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Old October 29th, 2008, 11:06 PM   #16
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I'm interested in the how and why of what you're going to be "re-writing" for your collaborator. If, by re-writing, you intend take his/her ideas and simply make them clearer or simpler for the audience to understand - then I think you're just fine with your concept of providing "re-write" service.
That's really what I want to do, just fine-tune some points that I think would make the story more cinematic. Just as an example, things like having a character read a letter instead of getting a phone call, or changing a location to make it more suitable for where I'd be shooting it, or getting rid of an inconsequential character. Those kinds of things -- nothing to change the basic concept or protagonist.
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You really do need to sit down with and talk to the original author so see where his or her head is at regarding you taking their original work and altering it.

It's precisely what you'd expect if you were the original author and honestly valued the time and effort required to produce work of quality.
Yeah, I just didn't want to have a conversation not knowing the right way to do it, or what I could expect, and so on. So I came here to ask about it from experienced folks. I really appreciate all the various viewpoints. I would also love to hear from fledgling producers like me who may have had to deal with something similar, trying to make it happen with a miniscule budget and finding their way.
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Old October 29th, 2008, 11:08 PM   #17
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Originally Posted by Diane diGino View Post
I figured if there weren't any writers who would do it for free, I'd just write it myself.
Hey look at that, problem solved. Nice thread though, thanks for thanking people for their effort too, shows class and style. ;)
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Old October 30th, 2008, 10:06 AM   #18
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This is a process I know a good deal about from the producer's point of view, the writer's point of view and even the director's point of view. If the changes are really tiny, and mostly visual in nature, that's a conversation over coffee. If you're eliminating characters, that's something else entirely and should be approached as such. If you aren't going to pay the writer, you need to offer him partial ownership of the film, give him a producer credit and define what that means.

And by no means, should you rewrite anything that someone allows you to use without charge. He would be letting you use his script to get a sample of his writing produced. if you're turned it into your writing, then he has no reason to do that. If you can't afford to pay someone, then I would encourage you to keep reading scripts and find something you can happily produce without changing. Why open yourself up to this grief over your first project?

The worst thing film schools do is focus on this idea of development. Having been married to a professional writer for many years who has 12 for-hire scripts to his name, who has sold several spec scripts and worked with some A-list producers, I can tell you that most scripts are systematically diminished by development even with experienced producers. If you're working with an experienced writer, you should assume that he knows one heckuva lot more about storytelling than you do. Give him your thoughts and if he agrees, okay. If he doesn't, you're probably on the wrong path and should move on. Any time you can produce a project as written, you're almost certainly in better shape than when you pick up a script that needs changes. Also, lots of producers compulsively want to make changes in scripts just to put their creative stamp on something - it's a foolish way to go.

I have to say that your discomfort with what you're talking about is really jumping out in this thread. I don't think this is the script or the project for you. Seriously. I have no dog in this fight, and you sound totally conflicted and anxious - that''s no way to start a project even if you love the script. Take the writer out to coffee, tell him you're feeling conflicted, tell him what you have on your mind, and then bow to his superior storytelling capability and professional judgment. Just be sure to put it all on the table - no more proposals at a later date (which is where I think this is going whether you know it or not).

Good luck. I'll be interested in hearing where this winds up.
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Old October 30th, 2008, 11:01 AM   #19
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I had one other thing I wanted to say about this. Years ago, a friend of mine was hired to write a science fiction script. The story was very similar to one that PD James would eventually publish that was recently turned into a very successful film - so the basic idea was strong. My friend's execution was reasonably good as well. But when the producers got overseas, they decided they need a major rewrite and hired a local writer to redo the entire script. It was terrible. Terrible. Did I say it was terrible? The film was released on January 9th, and the LA Times was so confident in it's badness, that they pronounced it the worst film of the year. And by the end of the year, they were, indeed, vindicated on that assessment.

The point being that my friend was still listed as the senior writer and the non-credited rewrite destroyed his career, utterly. He lost his agent and no one in town would talk to him. The point being that in this day and age, what with the internet, you cannot know where a short film will go. Even if the film turns out well, if you don't write as well as he does, it's something that's out there with his name on your writing, and that will impact him, not you.

Anyway, good luck.
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Old October 30th, 2008, 12:07 PM   #20
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I have to say that your discomfort with what you're talking about is really jumping out in this thread. I don't think this is the script or the project for you. Seriously. I have no dog in this fight, and you sound totally conflicted and anxious - that''s no way to start a project even if you love the script. Take the writer out to coffee, tell him you're feeling conflicted, tell him what you have on your mind, and then bow to his superior storytelling capability and professional judgment. Just be sure to put it all on the table - no more proposals at a later date (which is where I think this is going whether you know it or not).

Good luck. I'll be interested in hearing where this winds up.
Wow, it's so interesting that you interpreted my inexperience as discomfort. I'm not uncomfortable at all with having a discussion with the writer, nor drawing up contracts, nor asking for changes. I just felt I needed to ask people for the protocol on these kinds of things, and what others have done in similar situations. Nor am I conflicted and anxious. I know what I want and will discuss it with the writer -- who is, btw, experienced in prose writing but not screenplays -- but, believe me, I'm not breaking into a sweat over this. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. Some in this thread have worded their responses as if I have a problem -- I don't feel I have a problem. I'm just looking for information because I've never used someone else's script before. All I wanted to know was what kind of agreement to present to the writer and how to go about doing it.

I thought I mentioned this earlier but, the writer gave me a treatment first. I loved it. I asked for the screenplay, and he said, "Okay, after I make some tweaks." The tweaked version has changed certain elements of the treatment that I thought were very powerful. I want to ask for those elements back, or get the pre-tweak version, and make a few additional suggestions. I will also have to adjust some elements to work with the budget.

BTW, I don't think any of my classes emphasized development at all! LOL. My school is more about "get the camera in your hands and start shooting." Writing is one of the things I do well. I was often the only person in my class who wrote a script for my projects, which won at our student festivals. I just didn't want to write about a particular topic for this project because I'm not familiar with it and I found someone who is, but they need to trim some stuff. I think the changes I would like are very minor. The examples I listed in a previous post were just examples to give an idea of what I'm after -- not changing the basic premise but just trimming the fat. But everything you've said is food for thought and I appreciate that -- I certainly don't want to mangle the story.
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Old October 30th, 2008, 03:20 PM   #21
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Hey, I'm producer who has gotten several feature length films made. I'm sympathetic. But you're coming across, whether you know it or not, as very anxious about this. From the very first post before anyone responded to you, you come across as anxious. I'm simply suggesting that this may be more problematic for you than you realize.

The protocol is very simple. Its okay to ask about visual changes. That's fine. Any more serious changes require that the writer feel good about it because you aren't paying him. It's okay to not pay someone if you aren't paying yourself, if you give them a slice of ownership and if you respect their work. Its not okay to take someone else's work, not pay them, and then substitute your ideas or words for theirs.

I'd still encourage you to read more scripts and find one you can shoot as it is.

I sincerely wish the best of luck.
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Old October 31st, 2008, 02:53 PM   #22
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...you're coming across, whether you know it or not, as very anxious about this. From the very first post before anyone responded to you, you come across as anxious. I'm simply suggesting that this may be more problematic for you than you realize.
It must be due to the challenge of interpreting something written rather than having a conversation in person. You're reading something into my post that simply isn't there. I'm far from being "full of mental distress or uneasiness because of fear of danger or misfortune" nor even just "greatly worried." Seriously, if this doesn't pan out, I don't really care. I'd like to do it, and I hope I can make it happen, but I've got other projects I'm working on. Doing this project is kind of an exercise I'm making for myself to learn. Well, anyway...
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The protocol is very simple. Its okay to ask about visual changes. That's fine. Any more serious changes require that the writer feel good about it because you aren't paying him. It's okay to not pay someone if you aren't paying yourself, if you give them a slice of ownership and if you respect their work.
No, I'm not paying myself, but I just don't get this ownership thing. It will be an extremely low budget short. Why would I give the writer part ownership of MY little dinky movie if he doesn't care whether or not I'm paying him?
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Its not okay to take someone else's work, not pay them, and then substitute your ideas or words for theirs.
Well, of course I wouldn't change their words and say I wrote it. But don't directors change writers' scripts all the time? I didn't want to do that. I want to just make a few suggestions to the writer and have him do it.
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I'd still encourage you to read more scripts and find one you can shoot as it is.
Not many good ones on the subject I need. And I need to decide soon, but maybe I'll come across another. However, I don't see why I should only look for scripts I can't make changes to. Do you think that way just because I'm not paying the writer?
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I sincerely wish the best of luck.
Thank you. I do appreciate your feedback, too!!
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Old October 31st, 2008, 06:59 PM   #23
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I think that way because the majority of scripts by skilled writers - whether they are new to the format or not - are ultimately diminished by changes made by others. Even when the "others" are very skilled producers who have a thorough understanding of the the form. I say that as someone who has lived in Hollywood for 25 years and who has watched the process unfold dozens and dozens of times over. My husband wrote professionally for ten years, and has over a dozen for-hire projects to his name, a handful of spec scripts sold and innumerable polishes and doctorings. The only polishes that wind up really working are dialogue polishes when the writer is a brilliant story teller and simply has no gift for dialogue. Sometimes when there is a small structural change it can work well. The first script my husband ever wrote has been optioned repeatedly and he has been paid to rewrite it a whopping 16 times. I finally dug up the original drafts and discovered that he had left a structural element out of the third act. It''s a very elegant vampire tale (not campy) and the third act is this metaphysical conflagration that everyone loved but felt was problematic. when I read it, the problem was that the conflagration grew out of a home environment that was settled and cozy but which we never saw. We needed to see it. I dropped a few dinner scenes in and a trip to the local beach, and the third act fell into place. But that's pretty unusual. Close to 100% of the time, when producers start asking for changes, the script gets worse. And I have watched Academy winning writers go through this process and watched Academy winning producers ruin projects.

I think is the one of the reasons that theatre is an important journey for anyone who wants to direct film. In theatre, you must do what''s on the page, or lose the rights to the material. It means the director has to make the journey to understand the writer's intent - and sometimes, it really is a journey. I think you should be working with the best writer you can find, and you should assume that the writer knows more about how to tell the story well than you. It''s a very humble approach to filmmaking, and would probably have prevented quite a few directorial careers from burning out, if used thoughtfully.

As for ownership, it's just a matter of respect. Should you do a brilliant job and actually make some money on it, it would do well by him. Changes he likes are fine. But once you get into big changes, he may still go along with them because he is eager to have something produced. But if you're wrong about how well it works, then you have tampered with his ability to use your efforts on his behalf - and that's the only reason to let you use the script without charge.

Humility - it serves a director well. :)
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Old October 31st, 2008, 10:46 PM   #24
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I think is the one of the reasons that theatre is an important journey for anyone who wants to direct film. In theatre, you must do what''s on the page, or lose the rights to the material. It means the director has to make the journey to understand the writer's intent - and sometimes, it really is a journey. I think you should be working with the best writer you can find, and you should assume that the writer knows more about how to tell the story well than you. It's a very humble approach to filmmaking, and would probably have prevented quite a few directorial careers from burning out, if used thoughtfully.
Yes, when I worked as an actor I was always a stickler about remaining true to the script, and felt my duty was to honor the playwright's words. I always appreciated directors who felt the same about their directing. Even when the writing sucked. However, in this case, the writer has a great story idea that needs some fine-tuning to make it more cinematic. Just because he is a skilled essayist doesn't mean he is also highly skilled in writing scripts. I say writers need humility as well. Sometimes their great ideas get tangled in a maze of what they think are clever devices, especially if they've immersed themselves so deeply in the process of writing that the only way to extricate that brilliant nugget of the story is to listen to someone more objective and who has a little distance. If I present what I think the script should accomplish without dictating how to write it, I would hope that this writer would be open to suggestions. You make it seem like it's such a bad thing to ask a writer to make changes.
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Old November 1st, 2008, 01:44 AM   #25
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Just because everyone seems to feel that "writing" is something that everyone has the ability not just to do, but to critique, I thought it would be an interesting idiomatic exercise to re-write your above argument, simply changing the basic artistic effort.

Let's see if the argument holds up.

"Yes, when I worked fine art store I was always a stickler about remaining true to the original art I was copying and "improving", and felt my duty was to honor the original painters works. I always appreciated artists agents who felt the same about their clients work. Even when the painting sucked. However, in this case, the painter has a great artistic idea that I felt needed some fine-tuning to make it more commercial. Just because he is a skilled fine artist doesn't mean he is also highly skilled in creating commercial paintings. I say painters need humility as well. Sometimes their great ideas get tangled in a maze of what they think are clever colors or designs, especially if they've immersed themselves so deeply in the process of painting that the only way to extricate that brilliant nugget of the painting's design is to listen to someone more objective and who has a little distance. If I present what I think the painting should accomplish without dictating how to paint it, I would hope that this painter would be open to suggestions. You make it seem like it's such a bad thing to ask a painter to make changes."


My gentle contention is that while you don't understand it yet, you're approach has been to devalue the very act of "writing" into something akin to mere craft in precisely the way your words as re-quoted above would almost necessarily devalue the work of any fine artist, if they were applied to that idiom.

Hardly anyone would presume to say "Hey, if I don't like your painting, I'll just paint a better one myself. Because we intuitively understand that it takes not ONLY talent, but years of study and experience to turn a person into a qualified fine artist.

But carefully composed words? - heck, we ALL use words. So we're all not just eminently qualified to "improve" the work of others - but most of us feel nearly entitled to do so.

My advice? Fight the feeling.

It may seem eminently reasonable at your current level where you're working largely with novice writers. But someday, if you progress in this business, you'll be working with talented writers. When that happens, you'll need a history of respect for a lot of talented people in areas where you may have opinions and perhaps even authority - but not the actual level of talent and professional experience that they bring to the table.

So start practicing now.

For what it's worth.
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Old November 1st, 2008, 01:27 PM   #26
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To reiterate:

This thread was meant to find out what steps I need to establish an an agreement with a writer to use a screenplay and ask for a few minor changes. It really is a "technical" question. However, certain among you feel it is necessary to lecture me about ethics or what you feel would be professionalism. I was hoping for some links, perhaps, to the kinds of forms used for this, a description of what kinds of agreements there could be, or even a story from someone on how they did the same thing. I really don't need to be lectured on whether to pay or not, nor whether to change a script or not, nor how to be humble. Sheesh.

Thankfully, posters at another message board I frequent simply answered my questions. But, hey, gee thanks.

Last edited by Diane diGino; November 1st, 2008 at 05:33 PM.
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Old November 12th, 2008, 09:38 PM   #27
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I thought I mentioned this earlier but, the writer gave me a treatment first. I loved it. I asked for the screenplay, and he said, "Okay, after I make some tweaks." The tweaked version has changed certain elements of the treatment that I thought were very powerful. I want to ask for those elements back, or get the pre-tweak version, and make a few additional suggestions. I will also have to adjust some elements to work with the budget.
I guess everyone's gone, but I believe the first thing to tell the writer is above. "I loved your treatment, but I don't like the way you developed it in the script. I think you lost some of the most powerful elements. Can we work on this so it's something we are both passionate about? I also would like to take some of the things that sound good in prose and make them more cinematic. Will that work for you? Finally, some production limitations make it necessary to make some practical changes. Can we talk about those?"

The writer's reaction to this will determine everything else.

From a realistic stand point, there are very few people who can work together.

I have never met a film writer who was happy with the final film. (Or heard about one either).

Every agreement has to be in writing, especially if it involves a friend, and really especially if involves a spouse or lifemate.

No agreement is valid unless it involves consideration, even if only a dollar.

Prose writers can't write scripts. (And most script writers can't write scripts.) One practical way to politely point this out to a writer is to storyboard the script. If all the frames look the same you don't have a film.

Rule Number One in script re-writing: take out all the dialogue. (And take out all the description that tells what a character is thinking or feeling.)


Bottom line, begin the conversation by being polite, but honest. Even on a very low budget project, time is money, and you half to cut out the garbage. If you can't work with someone, find it out in the first 5 minutes.
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