What is a Script Doctor and What Does it Take To Become One
Find out who really wrote the movies you love.
Everyone has likely heard the old maxim, “all writing is rewriting.” But there are people out there who make lots of money doing the rewriting in Hollywood full time. Those people are called script doctors, and they’re always in high demand.
Hollywood films usually go through several writers before they’re brought to screen, but script doctors are likely the last people to come in. They’re paid a ton of money for their anonymity and are usually trusted with getting the script into shape before the movie shoots. Often script doctors are on set to help a troubled production get back on track.
But if you’re not familiar with Hollywood, you may not even know script doctors exist, or that they’ve drastically altered some of your favorite films.
So let’s define what a script doctor is and explore some of the ways they help productions.
What Is A Script Doctor?
Defining the role of a script doctor can be kind of complicated. Writers are brought in at every stage in production to do “passes”. If you’re working on a studio movie, the script will be bought, the original writer may be attached for a few steps, and then someone else may be brought in to polish.
That’s a best-case scenario.
What’s more likely is that a script spends a ton of time in development, with writers doing passes of it while executives try to move it forward.
Then, when it finally goes into production, it might not feel cohesive. Movies are multimillion-dollar productions. They need the script to be in tip-top shape, so they have the best product to sell. Someone needs to come in, clean-up, and finalize the script after all those passes.
That’s where screenplay doctors make their money.
Script Doctor Definition
Script doctors are among the upper echelons of writers. They come in at the end of development or when a project is already in production.
Script doctors are basically surgeons with words and story points. They can beef up parts for actors, add comedy, drama, or even help change the ending.
If your movie is in production, a script doctor can view the dailies and then get in there to adjust and write around what you have so it makes more sense. Surgical precision required!
It’s easy to confuse script doctors with script consultants, but they are very different.
If you want to learn more about script consultants. Check out our interview with Evan Littman, a script consultant who explains his role in the process.
How To Become A Script Doctor
Are you great at story structure? Do you work well under pressure? You asked, “what’s a script doctor” got the answer, and now think it’s time for you to get your foot in the door?
Not so fast.
To reach the top 1% of the top 1%, you’ve got to spend some time in Hollywood.
Check out our four steps to becoming a professional screenwriter article on ways you can break into the industry first.
Because script doctors got to where they are not only by mastering story, but by being able to think quickly, handle pressure, and work within hard situations. All hallmarks of a hard-earned Hollywood career.
In Hollywood, you’re constantly balancing between what matches the budget, is good for the work, and whose ego is getting in the way.
It’s okay, and dare I say important, to be confident in what you can handle. You need to be an authority about what’s on the page, and how it all works together.
And as we get deeper and deeper into the script doctor conversation, you’ll see why script doctors are people that execs, directors, and cast WANT to be around.
They spend massive amounts of hours brainstorming with people, commanding a room, watching scenes, and trying to keep everyone else calm.
Script doctors are the men and women who look at a room full of nervous people and say “Don’t worry I got this…”
All that is what makes script doctors so important to how things work in Hollywood. And why they get paid pretty well too...
Script Doctor Salary
As you can imagine, when screenplays are ready to go, studios will pay a ton to get make entirely sure their stories in order. Plus consider that studios are pushing massive franchises, and they need those movies to hit and hit big.
All the more reason to pay a script doctor to come in and firm everything up.
There are lots of stories from all over the business where this has happened. But I wanted to focus on a staggering number I heard while reading a seemingly innocuous article in 2016.
A number that made me REALLY want to focus on becoming the best writer I could be. Which meant both mastering structure, and being a guy people liked to be around.
Script Doctors On Star Wars
But anyway, Star Wars is worth billions. It’s the entire future of a studio whose business spans the globe across tons of platforms.
As mentioned before, reshoots are always a necessity in Hollywood, but when the going gets tough, you need a script doctor to get you through.
So when something went wrong in a galaxy far, far, away they called in a script doctor. Let’s trace back Star Wars’ history with script doctors as a paradigm for the importance of the screenplay doctor’s profession.
First up, let’s look more at Tony Gilroy.
Tony Gilroy: Script Doctor
The Hollywood Reporter mentioned that Gilroy was making around $200,000 a week for his work on Rogue One. As he made changes and gained trust, his quote and time went up and up.
You can debate whether or not it was worth the money, but Box Office Mojo has Rogue One making around $1,056,057,273 worldwide.
So, yeah, story matters.
"If you look at Rogue, all the difficulty with Rogue, all the confusion of it … and all the mess, and in the end when you get in there, it's actually very, very simple to solve… Because you sort of go, 'This is a movie where, folks, just look. Everyone is going to die.' So it's a movie about sacrifice.”
That is a simple distillation of what he brought to the film, but it’s indicative to the pressure and quest for results that makes execs reach out for script doctors.
Thought the script doctor rate for his work may seem high, Star Wars has a long history of paying people to get it right…
Tom Stoppard: Script Doctor
Back in the day, George Lucas brought Tom Stoppard onto Revenge of the Sith to help him get the last of the prequels in line. You can imagine that the lackluster embrace of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had Lucas worried that the final chapter in his opus wouldn’t be as well received.
So where would Lucas get the idea for getting Stoppard aboard? Maybe from his friend, Steven Spielberg, who uses Stoppard on Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Spielberg even once stated that Stoppard was responsible for “every line of dialogue in that movie.”
But who’s the original gangster when it comes to Star Wars and script doctors?
How about a little Carrie Fisher, script doctor for hire.
Carrie Fisher: Script Doctor
Carrie Fisher was famous for her script doctor work on movies like Lethal Weapon 3, Hook, Outbreak, Made In America, and The Wedding Singer.
While always having an ear for dialogue. Fisher says she fell into being a script doctor. She told the Phoenix New Times:
“I read mostly fiction and then it went to obligation. I was asked to write a book based on an interview I did for Esquire. I was asked to write a nonfiction book and I didn’t. [Laughs] I was asked to adapt that book and then I started doing re-writes.”
When it came to Star Wars, this was no exception. Fisher said she was always working on Lucas’ dialogue.
“It is easier as an actor to go into rewriting because you know what would fit into your mouth dialogue-wise. We would tell George Lucas, “You can type this shit but you can’t say it.”
Hollywood noticed Carrie Fisher's script doctor work, and she would go on to contribute to lots of films and television on an uncredited basis. She even confirmed that she worked on the prequels with George Lucas, but it’s hard to find out in what capacity.
Carrie Fisher continued to script doctor until the early 2000s. She said in an interview with Newsweek:
“It was a long, very lucrative episode of my life. But it’s complicated to do that. Now it’s all changed, actually. Now in order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix the script. So they can get all the notes from all the different writers, keep the notes and not hire you. That’s free work and that’s what I always call life-wasting events.”
I certainly agree with her on the angst of free work in Hollywood, I wish we got to see more of the Carrie Fisher, script doctor, later in her life.
So we’ve covered script doctors in Star Wars, let’s see who’s doing what in our galaxy.
Other Script Doctor Examples
Script doctors go back to the golden era of Hollywood. When Casablanca was being written, teams of writers sat up in a hotel room on set trying to put together dialogue and scenes for the next day.
Flash forward 70 years and we’re still doing the same thing.
The first time I really became aware of the importance of script doctors was on the 2013 film, World War Z. There was news during production that things were going south. The movie’s turmoil was covered heavily by the trades.
World War Z was also expensive and based on a popular book. The studio needed it to be a hit. That’s when Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were brought in.
Those guys changed the ending of the script, made it more contained, personal, and the movie went on to be a hit.
Let me let you in on a little industry secret - every movie you’ve ever seen has had reshoots. No production is perfect, there are always bumps in the road, changes in dialogue, and days spent redoing previous work.
But if you need a complete overhaul, you call a script doctor.
Script Doctors Working Today
Let’s take a look at some famous script doctor jobs and see who did what.
While they’re certainly very accomplished writers in their own merit, occasionally the Coen brothers take a studio gig doing some script doctor work. Their most famous work was on Fun With Dick And Jane, with Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni.
Legend has it that Kevin Smith did a lot of work on the Coyote Ugly script, but the only remnant is the comic book purchase made by the boyfriend character. Director David McNally had this to say about Smith’s script: “It was terrific but pretty raunchy, and missing an emotional element to the relationship thing.”
Aaron Sorkin is considered one of the kings of dialogue. So when Steven Spielberg called on him to punch up the dialogue in Steve Zailian’s Schindler’s List script, Sorkin went in like a surgeon and made those characters sing.
Apatow is famous for being funny, which sounds like a great deal to me. He worked as a script doctor on Bruce Almighty, where he met Steve Carrell. That worked out well for both of them.
From the writer of The Squid And The Whale, and other classy indie films comes…Madagascar 3? That’s right. Baumbach did so much screenplay doctor work on that screenplay that he recieved credit for it.
Shane Black burst onto the scene in 1987 with the original Lethal Weapon. He’s known for being a script doctor behind the scenes, but after an insane 1990’s his star faded a bit.
Then he suddenly was back in the spotlight in the late 2000’s with Iron Man. While not credited, he did a lot of the punch-ups. Marvel loved them so much they brought him back for the third movie in the franchise.
Not sure if this one counts, but Ryan Coogler mentioned that Donald Glover helped out a lot on Black Panther, He did a joke pass and also helped with some other story elements. He even got a shout out in the closing credits.
One of our most idiosyncratic writers, Kaufman did some script doctor work on Kung Fu Panda 2, which might explain why the Panda puts on a play version of Kung Fu Panda 1 to learn about himself… just kidding, but it adds a new layer to the family cartoon for sure!
Before Kenneth Lonergan was ripping our hearts out with Manchester by the Sea and You Can Count On Me, he was tearing it up in the romcom arena, rewriting Fools Gold.
Some of these feel wacky, but knowing that Adam McKay did work on Elf makes total sense to me. The lunacy, they wry comments, it definitely tracks.
So it turns out if you’re funny, you may be able to get a script doctor job in Hollywood and make that script doctor rate. Patton Oswalt has worked on lots of different scripts, but it was his script doctor work on Looney Tunes: Back In Action that got our attention.
Again, this one feels weird, but he did a lot of script doctor work on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. He did so much that he actually got a screenwriting credit on the film.
Reitman burst onto the scene with Juno, (which you can read about in our coming of age films article), but he also paid the bills doing some script doctor work on The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
M. Night Shyamalan
Before he was the heir-apparent to Hitchcock, and then in a weird limbo... and now back again... Shyamalan was doing script doctor work on She’s All That.
He mostly worked on the story and dialogue. Which explains the big twist when she wasn’t just all that on the outside, but also on the inside.
Of course, Tarantino is famous for his movies, but he’s got lots of credited punch-up and script doctor work for movies like Crimson Tide.
Long before he came in on Justice League, Whedon cut his teeth doing an uncredited script doctor work on Speed. He’s uncredited, but it’s said he wrote all the dialogue for the film.
First a king of horror and B-movies in the 70’s and 80’s like Piranha, then an indie/personal filmmaker with entries like Matewan and Lone Star, Sayles also did uncredited work in the 90’s on Mimic and did a dialogue pass on Apollo 13.
One of the greatest screenwriters of all time, with the near perfect Chinatown as his crown jewel, Towne was such a great writer everyone wanted to take advantage of his screenplay doctor abilities. He did rewrites on The Godfather, Parallax View, and even Bonnie and Clyde.
Some remember her as half of the genius comedy duo with Mike Nichols, others might remember her for epic bomb Ishtar, but the latter would be a shame. Her writing spans decades, and her talent helped shape some of the greatest screenplays of all time. Reds, Tootsie, Labyrinth, and even The Birdcage. Her script doctor work stood the test of time.
Terrence Malick is likely your film buff friend’s favorite filmmaker. And, honestly, I’m pretty sure The Tree Of Life holds all the keys to existence. But Malick got his start doing script doctor work on movies like Dirty Harry. yes, THAT DIRTY HARRY. Pretty cool.
He’s mostly known for all his work on the James Bond franchise, but Mankiewicz did a ton of work on Superman: The Movie and Superman II for Richard Donner.
Did We Answer “What Is A Script Doctor”?
Truthfully, being a script doctor seems kind of awesome. It’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of responsibility but a lot of fun. To get there, you need to build up clout in the industry and be easy to work with.
As we said, every movie has reshoots, but being a script doctor is part of a much more intricate process.
If you’re looking to embark on your professional writing career, check out our post on writing short films to get your feet wet on the page.
Is there another classic screenplay doctor we neglected to mention? Or a lesser known uncredited incident? Let us know in the comments!
We can’t wait to see what you do next!