How to Work with Hollywood: Crossing the Chasm from Book to Film

Doug Richardson, writer of Die Hard 2, Bad Boys and Hostage, takes an author through the process of book to film and what an author can expect when working with Hollywood.


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Celebrate. You just sold your book to Hollywood. It’s going to be a movie. At least that’s the big hope. So congratulate yourself. Cash the check. Buy a Mercedes. After all, you’ve always wanted a Benz. Hey. While you’re at it, buy two Mercedes because somehow you convinced the movie studio to pay you to pen the first draft of the screenplay. Awesome. You just made it over the first hurdle.

Now comes the second hurdle. Actually writing the screenplay. Easy? Heck no. It’s not. But for argument sake – as well as this article – lets say you’ve done it. I’m not here to tell you how to adapt your book into a quality screenplay. Google that question, and I’m sure you’ll find volumes of how to’s out in the digital ether. This piece is about what nobody dishes; which is what happens after you’ve written the script. That’s because, up until this point, it’s been a summer’s stroll down Imagination Boulevard. The work has been just you, your talent, wits, and craft. Up until now, you’ve had only yourself to answer to.

So let the fun begin.

DELIVERING YOUR SCREENPLAY

Doug Richardson

Oh. And it better be golden. Why? After all, it’s just a first draft, yes? The reason it needs to be awesome is because the powers that be – ergo the studio and producer(s) – are fully expecting your script to stink. This is due to the unfortunate fact that you’re a novelist. And historically speaking, authors make lousy screenwriters. So as a safety, they have an experienced Tinseltown script jockey ready to step in and re-adapt your book. But don’t take that personally. These veteran scribes are movie people both studios and producers have worked with before or have already had success at adaptation or are the tiffany names actors and directors like to see on a title page.

My point? If your screenplay is golden, you can forget entirely about the pitfalls listed in the last paragraph. Moving on.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DRAFT IS COMPLETE

This is where things get a little sticky. Your contract spells out that you are to be paid upon completion of the draft. Completion is when the script is turned into the studio. Only the producer is not the studio.

What producer, you ask?

There’s almost always a producer. He or she might’ve discovered your novel and presented it to the studio. Or perhaps your agent sent the book to the producer. And even if there was no producer involved in the purchase, the studio or financiers most likely will assign a trusted producer to the project. So, just know, there will be a producer. And the producer is going to want an early peek at the script. A preview. For his or her eyes only.

Now contractually – at least in the eyes of the almighty Writers Guild of America (WGA) – the producer is a representative of the studio. So if you allow the producer get a first look, you are technically delivering your work and should be paid accordingly. Then what should you do? Turn the work into both the producer and the studio at the same time?

“Definitely not at the same time,” the producer will kindly whisper. “If you show it to me, it’s not like an official delivery of your draft. I just want a little unofficial looksee to make sure the work is up to snuff. You know, ready to turn in to the big, bad movie studio. I’m talking a best foot forward kinda scenario.”


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Let’s say that’s exactly what you do. You give your ready-for-prime-time screenplay to the producer for a hush-hush unauthorized read. He or she will most surely have a “helpful note” (or two or three) to better your work. They will strongly suggest you apply the notes to the screenplay before the studio sees it. The producer, after all, claims to have your best interest at heart as well his or her own because the producer doesn’t get paid unless the movie gets made.

Is there a reason not to allow the producer an early look? Here’s some: Because the producer is an agent for the studio. The producer’s bread is buttered by the studio. And despite what they promise, you must assume the producer is going to slip the script to the studio. Period. End of discussion. There are exceptions to this rule. Rare exceptions. Like finding a dead body buried in your backyard kind of rare. In essence, the producer’s “helpful suggestions” will be the studio’s “helpful suggestions.” And by executing those suggestions you, the screenwriter for your novel, will be in fact performing a free draft for them.

And WGA seriously frowns upon writers doing free work.

That said, by no means am I suggesting you do free drafts. Nor am I suggesting that you don’t. If the end game is to write the movie from the first draft to the last, each individual writer needs to make his or her own decision regarding how best to navigate this gooey situation. And it is an ugly, slurry of a swamp. I will add that many veteran screenwriters worth their price will scribble as many drafts as they deem necessary to get the script to that magical place where it morphs from words on a page to camera-ready motion picture.

MANAGING THE NOTES PROCESS

And there will be notes. These handy tips apply to all the notes whether provided by the producers or the movie studio or anybody else involved in the process. Upon hearing their suggestions to better the script your instinct will be to take a defensive posture. Especially when the notes are bad. And just like there will be notes. There will be bad notes.

So here’s the trick. Be defensive of your work, your vision, the end game, your movie. But never, ever let them see it. In other words, do not be combative. Appear pliant. Be resilient. Remember, you’re getting paid well for this. Your job is to be Mister or Missus Fix It. All while protecting the good work you’ve done and the good work you’re yet to do.

As for those rotten, stinking notions-slash-script-suggestions you’re certain to receive, I suggest this pair of strategies to be used separately or together.

Be fast on your feet. Since most notes are given verbally in either a meeting or over the phone, try to be quick of mind. Process the note and spin it back in a way that applies to the work in such away that satisfies the script. More importantly, spin it in a way that makes the note-giver feel as if they’ve been heard. Talk the note through, including whatever negative ripple effects it might incur to the work.

And if being mentally nimble on the spot is not your talent?

Then be complimentary and quiet. Stay cool. Reply like this. “That’s interesting.” Or one of my favorites. “Let me marinate on that and get back to you.” This approach resolves in two ways. For one, that lousy, awful, no-good note will probably be forgotten by the offending note-giver before the meeting is over. And two, it gives the writer time to get underneath what the note really means and come up with a workable solution. This is because sometimes a bad note is actually a good note.

Say what?

Note-givers are rarely writers. They don’t necessarily understand how the story works or what magic you performed to get everyone to the table. Instead of coming up with a cogent rationale for their suggestion, they will often offer a bad example. They may even qualify it as a bad example or idea or scene. But contained within is their problem. They are identifying something missing in your script. Or pointing out a dislike. As screenwriter, your job is to investigate and get underneath that bad note, digging through the emotional dirt that birthed it. Discover the golden nugget that makes the movie better.

And what if the note is good? Don’t be a moron. Use it. Your name is on the movie. You’ll receive credit and applause for it.


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YOU SURVIVED THE NOTES AND REVISION PROCESSES AND YOU STILL HAVEN’T BEEN FIRED

Congratulations. After what feels like a hundred drafts, the studio loves your script. They see as a movie. Now it’s time to bring on the visionary. What? You’re not the visionary? No, dummy. You’re just the writer.

Your next hurdle is the director. This is where you picture a big, yellow caution sign. And don’t be disturbed by this. More often than not, the director will have you sacked before even meeting you. Which, to the writer, makes no earthly sense because the director would not be interested in the helming the movie were it not for you and your awe-inspiring script.

The director’s problem with you… is you. You are the screenwriter. Even worse, you authored the novel.

Yes, there’s an ego thing here. An understandable one. The director often considers him or herself the author of the film. This might be hard to digest when considering that in television and theater, the writer is regarded as king or queen, the alpha dog in the food chain. If only that explanation solved your problem. And it is your problem, if you’re going to remain on the movie.

There’s a secondary and practical reason for the director having an issue with the original writer. Movie stars. Though it’s often the combination of the screenplay and the director that gets a bankable actor interested in the first place, come that crunch time before and during actual production, the star and lesser performers quickly discover that the writer has two things to offer that the director doesn’t. The first is time. The director is the center of a cyclone of activity with everyone from the studio to the carpenters hammering nails into the sets demanding an opinion or approval. Because the director is busy scouting locations and choosing lens sizes, the writer is often available to talk about character the actor is about to play or is playing. The secondary reason why actors seek out the writer is because they quickly discover the writer is a vast reservoir of information on their character, having invented it, lived it, known it, and/or rewritten it a million times.

This makes directors extraordinarily nervous. Their wont is the actor’s full attention. They demand that performers look to them for guidance. Thusly, it takes a very secure movie director to allow the writer around the cast, either before production or during.

If you’re losing faith, don’t. The director obstacle is navigable. And this is true even if you’ve already been informed that you’ve been replaced.

Request a meeting with the director.

Beg. Beseech your agent, the producers, the movie studio, or anybody with a position of authority to get you a meeting with the director. “Fire me after,” says you, the writer. “Just let me plead my case to keep me on the picture.”

And if by some miracle you succeed in this nearly impossible ask? Here’s what you say. “I’m a fan.” “I think you’re going to make an amazing movie.” “I can’t say how thrilled I am that you are directing.”

If all this sounds really kiss-ass? Yeah. It is. But it’s just the set up for the knock-out punch. Because as writer about to be fired, you must say the following:

“I wrote my book.”

“I wrote my screenplay.”

“I’m satisfied as an artist.”

“My job as the screenwriter at this point is to help you make a really great movie. I’m here to assist you in any way you need.”

And lastly and most importantly:

“And if an actor comes to me to ask me a solitary question regarding anything involving the movie, I will defer to you and your wishes. Always. If I fail, send me packing.”

And here’s the magic of this ruse. Okay. It’s not a ruse. It’s very real advice. But it may feel like a ruse because in the end, once the director is secure in both your roles, it becomes far, far easier for him or her to trust you won’t do what he or she most feared. You talking to the actors. Why is this? Because the director’s most precious resource is time. The director is constantly crunched for every priceless minute and might ask you to confer with the actors, rehearse them, dine with them, mollify them, even having the faith in the writer to hand them a scene to direct. I kid you not. It’s happened. It’s happened to me.


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SO NOW YOU’RE NOT JUST THE WRITER ANYMORE

You’re the movie star’s best friend. Okay. So, you’re not a best friend. At least not yet. But on the movie you may almost feel that way because stars and actors can sometimes become attached and darn needy during the process. Therefore, when the phone rings at three in the morning and you’re already way short of sleep because there’s a snowstorm that won’t stop and the production demands you to rewrite the tennis in the park scene to take place inside a warm and cozy basketball gym – and make it work like you’d always meant for it to be in a basketball gym – do you politely ask the movie star to let you return to slumber and discuss his or her problem at a later time?

Absolutely not.

There’s an old showbiz joke. Q: How do you say no to a movie star? A: You don’t. You don’t. You tap dance, swivel, twist yourself into a pretzel to keep the picture moving forward without uttering the word “no.” If the movie star has either a movie or non-movie related issue, I strongly suggest you grab a cup of coffee, listen ad nauseam, assist the aforementioned movie star in any way, short of breaking the law or your own moral limit. Remember, you’re still the writer on the movie, trusted, and with that much more influence over the final product. More than most screenwriters can ever say.

PRODUCTION AND OTHER WRITER PROBLEMS

Not every picture is a giant, hundred-plus million-dollar budget, CGI-driven event movie where money flows like water. In fact, no movies are like that. From large scale to small, all movies have limits and are subject to physical and monetary boundaries. For cost or time issues, you will be asked to merge and bundle scenes. What does this mean? Let’s say you have an early scene that takes place in a restaurant and a later scene that shoots in a supermarket. But for budget reasons, the production can afford only one of the two locations. The writer must rework the script to solve the problem and, as usual, make it appear like it was almost meant to be just one locale.

As the writer during production, you will be asked to turn rain into snow and summer into fall. Cut scenes in two, or even entirely, because the movie can’t afford to shoot them. Make speeches shorter or longer based on an actor’s desires, needs, or talent or hopeless lack thereof. Give actors easier words to pronounce because their mouth can’t form around the elocution in your head. Write actors out of scene or even the entire movie. I have. I’ve done all of these, every time trying like hell to make the work appear seamless and as if it was always meant to be.

I’ve even had to scrawl out an apology for director who needed to get an offended actress out of her trailer and back to work.

“Why?” I asked the producer.

“Because you’re the writer,” he squarely and rightly replied.

FINALLY YOUR MOVIE IS MADE

Pat yourself on the back. Go back to penning your next novel or screenwriting assignment. Take a vacation. Lord knows you’ve earned it. In the meantime, the editors have been editing, the composer is scoring, the marketing folks are busy planning how many screens your movie is going to unspool on just days after the glitzy premiere you’ve been invited to. In fact, the studio has graced you with an entire row at the premiere to fill with your family and friends and don’t forget to include your agent and manager. And so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised, one of the powers that be has even arranged for you to view the finished motion picture. Upon viewing your movie, and it lands anywhere between amazing and just average, count your blessings.

But what if the final movie stinks? I’m not floating the negative just to be negative. After all, if the movie is good, it’s not a problem to navigate. At least it shouldn’t be.

Yet there is a solid possibility you will hate your own movie. Everything squeaks. To see it sends chills up your spine. The bad kind. What to do then? Sure. It’s a personal choice. I’ve been there and wanted to eject myself from the premiere and disinvite family and friends because I was embarrassed by the final product.

Then I had someone talk some sense into me just the way I’m talking sense into you. I’d sought out a mentor – an old sage who had a history of doling out worthy advice.

“What? If the movie’s good, it belongs to you and if it doesn’t, it’s not yours anymore?” he asked through the phone, mocking me with incredulity.

“Uh… no,” I said, still stuck on the horns of my I-hate-my-movie dilemma.

He told me not to be a baby. Attend and support the picture. If asked, do the press junket and be a team player. Because despite my reservations, if the movie was any kind of success, acclaim would still come to me. As well more money, respect, and movie work.

Yes, it’s a judgment call. It’s an artist’s personal choice. Yet all the same, that novel you wrote – you know, the one that started this whole turgid process? Your publisher is going to apply all the millions of dollars the movie studio spent promoting the motion picture and slap that artwork from the movie poster onto a paperback printing of your soon-to-be popular novel. Sales will spike. And besides cashing that check, you’re going to want to be there for the ride.

For more information on Doug’s films and novels, visit his site and follow him on Twitter: @byDougRich

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