaScore. Maybe it’s the other way around. Your name is on the poster either way.
Your agent calls and says, Congratulations. You’re a professional writer. Someone wants to meet with you to talk about your next movie.
And you go. Because your agent is right.