Screenwriter Dale Launer   



  • Rule One

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  • Rule Three

  • Rule Four

  • Rule Five

  • Rule Six

  • Rule Seven

  • Rule Eight

  • Rule Nine

  • Rule Ten

  • Rule Eleven

  • Rule Tweleve

  • Rule Thirteen

  • Rule Fourteen

  • Rule Fifteen


  • Rule Sixteen

  • Rule Seventeen

  • Rule Eighteen

  • Rule Nineteen

  • Rule Twenty

  • Rule Twenty One

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    by Dale Launer

    A screenplay - despite all the mystery and magic that appears to be involved in its creation - has components of imagination and complex engineering structured to make you think and feel over a period of time. A movie is a story, and a movie story is a tremendously complicated affair with a lot of elements including character, dialogue and action which ideally - work together in harmony as a system . Imagine a blueprint for a unique high performance jet plane, and every bit as complicated. And like an airplane, if it doesn't work in the plans, it won't work in reality. Construct an airplane from pure titanium, hang the most powerful engines on the wings, put a legendary test pilot in the cockpit - if it's a flawed in the design, it won't get off the ground. Same thing goes for movies. If the structure of the script isn't sound it won't create the requisite emotions. And, like an airplane design, it's much cheaper to fix it before you start, than during or after. Say what you will about the importance of directors and stars, but there is no component more crucial to a good movie than a properly-constructed screenplay. Nothing. You simply can't make a good movie from a bad script. (You can make a bad movie from a good script, that's another matter.)

    Whenever a screenplay is purchased by a studio, for reasons that are best left unexplained - it is almost always re-written. Writers will say execs do it to "justify their position". But in all fairness I'd say there's a very good chance that the screenplay could be better. Hence, a "creative meeting" is called where the writer meets with executives and a discussion ensues about improving the screenplay. After the meeting, the writer leaves, and armed with knowledge and understanding...rewrites the screenplay.

    Unfortunately, rather than improve, all too often the screenplay actually gets worse . Sometimes it stays the same. Rarely the screenplay actually improves . It is unfortunate that this experience is rare. (It is common for development execs involved to insist the screenplay has improved, but they often deluding themselves.)

    Why are there times that scripts get better and other times when they don't? What causes this? Is it the fault of the writer or is it the fault of the development executive?

    It can be both, or any combination of the above. The purpose of this essay will focus on the latter, on the development executive. It will largely address that fragile dynamic of communicating with the screenwriter.

    The development process is a bit of a black art in that no one teaches it . There are no screenplay development classes taught in any school or in any college on the planet. You will find classes on editing, cinematography, set design, history of cinema, and writing. But nothing on developing a screenplay from the point of view of the producer/development exec/studio exec.

    Again, there is a plethora of books on writing, but not on development.

    This all-important job has become a self-taught skill, which means you learn to fly by the seat of your pants. I find that most development execs believe they are experts, but most are surprisingly clueless. In fact most development executives are total frauds who simply believe they are good by fiat. This kind of denial is common in Hollywood. (In all fairness - I have also been surprised to find some execs/producers/directors with terrible reputations who were actually pretty good.)

    This article came about as the result from personal experiences, some which were good, but mostly bad. The better experiences resulted in a significantly improved screenplay, turned in on time (and sometimes ahead of schedule), with both the exec and screenwriter happy with their work and each other. The negative experiences have the opposite effect - where the script was late, moderately or not improved, with the end result of the exec and writer hating each other. I was even replaced in one experience. (Since I originally wrote this article - fifteen years ago - I have been replaced many times.)

    I asked myself - what made some experiences good and others bad? With a good experience, I couldn't wait to leave a meeting, go home and start writing. I enjoyed the process of re-writing, I can feel the script getting better and stronger, then I turn it in and I know the script has dramatically improved, and the execs appear ecstatic.

    And the bad experience? I remember leaving a meeting and the way to the parking lot car feeling tempted to crawl underneath the exec's car and yank off their brake lines, fantasizing about them roaring around a corner on Sunset Plaza Drive, stomping on a dead brake wheel and soaring off a cliff to their death.

    And when I got home, I found that I didn't feel like writing. But since I had to write, I would force myself, and the process would be painful, slow, and the work not very good. What's the difference? What went right? What went wrong?

    I'm going to tell you about some of my first experiences and explain what I learned from them.

    My first development experience was with the producing team of Richard Wagner and Joanna Lancaster. They had a friend - a talent manager who had just signed a new client - Sylvia Kristel, the soft-core porno actress. Apparently the manager/friend was looking for a "breakthrough" screenplay to show off Ms. Kristel's secret acting chops.

    I had a story that fit their requirements, similar to PYGMALION, about a playwrite who bets a friend he can turn a streetwalker into an intellectual. Richard and Joanna were interested, but first they wanted to read a "writing sample". I showed them two screenplays - one called FEAR OF WORKING, and the other was the first 60 pages of a untitled kidnapping comedy that would become RUTHLESS PEOPLE.

    It was a Monday. They said they would read the scripts that night and talk to me tomorrow. If they liked one of them, I'd get the job - it would be my big break, that is if they actually liked the script. It was going to be a long, anxious night. In the morning I walked up to the liquor story to get a paper, and when I returned my answering machine was blinking. Someone had left a message.

    I put the machine on lay. It was Mr. Wagner. His voice was rich with enthusiasm and downright giggly (and if you know Richard, this is not a common state for him). He thought FEAR OF WORKING script was okay, but he loved the kidnapping script! He loved all "the twists and turns" and it was so "dark and funny "...! He even went into some detail about this scene and quoted some dialogue and pointed out specific moments. And I felt great. My head was spinning, I LOVED Richard Wagner, in fact we're still friends to this day. I didn't just feel great, but more importantly, I felt great as a writer .

    In fact Joanna and Richard liked it so much, I didn't get the job writing for Sylvia Kristel, instead they wanted to option the script and pay me to finish it.

    While we negotiated the option, I was so motivated and excited by their validation that I finished the screenplay. The day the commencement check was delivered was the same day I got the payment for turning in the first draft.

    And then I went home late that afternoon and waited. Once again, the anxiety set in. I went out to have some drinks with friends and when I got home, the phone was ringing. It was Richard and Joanna on a conference call ! They'd read the script and they loved it! They talked about this scene and that scene, this joke and that one, this exchange of dialogue, that moment, that gag, and on and on...they were very excited! Again, I felt terrific! We set up a meeting the next day to go over the script. Why? Typos, grammar, "to sew up some loose ends" and even some other moments that could be improved. Hm. I felt like I was teetering off the peak just seconds earlier.

    I went into the meeting with a feeling of dread. I was about to be criticized at length. Not me specifically, but my script. And since it represents thousands of decisions, each one refects my judgement, my aesthetic that I can't imagine anything more personal. Imagine a committee pouring over high resolution nude photos (of you) with magnifying glasses - "Hey, look at this mole!"

    I remember Richard at a table with the script in a loose leaf notebook. My God, did he intend on going over it page by page ?! I thought there was just a few things wrong with it, minor things. I thought he liked it!

    And he did go through it page by page, starting with the first scene - he was laughing and smiling and he loved it! There was a soliloquy where a character went on and on about all the things he hated about his wife. He thought it was a little long. Could I cut it by a third? Sure! And then onto the second scene - he laughed and then asked about a technical point that was a little hazy, I eagerly said I would fix it and he went onto the third! And he went on about how a scene would end and dovetail into the next scene, the reversals, the invective in the dialogue, the meanness of the humour. Finally we came to an area where he had a question, a specific question. Why did this character say that? It was a little vague I have to admit, can we clear this up? Or "I don't understand why she says this", etc. And there would be moments, scenes that he said were good, just not as good as the rest. He would ask apologetically , but bemused, if I could make certain moments funnier? Sure! I'll give it a try! And then we'd go through more script, more wonderful moments, moments and scenes and bits of dialogue he'd read out loud and he and Joanna would laugh. And then some more questions about this and that.

    Richard would sometimes often offer a solution, but would qualify it by saying "I know this is a cliche, and I don't want you to do this, but what if..." and they he would go on and tell me some horrendous cliche. And I would groan with pain, pretend to spit on the ground, give him a look like he was an idiot and he would laugh and say again "I don't want you to do that, but do you know what I mean?" And I'd break the cliche down into a concept, rethink it the context of my story and build it back up and fit it in. When I did that, yes, I did understand what he meant. I was a little grumpy about it even, largely because I felt humiliated that I hadn't been as brilliant in that part of the script as I had in the others. The process almost always resulted in a solution of my own - it would work better and my ego was undamaged. The meeting had taken an entire afternoon. I felt anxiety building toward the end - largely because I couldn't wait to get home and start writing. And I did exactly that. I left the meeting with a clear direction of what I was going to do, went directly home, sat down at my computer and started writing.

    Since he had pointed out specific parts of the script he liked - like how the scenes dovetailed together - he got more dovetailing. Since he liked the invective, he got more invective. Wherever I got validated, he got more. Like a dog jumping through hoops for biscuits, we go where the validation is. You like those twists and turns? Buddy, you're gettin' a fuckin' roller coaster!

    Armed with specific knowledge about what to do, and tremendous confidence from their validation, the re-write took me a whopping two weeks. Which is not a long time.

    The re-writing process continued in this fashion. And I as quick. In fact Richard couldn't believe how quicky I was. I did four or five drafts, often taking as little as four or five days. One I did in a day.

    Then we sent the script out. It was well-received, yet rejected by EVERY studio in town! We persisted and eventually two parties became interested; one was the Geffen Company and the other was a director who had a deal at Columbia. For largely creative reasons we went the director at Columbia.

    The director indicated that he liked the script, but didn't go into any detail. He also had other scripts he was developing. I didn't get the impression he liked the script anywhere near as much as the producers. And I hadn't even met him yet.

    My first meeting with the director took place in his office at Columbia. He too wanted to go through the script page by page. And we started. He liked to stop and share anecdotes, and though this was fun, he never told me what he liked about the script. Never . He would later explain to me that it's not his style to point out the good, that he only sees the bad, and that is cross to bear. But the explanation did little to comfort me. I understood it, yet...if you're working with him, you have to share bearing his cross. So the process consisted of him coming to a problem area, and I would try to get a handle on it, and throw out some ideas that might resolve it, but he was comfortable commiting to any particular resolution, not just yet...and then he'd go on to the next problem, discuss that, and not resolve that one either, then go on to the next . And so on. There was one moment when he chuckled to himself over a point and I thought, finally there's something he likes .

    And then he asked me to change it. (Though things were a little strained at the time - I could never muster up any real enmity for the director, and we have remained friends since.)

    But nevertheless, at the time I was miserable. I didn't know what to do - all I knew was that he said he liked the script, but all he'd do in those meetings is tell me rather specfically what he didn't like.

    He would also tell me about his other projects in the works. Not uncommon for directors. But the net effect to me was that it didn't make me feel particularly special. I felt like I was contracted to date an unrepentant polygamist.

    It would take three weeks before the meetings ended, and the net result left me feeling that my script was riddled with problems. I felt like a fraud. My career didn't feel like it was beginning, but was on hold, or was a false start. On the way home I stopped and bought a donut. Then I stopped at a bookstore and browsed around. Then I stopped in a stereo store to see what kind of equipment they carried. I didn't want to go home.

    I did make it home, but I didn't want to write. I forced myself to sit at the computer. And I was stuck. Everytime I went to write - I would stop. I was sure whatever I was about to write - he wouldn't like. And since he never told me what he did like about the script, no specific moments, scenes, gags, dialogues, etc. - that I didn't know what to give him. I felt uneasy and confused and tired. I didn't know what to do. But I tried a few things.

    I was a few weeks into the re-write, maybe halfway through, I couldn't really tell. And now the director wanted to see "some pages". I gave him what I had.

    A few days later his assistant arranged a meeting. I went to the meeting and the director was friendly and jovial, then proceeded into telling me what he didn't like about the new pages. Jesus Christ! It wasn't even finished and now I had to re-write the re-write?! How could this ever end?! There was something classically Kafka-esque about it.

    And I continued to force myself to write. It was slow-going.

    One night I went out and had a few drinks. I didn't think I drank all that much and I was hungover the next day. I didn't feel up to working. However, the next day I was still hungover, and the day after that I was still feeling lightheaded. It wasn't going away and I realize that I wasn't hungover - I was depressed ! And I don't mean I was just feeling down , I mean clinically depressed.

    I started seeing a therapist. I figured out pretty soon what was causing the depression; my development experience with the director. He would only tell me what he didn't like about the script, turning the process of re-writing into never-ending series of events which had me focusing entirely on my own inadequacies as a writer. Something like that can cause one to feel like they have lost control of their lives, which is exactly what happens you enter a state of depression.

    The script went into turn-around, was picked up by Disney and given to the Zucker Bros to direct. I was told they wanted some changes. And the process started all over again. Working with them was certainly better, largely because I believed they genuinely liked the script, they like a lot of the script, but they were not very specific in what they did like. I'm not sure they really knew what they didn't like. And we went through it, page by page, for a few hours nearly every day, for weeks. But I never really understood what they thought was wrong with the script. Structure clearly wasn't their strength - their strength, and a mighty it was - was in smartly-done parody. But this script was not a parody. Hence, this was a new road for them, and they were in the driver's seat while I was relegated to sit in the back.

    Scenes were written on index cards and stuck on a cork board. They would shift them around, look at the outcome and if it seemed to work, they'd give the new order to me. I would go off and write, but the studio was never happy with the scripot. Four and half months of this and still no approved draft - and we were entering pre-production! About a month before shooting, the directors handed me still another list of newly-ordered scenes, but this time I said no. I explained that this isn't how you do it, and certainly not how I did it.

    I told them I would go off and do my best to come up with a draft that I liked, that the producers liked, that the studio liked, and that they liked. In other words, I would ignore their notes but try to please them nevertheless. They were furious. But two weeks later I gave them a draft and they were ecstatic. Was that a good experience? Not a great one, it was a struggle at the time, but the script turned out well and it was improved. Which is a victory for all parties involved.

    In fact it could've been like the experience I had on my next screenplay, which was Blind Date.

    The story started as a pitch, which was performad at all seven studios, was so well-received it turned into a auction, with Tri-Star coming in as the highest bidder.

    I wrote the first draft in a little over a month and turned it in on a Friday.

    I didn't hear anything on Saturday. Nor on Sunday. I suppose they will wait until Monday. But Monday came and went and no word. Nor did I hear from them the next day, or the next. Or the next. Why? Why wouldn't they call? If they loved it, they would call, right? Someone would call. They must have hated it. I was feeling pretty bad. Then a week and half later , the VP on the project called and said she "loved it". She said she loved it and...that was it. She set up a "creative meeting" a few days later.

    She loved it. Hm. At this point in my career, I'd actually been a paid professional writer for about a year. And in that time, I had been invited to a few "screenings" and had seen an awful lot of awful movies. Not just awful, but horrendously-stupid movies that have you silently screaming "HOW ON EARTH DID THIS MOVIE EVER GET MADE?!" And yet, after the screenings I heard people approach the filmmakers with big smiles and say "Great! I loved it". The term love - in this context - is an absolutely worthless term. It could mean anything from bad to great.

    When I'm given a vague compliment without detail in this business, I automatically dismiss it. Which I did with this Tr-Star VP's comment. After all, if it was so great - why didn't she call earlier? How could she contain her enthusiasm. Why would she?

    A few days before the creative meeting I was sent two pages of story notes. I'll always remember it. I now realize that those execs were not the evil incarnate they appeared to be. I think they're all decent people who wanted to do a good job, they just had no idea how to do.

    And I can remember the first line - I will never forget it - "We think the script is great, but we think it needs a conceptual shift". On the surface that appears to be a pretty innocuous statement, but let's look a little closer. In fact let's look much closer, let's analyze it and study every word. Why?

    Because that's what writers do with story notes, they STUDY them, analyzing every sentence, every word, every piece of punctuation and beat out any possible permutation of meaning that those words might contain.

    "We" - which means the group agrees , that they are unified with no dissent about what is to follow...

    "think the script is great" - as I explained, this is bullshit, a hollow politeness done out of some basic, elementary sense of decency...

    ..." but "...this word confirms that the line "We think the script is great" is utterly hollow, that it's nothing, like the space between atomic particles.

    ..."it"... - my blood , sweat and tears child ...!

    "needs" - my child is missing something valuable and I failed to see it because I'm a lucky moron of a hack, who by the grace of God got this far, but something profound is missing, something on genetic level, I am only a mutant who appears normal and...

    ..."a conceptual shift." - What?! A WHAT?!! A conceptual shift? WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?!! THAT THE VERY CONCEPT OF THE STORY IS WRONG?!! "Enjoyed your script KING KONG, but does the monkey have to be big?" That a page one re-write and nothing less will be needed, since the very concept of the story

    I was totally devastated by the opening salvo and there was still two more pages !

    I hated them. I called my lawyer to find out if there was any way we could get the project out of there - and keep in mind we hadn't even had the meeting yet!

    The lawyer said no. I had to face the death squad.

    I went to the meeting. There were two VP's present - one I at my request because he was a friend, the studio story editor and the producer. And it was horrible. To begin with there were the der riguer vague, non-specific compliments (bullshit-bullshit-bullshit...), followed by a lot of vague critical comments. I felt awful. I was a little dizzy and quietly furious. I sighed a LOT. The bad news was, well, not as bad as the story notes suggested - by the end of the meeting I realized that "conceptual shift" was a misnomer. All they meant by that was that they wanted to make the antagonist more likeable. The black comedy was to become less black and more of a romantic comedy. Not a black comedy per se, maybe a dark grey romantic comedy. (The studio president had passed on Ruthless People because "It was too dark". Think about that.) And though I felt softening the script was a step in the wrong direction, it was not a disaster by any means. I could make that work.

    But the meeting wasn't over, my friend the VP "had an idea". Uh oh. Why? He wanted the protagonist to "tell off his boss" at the end of the story. I don't know why he wanted this. The boss wasn't such a bad guy and he wasn't the antagonist of the story. And it was beside the point - the movie was now a darkly comic love story, and this could work, but you want to see this couple make it work, finally, in the end. And that's the basic structure. I thought his telling-off-the-boss- idea was a bad idea and I told him so.

    We stopped being friends. (Casey Silver went on to head a studio, and I supposed they didn't think he was doing a good job, and when that happens you are asked to leave and induced so with a big multi-million dollar check. Now he's a producer. According to IMBD he has produced one movie sinc leaving his position at MCA; Gigli. )

    I remember leaving that meeting HATING everyone involved, and swore I would never work with any of them again. And I didn't.

    I did the re-write, but it wasn't much fun. I didn't really know what they liked about the script, so I couldn't give them more of it. Not only that, it took twice as long to finish. Though I believed the script got better. Largely because it been very well-received by every other studio EXCEPT Tri-Star. In fact I was receiving inquiries to work three times a week. I seemed to be loved by all except the studio I was now stuck at.

    Blind Date was taken away from me and given to Leslie Dixon for a re-write. This re-written draft was re-written by the director, who made a movie that bore little resemblance to my original story. I hated it and so did Los Angeles Time's premier film critic - who singled me out by name as the writer of a "lobotomized anachronistic screenplay". She was right, it was lobotomized and anarchronistic, but she never read my script. (Blame Leslie Dixon and Blake Edwards if you didn't like the movie, credit them if you did.)

    It was a moderate hit despitely a luke-warm reception by the critics. Janet Maslin liked it, but she must be an idiot. Or on the take. Or under some kind of mind control.

    The next experience was, in some way, as good as my first. This was on MY COUSIN VINNY at Fox. The exec was Riley Ellis. The story started as a pitch during a three exclusive deal at the studio. Riley was very complimentary and specific about what she liked and what she didn't like. And she was also available at any time. If I wanted to call her a few times a day - if she was in she would take the call, not only that - she would get off the phone with others to take my call. This way I could run ideas past her on a moment's notice, on the fly, and get immediate feedback. And when I turned it in, she would read it immediately and within 60 seconds of finishing it my phone would be ringing. She praised the script vaguely and specifically, and set up a creative meeting.

    The bigger creative meeting with the studio heads didn't fly quite as well, in fact I had to fight to keep a character from getting cut out of the script. I won that battle, the character stayed, was development further into the matrix of the narrative it won Marisa Tomei an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The movie was well-received and did very good business.

    I tell you these personal experiences so you can see where I got the ideas for the Rules of Development.

    The Rules of Development is a simple list of rules; do's and don'ts, and a behavioral justification so you know why you're doing or not doing something.

    This goal is about cultivating the correct, functioning dynamic between the development exec and the writer, the goal being to get the writer to gleefully write "good" work, which is work the exec thinks is good. This is akin to training a dog to do tricks. Writers maybe be complicated beings, but if you treat them which as much care as you would your own dog, they will perform accordingly. They might even hump your leg. Be stern, loving and caring - but most importantly you must reward them for good behavior.

    Keep in mind this won't make a bad script good script, or turn a bad writer in a good writer. But if you follow the rules, it will have a much better chance of improving the script. And dramatically mitigate the chances of being hunted down in the middle of the night by a screenwriter-gone-mad.






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