Script trajectory

Ever watched a film and wondered what the hell happened? How did they decide to film that script? Why did anyone think that was a good idea?

You know the chant:

“Who wrote this shit?”

What a lot of people don’t understand is it’s possible what you’re watching bears little resemblance to the final script. Things happen on set and during post production which completely change what was written down.

 

If the film is awful, it’s highly probable what you’re watching bears little resemblance to the original script or idea.

Check out this report of Terminator Salvation as an example.

To my mind the script goes through three distinct phases of rewriting, each with its own impact on the finished product: DEVELOPMENT, PRE-PRODUCTION and PRODUCTION.

Each phase is like a mini-rocket booster designed to take the shuttle of your script into the orbit s a finished film. And like mini-rocket boosters, bits get jettisoned along the way. Although, unlike mini-rocket boosters, there’s very little chance of bits of idea falling on someone’s head and killing them.

But the problem is, not every phase has an upward trajectory. If the space shuttle launched on the three script-rewrite boosters of development, pre-production and production it would end up lodged in someone’s front room in Idaho.

Why Idaho? Because it’s easy to spell.

 

DEVELOPMENT

This can be either you on your own re-writing a spec script or it can be with a producer or director or several of each. It’s the stage when everyone’s just working on the idea.

There seem to be two ways it can go during development – either you get a bunch of very smart people who are focussed on making the script the best it can be and they all work together to lift it to new heights … or you get a lot of stupid and contradictory ideas which chip away at the core idea and effectively whittle the skeleton out of the body.

Frequently, both of these happen at the same time.

Essentially, if development destroys the script, then you’ve got a flat or downward trajectory which plants the film nose-first in a barn somewhere. There’s nothing you can do to fix that beyond hope they get bored and give up on the project.

Hopefully what you’re doing here is constantly (or generally, with a few dips and detours) elevating the script towards perfection. Changes made during this phase should only be about what makes the story better. You may have to tweak locations or budget or cast … but hopefully it’s not really about that.

Development, done right, should have an upward trajectory.

 

PRE-PRODUCTION

This is when the film’s been given a green light and all the heads of department descend on the script with red pencils. You get lists of things which need to change or be cut out in order to make the film affordable and possible.

Although these changes can sometimes result in far better ideas than the fuck-the-budget version, in my experience the scriptwriter’s job here is one of maintaining a flat trajectory. People are grabbing whole chunks of the script and throwing them away – you need to stitch the edges of the holes back together or come up with something new (and cheap) to plug the gap.

Pre-production is the gremlin on the wing of your script. You need to run around after it soldering the wires back together and getting the claw marks out of the ailerons.

 

PRODUCTION

God help you.

Nothing good comes out of changes made to the script during production.

Okay, so that’s a bit melodramatic; but it’s FUCKING TRUE!

Mostly.

Naively, I used to assume once you’ve written a script, you just hand it over and someone films it. I genuinely believed actors would just say the words whilst affixing the appropriate expression to their faces or directors would point the camera at everything in the script which needed to be on film, which is everything or it wouldn’t be in the fucking script in the last place.

But no.

Actors make up their own words or decide to be confused rather than happy. Directors, inexplicably, sometimes choose to film bits of wall instead of the actors because they think it reflects the brick-like nature of the tearful reunion scene.

Hurricanes spring up and wreck locations. Actors fall ill or pregnant or both or get sacked or all three. Directors who’ve bought themselves a career turn out not to have ANY FUCKING MONEY WHATSOEVER and certainly not the 70% of the budget they’d promised to stump up.

Basically, things go wrong and the writer is left to deal with it. If you’re lucky.

Or unlucky.

Frequently, whole chunks of script are omitted by incompetence or design without consulting the writer at all. This is akin to a hospital director wandering into an operating theatre and pulling out bits of someone’s brain because it’s his hospital and why the fuck not?

As I’ve said elsewhere the writer is the story expert, changing the story without consulting the expert is no different to moving the crash mat without consulting the stuntman – DON’T FUCKING DO IT!

Okay, it’s a lot different; but go with me, I’m on a roll.

Script changes during production is just fire fighting – you aren’t maintaining an even trajectory any more, you’re trying to control the descent and stop some fucknut from removing the bolts which hold the wings on.

No good ever comes out of changes made during production.

Okay, so that isn’t true. We can all site that bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy shoots the big sword-guy instead of fighting him because Harrison Ford had the shits.

You know why we can all site that exception?

BECAUSE IT’S THE ONLY TIME IT’S EVER FUCKING HAPPENED.

Or rather, it happens now and then; but the times it makes the film better as a percentage of the total number of bad changes is as close to zero as makes no odds.

By the way, if you stay in hotels a lot, you should always carry an empty chocolate wrapper with you. If you ever accidentally shit the bed, simply lay the empty wrapper next to the offending mess and the maid will assume you’ve merely been eating chocolate in bed and go merrily on his or her way.*

Script changes during production are bad; but they happen. A lot.

So the high point of a script’s trajectory is often right at the end of development before the real world gets in the way. There are dozens of factors which can elevate a good script into a great film, such as great performances, great direction, great music, great editing, even great set design … but they can’t help a film which is being attacked at it’s  heart – the script.

Which is why I frequently offer development drafts of my scripts as writing samples – that was the high watermark, the apogee of the script’s trajectory. That’s the version I want people to read … once I’ve incorporated any cool bits of improvised dialogue or beneficial scene changes from the finished film.

So next time you see a film and wonder “Who wrote this shit?”, just remember – probably no-one did. Not intentionally at least. What you’re watching is possibly the flailing, last gasps of a script burning up on re-entry, knocked out of orbit by a combination of incompetence, misfortune and idiocy.

——————————————————————————————————————————

*This doesn’t work. For God’s sake, never do this. In fact, don’t shit the bed in hotels if at all possible.

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Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Script trajectory

  1. Roland Moore

    Great post. Although you should just put the words ‘Leave it – The Barron doesn’t make changes’ on your first draft. I’m sure that would work…

    • Tried that. They sent the script back with “In that case, The Barron doesn’t get paid.” scrawled on the front in crayon.

      • Yet another corker Sir, yet another blog entry that makes me think your insights into the script writing industry manage to combine reality with a few belly laughs too. Fab!

  2. Pingback: 2012 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  3. Pingback: 2012 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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