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-   -   How do you guys get along with writers? (https://www.dvinfo.net/forum/techniques-independent-production/40101-how-do-you-guys-get-along-writers.html)

Marco Leavitt February 25th, 2005 10:49 AM

How do you guys get along with writers?
I originally got into learning about video production as a way to get my own scripts produced, and was surprised to find I enjoyed it as much or more as the writing process. Still, I consider myself foremost a writer, and am constantly astonished at the attitudes I encounter from people involved with local productions. Everybody seems to think the script is some kind of stew they can throw random bits of crap into. I understand that filmmaking is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise, and the development of a script is an evolving process.

The most important person in that process is the director, of course. I take her input seriously and always include her during the revision process. I also seek feedback from a number of people whose opinions I trust and thoughtfully weigh all of their suggestions.

We all know writers who get overly defensive about their work and fall in love with every little word. Yes, Iíve been that guy too, but thatís not what Iím talking about here. Why is it that everybody feels they know more than I do? Itís frankly insulting.

The reason most writers are so resistant to suggestions is because most of them are crap, coming as they do at inappropriate times from assistants who are supposed to be cataloging tapes, or random people in bars. Honestly, I canít tell you how many times weíve interviewed potential crew members, and the conversation goes something like this. ďWhat weíre really looking for is a grip.Ē ďGreat, yeah anything, but by the way Iíve got some great suggestions on the script.Ē

As a cinematographer, could you imagine having to work in a situation where practically every person on the shoot, no matter how menial the position they work in, felt like it was perfectly okay to nag you about where to put the tripod? How about actors who constantly insist that a shot wonít work, when they wonít even try it? Would you feel any ownership over a project that got reshot eight different ways behind your back? Why would you even bother to work on a film knowing itís a foregone conclusion that practically everything you do will be second-guessed and changed by people who may or may not even know what they are doing?

Iím speaking of course about amateur productions. Pay me $40,000 for my script and you can do any bloody thing you want to it. Thatís a different situation. Anyway, my purpose in writing this post is to ask what peopleís attitudes are towards the screenwriters they work with. Do you find them arrogant and inflexible? Is there an atmosphere of mutual respect? Do you encourage ad libbing?

Actors and directors love ad libbing. As a writer, naturally I hate it, although I must admit Iíve seen it work pretty well before (rarely). My biggest problem with it is that itís often used as a crutch by actors too lazy to learn their lines. Also, they almost always drop key pieces of dialog that cause continuity problems later.

Keith Loh February 25th, 2005 11:12 AM

Marco, we are brothers from different mothers.

Richard Alvarez February 25th, 2005 11:17 AM


I too, consider myself primarily a writer, and I have worked in virtually every aspect of production as well.

My favorite line is Bill Goldmans'

"Try doing what I do, before I do it."

Everybody is smart enough to think of a different way, but where were they when you were staring at a blank screen?

Keep pounding the keys.


Imran Zaidi February 25th, 2005 11:54 AM

Yeah I think a lot of what you're saying really speaks to most writers. I can't say I disagree with pretty much anything you said.

As far as ad libbing, being a writer and director myself on my own small scale projects, I find leaving the occasional space for improvising can be of extreme value.

As a director, I tend to always make sure 3 types of takes are covered - one for the director, one for the writer, and one for the actor. Actually, the order I go in is usually one for the writer, then actor, then the director.

The one for the writer is always by the book, so to speak. And the one for the actor usually involves a lot of straying from the dialog, but if the actor is a good one who is staying true to the nature of their character, this can be absolute magic. And the one for the director, for me, is purely on the whim of the moment - based on how the other takes went, and if I want more of the same or something different. It's like having final cut on set.

When I'm editing, I find that most of the time I enjoy the performances of the actor's take most often. But having that writer's take is absolutely essential to me because not only does it keep me grounded, it also bails me out of trouble if something starts to fall apart on the editing table. It's a reliable fall-back - after all, it's the blueprint to the house!

I've come up with this basic system that works for me based on studying the methods of various directors I find who have certain strengths. And strangely enough, if I'm out of time and I absolutely can't do one of the types of takes, I drop the director's take first, NOT the actor's. Why? Because a director is nothing without a happy actor, and I fundamentally believe giving actors the freedom and safety to run with their ideas is essential.

Of course this is assuming you didn't hire a poor quality, unprofessional actor. If I'm directing someone uninspired, I never forego the director's take.

Of course then there are writers like David Mamet, who doesn't allow his words to be altered in any way, shape or form. He can do that because he's a genius writer with incredible dialog that already serves his own story more than anyone else's choice could.

Michael Wisniewski February 25th, 2005 11:59 AM

My favorite Tai Chi/Aikido move for random suggestions is to tell them to email or text me the suggestion. Most people know that's the best way to get in contact with me. 90% never get back to me. A pen and paper works just as well. Basically it's just too easy to "make a suggestion", so the harder I make it, the less "suggestions" I get.

Still, if it's my script, I usually buy everyone a round of coffee and pizza, and listen while everyone gives their suggestions and then at the end I tell them how we're gonna do it. Japanese style.

If someone else is the writer/director I usually setup a separate time outside of production to make comments/notes. But when we're shooting, I bite my tongue, and just concentrate on listening to the creative people in charge and troubleshooting technical issues.

Re: Actors ad-libbing
Actors come from different schools of training and I always try to pick the ones that jive best with the director/script.

For example, I absolutely love to work with improv actors. I'll pick them over the other ones any day. Meisner and conservatory/theatre actors are great too. I have a very flexible and laid back personality, but you'd find it very hard to intimidate me, so actors who like to improvise compliment my style quite well. I've been told by certain actors that they feel comfortable enough with my direction that they feel free to experiment because they know I'll eventually lead them back if they get too far off the path.

I will use a method actor or one from some other school of thought that's more "technical", but it usually doesn't fit as well with my style of movie making. Actors from these schools of thought are my weakness, I have to work much harder to direct them. Still if you want word for word script reading, method and conservatory actors are amazing. I feel that's where they really shine.

Jacques Mersereau February 25th, 2005 02:09 PM

Keep writing Marco. Don't let people treat you poorly. If they could write
a good script, then they would. Most cannot. Anyone who is really good
makes the extremely difficult *seem easy*.

Being able to come up with a good script is about the only real way to
make money or get a chance to direct a movie. If it is your script and that good,
you have a chance other than paying dues for many hard years.

Hollywood has TONS of directors, actors, DPs, audio guys, studios, lights,
cameras,operators, etc. What they need and are hurting for is the next great story. That's why we keep seeing the 4th or 5th remake of the same old
'good' story and the endless sequels of the same . . . ugh!

The reason they treat you poorly is because you haven't scored a major
success, and the 'familiarity breeds contempt' thang.
(If you were really good, you wouldn't be working with THEM!)
Do you think they would tell Lucas how to direct a scene out of
Star Wars? Hell no! The same people who can't keep their mouths shut
when dealing with you would fall and kiss his feet.

The other famous thing is the, "well can't you just" or "how about this line."
I always listen to all suggestions, but when the time comes you have to
put your foot down, even if it means stomping on someone's neck.

Richard Alverez has it right, it is SO EASY to comment on something finished
as opposed to creating something from nothing.

Being in bands for years, there is the problem of those
musicians who need to be 'invested' in your songs by writing or altering
the parts written for them to play before you get a good performance out of them.
Same thing with actors; most do better when they are they
are part of the creative process, BUT imo, the best, like Roger Daltry of The WHO,
can take great material that they did not create and really make it shine.

Keep working!!!

Rob Lohman February 26th, 2005 06:22 AM

I wan't to try take a stab at explaining why this may happen.

First: almost everybody (this seems especially true the younger
a person is. It may also be mainly men.) seems to want to be
famous and rich.

Almost everybody also seems to think they have good ideas,
perhaps this comes from the encourage sociaty we usually seem
to live in. Parents rarely put their childrens work down etc.

I also sometimes stunned by what kind of scripts get made in the
Hollywood system, sometimes even A list movies. We all know
that Hollywood doesn't tend to make too intelligent movies anyway,
but I'm talking way below that.

I think it mainly thrives on the famous/money issue.

This mainly seems to be true in a lot of indepedent productions
where a lot of people want to "make it", especially as an actor
or director.

I think most people also lack a form of professionalism which
doesn't help them in such matters.

I see that a lot in the professional IT world aswell as outside that
as well. I have clients where their children are supposed to be
"computer whizzkids" (or relatives) and then they argue about
my plan of action, as if such persons have any idea how things
work on the enterprise levels.

Richard Alvarez February 26th, 2005 09:40 AM

Here are my thoughts on why so much crap makes it onto the screen.

People walk away from a crap movie, and say..."I can do better than that". And, not infrequently, they can.

They don't understand that in order to get a film made, you have to have MORE than a pretty good idea. The problem is, that your story has to be so damn good, that by the time six people get around to watering it down, it's still coherent enough to hold together on the screen, as a piece of crap.

I've optioned two of my screenplays, and had to go through re-writes that twisted the story lines in such convoluted manners, that you might not have recognized them from the original scripts.

I did it because I was PAID to do it. And I wanted to see them on the screen. (NO, they didn't make it, the options expired, I kept the money and they are back in circulation.)

As a writer, when I was asked to make changes, I had to pick and choose my fights. If they asked me for a 'space shuttle scene' in the middle of my 17th century historic epic... Before I vomitted, I would look at their request as a challenge. "If I'm good enough, I can take this stupid idea, and make it work." Can I write in some sort of mystical vision of the future? Some kind of time warp? Whatever... my challenge was to take their crap and make it... MINE, and make it do justice to the story.

Why not say "no"? Well, as it happened, in my contract, I got FIRST shot at re-writes. If they weren't happy, they could hire another writer to have a go at it.

And who amoung you would turn down ten grand for a rewrite on someone's script?

I did say 'no' on a number of occasions. As I said, I had to pick and choose my battles and tactfully go to war. The 'blueprint' analogy always comes in handy here. I tell them the script is the 'blueprint' for the house. As the architect, if they want the facade to be Tudor instead of early american, okay- I can do that. Want a window here instead of a door? Fine. Blue interiors instead of beige? No problems. Knock down this wall and make the living room bigger? STOP - THAT WALL HOLDS UP THE HOUSE. NO CAN DO.

Usually my battles were around plot points or theme elements that were absolutely essential to the storyline structure. "Load bearing" scenes, if you will.

Bottom line. The incredible expense and collaborative nature of making a large film, are counter productive to the sort of creative environment that foster respect for the written word that one encounters in the theatre, where the playwright's word is holy. (Just about any play can be performed with the actors in jeans and t-shirts on a black stage. No sets, or props needed. It's about the words, and the actors. The theatrical audience is primed to accept 'Minimilast' staging as art)

Just my thoughts. Now, back to working on a feature that I am CO-WRITING with someone who will probably direct it. He also concieved the original story. Now THAT'S another post.

Charles Papert February 26th, 2005 10:53 AM

This is an interesting discussion!

There is a fascinating phenomenon here in L.A. which is that just about everyone is a writer, or say they are. Every day you overhear "I have to stay home and write tonight" or "I'm meeting my writing partner this afternoon" etc. And there's no doubt that there is a fair amount of decent material being written. And an amazing amount of crap. After all, the monetary investment is low (laptop + screenplay software), and everyone was taught how to put 5 words together in school, right? What is fairly rare is for an individual to be able to cobble together a great story idea with sparkling dialogue and a solid structure. I've seen many unproduced scripts that fall short in one or more of these areas, although the writer thinks it is all genius.

More often than not, to me, it's the dialogue that sticks out the worst in a weak script. When the words just don't seem to be coming out of a human being's mouth on set, we have no recourse but to tinker with the dialogue. Of course, some of this is due to the individual actor's personal style, but more often it is the translation from the page to the spoken word.

I co-produce and usually direct in a 48-hour filmmaking festival called Instant Films. With our version of the concept, the writers work independently and turn in their scripts 12 hours after they pull random words, then the directors pull a script at random and make their films. They can have as little or as much contact with the writer as they choose, but they are encouraged to maintain the spirit of the script.

Many of our participants are working in the industry; several of our writers are very successful feature or television writers, including James Gunn ("Dawn of the Dead", both "Scooby-Doo's"), Janae Bakken ("Scrubs"), Gail Lerner ("Will and Grace") and Deb Cahn (2005 Writer's Guild winner for "The West Wing"). Others are still scrapping and haven't sold a page.

The quality of the writing ranges from excellent to OK (we like to bring the excellent writers back for future rounds!). And every now and then we have a director who breaks the rules and ends up rewriting the script entirely (we don't bring them back). Having directed 11 Instant Films myself, I find myself trimming and tweaking the odd bit of dialogue and occasionally revamping an ending, but nearly every time the writer agrees that it was a good or at least necessary choice. They hadn't had the benefit of a table read or multiple drafts, so the revisions were usually pretty clear-cut.

However, there's usually at least one film per festival that results in friction between writer and director. Perhaps the director just didn't "get" the writer's intention, style or humor; perhaps the writer was going for something in 8 pages that really required 30 (or should have just taken 4!). The single biggest conflict in this two-day, adrenaline-fuelled sleep-deprived process is ultimately between writer and director. (the single biggest regular surprise? Considering that the casting is done completely randomly, it almost always works perfectly...!)

One festival a while back, I decided to try my hand at writing. I turned in a script that I felt good about; it wasn't a masterpiece but I thought it would be a fun little film. It turned out that the director didn't really get it, and he ended up cutting certain setups while leaving in the payoffs which made the film feel disjointed to me. However, a different director might have taken the ball and run with it, possibly changing just as much stuff but for the better. It was definitely a worthwhile exercise for me as a director (yes, I have written in the past but I do not call myself a writer), and I could certainly feel the sting that Marco describes when some of the more carefully crafted bits were butchered.

I'm pretty much rambling here but I think I would have to say that in my experience, a smart director and group of actors can bring a lot to a script; a weak one/ones can do plenty of damage to it. The grip may think he's seen it all and his suggestion may be wonderful or terrible. However, I think it's more of a comment on the low-budget world that crew members feel it's appropriate to offer their story ideas at the hiring stage (good lord!), let alone with discretion on set.

Richard Alvarez February 26th, 2005 11:44 AM


You've piqued my interest in becoming involved in the instant film weekend. Too late for this year I think, but what's the best way to get involved for the next one?


Charles Papert February 26th, 2005 12:08 PM


On our website (www.instantfilms.tv), there is a submission form, click on "participate". Our next one is in May, but no date set yet.

Richard Alvarez February 26th, 2005 01:24 PM


I'm on it! Filling out the forms now.


Richard Alvarez February 26th, 2005 02:51 PM


I am going to answer what I THINK is the question you are asking as I understtand it.


IF I understand you... you are asking me if I can send out the "original version" while I am working on the "rewrite"? No.

I am going to speak to my contracts. And each writer and production company must come to their own terms, especially if you are NOT a member of the WGA. (Which, at the moment I am not. If you are, then there are accepted industry standards, the "WGA MINIMUM" that control your deal factors. Even if you are not a WGA member, using the minimum is a good point to start bargaining.)

Once the request to option was made, we haggled on the deal. How long was the option for? What was the final price going to be? What was the option price? What were incentives for rewrites? What about sequels, television series, Etc. These are all part of 'the deal that had to be worked out. For the record, the purchase price for each of these scripts was supposed to be "in the low six figures".

In my case, there was a big bonus for being the 'sole writer'. Usually, in a WGA deal, there are specific price points for each element. First draft, each rewrite, and 'polish' with the final payment comming on "Commencement of principal photography". In other words, the day the director shouts. "Action" the final check is cut, whether or not the film gets made and distributed. Other deal points might include percentages of the gross.

So, the studio optioned the original film, and I was induced to rewrite it according to their requests, in the hope it would get made. In my case, their were no price points for rewrites. That's because I didn't have the WGA behind me as a member, and didn't have a track record as some great published author to push my weight around. The inducement was the bonus if I managed to do what they wanted. We were each taking a risk. If I couldn't deliver, they would hire someone else to rewrite. If I could deliver, I got the money they would have spent to get it rewritten, but it came at principal photography instead of pre-production.

It sounds complicated, and it is. I am married to an IP Attorney who practices Copyright/Trademark and Entertainment law for a big firm. She was also a performer in our younger days, so she understands the artists point of view.

Once the scripts were 'finished' to the producer's satisfaction, It was hurry up and wait while they tried to get all the elements in place.

They didn't get them in place, and the deals fell through. I got to keep the option money, and I am free to submit the original OR revised versions of the property.

Sorry if this is not an answer to your question.


Michael Wisniewski February 26th, 2005 03:31 PM

Thanks, that answers it.

My original question was could you re-sell a script after someone else has completely re-written it to the point that it's not the same script anymore.

Michael Wisniewski February 26th, 2005 03:44 PM


You might find this interesting (click here). The original writers of Godzilla had a much different story than the one that was realized on screen, so they posted their original script online with an entertaining intro page, describing their experience.

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