His Master's Voice - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Q. When you (or anyone) are hired to rewrite a script, is it industry practice to mimic the voice of the previous writer(s)?

I've been hired to rewrite scripts written by two producer/writers. To be honest, neither script was very good, but the stories were quite good. In each case, I was asked to analyze their scripts first. When I gave my report back, each agreed with my analysis, after which we had long story meetings for how I would repair the scripts. In each case they agreed with me — and liking my writing as well as my understanding of the projects — each decided to hire me to rewrite their scripts. And in each case I would get shared writing credit. I told one it would be a page-one rewrite, and the other agreed to so many changes that logic would dictate a near complete rewrite.

In the case of the page-one rewrite, the producer agreed my script was a huge improvement, and aimed to film my script, but when her funding fell through, she opted to go back to her draft and rewrite it based on my suggestions. In the other case, she fired me, moaning, "I am so upset -- It reads like William Goldman, but it doesn't sound like me anymore!" (Seriously.)

So, before I cut off my nose to spite me face again, is it industry practice to maintain the voice of the previous writer?

Granted these two cases might be special (i.e. producer-written), but I really need to know. Because they feel I've stepped on their toes, I can bet that neither will help spread any positive word-of-mouth about my abilities. And as I try my best to build a professional career as a feature writer, I cannot afford to inadvertently sandbag myself by writing too well or in my voice if that’s verboten. (But that seems like a Catch-22!)
Ah, yes, that's a problem when you're writing for producer/"writers". I put "writers" in quotation marks, because a real writer (a) probably wouldn't hire you to rewrite them, and (b) if they did, they wouldn't get upset because you rewrote them.

In TV, of course, you want to write in the showrunner's voice. Otherwise the show has several voices, and that's confusing. Some of a writer's own voice will sneak through, and that's not a bad thing. But Denis and I had to severely suppress our tendency to write gags on CHARLIE JADE, because that wasn't the show that Bob wanted.

In the movies, most writers are going to write in their own voice. That is presumably why they've been hired. Don't hire John Rogers you don't want smart, funny dialog.

I'm not sure what's going on with the first producer. It sounds like she has more time on her hands now and wants to have another pass at her baby. That's her right. However, read your contract carefully. If you hadn't written a draft, she would be entitled to use your notes without credit. But now that you have put your notes into a draft, which she has read, normally you would still be eligible for the shared credit, assuming that the script that is shot bears a significant resemblance to your draft. Under a Guild contract, you would be eligible to ask for an arbitration if you feel you've been excluded from credit. I don't know what kind of contract you signed, though.

"It reads like William Goldman, but it doesn't sound like me anymore!" That sounds a bit plaintive, dunnit? I assume the first part is a compliment. (Unless it means "you didn't put in any fershlugginer sluglines!")

Normally your contract would call for a couple of drafts and a polish -- called a "set" in the biz. I always insist that my contract requires I be hired through the polish, because if someone doesn't like my first draft, I want the right to fix it -- actually I want the write to be paid to fix it. Your response is, "Gee, I'm glad you like it. How can I make it more 'you'?"

Communicate as much as possible. Many writers have an impulse to keep the script away from the producer until it's perfect. That's usually a good impulse once you're writing pages -- you don't want anyone to read unpolished pages. But you want to start the process with a lot of conversations. Not just the "you're hired" conversation. Try to get your producer to spend at least an afternoon with you walking around town (oops! sorry, I'm in Montreal. I mean "driving around town" of course) talking about her project. Not just where you're taking the plot and the characters. Tone, voice, theme, hopes, aspirations. Everything. Talk through the changes you want to make. Explain them. Don't shy away. Ask what movies she likes. Spend some time getting to know her as a person passionate about movies. The more you know about the genesis of the project, about the producer's goals for it, the better you can see your target.

You could, for example, simply ask: do you want me to try to write in this voice (and describe, in positive terms, how you see that voice); or do you want me to bring my own style to it. Me, I love the snappy banter. I have asked people, "I love to write the snappy banter. Do you want the snappy banter?" Sometimes the answer is, oh yes, do. Sometimes it's "this is not really a snappy bantery show." Maybe they want a Jim Jarmuschy deadpan. Maybe they want the heroic voice, à la 300. Never hurts to ask.

Of course, you may have done this. I can't tell you how many times producers or network execs have okayed changes, or an outline, and then had a surprised reaction to the actual draft. That's because producers and network execs often hear one thing when you're thinking another. It is hard for them to visualize the finished draft. That's why they're not writers. Nothing you can do about it. If she knew precisely how the script was supposed to look after you'd addressed your notes, she could have done the pass herself! Right?

It doesn't sound to me like either of these producers think you did a bad job. Nor would they likely diss you to other producers. They probably know that they are having a personal reaction to another writer raising their baby. Actually, both of these producers sound like pretty nice people -- many producers forget entirely to compliment your work. I think you can reasonably ask the second producer if she'd like you to do another pass, if you feel like doing one for free. No one will mind that, if you don't think you did your best. (Though I object strenuously to producers who want to give notes and not pay for a second draft, I have been known to do a third or fourth draft for free if I feel that it's part of the process. If I'm getting brilliant notes from a great story editor (and you know who you are), I'm going to keep coming back for more notes until they're satisfied with the draft, regardless whether the producer thinks I'm done or not.

You can also ask how they feel you could have done a better job. Most people are uncomfortable criticizing. They appreciate it if you ask how you could have done better. It will take most of the sting out of any problems they might have had with you as a writer. Which is, in general, a good way to depart any job...

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1 Comments:

"I am so upset -- It reads like William Goldman, but it doesn't sound like me anymore!"

Wow. This is a bizarre comment. Does she thinks she writes like William Goldman, but with her own voice? I would kill to be compared to William Goldman, and I would guess most producers and studios would hire me if I did.

By Blogger Tim, at 3:02 PM  

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