Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Blog 8: Screenwriting -- The development process

One of the most dreaded processes in a writer's life, at least for me, is the development "phase". It can be inspiring and a delight, or it can be pure hell. I once worked with a "D-Girl" (a term for a Development executive, most often a woman) called Amy, whose nickname was "the anti-Christ". And she lived up to her reputation as she would go out of her way to demean and attack you. 

On the other hand I once worked with a woman who had drinking issues among other flaws, including foul language that still amazes me, but she gave me a set of the best notes I have ever had, I still keep them. Development is generally dreaded because it means the producer or production company or studio has read the screenplay and now wants to add their input. Some might say they paid for it so they can rip it apart. I think it's the fact that they can't write and just want to punish me for being able to write.  Regardless, it's the next stage of development of a movie and it can be hell. 

John Levoff who was head of drama at Paramount/UPN always used to start the meeting with me by saying "Page 1", meaning that notes were on every page of a 110 page screenplay. It's like you have been sentenced to life. But John was a smart exec and this was just his way of joking and making me comfortable. He'd have suggestions for maybe a dozen pages and not hard to do at all. I enjoyed working with him and Steve White, the producer, both had ideas and both gave me freedom to disagree. 

What makes this stage hard sometimes, besides the particular exec or producer, is that I arrogantly think that no word need be changed.  And that's where it gets hard. A good note will surprisingly inspire you, they do come up with good ideas. A bad note can turn your stomach as you try to figure out how to change a script set in a barren landscape to a lush, green countryside with brilliant yellow canola crops. This actually happened on Riddler's Moon. And I did find a way. But ultimately you find a way of compromising, although sometimes through grueling arguments and even fights.  

Remember that producer I threw the phone book at? 

Back in 1990, I wrote a screenplay called Cardinal Sins, based on a story I had about teen abuse at a Catholic adoption home (my Catholic guilt story) in just over two weeks with my producer Dick Lowry. We sat in a hotel until it was finished and then the first draft was handed to the Assistant Director who broke it down to shooting days and they began filming 3 days later. 

Not a word was changed, except for the occasional actor's changing a line to suit them better, which normally happens. 

No development phase. No D-people. It can be done. Not that I would recommend it, we had no choice as we had to shoot the film before the end of December and it was now December 1st. But I saw it a few months ago and you know what... it still works. But that's an anomoly, and Travel Day is no exception.  Since I'm the producer, the notes and changes will come mostly from the director.

And you'll meet her soon.