Two Birds in the Hand

Shortly after we both graduated from Film School a good friend of mine spent a year developing a movie script.  We both knew that if you are unknown and unproven as a writer/director, writing a great script is a good way to get noticed.  Even today, when it’s possible to shoot high-definition video on a shoestring, a script still offers far more scope to engage the imagination of the reader.  There are no budget restrictions on paper, no duff performances you can’t re-shoot, no music royalties to fret about.

After twelve months or so my friend showed me his first draft.  Like me, he was fond of conventional narrative (‘Hollywood’ movies if you like), so when I pointed out that the hero of his script never took the initiative in the story, never made a difference to the course of events, and did not know what was going on most of the time, my friend got quite upset.

He had spent a year working on a script that was deeply flawed.  He shouldn’t have put all his eggs in one basket, I told him – a writer/director starting out should have a dozen ideas and treatments on the go, all pitched at different markets, to maximise the chances of one being picked up and produced.  One big-budget idea, one or two low-to-no budget ideas, a proposal for a TV series, a one-off real-life drama…

But his approach was right, and mine was wrong.  Yes, he had been wasting his time, but that’s because his script was structurally flawed in ways that could have been avoided from the start.  But it’s vital for writers starting out to have a finished original script to show commissioners and producers, a script that reflects the writer’s unique individual voice.  A folder full of ideas and pitches is shows energy and enthusiasm, but that’s not enough. Ideas and pitches are ten a penny – it’s easy to make an idea sound brilliant in a pitch, where you can skate around all the difficult bits.  The real achievement, the value you add, is turning that idea into a solid, engaging script.

Many up-and-coming writers aspire to write episodes of TV series.  These can be great fun to work on, but the characters, the setting and the tone have all previously been established.  (Sometimes even the ending, if it’s that sort of show.)  You’re just filling in the blanks.  You’ll get paid of course, which is wonderful, but never confuse a TV episode with proper writing.  If you are lucky enough to get one, use it to subsidise the creation of your own original material.

Starting, structuring, writing, finishing and revising a script, on spec, is immensely hard work, but nothing teaches you about scripts like writing one. And when you have finished that one, start another.  Someday you’ll be in a meeting where a producer who’s read your script will ask you what else you have – and that’s when you realise why you spent all that time slogging over the other scripts, because now you have a solid, distinctive portfolio.

And although it’s important to revise and polish your scripts, don’t get obsessive – try to know when to put it down and move on to the next.  Twenty years ago I met a young screenwriter who had just won a major prize for his first script.  I was consumed with envy, of course.  Twenty years later – neither of us exactly young any more – we met again, and I asked what he was working on.  ‘The script’ he replied.  ‘Which script?’  I asked.  He looked at me as if I was being thick.

He had been rewriting the same screenplay for twenty years – draft after draft after draft – without ever coming any closer to getting it made.  In fact, as far as I know, he still is.

Be careful what you wish for.

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