On Writing for Someone Else
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.
Tags: screenwriting, writing+assignments