THE PROCESS OF WRITING A SCREENPLAY
For the last year I’ve been working nearly full time on the screenplay for HIDDEN WORLD. This post will outline some of the big things I’ve learned over that time, and by the end hopefully convince you that the process of writing and revising a screenplay is an essential part of the roadmap to making a feature film.
LESSON 1 — ANCHORING
What is Anchoring? This is how it’s described by Science Daily:
Anchoring or focalism is a term used in psychology to describe the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.
During normal decision making, individuals anchor, or overly rely, on specific information or a specific value and then adjust to that value to account for other elements of the circumstance.
Usually once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward that value.
Take, for example, a person looking to buy a used car — they may focus excessively on the odometer reading and the year of the car, and use those criteria as a basis for evaluating the value of the car, rather than considering how well the engine or the transmission is maintained.
When I started working on the screenplay for Hidden World a year ago, we were working off of a draft that we had optioned from another writer that we were working with on the project.
The original idea for Hidden World was to produce it as a six-episode web series. Why? Because we had someone approach us and ask if we could make something for $30,000…that’s what we came up with.
When we decided Hidden World would be better off as a feature, we literally just took the six episodes and combined it into one document and called it a first draft. Yeah…we thought that was a good idea for some reason.
The problem was that I was anchored to that combination of plot, characters, and story for the next three or four drafts. Even though I was doing page one rewrites, it didn’t change as drastically as it should have, because I was working on the “polish”, not the structure.
So, by the time we got to draft eight — and after copious notes, a live read, blacklist reviews, and more notes — we went back to the structure of the film, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, and we mapped out our movie. Only then did we realize what we needed to do to get to the script that we were after.
Sometimes it takes drastic restructuring or cutting or revising in order to make something better, and you’ve got to humble yourself enough to let your precious pages end up in the trash bin, never to be read again. It hurts, but if you focus on the bigger picture — that being “making the best thing you possibly can” — it gets easier with each draft.
LESSON 2: GOOD ENOUGH
One of my greatest fears is of the things I don’t know I don’t know… In other words: thinking that I’ve got a grasp on things when really I don’t have a clue, and that I’d know those things if I had more experience or perspective.
How about an example to prove my point???
A few months ago my business partner was sent a script from a buddy of his, asking for some feedback. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, getting feedback is an essential way to validate that you’re on the right track and reveal those things that you don’t know you don’t know. But how would you react if this is how a trusted colleague responded to a script that you think is “good”?
Now, this wasn’t super in-depth feedback, but it was pretty telling of where Alan thought the script was.
Stick with me though, it’s still worth the experiment: How would you react? Defensive? Angry? Offended? Or would you be able to get past those initial reactions and realize that your script is sub par and you now have the opportunity to make it better?
I get it. The second reaction is hard. But how else are you going to improve something?
Oh, and if you wanted to know what their response was: (paraphrasing) “well thanks for taking a look. We’ll see if it’s something we want to produce ourselves or just go out and sell it…”
Yeah, because selling a screenplay outside of hollywood, with no connections, and no experience, and it’s your first script, and it’s not any good… is really easy.
The thing that I think sets apart the best writers, directors, producers, is that they’re willing to take the time and effort to eek out that last 1 or 2% improvement that no one else is willing to take the time to do. How that applies to us is that we need to make the effort to get our scripts from 30% to 60%, then 60% to 70%, then to 75%, then 78%, then 80%…
“There’s no going around the process.”
That’s a quote I stole from Alan who stole it from Bronco Mendenhall who I’m sure stole it from someone else, but it’s still a great thought. You can’t skip the process. Sometimes the process takes a year and nine drafts, but if you try to skip it, you’ll never get it as good as can be.
If you write one draft and never get any feedback on it, how do you know if your opinions are accurate? Scary, right?
LESSON 3: THE FULL PACKAGE
I’ve thought a lot about packaging a movie over the last year. When I started out as a screenwriter in 2008 on our first script, we were naive enough to think that we could write a first draft and quickly go out and raise $2M+ from investors and make the movie. Simple, right? HA! (see above…)
What I’ve since learned is that the package starts with a script +1. That +1 can be a director or an actor, even sometimes a producer, but the kicker is that the +1 has to actually “plus” the package, meaning “add to”.
It’s helpful to think of the script as a multiplier.
Using Derek Sivers’ numbers, A bad script is a -1, a weak script is a 1, a so-so script is a 5, a good script is a 10, a great script is a 15, and a brilliant script that scores a 9 or higher on the blacklist is a 20.
Now, multiply your so-so script against an unheard of, unproven director (1), and you still end up with a 5. Even a so-so script with a BRILLIANT director is only a 20. But you can get a better total package if you have a great script (15) paired with even a so-so director or actor or producer (5), totaling 75, a more than 3x improvement.
Pair it with a GREAT director (15) and you suddenly have a really valuable beginning of a package…
What I realized is that Alan and I as director and producer, respectively, are probably worth between 1 and 5 points each. Sure we have experience, but we’re not adding to the project in the sense of making it more valuable, at least that’s how the marketplace sees us.
So, naturally, the best thing we can do is take the script from “so-so” (a 1) to “great” (a 15).
Once you reach the point where you have that GREAT script, everything else starts to come easier. You have an easier time getting actors, investors, crew people, etc. They look at the script and go “hell yeah, I wanna work on this!”, knowing that they too will “plus” the package and make the project that much more valuable.
That’s the biggest takeaway from this last year, and why we’ve sacrificed so much time (and income) to get the script to “great”. Is it perfect? Heck no! But is it great? Yeah. It is.
Anyone can go buy a copy of Fade In and start working on their screenplay. But anyone can ALSO go on the blacklist or use friends to get feedback and use that feedback to improve the script. The more you’re willing to improve and revise and edit and iterate the script, the further ahead you’ll be come time to sell or produce that script.
Thanks for reading! It would mean the world to me if you would share this post online or email it to a friend to help spread the word. Thanks!