Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Revolting Development (Part Two)

(Continuation of this post about how "crappy scripts" get made....)

In case you don't know what "development" means -- it's when a team of people, who are typically not writers, make lists of changes that they think will "improve" a script. It behooves the development personnel to suggest alterations, because not to do so suggests that their job is unnecessary. (No...really.) The development personnel will actually compete with one another, each trying to come up with bigger and "better" changes. It's the way to get noticed and move up the ladder at these companies.

Have I mentioned that these people are not, in fact, writers?

Based on the development notes -- some of which are clever, some of which are contradictory, and many of which are stunningly illogical -- the writer must go back and "improve" the script. (For an example of these "improvements," one rather prominent and powerful idiot wanted me to re-write an actual, somewhat famous Civil War slave as "a white guy" to make the part more "castable." And when you're forced to make stupid changes like that, guess who the audience and critics believe is the incompetent moron? Yeah: the writer.)

"But," the Ivory-Tower-types demand to know, "why would the writer agree to make changes he knows are stupid and will be detrimental to the script?" Well, the short answer is, he has to, because he's under contract and the producer is his boss. Sadly, the audience doesn't know how passionately we writers fight for our vision. It's a shame that filmgoers have no idea how hard writers struggle to keep the smart and original stuff in there -- the stuff we know will thrill today's audiences the same way those rare, great, classic movies thrilled us and made us want to be screenwriters in the first place. Writers have more faith in the audience than the studios do. Writers kick and scream and get labeled "difficult" for believing that people are smart and want to be awed and challenged.

Fighting for the integrity of the project is a battle the writers always lose. Because it's the producer's job to make the studio happy, and it's the studio's job to make the corporate shareholders happy, and the corporate shareholders don't care what sort of widget their company makes as long as the profits are good. The "money people" know the most reliable profits result from appealing to the lowest common denominator. And without the "money people," the film doesn't happen. So the writer's choice is: dumb down the script, or get replaced by someone who will.

Needless to say, the new "dumbed-down" draft generally comes off as, well, dumb, and the development folks are baffled as to how all this dumb stuff (which they requested!) got into the script. So, the writer is fired. Or, alternatively, the writer refused to make the nonsensical changes -- so the writer is fired. Either way, at this stage, the writer is usually fired. (So, he can forget about seeing the rest of his step payments. All he can do is toil at another spec and hustle lots more pitch meetings and hope he can make something happen again before his rent money runs out.)

In his place, a new writer is brought onto the project, and the development-notes-rewrite cycle repeats like Nietzche's Eternal Return. A single project can go through dozens of writers. (These successive writers may be just as talented, or even more talented, than the original writer, but each writer has a unique style, voice, and vision. Alas, these differing styles generally give the patchwork script a disjointed quality.)

Most scripts never make it out of the development loop, because there's constant turnover among executives and producers, and the new teams don't want the old teams' sloppy seconds. But if the script does makes it past the initial development process, it's sent to directors and/or actors.

Guess what? The actors have notes, too. They want their characters rewritten to be more "X" (sexy, funny, ass-kicking, damaged) if they're going to consider taking the part. This rewrite may disrupt the character's interaction with the plot as a whole. (Some actors admit they don’t even read the entire script -- just their own part!) But if the studio wants that star...the requested changes are made.

This step (the notes, the rewriting) repeats every time a new above-the-line person (star, director, producer) joins the project.

By the time the project is greenlit, the umpteenth-generation script is generally a disaster. It’s a miracle, honestly, that a coherent script EVER gets shot. Who can blame the audience when they wonder why someone got paid to write this "crap"? The original writer designed a Ferrari, and a committee turned it piece by piece into a locomotive and then a spaceship. In the end, the mere fact that the engine turns over is astonishing.

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