May 26, 2014

Finding the Note Behind the Note: Rewriting 'CENTS' for Production

After several rewrites leading up to the Academy Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist status, then several more beyond, we’re finally gearing up to shoot CENTS this July. Now the rewrites are for production. We can't afford that location, so can the scene take place somewhere else? Can we combine those two parts into one? Does that waitress have to say a line? It will cost us $268 plus fringes. While rewriting for these production logistics, I'm also rewriting the script as the director. With this in mind, my fellow producer sent me some notes she had solicited from her trusted sources along with her own comment. Paraphrasing, my fellow producer essentially said, "I couldn't put my finger on it before, but now that I have seen these notes, I'm not sure I really like our protagonist." Oh boy. Time to take another hard look at the script and address the note behind the note.

The Note Behind the Note

Whenever a thoughtful reader identifies what he or she believes is a problem in a script, the natural tendency is to provide a specific solution for how to fix this problem. This is simply common courtesy in life. No one appreciates someone who points out problems left and right, but never offers any ideas for solutions.

Notes on potential problems in a script should be welcomed, and ideas for solutions could be exactly what a script needs for improvement. Sometimes, though, the person giving notes makes suggestions for changes that veer way off-course from the story you are trying to tell. In other words, their suggestions are really the script they would write if they were writing the script. When suggestions for script changes seem totally out of line with the story, I've found that the underlying problem that the note originally addressed can get lost.

In these particular instances, I believe it's important to find the note behind the note. Instead of getting distracted by suggestions that will make a script unrecognizable to its former self, I need to figure out if a reader has uncovered a real problem in the script. If so, I need to figure out how to fix that problem to make a better script and ultimately a better movie. Personally, I've discovered that if a note resonates with me for several days -- regardless of how the reader said the script could be changed to fix it -- I know it's a note I need to address.

Likability, Empathy and Sympathy

Do we have to like our protagonist for a movie to work? The obvious answer is no as we can all think of a movie we like where we don't particularly like the protagonist. I think the real answer is, "It depends." It depends on the particular story you are trying to tell and the audience to whom you are telling that story.

Do we empathize or sympathize with the protagonist? Basically, are we on the protagonist's side, whether or not we like what the protagonist does in the story? If we don't like the protagonist, why do we want to watch the protagonist's story? Does the protagonist intrigue us? Is the protagonist an anti-hero? Anti-heroes are certainly flourishing in critically acclaimed television series at the moment, but do they work as well in the confines of a movie?

For CENTS, I certainly don't see our protagonist Sammy as an anti-hero. I also believe that we need to achieve certain levels of likability, empathy and sympathy for Sammy for the movie to work. That said, we drop into Sammy's life at a particular moment that may not put her in the best light, but this is a time in her life that is fertile ground for a very interesting story. Sammy has flaws, and we expose those flaws early. She's also gifted and we highlight that as well because this intrigues us.

But will the audience like our protagonist at the beginning of our movie? Will they sympathize or empathize with her? Will the audience want to watch our protagonist’s story for 90 minutes?

I have grappled with these questions since before writing the first draft of this screenplay (or any screenplay, really), and I keep coming back to them as I rewrite the screenplay. Protagonists need to be flawed, otherwise they are boring and unbelievable. But can you make a protagonist so flawed that the audience doesn’t want to watch them? These questions also point to the importance of the first 10 pages and then the subsequent 10 pages to make sure we have hooked the audience with both the story and our main character.

So, when I got that note from my fellow producer that I mentioned above, I dove back into the script, spending much of my time on the first 10 pages, then the next 10 pages, studying exactly how I have portrayed our protagonist as if I was watching the movie for the first time. I need to stay true to her character, but I have found ways to bring out certain facets of her personality that may not have been evident in the script before.

Wearing my director’s hat also helps as I visualize the story. The performers breathe life into the words and actions on the page, bringing their take to a person that until recently was only a figment of my imagination. More specifically, I have focused on our protagonist’s relationships with key characters, tweaking the dialogue and actions in those scenes to reveal more heart in our protagonist while staying true to her nature. Finally, I have moved a key scene between our protagonist and her mother from page 17 to page 10, which makes a big difference in how the audience perceives our protagonist early in the movie.

The Screenplay is Never Finished

As we move forward into pre-production and continue our casting process, the script will continue to change, based on who we cast, what locations we can and cannot get, our budget and time constraints. The list goes on and on. After the film is shot and the screenplay is all but forgotten, we’ll keep writing the story in the editing room, shaping the film to tell the best story we can.

We can conform a screenplay to match the finished film -- like the award-contending screenplays that the studios and distributors circulate -- but they don’t tell the real story behind the story. The conformed script masks all of the changes made on the fly to make the day, the hard work to get the words on the page into the can.

Notes and suggestions for the story will come from all angles -- producers, talent, DPs, department heads, editors. Good notes that will improve the movie are always welcome. As the writer and director, I have to listen and determine which notes and suggestions serve the story we are trying to tell and will make the movie better.

Many times, that means finding the note behind the note.

How do you handle notes on your screenplays? Do you approach your rewrite differently as you gear up for production? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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5 Comments

I tend to collect notes from a few sources, read them all and put them away for a week or so. Notes always give me a ton to daydream about, as I visualize different scenarios in my mind. When I sit down with the notes again, I jot notes on the notes. What do I agree with? What is pointing to a larger story/character problem?

There was an event in my screenplay that readers were focusing on so much that it was eclipsing the ending. It wouldn't have been a bad thing if that was my intention. It wasn't, so I realized there needed to be a change. After pulling the moment out, I discovered there were better choices to be made in that storyline generally, so I got to work.

When gearing for production, I try to focus on letting things breathe. Screenwriters are prone to pack a bit too much story into screenplays sometimes. (also one of the pitfalls of only having screenwriter friends give notes) Good directors really know how to take moments that feel natural and lead the audience to identify with the characters. A great lesson for me was reading the Nicholl winning draft of Short Term 12 and then watching the film. There are chunks of story from that draft not in the film and i didn't miss it at all. Not having those stories gave me the space to recognize the familiar in the characters and care about them. I think this speaks to your likability question. That may not be something that needs to be addressed with story but with little moments that allow us to see her and have that recognition. To see her be a kid. Even troubled kids laugh and have fun sometimes. They wouldn't survive otherwise.

Thanks for writing about your process. As a mother of two working on my first feature, it's great to see a parent share their experience and move forward with their work.

May 26, 2014 at 12:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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D. Knott

I'm in this situation right now. I have talent, producers, crew al giving input which i love but some of them don't seem to understand the characters and are more focused on the story and getting people "hooked" by showing off some action or something "cool" instead of focusing on the character and following along with him, but I must say some of the input i've received help me cut dialogue I didn't need and save precious time as well as rearrange scenes and dialogue to get the point across without over exposition or giving the audience too much. Granted I'm now in the editing room and only have so much to work with, it's just as important as getting input in the beginning of the process as it can end up being a whole different movie. I've even went as far to shoot an extra scene just to let the audience know what kind of character this person is and show more characterization. But my script had over 15 rewrites and I was still making changes. Basically it will be your blueprint and if you're the director it will give you a great idea what you want when going in.

May 26, 2014 at 4:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brad Watts

Notes should not tell the writer what to write but a lot of them do. I used ot work inscript development so I know that writers are sensitive creatures at heart but the good ones have the ability to listen to constructive critisicm. Mostly I would say where I think wekjnesses are and vaguely hint at a direction the rewrite can go in but essentially let the writer figure it out unless they ask for specific creative input.

May 26, 2014 at 11:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JPS

I'm amazed at how many writers (granted, I'm not talking about professional screenwriters doing anything other than small indie stuff) are so attached that they defend whatever it is you are suggesting is wrong or needs changing or doesn't seem to work...when people are like this, I just stand back and say, okay, whatever you want. There is no arguing with them. Maybe this is why writing is hard and why there is so many bad scripts out there. People are attached to stuff emotionally with no clear reason why... It takes a very pragmatic analytical mind...and that being said, you also have to be able to emotionally connect with audiences as well as show a believable emotional progression for your characters (in a lot of stories, not always.). It's like architecture...it takes an artist's mind and an engineer's mind to come together to make something good.

June 3, 2014 at 5:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Daniel Mimura

best script rewrite story for today
Frank, on phone to Mark: so the rewrite will help keep the feature's cost under 200K
Mark: well ... we took out winter

May 27, 2014 at 11:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Frank