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DEALING WITH THE REWRITE

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently presented "Architects of Dreams: Writers on Writing," a four-part seminar examining the motion picture screenplay. Among the guest screenwriters were Frank Pierson, Tom Rickman, Robin Swicord, Nancy Meyers, Walter Parkes, Phil Alden Robinson and Brian Helgeland.

Nicholas Kazan and Joan Tewkesbury were the guest speakers at the seminar entitled "Dealing with the Rewrite." Excerpts from that seminar follow:

Nicholas Kazan: I think the happiest time for most writers is when you're writing the first draft, when there's no other voice inside your head except the voices of the characters. We are, however, imperfect, and the things which are clear to me may not be clear to the world. And the things which seem funny to me may not be funny to everybody else, or scary to me, scary to everybody else, and so forth. And when good ideas are proffered, you know by your chemical reaction. It's: "Oh great, thank you, I want to go and do that," and you can't wait to get out of the room and go write it. And whomever you've been talking to wants to keep talking about the idea and all you want them to do is shut up so that you can go back to your room and write whatever it is. And sometimes you'll have an initial resistance to [a suggestion] and the next day or the next week you'll have chemical reaction to one of those and know it was good.

But then there are ideas that you have to deal with because you want to get your movie made, and to get your movie made you have to please, in some fashion, the person sitting across the table from you, who has a dozen horrible ideas. The first thing you have to do is try to find out why they're having these horrible ideas. You have to look on their ideas as symptoms, not the causes. They're presenting you with solutions because they want to feel creative and because they don't want to just be negative, so they're giving you solutions which are awful, but there may be a root cause for their suggestion which is quite reasonable. There may be a cause that you may find. They tell you the second act is too long and actually, when you think about it, you realize the first act is too long, because by the time you get to the second act you're exhausted. They don't know what's wrong so they say, "Cut the second act." You take their dozen ideas, try to find out the root causes and then you try to deal with them in a fashion which makes some kind of sense to you, to improve the work.

And then with the really bad ideas, there are so many ways to get your work destroyed -- you start saying, "Well, I'll do these three, which I don't really like, but they're better than the other nine. And I'll just do them to satisfy these people." As soon as you start introducing dissonance and you start doing things you don't believe in, then you start interfering with the quality of what you're doing and, suddenly, something fundamental is wrong and this thing that you love, your child, looks as though it got the wrong haircut and has been living with foster parents for a while and doesn't recognize you.

A friend of mine said that the problem in Hollywood is that when people are given a screenplay they regard it as an intelligence test, and what they think is that they have to make suggestions on how to improve it, and if they can't give you suggestions on how to improve it, it shows that they're stupid. The truth may be that you've spent far more than two months working on the thing; you've thought about every scene, every line; sometimes you haven't thought about the line because it was automatic writing and those lines are usually really good, but you've thought about why everything is there; you understand it inside and out. I always think that when you are writing, you go into anther country. It's almost like anther universe where the rules are different -- the laws of gravity and of social interaction -- everything is different; they speak a different language and you're living in that other country, and you get these communiqués from executives who wire you and say, "You know, you must do such and such, and such and such," and you come back and say, "It doesn't work like that over here," and if they were smart, they would believe you that it doesn't work because you're living in that other place, but they're not smart and they don't believe you. And you try to explain to them why something won't work, but unless they could actually be there, and the rare ones can, but unless they can actually be there, they don't understand why it won't work and it doesn't matter how many times you explain it to them, most of them never get it, unfortunately.

Joan Tewkesbury: For some executives, it's about math, and it's not about being moved or psychology or vision -- it's about math and how many minutes and how many acts. And you just want to scream, because when I sit down to write, I never think in acts, I think you get on the escalator and you stay on the escalator 'til you get to the top of wherever you're going or the bottom, depending on the mood. Sometimes when you're rewriting someone else's script, and you're watching their work being unraveled like a sweater, and you're saying, "Excuse me, if you move this you're gonna - ," and they go, "No no, um, you see, this actress will never play this part unless you give her a scene where she is Joan of Arc." And suddenly Joan of Arc is in the mix? And you're writing Sleepless in Seattle? There's a very precarious dance that you dance, and often, your only way to get through it is to return and to listen very carefully. And when you have had enough, and when you just can't take it apart or, pardon me, fuck it up any more, you say "No" and I have walked out, walked away from and said "No" more than I have ever said yes in this industry, and it has been the only thing that has saved my health and sanity and integrity at all. And I hate to say it this, but it's true, and it suddenly becomes up to you to decide where you're going to pour your passion, because, boy, it's either great sex or you feel like you have been raped, and it's one or the other. So, it is in a funny way up to you to decide how you're going to straddle the two.

I will read scripts I've been asked to rewrite and go, "What the hell is wrong with it, it's brilliant!" -- and the first thing I will ask is, "What do you hate about this screenplay?" and I will make them define what they hate. That's very hard. "Well, you know, it's just a feeling we have." I can't work from just a feeling you have; I have to know the details. Then, suddenly there are 45 things they hate. I want to know the things that they love, so that at least I have made them delineate in their heads and be a participant in this thing rather than coming back at them with some blind idea out of the desert that you have guessed at. So, it is very important to instantly, if you're going to take this on, begin a line of dialogue to learn what it is that they want. Otherwise it's a stupid exercise. And if it is your own material, you really need to know what they hate and they don't want to tell you because they don't think it's politically correct, and I will always say, "Give me the truth for God's sake! I can deal with the truth." It's all this other stuff, this dance that gets danced because nobody wants to be the bad guy. I'd rather have the bad guy. So, it is very important for you to be specific, especially about your own work.

You have to kind of level everything out, because in this industry, they either LOVE it or they HATE it. So your best bet is to find your own strength in your own voice and be very intimate with that. And it's imperative that when you get high praise that you know that the other shoe may drop very suddenly. And don't be alarmed; it's just the nature of the business.


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