MY FEATURE WRITING PROCESS
My process is very concept driven. For me, a screenplay has to have an intriguing idea at its core. If I’m going to spend months or longer writing something, if I’m going to try and move heaven and Earth to get something made, it has to be an idea that captures the imagination. Most of my ideas tend to fall within a certain “box” that I’m known for: character-driven action with humor and heart. Sometimes I’ll lean in one direction or another, depending on what “target” I’m shooting for.
Recently I’ve been interested in near-future sci-fi, watching a lot of stuff in that genre, and imagining the kind of movie I could write in that space. Sometimes an idea will just appear; I was imagining what my kind of Sundance movie would look like and the idea for a screenplay I wrote last year came to me. I was in the shower, but still, that’s where my brain tends to wander and I do a lot of thinking. But when I’m not in the shower and I want to work on something new I tend to start with:
I have an exercise I do where I list five or six movie stars I like and then brainstorm an idea for each of them. I find this a very helpful exercise because different actors have different essences. So even if I’m brainstorming action-thrillers for example, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon are very different actors and can lead to very different ideas.
Once I have five or list good ones, I show the list to my writers group, my manager, and my wife and figure out which of the ideas resonate the most with people. Then I take a good hard look at the “winner” and ask myself, do I really like this idea? Is it worth putting a lot of time into? Am I intrigued enough to dedicate myself to this idea for a while? When I’m taking general meetings and an exec asks me what I’m working on, I’ll often pitch one or two loglines, just to see which ideas resonate with people.
Once I have the logline, I create a WORD file and that’s where I start brainstorming. Everything that comes to mind: characters, bits of dialogue, scene ideas, set pieces, story beats, whatever random stuff I have I put here. I’ll put all my questions into this file and start to think of answers. If there’s a mystery to be solved, I put all the pieces of the puzzle here. This is sprawling mess of a doc but I want to have everything somewhere, for when I start assembling these pieces into something tangible.
When it comes to structure, I use a modified version of Blake Snyder’s 15-point beat sheet that he wrote about in his book Save The Cat. Mine has only 10 beats or so, depending on what I’m feeling. It usually includes:
2) Catalyst (usually around page 12)
4) Break into Two (page 25)
5) Fun and Games
6) Midpoint (page 55)
7 All Is Lost (page 75)
8) Break into Three (Page 85)
10) Closing Image
Those page numbers are guideposts and not set in stone. But if you take out the funky names and just leave the page numbers, then I generally know what’s going to happen at (approximately) pages 12, 25, 55, 75, and 85, and the very end. This can evolve over time but what this does is take an intimidating amount of pages (usually around 110) and break ‘em into manageable sequences.
Then I’ll write a document with a sentence or paragraph for each of the above beats. It’s usually about 3 pages long and if I do my job, someone can read those 3 pages and get a good sense of the entire movie. Probably the best beat sheet I’ve ever written was for a “Die Hard at a high school prom” movie idea. In that one, I used all 15 points in the beat sheet, and in three pages, you totally get the whole movie. I actually pitched that one with a movie star attached and production companies couldn’t pass fast enough. But I still think the beat sheet is pretty great.
When it’s time to break the beat sheet into note cards, I use a corkboard that fits about 36 3X5 notecards, six rows across and six rows deep. I write down the main scenes in each beat from my beat sheet. I use a double-sided sharpie: the medium tip for the “what’s this scene about” line and the extra-fine tip for an extra 3 or 4 details below that. I try to write as little as possible on each card, I’m just trying to write the main beats of each scene. I do this so I can sit back and look at the corkboard and visually see the movie coming together. In Save the Cat, I think Blake had a system involving 40 notecards. I never do that many. I tend to break off a row at the end of an act, so each act takes up two rows on the board. Why do I do less than Blake? It has to do with allowing myself to improvise between the beats. I’ll get into that a little bit later.
After I’ve boarded the script, I then write a treatment. I open up a Final Draft document and start writing each of the cards in prose form. No dialogue, just description and action. I label the three act points and the mid-point so that people can see where they are in the movie as they read. This document is usually around 10 or 12 pages. Again, someone should be able to read this document and really see the movie. If they have questions or things don’t make sense, I want them to have questions here, with a ten-page document, instead of with a script that’s 110 pages. It’s much easier to fix a structural issue at this stage.
So many scripts I read have problems that should’ve been addressed at the treatment stage and here they are, deeply imbedded in a full draft. Sucks to have to take things apart at this late stage, but of course, it happens all time. And don’t get me started on how many scripts have issues that could’ve been fixed at the logline stage.
If I’m feeling extra awesome, I sometimes go to a “scriptment” stage. This is the treatment with some dialogue added in. This document is around 20 pages. I don’t do this very often, but I did it with an action comedy I wrote a few years ago. That script had a director and producers involved so it really helped to have a more detailed document in between the treatment and the first draft. This also helps when tone is an issue. That script was an action-comedy appropriate for kids but not a family movie. Tricky stuff and it helped to be able to include some mini-scenes to show how the action and humor would interplay. The script turned out great but unfortunately still hasn’t sold.
I start the first draft in a new file. I’ll put the board near me so I can refer to it as I work. If I have a scriptment, I’ll cut and paste some of the dialogue and bits and move it over. I write the first draft in order, beginning to end. I try not to go back and read the earlier work and if I do, I REALLY try not to rewrite anything until I’ve finished the first draft. Pretty much every writer I’ve ever known has problems with this but I find that the real heavy lifting of rewriting is hard to do unless you’re working from a complete document.
Even though it takes me about four weeks to write a first draft, you’ll notice that this part of my process doesn’t take very long to discuss. That’s because the prewriting (everything before the first draft) and the rewriting (everything after it) is where most of the real work happens. The prewriting enables me to get a workable first draft without getting too lost, but then the real meal of screenwriting begins…
I usually take some time off after finishing a first draft, at least a weekend. Then I’ll print out a copy, get a blue Papermate pen, put on some music, shut the office door, and do a “paper edit”. This means I read the draft front to back, marking it with a pen as I go. I’ll cross out stuff I want to cut. If I want to move something, I’ll circle it and use an arrow to show where it’s going. I’ll write notes on the side. A lot of time, a through-line gets lost so I’ll make notes to remind myself to add them in. I also have some random code words I use, such as “SH” which means I have a paragraph that can be shortened by a line if I put my mind to it. I use this a lot because my first drafts tend to run long and I’m always looking for ways to save space.
Once I’m done with the paper edit, I’ll save the first draft as a new document and get in and start doing the rewrite. In recent years, this has become my favorite part of writing. Not sure why. Usually when I finish a first draft, I have a lot of stuff that sorta works and it’s only when I read it and do my paper edit do I actually “see” the whole movie. A lot of times, I don’t really understand the theme of my movie until this moment. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m shaping and honing this messy first draft into something that’s starting to look like a real movie.
After this, I do another paper edit. It’s a much shorter one. This polish only takes a few days. Then my first draft is “done”. This is the draft I show my manager and writers group for feedback. Then I put all the feedback into a document, print it out, and mark the stuff I’m going to do and cross out the stuff that’s not working for me. Then I’ll do another paper edit and cross reference that with the feedback document to make sure I’ve included everything. Then I do the rewrite. This is considered my second draft.
I usually do two drafts that I show to my manager and friends for feedback so that the third draft should be a simple polish and once that’s done, I consider the draft ready to go. This is the one I give to my agents and manager to “send out to the town”.
And that’s how I write a feature screenplay. Sometimes.
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?