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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, June 18, 2007

On Writing for Someone Else

One of the more unique aspects of this screenwriting assignment, for me, is that I'm writing a script based on someone else's ideas. Almost always when I write, I am the sole creative mind from conception through completion. Only once before have I really written something based on someone else's concept, and that was for a yet-to-be-published magazine article. They came to me and asked if I would write an article on a topic they had. I found the idea rather interesting, did some research to make sure there was enough source material, accepted the assignment and wrote the article.

Other than that, the closest I've come has been writing within guidelines (e.g. sample passages for a test preparation guide), but where the subject matter was generally open to my choosing. But again, I had a lot of leeway.

So now I find myself in what is, for me, new territory. The producers of this film gave me a rough outline of their idea and asked me to run with it. Though there are none of their specific details that I must include, the film remains my interpretation of their concept. I am here to bring their concept to life and fruition.

This presents both challenges and benefits.

One of the biggest challenges I face is that there is a built in excitement to writing a screenplay based on my own ideas. Here, however, I've had to find that excitement. At first, when I had a different conception of what they were looking for, I was somewhat less enthused. When I realized a different style, and that that was more in keeping with their ideas, I became somewhat more interested, recognizing the potential in the script.

A positive is that by feeling less personally invested, and less ownership overall, the detachment can make it easier to sharpen the concept. Whereas, as Faulkner (purportedly) warned us that we must kill our darlings when we write, it becomes easier to do so when the concept is not one's own to begin with. If I see that an element of the concept doesn't work for the story, it is a lot easier for me to trim it, because I feel less ownership in it being there to begin with.

The most interesting difference, at least to my mind, is the process through which I've gone about developing this concept into a full treatment. With each successive screenplay that I've written, I've outlined more and more. My outlines have grown more lengthy and in-depth. And this one promises to be even more so. But I've almost always started from the story concept and built outwards from there.

This is logical, since what usually grabs me about a film idea is the story. There are many wonderful character-driven movies. A favorite of mine, for example, is Taxi Driver. They just aren't the types of films that I typically write. I also have a lot of respect for films that are drenched in theme. You may recall my abundant praise for this aspect of Unforgiven.

Still, since my scripts typically begin from plot, they do tend to fall somewhat short(er) on those highly important areas -- characterization and theme. With this screenplay, however, I didn't dwell first on the plot, letting it gestate and develop for a while, and then launching into a fuller development mode. Here I got a lot of information at the same time -- both plot and character -- and had a shorter amount of time for the concept's gestation.

And this had an effect on the process by which I'm developing this treatment. For this film, I started with its theme. Essentially, I looked at the producers' idea and asked, what about it attracts them to this concept? And what about it would make it a film that others might want to watch? Once I had identified that, I was ready to move on to the characters. I developed characters that were outgrowths of the theme, representing various aspects of that theme. Each primary character grew cleanly out of a a specific aspect.

Once I had those aspects down, I was able to better think about how they fit into the story overall. I did have their starting point for the story structure, but I knew there were a lot of changes and adjustments I'd need to make (and that they wanted me to make). And once I knew the characters (and their perspectives) better, I had a much better conception of who would be doing what when.

Recognizing this, I hope that I will be able to bring some of these techniques into future projects as well. I still expect that most of my future spec screenplay ideas will stem from story. But I also hope I'll recognize the benefits of this method and spend even more time than I already have been previously to develop a stronger and more articulated theme, and characters that cleanly relate to that theme.

When I told a friend of mine -- a pro screenwriter -- about this assignment, he said that one of the good things about writing on assignment is that you're getting paid to create another writing sample. This is of course true. But what I'm finding is that I'm also getting paid to learn more about screenwriting and further develop my craft.

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Blogger Christina Shaver said...

I'm with you. Not that I've written screenplays for someone else, but I've had my fair lot of writing for "the man." What's nice is the ability to emotionally detach from the idea and just work your writing the best you can.

Thanks for keeping us posted on your thoughts on all this as you go down this path. It's very interesting to watch the development!

1:59 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks, Christina! That was always one of my primary intentions when I started this blog. I wanted to simply document my experiences as I progressed along my career path, in the hopes that my experiences might be helpful for others when they reached similar points.

Glad you're enjoying it!

3:26 AM  
Anonymous blair said...

Hey Joel -- long time listener... first or second time caller. I can't remember.

I'm finding this whole series-to-be on your assignment very interesting, as I am currently on my first screenwriting assignment (major difference -- you're getting paid. I know, I know... but long story short, doing this will be very good for me, and these guys don't suck).

Many of the things you touched on this time 'round about writing for someone else reflect a lot of my own thoughts and ideas. So thanks for saying out loud what is only jumbled in my head right now. Best of luck with this project!

3:30 AM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Fun Joel! Thanks for stopping by. And congrats on the assignment! You will be sharing pics from your research trip, won't you?

3:48 PM  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

At some point, it seems like you would eventually begin to feel some ownership after you add your own blood and sweat to thing and your claws may start to come out when you've made something work and somebody else doesn't get it. You'll have to let us know.

5:11 PM  
Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Wow, thanks for sharing what's going on in your writing world. Sounds like good problems to have. Hope the script turns into something truely special.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

9:53 AM  

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