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by Susan Royal

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A panel discussion on the craft of screenwriting was held during the recent Los Angeles Independent Film Festival at the DGA in Hollywood. Unlike most such writing seminars, this panel wasn't composed predominantly of male screenwriters. The panel consisted of Susannah Grant, who wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days, and Amy Holden-Jones, who wrote Mystic Pizza and was one of the writers on Indecent Proposal and The Relic. Ms. Holden-Jones is also a director (Maid to Order, Love Letters) and previously worked as an editor for Roger Corman and Martin Scorsese.

The discussion began with a topic of current concern to screenwriters -- the practice of using multiple writers instead of sticking with the original writer of the screenplay. Although studios and producers are often the culprits, sometimes it's the star who will bring in her favorite screenwriter to rewrite a screenplay. Grant experienced this when Julia Roberts brought in Richard La Gravenese for rewrites on Erin Brockovich. According to Grant, La Gravenese made this as painless as possible: "He did the right thing. He called and talked to me before he started. He told me how much he liked my screenplay and asked me questions. It's the behind-your-back chat that kills you. You know if a star wants another writer, it's going to happen, so no use fighting it. I just wish writers could be kinder to each other like Richard was."

Sometimes a star wants a screenplay rewritten for personal reasons. Holden-Jones related what happened to her script of Indecent Proposal when Robert Redford came on board: "He wanted his character to be more sympathetic than the husband [played by Woody Harrelson]. For example, I had a scene in which the husband confronts Redford about treating the Demi Moore character as just another acquisition for a rich man. Redford replaced that scene with one in which the husband gets drunk, follows Redford and his wife around town and then Redford graciously puts him into his limo and sends him home. Everything was rewritten to become an aggrandizement of Redford's character, including a crucial ending scene. I had written that Redford offered Demi anything she wanted to stay with him and she told him he couldn't give her what she wanted -- her husband back. Redford had it rewritten so that he graciously gives her up in a scene in which Demi no longer had one line of dialogue. His rewrites were not the best thing for the movie, but they were the best thing for him, because this film totally rejuvenated his career."

She pointed out that bringing in multiple writers can elevate the director's position in the stars' eyes. "If the writer credit gets sufficiently muddied, pretty soon the director thinks he wrote it and he just becomes more important. But you'd have to be a moron to believe that the draft they shot of Mystic Pizza was better than the original draft."

And even when another writer isn't brought in, the original writer sometimes performs endless rewrites for the director. Betty Thomas was the director of 28 Days. Says Grant, "I wrote for another nine months after she signed on. And even during the shooting she sometimes said something wasn't working and needed to be rewritten. I'd tell her, 'You had that in one of the many drafts I wrote for you,' and I'd tell her where she could find that. You see, lots of things she asked me to try I had tried before and already gone through that process. It's frustrating to have to help someone learn what you already learned the hard way -- especially when you're the one who has to do the work."

But Grant was quick to point out that working with Thomas was not without its benefits. "She always treated me with respect and that made the writing easier. And since I knew that I was going to be directing my next picture, I considered this an internship and I learned a lot from her about directing, so working with Betty was great."

Holden-Jones talked about how much easier it is to work with a director who is also a writer. "I worked with a director who wasn't a writer who kept throwing out, 'How about this?' endlessly. He had no concept of the writing process. But I worked with Atom Etoyen on a thriller and he was the best ever. He never gave me a lousy idea. He was brilliant and respected the writing process because he was a writer, too."

Grant added, "Directors who understand the script aren't threatened by the writer -- the person who really knows the script. Still, when I'm on the set and I see an actor heading toward me and we're within sight of the director I'm like, 'Oh no, stay away. Don't ask me anything!'"

The two were asked about their writing routines. Grant said she used to write from six to ten each morning however now that she has a baby that schedule doesn't work. But she has learned whenever she does write, she has to "turn off the critical mind. With my first script I knew nothing, so it was easy to do. My second script I knew next to nothing. Now I have to force myself to be allowed to write a crappy first draft. It's like developing a muscle that lets me do that."

Holden-Jones replied, "For me, writing any more than four hours a day -- I want to vomit. But when I'm on assignment I force myself to write at least three pages a day or 15 pages a week. Just so I can get the first draft down. Then the fun starts."

Grant, one of the writers of Pocahantas, was asked if she would write any more scripts for animated films. "Never again. The writer is irrelevant in animation. Everything hangs on the storyboards. The exec looks at the storyboards, and if he doesn't like them he says, 'It's boring, rewrite it.' Every scene in Pocahantas was rewritten at least 30 times. Although I really appreciated the experience, I'll never do another animated movie."

What is most fundamental to the screenwriting process? According to Holden-Jones, "If you don't have a theme, you don't have a movie." You have to know what a movie is really about, otherwise, "At around 30 pages into your first draft the story just dries up if the pipe hasn't been laid."

Grant believes, "There is a math to screenwriting. What page something happens on does matter in the movie-going experience. With a novel, if you get tired of it, you can put it down and come back later. With a movie, people are sitting there experiencing the story in one shot. There is a math involved in creating the movie experience."

There was some discussion about the obtaining of rights for real life stories and about what stories fall into the public domain. Many old novels, such as Little Women, fall into the public domain and one can adapt such novels without paying for rights. Holden-Jones warned, however, "Just don't write an updated version of any Edith Wharton or Jane Austin book. They've all been written."

When asked if she writes differently when she knows she's going to be the director she said, "I think you should write every screenplay as if you were going to be the director."

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