SWF2009 Part 4: Screenwriter as Diplomat

25/11/2009

 

Simon Beaufoy, the screenwriter of The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Peter Bloore – an academic, consultant, screenwriter and director – talked about the relationship between the screenwriter and “the others” (director, producer, financiers, etc.) during the development of a screenplay.

Going to a script meeting?

In the earlier stages of his career, Beaufoy often lost control over his screenplay, which went on to go through smaller and bigger changes in the hands of whoever and often with dire consequences. Such as Blow Dry (2001) with Alan Rickman – a film reported to be terrible – that Beaufoy has never seen. Beaufoy found himself constantly being defensive, “protecting” his work, so that it wouldn’t get “ruined” by the others, it was like always wearing a helmet to a meeting, but he started becoming more flexible over time and learned to get over the anger.

Instead of thinking of it as people “ruining” your work you should adapt and take on other people’s ideas without thinking of it as “ruining” the story – because the core of the story, the original idea will remain the same. It can be hard to incorporate some ideas and that then needs to be discussed, don’t let other people assume you’ve just ignored their notes. There can be an area, a sort of no man’s land, between the screenwriter and the others (editors, financiers, sales agents) where they meet. The screenwriter needs to be a diplomat because that way s/he is able to keep the project moving forward.

Simon Beaufoy

Everyone needs to feel like they’ve gained something at the meeting, so that everyone will leave the meeting feeling happy. No one can gain everything and at some point someone has to give up something but everything can be negotiated. It’s very important not to lose momentum because the project might come to a halt. The momentum doesn’t depend on the producer alone but on the screenwriter as well.

The only thing that needs protecting and fighting for is the core of the story – the soul of the story, the thing that makes it original. Everything else around it can be changed. The rest of it can be sacrificed. The fact is that with more money there’s a bigger responsibility and more people will want to make sure the project is as good as possible.

After several flops, Beaufoy decided to make a low-budget film on which he could have total control over everything.  It was one of the best projects he’s ever done. The development process was reversed – first they got the money and then they started figuring out what they can do with it, and the script was written only after casting and doing workshops. This is the future of independent cinema – low-budget films that you can make by yourself.

What happens when a project goes from one company to another? First you’re alone or with your producer, then other people from outside start coming in with their ideas, TV channels have their priorities – you constantly have to adapt but also keep the project the same. It’s always important to keep it moving forward.

Also, you don’t have to change everything they tell you. If you change half of it, they’re happy. You can negotiate the rest. The story is not going to improve if you adapt too much. Don’t change everything. You also need to explain why you haven’t changed everything, so that they wouldn’t feel alienated.

Don’t react to notes right away during a meeting (saying things like “what?! Have they read the bloody thing?”) but remain calm and digest it. You can also request they send you the notes a week before the meeting and on one sheet so that they can sort out any conflicting notes amongst themselves. Thank them for taking time to read it and giving notes. Usually, the notes have been carefully thought thought but just badly put into words (which is what makes you angry). Tell them you need time to think about it and you’ll get back in touch with them. In a meeting, keep it moving forward. Try to avoid saying things like “no”, “I can’t”, or “fucking idiot”. Writing is a fragile, vulnerable process, and when you have to open up to a group of strangers the comments will hurt because they touch you personally.

Peter Bloore

For example, Channel4 didn’t want Slumdog Millionaire to be an R-rated film (because less people would see it) and wanted to cut some of the violent scenes (involving eyes) but after negotiating and making good arguments for keeping those scenes in for dramatic purposes they agreed and the scenes remained in the script.

Beaufoy started out as a documentary film-maker and knows that you need to feel the authenticity of what you’re making, and he wouldn’t have made Slumdog Millionaire without that. He went to India, walked around the slums, talking to people and asked their opinions. He didn’t want to make a National Geographic cover picture, he wanted it to feel real. That was part of the reason why some the changes didn’t go through.

They also had a meeting with the author of the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” who protested against the way the game show was depicted.  The film-makers didn’t want the film to be a huge advertisement for the game and created an unpleasant host but the author didn’t like it because the hosts are always very pleasant. This is an example of how a bad reaction can halt the process. Then, together with the author they discussed how to make the host nasty – and together, they found a solution, and everyone was happy. Had they gone off and fought the author, it wouldn’t have had a positive outcome and certainly not a quick one. But because the author himself was involved in the process of making changes in the story, it worked out fine.

The screenwriter needs to remember that s/he has a great influence over the flow and momentum of the project. Everyone should feel that they gain something from a meeting. You need to keep it moving forward, take on other people’s points of view, and take risks (risks for financiers) in order to be creative!

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Notes from this and other Screenwriters’ Festival sessions, visit Vera Mark’s inkblog.

Have a look at other notes from the Screenwriters Festival:
Part 1: Chris Jones and Doug Chamberlain
Part 2: Making a Living as a Writer
Part 3: Armando Iannucci and Kevin Loader on In The Loop

Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival website

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2 Responses to “SWF2009 Part 4: Screenwriter as Diplomat”

  1. “Low-budget films that you can make by yourself.” Something to aim for? Great notes too Margit. And love the way you’ve set up your blog. WordPress seems to give you much more freedom and interesting options.

    Thanks for doing these notes. Very useful. Good advice from S.B.

  2. Vera said

    I saw Blow Dry years ago without knowing any of what had gone on – I must say I loved it…

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