Co-writing a feature in three weeks.

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(This is not the script I co-wrote.  This is Die Hard)

I want to write about a job I took on in November.  I was asked to co-write a feature script in three weeks.  Three. Weeks.

Even though that timescale seemed insane, because the other writer was my old screenwriting tutor Andy Conway, I was excited to accept. Andy is responsible for my love of screenwriting back from when I took his classes at BCU as part of my MA Writing in 2012.  I figured he knew what he was doing and if it all went wrong I could blame him for teaching me poorly.

Happily a complete first draft was produced in about 10 days – that’s something of a record for me (Luke and I wrote Sanctuary in a month – although we started from scratch).

So  I learned a great deal in the process, which I outline below:

1 – Review and organise the raw material

With a commission there will be a starting point – a given genre, story or perhaps characters to include, sometimes with specific actors in mind.  For us certainly it wasn’t a total standing start; we were given the outline synopsis and some characters – the brief was to turn them into 90 minutes of action – and I mean action.

Andy took the notes about plot we had been given and slung them into Final Draft, roughly placing sluglines to start the scripting process.

We were also given descriptions of several really pacey suggested action set pieces. We didn’t want to leave any of these set pieces out but as it stood, the descriptions were in a rather alarming amount of prose in a Word document.  To be clear on what the hell was happening in each piece, I blocked out key moments on a spreadsheet, with clear indication of the location for each.  This would seriously speed up its translation into script format later.

2 – Devise a plot

Whilst the outline premise was exciting, and we were now clear about which set piece had to happen when, we still didn’t have a complete plot. After reviewing what we had to work with, Andy came up with some overview notes.  I read through his notes and added some of my own.  This is the fun creative part -crafting a good story.

Although we respected the curve of the story we had been given we had to make some changes.  As the universe came into focus certain elements of the synopsis just wouldn’t now work.

We were largely in agreement about the weak spots which centred on the motivation of a main character and the backstory of the antagonist.  More emails and we had fleshed out a more credible antagonist with real-life resonance. Someone who was meant to die was given a reprieve and the starting point of the story was changed.  It was beginning to make sense.

3 – Consider beating it out

There’s no need to rigidly adhere to a screenwriting beat sheet but given this project is very tight to genre it seemed logical.  I mined Blake Snyder’s suggested beats, placed plot points in and threw that on the shared Dropbox for us to refer to.  Again, working at speed you can’t go too far off piste and this helped me to check where we should be in the story as the word count rose.

4 – Write the feature

All of the above took place in about three days.  The clock was running so now the groundwork was in place we needed to get words down.

I chose to start at the front and work forwards, honing a slick first ten pages.  Andy fleshed out the end sequence and began to work through a B story we had devised.

After this I moved on to turning those action sequences into script format, and had fun coming up with more detailed backstory for our antagonists which would inform and enhance the B story.

As we went along, naturally problems surfaced – we used email to flag these up to each other, brainstormed plot holes, and suggested changes to characters or plot points.  I largely deferred to Andy as the more experienced writer, but I was nevertheless emphatic that some Serbian swearing stayed in.  He was OK with that.

5 – Take stock

After we completed the “vomit draft” we met up to do a recce of the proposed location. This location is key to the movie.  We made note of a few distinctive features we hadn’t considered and which might be useful in some of the scenes.  It was also an opportunity to think aloud,  go through page by page together to really fill any gappy bits of the story, or to agree to ditch things that weren’t working.

As it came together we began to work on each other’s sections a little more, each filling in the story and pushing through to the completed draft.  Andy put in the final few hours to finish the script and it was sent off early.

6 – Review & rewrite

A couple of weeks later and we met with the commissioning producer.  Whilst he liked what we had done, it’s fair to say he had some reservations and issues for us to resolve. After the exhilaration of the drafting process I can’t lie – it did smart a little, as it always does to have a script’s shortcomings exposed but of course a much needed part of the process.  Here’s some of the things he identified needed work:

Use of expletives – he felt that our liberal use of swearing made a particular character look out of control, and in a practical sense it would make the feature harder to sell. (After we took them out we agreed that the character came over as much more realistic). Less is more.

Choice of vehicle – We had included reference to SUVs but he wanted a more everyday selection of vehicles.  This was not only for reasons of the style of the film, but also to facilitate production.

Pointless death  – We had suggested a brutal killing at a certain point.  The producer didn’t think the character deserved being killed but we argued that this was what made this particular killing so shocking.  We won this argument so that’s stayed in.

Characterisations – The producer wanted all the characters fleshed out a little more.  This was fairly easy to rectify.  At the point of doing the rewrite I think we both felt more acquainted with the characters and how they related to each other.  At the start when it isn’t clear how they will relate to each other it can be harder to make them distinctive.

Removing exposition – especially out of the mouth of a character who is meant to be a very reserved person. Easily done, easy to resolve thankfully.  After much debate, one key bit of exposition was left in because it enabled a nice twist to be revealed.

Stage management – We needed a character to be in a certain location.  Although we got them there, the producer noted that it really wasn’t clear why they had ended up there. Fortunately a little extra ACTION around the movements and they were more believably corralled into place.

Motivation of antagonist – whilst we had devised an evil plan, the producer felt that it wasn’t evil enough and actually, it wasn’t clear what the plan was.  Big.  Problem.

This was tough to rectify, not least as it had been tough coming up with the original plan.  After some brainstorming we stripped the mechanics of it all right down and made the stakes much much higher.  It happily meant we could lose a lot of tedious exposition, which had seemed unavoidable before.    It also permitted us to add a killer sub plot, the significance of which would only awfully become apparent towards the end of the film.

So the worst of the edits ended up generating something fantastic.  I think you have to keep that in mind when trawling through the rewrite process.  You’re making it better.

And that’s where we are up to.  We completed that first rewrite in a further week or so, and for the moment the script is in circulation.  We are hopeful it will go into production this year.

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