Process Of Rewriting A Screenplay by Mark Sanderson

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: We talked about your process for rewriting, let’s talk about rewriting your own project or a project that you’re initially hired to write, not someone else’s first. What is your process? You open up your computer, sit down, you’re not really looking at prior pages before that time (I assume)?

Mark Sanderson, Screenwriter: Rewriting, as you mean you’ve turned in a draft and they gave me notes?

Film Courage: Yeah and they say “We like this” but here are some notes and you’re going back over from pretty much page one.

Mark: Sure…last month we just went through that and we’ll probably go through that next month because I just turned in something. But last month the movie that is shooting now, I did rewrites. The first draft was pretty solid. The second draft, a few sequences changed because of particular things and so there’s always a list of notes specific of what needs to be changed and what’s not quite working and needs to be finessed and many things are sometimes technical without getting into particulars.

In my mind I write it, then there’s the director’s mind who has to really shoot the film and so that doesn’t come into play until the director comes on board. Then the notes come in from the producer and let’s say another producer (who hasn’t chimed in yet) and then the director and then they say “Okay.” And the director is looking at it hopefully about how can I shoot this film with the money that I have and your mind but I’ve never been at the locations. So then a lot of the notes changed “Well, we can only get this kind of place. We need to tweek for that.” And you go “Okay.” And those are great.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Or don’t have them have this thing, have them do (you know, I’m being vague), objects, a gun, whatever. Things in the script. So you can go through with almost a checklist and go and make the fixes and hopefully like I said with a solid treatment it shouldn’t be like the house of cards implodes because that’s not the place to be in development when you’re like “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to rewrite this whole thing.” It’s still solid, A…B…and C still happens, you get in and there is a sequence that changed by its own nature and I agree totally with the changes because nobody sets out to make a bad movie and the changes are not personal. They’re like “Oh, we thought of it and it’s terrible.” Somebody had to think of it, somebody had to write it down, somebody had to create it and then comes the realities of shooting a movie.

My job at that point is to help make the movie. My job is to help the producer and director’s job make the film. I’m not standing in their way, whatever needs to be changed, it’s changed because now we’re moving through development to a reality phase (not this fantasy).

Motivations have to track, if they don’t they say this is kind of weird, would that character do this? Maybe the other would flip. You were saying about the strong, keeping in mind the protagonist, well you gave that to this other character, she should be doing this. You’re like “Oh, yeah you’re right.” It’s just an easy fix because the character now is driving the story and it’s happening to them rather…not pushing it off to a co-star or something.

And it’s very (I don’t want to say methodical) but it is kind of methodical because after doing this for so long it’s like “This is what needs to be done.” And double-checking, me going back through, looking at all that, putting on revision mode so everybody is on the same page, and then they get it and the nicest thing is to hear…you know do a quick polish let’s say a couple day polish which is fixing little things that the producer or director comes back and says “That was a great job.” I still get happy, I’m still happy about hearing this because they don’t have to say good job. Your job is you got paid, but great job. And on time because if you had taken a week that would push, they are already scouting locations, they are doing things. I don’t want to hold up that. I want to get this turned around as fast as I can, also to get it off my plate, to open up for other work.

You want to be a team player (as I say) an ultimate collaborator at all steps in the way. And know your place in the bigger picture. If I go to the set if I’m not working on the set and I’m a guest. I’m there, it’s nice. I’ve been on sets that I’ve worked writing, I’ve also been on sets as a guest where the director returned to me and he knew my first spec how long it took to get it made and he would turn to me and say “What did you think about that take?” And I’m like “Are you taking to me?” And I’d go “Actually I thought it was excellent.” And he’d go “Me too. Moving on.” And you’re like “Aahhh!”

Film Courage: Angels singing in the background.

Mark: Yeah, that’s the great stuff you work for and then there are the dark stormy nights when you’re in despair and all these others things. Or that movie premiered at the Palm Springs Film Festival, it opened and so we had a theater full of 300 people and I’m sitting with the stars and one of them I grew up as a kid watching, he’s an Academy nominee and he turns over after the movie and he grabs my arm and he says “Great job, Mark.” And I’m like “He…he’s the guy…with the thing. Who is he talking to? Oh yeah, I wrote this movie.” And then we get up and we do the Q&A and someone asks the star (the lead), they say “You know in that one scene, I love what you said to your son it was so amazing.” And an actor could have gone “Thank you very much.” And the star of the movie said “Well, you know people always say to actors what they say is genius. Without the writer…” And he put his arm around me and he pulled me close and he said “There would be nothing to say.” And that was another like “Huh?” So you have these high of highs but it’s not always like that.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Sure but that sounds like that’s worth doing.

Mark: It makes up for all the hard work and stuff and you want to get to that point where you’re on the set and you’re an equal collaborator not just a fanboy going “Oh my gosh! Oh yeah I wrote this? You’re right.” And even more when I’ve had relationships with the director who said I want you on the set just as a good luck piece because we start making changes, I want somebody to go “Whoah, whoah, whoah!” A lot is going on on the set and people forget and things fall through the cracks. Well the writer is going to go “Hey, hey, hey. That line…you might not want to cut it because it’s going to change things.”

But also they don’t want writers on the set because they are changing things and you don’t want to be “Aaarghh!” Grumbling and walking around angry. How could you be angry, you’re eating seared Ahi at craft service and you got paid and these wonderful actors are elevating your material. I mean, sounds good to me.

Film Courage: Sounds nice to me. What’s day one of a rewrite like for someone else’s work? So they’ve given you notes, this is what the other writer gave us, this is what’s wrong.

Mark: It’s the same…you’re saying it’s different than my own?

Film Courage: I guess then it is the same process then?

Mark: Yeah, it’s chipping away, my own rewrites is based upon notes of people that I trust like say a spec. I would give it to a circle of writer friends who would give me notes. I’d say “Hhmm…yeah…okay.” And then go about the rewrite but it’s similar to when you just check off the checklist and say okay and get that draft done and push each draft closer to the final realization of the production draft.

Obviously your spec is a spec, it’s not a production but in a rewrite my job is to push that as quick as I can to get these changes made and not hold up everything.

Check out Mark’s book on Amazon here

Film Courage: And you’re doing these changes in numeric order in terms of the script page?

Mark: Yeah, I mean they are specific which I love. Other times I’ve had broad strokes which I put in the book [A SCREENWRITER’S JOURNEY TO SUCCESS: Tips, tricks and tactics to survive as a working screenwriter in Hollywood]. Some of the notes are “The emotional highs have to be higher and the lows have to be lower.” “What, what does that mean?” And then they go “Okay, good luck. See you in a week.” And you’re like “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”

And then if you come back and ask too many questions “Why did we hire you again? You don’t know what you’re doing?” “Yes, I do. You don’t know what you’re doing?”

Not all producers know how to talk to writers properly. They think they do and the really good ones do where they really get in there because some of them are writers as well. But the ones that just paint a broad stroke and then “See you later and they’re busy with their other projects and you have to learn how to filter that and go “The emotional highs and lows, what page? What character, I don’t understand?” And they go “You don’t understand? Okay.” And they pull the chute and you’re gone.

Film Courage: Is this LEAVING LAS VEGAS low, MARY POPPINS high?

Mark: Exactly, it’s like what are we doing? But the page specific notes, which then become scene specific notes once the scene numbers happen they are like “In this scene X, Y and Z.” And you’re okay, blah and this dialogue here blah. And so you just go in an do it, change, change, and change and turn that draft in and hope that’s closer and closer and closer. What you don’t want is to be farther and farther away.  That’s when you bring somebody else in.


Question For The Viewers: How is this like your rewriting process?



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About Mark Sanderson:

Mark Sanderson (aka @Scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, author, script consultant and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with over two-dozen screenplays written in genres ranging from comedy to drama. His work ranges from his sketch comedy writing and performing as a founding member with The Amazing Onionheads, writing for MTV, to his spec sale, and nineteen screenplay assignments with television premieres and worldwide distribution of his twelve emotionally compelling films— the WWII indie feature “I’ll Remember April,” Lifetime Network’s “An Accidental Christmas” and “Deck the Halls,” the stylish indie noir feature “Stingers,” and action-packed thrillers “USS Poseidon: Phantom Below” (aka HereTV’s “Tides of War”) and SyFy Network’s “Sea Snakes” (aka Fox’s “Silent Venom”), LMN’s “Mother of All Lies” starring Franchesca Eastwood, Lifetime’s highly rated thriller “Mommy’s Little Girl,” the LMN Network premiere “One Small Indiscretion,” and his latest produced films “Deadly Vows” aka “A Wedding to Die For,” “A Night to Regret,” and “Hunted by My Ex.”

Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime Network, LMN, SyFy, Fox, HereTV, HBO Canada, Christmas 24, and NBC/Universal, The Movie Network, and have been distributed globally. His films have been recognized at festivals including a premiere and opening the Palm Springs Int. Film Festival, premieres at the Hawaii Int. Film Festival, St. Louis Int. Film Festival, The Rainbow Festival in Hawaii, Newport Beach Int. Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale Int. Festival, and nominated for the Starboy award at the Oulu Int. Children’s Film Festival in Finland.

Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers Paul Colichman (Academy Award® winner “Gods & Monsters”) and Mark R. Harris (Academy Award® winner “Crash”), veteran directors Brian Trenchard-Smith, Fred Olen Ray, George Mendeluk, and the late Bob Clark, and has written films starring Academy Award® acting nominees Seymour Cassel, the late Pat Morita, Haley Joel Osment, Tom Berenger, and Emmy® acting nominees Mark Harmon and James Hong…(Read more here).

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