This is the final part in a document I wrote about my screenwriting process when tackling a feature. So far, I’ve covered the basic order of steps from logline through revisions. However…
CHANGING THE ORDER
I rarely do every one of these steps in the same order. It tends to vary for me, project to project, depending on how things go for me creatively in the early stages. For instance, a few years ago I had an idea about a spy hiding out in a small town. Knowing nothing about the story, I wrote three scenes for fun, then put them away. Nearly three years later, I found them and went, hey, “this is the kind of thing I’d like to write now.” I created an idea file and started brainstorming characters and scenes I’d like to see in a movie like this.
I wrote a beat sheet, but only finished it about two-thirds of the way (through the all is lost moment) and then started boarding. After I boarded the movie, I skipped the treatment stage and went straight to draft. This turned out to be a mistake because I was really stuck for the first half of the movie. I ended up writing and rewriting for over two months, trying to get it right. Then I hit the mid-point and bam, I wrote the second half of the movie in a week. I titled it THE FREELANCER. The funny thing is in my feedback everyone loved the third act and most of their notes were centered on the first act so that’s where I did the majority of the work.
Could I have solved those first act problems in a treatment? Probably. But I’ve also done this enough times to know that my process varies every time. I try not to make big process-oriented mistakes but if I do, I can still find myself to a workable first draft. This wasn’t the case with the script I wrote before THE FREELANCER, a script that never made it to a second draft. So if I had to be honest, I’d say I “should” stick to the plan every time. Why don’t I?
The two feature scripts that really started my career over a decade ago were GIFTED (a romantic dramedy) and HATCHET CLUB (a sci-fi/horror movie). I improvised both scripts. GIFTED took me three weeks, HATCHET CLUB took me twelve days. And those scripts ruined me. I jumped into my career knowing how to write but I didn’t have a repeatable process. I learned pretty quickly that winging it would only lead to success a certain percentage of the time. Not good when you’re trying to make a living at something.
Plus, when you start working professionally, you have to pitch a lot, and you can’t pitch “I dunno, I’ll figure it out as I go.” So I needed a process, fast. It was a huge learning curve but I read some key books, studied a lot of movies, and did some heavy work with my first manager. We learned a lot about story together in those early years. A key thing I learned about myself is I kind of hate breaking a feature story. I generally love writing the script but all the pre-writing that comes before it is not a lot of fun for me. I also learned that even when I break a story, I have to somehow find ways to still discover things in the draft. This is hard when you’ve broken a story into 40 highly detailed note cards.
That’s why I tend to under-break, just a little. I like to leave small gaps between major beats in order to let myself improvise my way from point a to point b. It’s the discoveries I make in those gaps that are the heart and soul of my writing. This is the part of my process that is the most mystical to me. My gut instincts, when they’re fully engaged, serve me well. But I have to do the heavy lifting in order to give myself free reign to improvise WITHIN the structure I’ve created. It’s weird, but it works. Most of the time.
Sometimes it’s maddening for me that my process isn’t a little more consistent. I think my career has suffered a bit because some scripts have turned out great while others have turned out only okay. But maybe that’s just writing in general? Very few of us can knock it out of the park every time, which is why writing constantly is so important. They say that the more times you’re at bat, the more hits you get. I’m no sports fan but that analogy is right on. I’ve written over thirty feature screenplays, made money on a few, and gotten two made. And I’m damn proud of those numbers. That’s not to say that I can’t do better. I just gotta keep at it. But don’t we all?