Art and Experience: The scariest thing for a screenwriter to look at is not a blank page, but rather the face of a disapproving producer.
It takes so much work to finish a screenplay. You spend days upon days, maybe even weeks or months, pouring everything you have into carefully crafting a story, treating every character, plot point, and line of dialog with tender loving care. It becomes your baby. It becomes your world. It becomes a manifestation of your dreams and ideas, molded and shaped with the discerning eye of your narrative prowess. At least that’s what the voice inside your head screams as your producer shakes their head in disapproval as they pull your script apart piece by piece.
If you’re getting ready to head into the lion’s den (a producer’s office) with your work, or if you’re currently struggling to comport yourself, screenwriter Laurie Craig gave some excellent advice during her panel at this year’s Portland Film Festival on how to work with producers on your scripts. We were there to take down these 6 tips that will help you collaborate better, as well as keep your cool during your rewrites.
Find your creative/critical balance
For some, it’s easy to let ideas flow freely onto the page without being bogged down with having to think about whether they’re good or not. For others, the inner critic comes out much too early in the writing process, appraising and overanalyzing everything, and keeping us from finishing any projects. Craig says it’s important to find a good balance between your inner writer and inner editor, allowing the former to do its work first, then unleashing the latter afterwards. As she says, “Be kind to yourself but ruthless with your material,” especially because producers will be ready with plenty of notes.
The script you bring to a producer is not going to be the one that you leave with. Producers are going to give you copious notes, some of which you’re not going to like or agree with. However, Craig says that having a good response to criticisms is a good way of showing producers that you’re involved and open-minded during meetings. The line she uses is, “Good note.” It acknowledges the critique while maintaining neutrality, in that you’re not overtly disagreeing or agreeing with them. (This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t fight for parts of your story you think are important.) Also, she suggests bringing a prop, like a water bottle, so you can busy yourself as you think about what to say.
“Be kind to yourself but ruthless with your material.”
Are you writing too much?
According to Craig, young writers write too much—which can actually be a good thing (more on that in another post). But why’s that so bad? Well, for one, the more you write the more content there is to be precious about, which means there might be more you’ll eventually have to let go. Also, the more you write the more a producer is going to cut, and if you’re already holding on to a lot, it’ll feel like pulling teeth pairing your script down. Lastly, if a producer is going to cut a lot of your excess writing, that just means more work for you.
One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to have your work be changed by someone else, but if you are lucky enough to get your script optioned (or if you get hired to write one), that’s exactly what’s going to happen. That’s why Craig says it’s so important to be adaptable when working with producers, because once you sign on the dotted line and take that money, your script is no longer yours. You’ve got to give them what they want—that is, if you want to keep working in the future. (Though Craig did mention that sometimes producers forget that they gave certain notes, in which case you just keep quiet and thank your lucky stars.)
You are a synthesizer
Craig described screenwriters as “synthesizers”: we combine narrative elements into a coherent story. A lot of those elements come from ideas we cook up alone in a dark room somewhere, but once producers get involved, those elements can come from anywhere and we have to be open to combining them with our own. It’s also important to mention that—hey—a note from a producer isn’t inherently a bad thing, so keep your mind open to new possibilities for your script.