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Keep rewriting your script or make the freakin’ movie?

How I knew my script was done!

Photo credit: Leonard von Bibra

I’ve been a defiant little fucker since I was a kid. I’m in my mid-30s now and I still don’t see a reason to do what I’m told if it’s not what I think is best.

But then I started writing this movie and my balls shriveled up.

This movie is different. It’s the last one I’m making in film school. It’s supposed to showcase how much I’ve grown as a filmmaker. It has the potential to kickstart my career. And on top of all that, it’s about a dude who has a chance to save the country by capping the President.

I can’t fuck this up! There’s way too much riding on it.

So I asked about 10 different people for their feedback on my script — everyone from professors to friends to paid script consultants. And as you’d imagine, everyone has something they think should change because everyone wants something different from the movie. No two people would tell the same story the same way.

The hardest part about getting their feedback is that it’s usually completely valid. Which makes ignoring it impossible. Someone will say something and I’ll instantly see the truth in their point and I’ll rethink things and change the script. Then, I’ll get someone else’s thoughts and they have some other insight and I’ll address that and on and on the cycle goes — until the script is unrecognizable.

I did the feedback/revision cycle for six weeks straight and by the time I got to Version 21, the story I wanted to tell was virtually absent from my script.

What I had left was Frankenstein. Bits and pieces of a little of everything. But nothing that truly mattered to me.

I realized all this, two days before the deadline for the first screenplay contest I was submitting my script to. So I desperately locked myself in my room and re-wrote the whole thing without anyone’s input and 48 hours later, emerged feeling like my script once again resembled the story I set out to tell.

In the hours I had left before the deadline, I ran the new script by my two most trusted advisors, made some last minute changes based on their observations, and submitted it to four different contests.

Then, I found ScriptShadow and Carson Reeves. ScriptShadow started off as a blog where Carson reviewed scripts of films that were in development or in production. That was years ago. Now, it’s that plus a site packed full of tremendous screenwriting techniques with an active community of screenwriters behind it. I devoured at least 20 articles immediately after finding it and decided to hit up Carson to see what he’d charge for coverage of my script.

His fee was reasonable and I went for it. He said he needed about two weeks to get back to me. At this point I‘d already submitted my script everywhere I wanted to and was back on set working as an AC to make some money to fund my film.

Carson’s notes came in 4 days ago. He’s an excerpt:

“I love your title. You may have heard me talk about this on the site. But putting “American” in your title instantly makes it more marketable. I also like your ending reveal… [redacted for spoilers] …Here’s the thing with American Enemy, though. It feels like a feature stuck inside a short film’s body. You’re setting up this big elaborate story with multiple beats. There’s character development, twists, turns, time passing. That’s not what short movies do well. The best short movies focus on a singular moment and attempt to stay within a continuous time frame. You don’t have to do it this way. But my experience watching hundreds of short films and reading a couple thousand short scripts, is that that’s the best way to go.”

Yup. He’s right. Again, I was getting feedback that was completely valid and I couldn’t deny it. I tried to at first. I re-watched most of my favorite short films to see if they focused on a singular moment and stayed in one timeframe. Most did. My film wasn’t even close.

I was back on the rollercoaster, re-working my script, trying to find a way to drastically reduce the scope of the story.

I came up with a much simpler version but still felt defeated and incredibly frustrated. I knew I couldn’t act on Carson’s feedback because as right as it may be, I found my story compelling, moving and necessary — as it was, in its entirety. I was starting to understand what voice to listen to. I was reaching the point where I’d rather attempt to make the film that felt right over taking an expert’s sound advice.

I knew my script was done because I could live with its faults.

Then, I talked to a few close friends and it all came together. It clicked. I realized what had been holding me back. The reason I kept wavering.

It felt like so much was riding on this film that I had to make something that other people really liked. I wanted my film to deeply resonate with the audience. I wanted it to move people. I wanted to be recognized as a talented filmmaker. And that was my problem.

I wasn’t making this movie for me. I was making it for them. I was scared of being rejected and was trying to accommodate everyone to avoid that.

But through this process, I realized I can’t create something authentic if I’m worried about other people liking it.

If I’m making the film for other people, I do everything possible not to make mistakes. I want to make sure everyone likes it. I have to. It’s for them. I don’t want to fuck up their movie.

If I’m making the film for myself, it’s alright if I mess up. I know I’ll do my best and my next film will be better for it. Which means I can take chances with this one. It means I can make something that feels right to me. Even after I’m done with it, if I realize all the feedback I got but didn’t implement was dead on, that’s cool too. That’s how I grow as a filmmaker. That’s what teaches me what to listen to going forward. The pain from those mistakes is good. I just have to trust I’ll learn from them.

To anyone in a similar situation, what I’d tell you is this — 100% of people aren’t going to like our movies no matter what we fuckin’ make. We just have to accept that. There isn’t one movie for everyone. As long as we make films that reflect our vision and are meaningful to us, we just have to trust that the rest will work itself out.

And even if this film isn’t successful, it ain’t my last one. It’s my next one. American Enemy is the best movie I’ve written to date, and the one I need to make at this point in my life.

Now it’s time to make it!