Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Developing a script that’s “ready”: What it takes

            A pattern has emerged for the projects my production company is interested in putting into development. Not that what we do is any different than most other producers.  But I thought it would be interesting to detail the process our current top-listed project has gone through in terms of script development.

     Indeed, process, is the operative word here. 

We began with connecting with two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who wrote a non-fiction book we were interested in as the basis for a feature film.  After securing the screen rights, my producing partner and filmmaker, Aaron Wiederspahn, began the process of writing a fictional narrative inspired by the book.  He started by putting together an initial outline for a story that incorporated the critical elements that made the book so powerful. What he created was a loosely-knit tale with an ensemble cast of characters all dealing with aspects of the same central issue, in this case the increasing joblessness and financial desperation of people in our current and still worsening national economic downturn. This wasn’t an easy task for him, but it was the start of a prolonged journey with the material as it worked its way through various phases and incarnations.

With Aaron working pretty much by himself, the outline was next fleshed out and enriched.  Scenes were written and plot points were invented and expanded. Various characters and their storylines began coming to life.  Then, because we had been scheduled for the event months before, a public “sharing” of this script-in-process was presented with a lengthy discussion with the audience. This was a risky undertaking in that we didn’t have a finished or polished screenplay in hand, only the beginnings and pieces of a script.  But we’d made a commitment and we felt obligated to present what we had up until that point. 

At this event, we didn’t bring in any actors.  Rather, Aaron (an actor himself) talked and read through the material by himself, putting on in effect a one man show—an expanded pitch session of sorts.  And although I wouldn’t recommend this step so early in developing a script, in the end, it turned out to be very productive and energizing.  The audience liked the story and characters and the feedback gave us strong hints as to where we’d go from there. 

Aaron then completed an early and bare bones version of the screenplay based on this initial effort and we shared it with a handful of trusted colleagues, including two experienced producers who had joined the project.  The feedback was again positive and constructive.  What we sensed emerging from the reactions was the need to go back into the material and expand and heighten the central character’s dilemma, making his story more central and interwoven into the fabric of the piece.  Also we wanted to up the stakes generally for all the characters and to deepen the intermingling of the various plotlines.  So we decided to backtrack and pretty much take the script apart, break it down, and attempt to rebuild the story with more intrigue and plot complications as well as strong character development. 

So Aaron went off and produced a beat sheet that laid out simply the forward movement of the expanded story scene by scene.  All three of the producers involved by this point (myself included) then weighed in on this and gave suggestions and ideas.  Then Aaron, armed with this feedback, wrote a detailed narrative outline of the film.  When that was completed, we once again all got together and spent a long day giving feedback and ideas.  Adjustments were discussed, argued about, agreed on.  

Aaron then proceeded to write a new draft based on this outline.  We all read this draft, took extensive notes, and gathered together again to go through the script scene by scene, page by page.  Notes large and small were offered, all of which were suggestions as to how to make the moments, the plot points, the character insights more interesting, alive, and pushing the story forward. 

A second draft materialized a few weeks later.  And we repeated our process of going through of the script.  It was clear by this point that we were coming close to a draft that contained all the goods and packed the punch we wanted.  But we still went through scene by scene and page by page.  All of us had by now developed a strong sense of ownership of the material and understood the nuances of character and the subtle interconnectiveness of storylines. As a result, wonderful and insightful suggestions and discoveries continued to emerge from our give and take and discussions, most of them quite detailed and specific, but the kind of additions and subtractions that made each scene come more alive.

Throughout this process, none of us as producers ever lost sight of that this was Aaron’s screenplay.  We had great respect for his talent and unique voice, so we always offered our notes knowing that he’d incorporate them (or not) as he saw fit as he worked through yet another draft. And to Aaron’s credit, he welcomed this steady input as the process unfolded. 

Finally, with the arrival of this third draft, we all went through it for a final “polish” pass—ever smaller and more detailed notes, mainly on format or a line change or a specific word choice here and there.  And within a few days of this session we had in our hands a script that we all felt was “ready.”

The whole point of this, of course, was to produce a script that would get readers at the agencies and managers’ offices running to their bosses saying this one is it.  A must read.  A script that would start to create a buzz and get actors and eventually financiers interested and attached.  Because, as I keep hammering away at, it all starts with the script and if it’s not as good as it possibly can be, it will go nowhere. 

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In addition to my film producing work, I offer a script consulting service.  You might be interested in checking it out at http://www.buzzmclaughlinscirpts.com/.  Thanks.     

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