Screenwriting: it’s just like copywriting

I’m currently reading Tales from the Script, a compendium of advice from lots of great Hollywood screenwriters (William Goldman, Frank Darabont, Paul Schrader, Shane Black etc.). I think the book may just be a transcription of the movie:

I got to a point about halfway through where I started to notice many parallels between that process and the process of getting an ad made:

Steven E De Souza (48hrs, Die Hard) says, ‘One of the things you can do is leave opportunities for plug-and-play. See, if they can say anything interesting in the meeting they can think it’s their idea. Then they’re invested.’ This mirrors the common practice of making the client feel part of the creative process; not in a cynical, duping way, but just making sure you leave room for a possible contribution from an unexpected place. In both industries the days when an original script would go through to production without touching the sides are long gone. Better to be aware of, and therefore prepared for, the contribution of the client/studio.

Billy Ray (Flightplan, State of Play) suggests that ‘you have to listen to their problems but ignore their solutions’. I think that can apply in many cases, too. When you think about it, the script review dynamic is an odd one: work that takes a long time to craft is often assessed almost spontaneously, with rewrites and amendments suggested, often by non-writers, with a few seconds of thought. I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Ray because I think other people’s solutions can sometimes be good and valuable, and even if they’re wrong they can give good insight into what the person judging the ad or screenplay might be looking for.

Gerald DiPego (Sharky’s Machine, Phenomenon) warns that ‘maybe it was original script that they loved, but now they’ve read it five times, so the thrill is gone‘. This is an interesting scenario that is common, but difficult to avoid. The development and production process of movies and commercials is necessarily far too long to maintain the same level of delight from beginning to end, so it helps to be aware of that and make sure what is being presented has at least some new element about it that keeps it fresh.

Zak Penn (The first three X-Men films, The Incredible Hulk) reminds us that ‘being too passive is something that can really bite you on the ass. You have to fight through that natural inclination some people have to go with the flow. The flow will push you right out the door.’ Sound familiar? ‘Yes, Mr./Mrs. Client, of course we’ll do that, Mr./Mrs. Client. Anything you say, sir/ma’am.’ Eventually that will lead to poor work, zero mutual respect and no strength in really pushing hard for something you believe in. Of course, there are some clients and development execs who think they know best about every little thing, but enabling that on a long-term basis is a path to poor work and being put up for pitch. The same applies to teams and their CDs: standing up for what you think is right (in the right way) will gain you respect, and, possibly, a better ad.

Finally, Charles Vignola, in his capacity as Director of Development at Bruckheimer Films (Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure etc.), explains the process from the other side of the fence and comes across rather like a CD. He describes his job as one part ‘panning for gold‘ – trying to find the best material amongst the work writers submit to him. The second part is ‘developing the material to the point where we can attach a director‘. That is of course essentially what CDs do, so sometimes it’s worth realigning your perspective on the part you play in the process and realising that at some point you become the client. When that happens you can understand what people who have to approve your work actually go through. Perhaps they’re not as bovine as you think.