In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
Collaboration is often difficult for screenwriters. Unless you’re part of a writing team, it has usually been just you, your computer and whatever cinematic magic you conjure.
But when you’re working on assignment, the experience is a whole different ball game. You’re no longer writing your own original stories and characters. You’re taking preconceived concepts, characters, plot points and arcs conjured by producers, development executives, foreign distributors, directors, previous screenplay drafts or intellectual properties (novels, comics, short stories, newspaper articles, videogames, etc.), and you are writing screenplays within those confined spaces and answering to those that have hired you.
The experience of the script assignment can be a slippery slope. On one hand, it can be rewarding and prosperous, but on the other hand it can be frustrating, even hopeless. Yet there’s no escaping it. If you have your hopes set on becoming a working screenwriter, you need to know that upwards of 99 percent of the job entails writing on assignment. In a perfect world, your spec scripts would just keep selling and selling, but the reality is that most screenwriters—even the top-tier ones—are almost always writing someone else’s ideas and concepts.
So, how do you, the screenwriter, learn to collaborate with the many hands in the cookie jar? How do you avoid the many pitfalls, retain your jobs through your contracts and get hired for others? And finally, how do you make the development and writing of other people’s ideas beneficial to you and your writing soul?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been hired for a few paid writing assignments in my time, one of which, the miniseries Blackout, was produced with a name cast that included Anne Heche, James Brolin, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bruce Boxleitner and Eric La Salle. Below are some secrets that I picked up during my experiences—as well as through discussions with major studio writers—which screenwriters can use to navigate the experience of script assignments for the betterment of all.
Be Sure That You’re Passionate About the Concept
If you’ve been asked to write a screenplay about a football team that defies the odds to make it to the big game, and you hate football, that’s not a good start. That’s a bad idea from the get-go.
You have to have a passion for what you are writing about. That passion that you have when you’re writing your own scripts has to carry over to writing someone else’s.
Chances are the producer already detected your lack of passion when they pitched you the concept and gauged your reactions. You won’t get hired for something if the passion isn’t present. But—especially when you’re first starting to get some big breaks—you’d be a fool to reject the notion of a paid writing gig, which for screenwriters at the lower tiers are few and far between.
So in those cases, what you need to do is find your passion within the concept and subject. Listen to their pitches, read the loglines and materials they present to you, and find your passions within them.
Using the football concept as an example, if you don’t particularly like football, then find elements that you love that could be incorporated into such stories. Focus on the underdog themes that you may love. Focus on the brotherhood concepts that you may have a passion for. Tell those stories that you love to tell using whatever concepts or settings they have as the platform. That’s what professional writers do. They find themselves and their passions within the assignments.
Showcasing a passion for the material will not just get you the job, it’ll make the collaboration with the producer and others that much easier. And when you’ve proven to be a good collaborator, you’ve proven your worth as a screenwriter to consider for additional assignments.
Know What They Want and Need
Screenwriting assignments don’t just entail your employers giving you a logline and you going out and writing your own version of it. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions that novice screenwriters have when imagining working on assignment.
There will be multiple reasons why they’ve chosen this concept and how they’ve gotten to the point where they are looking for a writer to attach.
They’ve done the research and have had multiple meetings. They know why they want to make it. They know who they want to make it for. They know how to market it. They know what their distributors want and need.
When you first sit down with the producer or development executive that you’ll be answering to, you need to ask multiple questions. You need to learn what they want and what they need. You need to know what you can write and what you shouldn’t write.
“Is this PG, PG-13 or R?”
“What type of tone and atmosphere are you looking for?”
“How diverse do you need or want the script be be?”
“What’s the general budget you’re looking at?”
“Are you going for a grand scale or something more contained?”
These are just a few of the many questions you should be asking them before you write one single word—in fact, before you even start to plant the storytelling seeds in your head.
These questions, and more, will dictate the language you use, the sexuality you showcase or don’t showcase, the violence that is or isn’t present, the type of look and feel of the film, the casting, the number of locations you use, and the amount of spectacle you do or do not have.
Furthermore, the producers may have specific locations already planned. They may have certain sets at their disposal. They may have actors that they normally work with in mind for certain roles.
Know what they want and what they need. It will save you so much time and trouble once you hand that first draft in.
Leave Enough Room to Work Your Magic
Knowing what producers want and need is vital to the process, but can be taken too far. Screenwriters want and need a little breathing room when they sit down to write. It’s a necessity for creativity.
The good thing is, most producers and development executives know this. They don’t want to give you all of the answers. You’ve been hired for a reason, likely because you’ve showcased some great storytelling abilities and style in your own spec scripts or previous assignments. They want you to bring your own elements and perspectives to the script as well.
That said, screenwriters can make the mistake of asking too many questions and seeking out too many answers. Two things can happen when you do this.
The first: You present some proof to your employer that you’re not capable of handling the assignment. This is usually sniffed out when you’re pitching your take on what they present to you, but even after you’ve signed on, there are so many clauses in the contracts that allow for them to fire you whenever they’d like.
The second: You ask too many questions and they give you as many answers, essentially attempting to write the script for you without even realizing it. As a result, the screenwriter has basically asked themselves into a corner. When you are given that many directives to follow, there is no breathing room to expand.
So the trick for the screenwriter is to only ask for the broad strokes. The moment you begin to ask for specifics will be the moment where you relinquish any and all moments of inspiration that you could have offered.
Write the Shit Out of It
An easy habit to fall into while writing someone else’s concept is complacency. You need to leave room to expand on their concepts, characters and stories so you can go in and inject it with your own flare, style and brilliance. So you can give them what they may not have known that they wanted and needed.
You have to write the shit out of whatever you take on. If it’s yet another “come from behind against all odds” football movie, you have to write the shit out of that, offering the best possible version of that story that no one has ever seen. If you’re tasked to write an otherwise by-the-numbers action thriller that has been pre-sold in foreign territories for the specific reason that their audiences like such fare, you have to write the best possible version of that type of flick that you can to make it stand apart.
It’s All in the Details
The producers and other powers that be will offer you the broad strokes of what they need. You’ll write the best possible versions of those broad strokes, but in order to truly write the shit out of it, you’ll need to focus on the subtle details. Those unanswered or non-directed elements that you hopefully were wise enough to keep to yourself, or keep open for interpretation.
- Character Tics and Traits
- B Stories
- Flipping Stereotypes and Cliches
- Twists and Turns
- Character Ailments, Conflicts, Inner Demons
- Inventive Suspense Sequences
These are just a few of the details that you can focus on to make your script stand out. This is how you marry what they want with what you want, creating the perfect hybrid that both they and you can love and be proud of in the end.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
In the end, it’s the producers call. There’s no escaping that. But when the writer in you is struggling to stand up for the choices that your producer is questioning, you have to choose when to act or not act on those impulses. There’s no real formula for what you should and shouldn’t fight for—every script and situation is different. Just remember that the assignment process is often give and take, with a little more give on your end because you’re the hired gun.
Good collaboration is often more about the ability to compromise, sometimes whether you like it or not. And when being able to compromise makes you a better collaborator, your screenwriting career will only get better as your reputation precedes you. But what makes that reputation even better is showcasing the ability to fight the good fight at the same time. In the end, it just showcases your passion for the project you were hired to take on.
Hope for the Best, But Prepare for the Worst
Because movies and television are collaborative mediums, things will change and evolve—for better or worse. And usually the first element to change is the script.
When you’re writing on assignment, you can almost surely expect to either be replaced or rewritten at some point. During my time on Blackout, I was fortunate enough to be retained through my whole contract, which had four drafts with options to replace the writer after each. Thankfully, I was never replaced.
However, come production time, things changed. Casting was shifted. I had written a part specifically for the great James Earl Jones, which featured a diverse storyline with his character and the character’s inner city grandchildren on the run in the looting-infested city of Los Angeles during a terrorist-instigated blackout. By production start, Jones was no longer available, so a production writer was brought in to rewrite that storyline which would later star James Brolin and two Caucasian actors. While Brolin is always great, the storyline suffered.
Beyond that, the production rewrite changed parts of the other storylines as well. While perhaps 80 percent of my final draft elements were present, the 20 percent that was changed affected the end product drastically.
A studio writer friend of mine wrote two big-budget, high-profile studio films. By the time both projects were produced, after numerous production rewrites, the end product of each were vastly different from the final draft he worked so hard to complete.
Such is the nature of the industry. By the time the projects hit the screen, hundreds of people have had their hands on it. You, the working screenwriter, are simply tasked to accept that and move on, appreciating the fact that you are in the position that most screenwriters would kill to be in. You’ve been assigned to write a script and you’ve been paid to do so. You’re living the dream that most don’t get to live. MM
This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.