Monday, March 31, 2014

The first draft is allways the best draft

I noticed that Lorenzo Semple Jr. passed away this week-end. For those of you who don't know who he was, Lorenzo was the originator of the 1960's Batman series. And he also did a lot of 70's features including 3 Days Of The Condor, King Kong and one of my favorite
movies, Parallex View with Warren Beatty. Pic on top is a scene from the movie, also poster used in ad campaign.

One of the interesting things about his career is that he was often rewritten by another writer or writers. The other interesting thing is that he didn't really care if someone else changed his first draft. 

His reason was simple, he didn't want to start arguing with the director or the producer or the movie star. He took his money and walked away.

While some writers, notably the "aspiring writers" feel that their screenplay is golden and that nobody will touch it, would think Semple is a sell-out. But after a few years, you learn that it's more likely you have no choice.

I've had my own experiences with rewrites but they go a little different with me. I've never really had a screenplay re-rewritten, in fact I rewrote at least ten of the credits I list on imdb. These were screenplays originally written by another writer. I have had a few TV episodes, notably on one of the two Highlander episodes I wrote but in TV that's much more common. As a story editor, I rewrote a few TV episodes from writers as well.

I was also rewritten on my Town That Christmas Forgot screenplay without consent of the Writer's Guild. The changes were mostly because of locations but when the "other" writer who wasn't guild claimed his rights, the guild quickly fired back, saying that he had to join the guild and pay $2000 entry. Needless to say my name stayed alone on the credit.

There's also one other issue besides having your screenplay rewritten. You lose some of the residuals, which are divided by the other writer or writers.

But here's another issue; just because another writer is hired, does that mean the screenplay is better?

Answer: Yes and no.

It all depends on the writers. I rewrote a screenplay for Paramount called Riddler's Moon. The sci-fi story was set in a drought in a Nebraska-like state.  That was okay until I flew into Luxembourg to notice that the fields were very yellow and very pretty. 

So the first change that was made was that the lush fields of yellow and green (mostly canola) were tainted. They were poison. After that I went through about 15 versions of the screenplay, some of them simply two or three pages.

Can a screenplay be filmed without rewrites?

Yes and no.

My first screenplay after Ghostkeeper was a story called Betrayal of Silence, way back in 1989. I had a story at that time but no real screenplay. Then a producer friend asked me if I could write a screenplay on it, as he had a window before year's end to take advantage of a tax credit.

This was around the end of November and they needed to shoot the screenplay before year's end. That meant I had to have a screenplay on or before December 1st. Two weeks.

I holed up in a hotel in Toronto and began writing. One of my strengths in writing is that I tend to write fast and somehow, with my producer coming in every day for an hour or so, I finished the first draft. 

I did some polishing, not much, and handed the screenplay to the Assistant Director on a Friday.  They began filming on Monday.

So I guess one can get their screenplay made without rewrites. The funny thing is that I think it's one of my best screenplays.

Getting back to the first draft, I would probably agree with Semple on rewrites. The best thing about the first draft is that it's entirely yours, just as you wanted it.  Handing it over to someone else can be hard, or it can depend on how much you get paid.

In most cases you don't get a choice.

And there are a lot of stories about having too many writers, there are dozens of examples of this where a movie just becomes so confusing nobody knows what it's about.

I've been lucky at that, having only three movies rewritten, two were minor changes and one was due to a producer who had a screenwriter friend. That movie is still on Amazon, called Maiden Voyage.

So what do you do if you sell your screenplay and someone else rewrites it; well, take the money and run.

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