For a while I have been getting up the courage to write about something that no one really prepares you for in the screenwriting world – having your work taken away and rewritten by someone else. It’s always awkward, it’s usually painful, and as far as I can figure, it’s a fate that is unique to the film industry, and screenwriters in particular.
Here’s what I mean. No one would take a chart-topping pop star off her own song if the first recording were bad. No one would take a best-selling novelist’s book idea and give it to a different author if the first draft were lacking. But for some reason, even the best screenwriters fall victim to the Hollywood “quick fix” for an early draft with problems – replacing the writer. (To read some of the best screenwriters backing me up here, check this article at Vulture.)
Sadly, there’s really not much that can be done about it, which is probably the reason teachers and books don’t bother to cover the subject. But after a recent call with a writer friend, lamenting that a script very close to production had suddenly and surprisingly been rewritten by someone else, I thought it was finally time to break open the topic and bleed on the page for you, as they say.
I’ll preface with the note that this blog isn’t fueled by sour grapes. I’m not mad at anybody that has rewritten me, and I’ve been the rewriter as often as I’ve been rewritten. But I feel like this is a part of the screenwriting process that nobody prepares you for, and I wish I had known more what to expect.
I talked to a number of writer friends about their experiences, so I could include their experiences with my own. They all wanted to remain anonymous (so I could rewrite them and take the credit of course!), but they are compiled here as a sort of “stages of grief” for dealing with the pain of being rewritten.
You’ve all heard the blonde joke about the blonde who wanted to get ahead in Hollywood, so she slept with a writer? Few writers have much pull in Hollywood, and when a project isn’t working, and someone needs to be fired, the writer is often the one to go.
There are a million reasons that might be given, but here are just a few, spoken as the writer hears them and not as they are usually said…
For spec scripts:
- “Thanks for the great idea. We’ll buy it so you don’t sue us. Then we’ll throw your script away and have someone else write it from scratch.”
- “You’re a great writer but you’re also a nobody. We need a name on the cover page that can get the movie made.”
For assignments and rewrites:
- “You’re not writing the movie we wanted. We need a fresh take.”
- “You’re tired/we are tired of you. We need a fresh take.”
- “You are incompetent. We need a fresh take.”
- “We can’t figure out why it isn’t working and we’re getting desperate. Since the problem can’t be us, we need a fresh take.”
For greenlit projects:
- “The director just needs a few changes/wants to ‘make it his own’. He (or his BFW – Best Friend Writer ) will rewrite it.”
- “The director we want needs a little more money, so we’re paying him to do a rewrite.”
- “The star just needs a few changes. His BFW will rewrite it.”
- “We’re out of development money but we need some changes, so someone else on the team will rewrite it for free.”
Sometimes replacing the writer is absolutely necessary. Sometimes the producer needs something done and the writer is being a jerk, or is just unable to understand and implement the notes that will get the film greenlit. Sometimes a writer is “written out” on the project and doesn’t have the perspective or energy to keep going, so a fresh perspective is needed. But sometimes the team just bails on the writer because it seems easier than working it out.
It’s usually handled like a junior high breakup
Probably the worst thing about being rewritten is the way you find out. At least a junior high breakup has the advantage of the news being broken by your best friend, who heard it from the guy’s best friend. The rewrite breakup news often comes in awkward public situations.
Once I was at a fancy gala struggling through some small talk where I was congratulated about my script going into production – a script that I thought was still at the first draft and had since been rewritten and greenlit. (“Um… thanks…?”)
Or an actor friend might call to say they saw your script in the breakdowns, casting roles that you didn’t write. One writer friend found his project already in the Open Writing Assignments before he had even turned in his draft. (Ouch.)
“The worst way I found out I was being replaced was in a meeting with an executive at another company, on another project,” said one writer friend. “Half the town already knew I was being replaced, and by a hack at that, while the producers on my project were smiling in my face and pretending all was well.”
Only once when I was rewritten was I actually informed about it ahead of time. In that case, I was rewritten by the director, and he was cool enough to meet with me and talk to me about what he wanted to change. I still walked away wondering why I wasn’t capable of implementing his notes, but at least I knew what he was going to do, he let me say what I thought about it, and I didn’t have to be surprised in an awkward social situation. (That rewrite turned out terrific too, by the way.)
Almost universally, the writers I talked to compared being rewritten to birthing a child and having it taken away. It hurts.
“I feel like writing a script is like having a baby that you carry for nine months and then nurture for a while after birth. But suddenly, another mother comes in and takes the child. Then you have to watch that mother either help your child or make mistakes, and there’s nothing you can do but watch. You can’t offer constructive feedback on how this child should be raised based on what you learned from those early days. Your opinion isn’t valued.”
Like a parent who gives up a child, there is a certain amount of emotional guarding or shutdown that is necessary for survival. Another friend said, “I do everything I can to avoid having feelings about being rewritten. Sometimes I understand the reason the studio is going to a rewriter (the director has a pocket writer, the star will read it if he recognizes the name on the page, etc.). Sometimes those reasons make sense. When it doesn’t make sense (‘You did a fabulous job. They’re completely happy. They want to work with you again. But they’re going to someone else for the next pass.’), I do not want to feel the feelings that go with that experience.”
Writers, who tend to be introverted people who spend a lot of time alone behind a computer, also tend to have insecurities. (Okay, I tend to have insecurities.) So when we find out in horrible ways that we are being rewritten, our writer brains automatically make up the scene where it was determined we should be replaced, and that scene is critical, dramatic and extreme. (This is what we are paid to do, after all.)
Personally, I would rather know the real reason that I was replaced than make up my own reasons and wonder. But sometimes those real reasons are too detrimental to your confidence and productivity. Maybe it’s better to just say, “Those people are idiots” and move on.
It’s tied to more than ego
It would be easy to say that being rewritten is hard because it hurts your ego. That’s true. But for the WGA writer, contribution to the project determines credit, and credit determines residuals. If your name doesn’t end up in the credits, at least in some shared credit situation, you don’t get paid another dime. And the residuals of past movies are what get many writers through the gaps between current jobs. So fighting to stay on the project and keep credit is about fighting for your livelihood.
According to the WGA arbitration guidelines, if the rewriter is responsible for substantially changing more than 50% of the script (on an original idea, 33% on an adaptation), then he is entitled to consideration for credit and a share of that residual money. So you can see the temptation for the rewriter to take apart as much of the script as possible in order to cross that 33-50% threshold.
For the non-guild writer, staying on the project to the finish and keeping credit is the credential that helps you advance to the next level, where later you can get into the guild, make more money, etc. (This brings up the whole issue of credit and arbitration, which is a subject I’m fascinated with. In talking to other writers, there was enough good stuff for a separate blog post, so stay tuned.)
It’s never as good as your draft
Rewrites are obviously intended to improve the script in some way, but it’s a fact of life that you’re rarely going to believe someone else’s rewrite is better than your original. Part of that may be ego, sure. But I think part of that belief lies in the fact that we know why we made all of our own choices, but we don’t necessarily understand why the other writer made theirs.
Sometimes you read the draft and you can hear the studio notes that the new writer was given. Make it bigger, make it funnier, etc. “When I’ve experienced the positive side of being rewritten, it was more like polishes that enhance what I had already envisioned rather than just arbitrary changes that either hurt the material or just make it different and not better,” said one writer.
But the original writer usually has a passion for the project and an intimate view of the story pieces that can be undervalued or unseen by incoming writers. “Sometimes, in being rewritten, I have to watch how many story holes they added to my story. The next writers may not realize why something was in a scene. For example, I’ve seen them cut a set up but keep a pay off (and vice versa). Then later, critics wonder why that writer (naming me) was so sloppy that I didn’t patch up these plot holes before my project got produced.”
Another writer agreed, saying that one of the hardest parts of the process was “getting to read the blog reviews where everyone blames me for the changes they made after I was kicked off.”
The phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” comes to mind.
Can anything be done about it? “I think if a writer has to be rewritten, they should be allowed a chance to give meaningful notes on the rewrite before it’s shot. They may have spent a lot more time living in that world and the inside the heart of the project than a rewriter would. It can’t hurt the creative process to hear what the original writer has to say about the changes, especially since there is no obligation to act on the suggestions. Having a chance to be heard would be nice.”
Sometimes you’ll be the rewriter
A number of writers I talked to had been on the flip side of the equation, where they were hired to rewrite someone else. Having originated their own projects, this can give pause.
“It’s a hard thing, because you want the work, you need the credit, it’s part of the business to be sure, and yet, you know how hard the original writer worked, and how much he/she believed in this project to even get it into consideration for production. You also know how it must sting to hand over your baby, worrying that your name might even be removed from its birth certificate all together.”
And for other writers, it’s not so hard… “When the original writer had a good idea but really butchered it, turning in something that was ultimately utterly unusable, I have no problem whatsoever doing this kind of work, and really give no thought at all to the work done by the previous writer.”
In many cases, including some of my own, it was a writer/director who was “written out” on a project and wanted some help getting it to the green light.
“One time I was hired to rewrite a script by the original writer. This person was very collaborative, knew they needed a new version of the script, and let me do my work. They were clear when they liked a change and when they wanted an adjustment, if I had omitted something important to them. But the original writer let me make the adjustments rather than taking over the reigns and rewriting it themselves.”
Said another writer, “I consider it a badge of high honor when the creator of a work praises what I’ve done with it. Probably because I can’t stand anyone else touching mine.”
If you’re the rewriter, should you contact the original author? It’s a mixed bag, and much depends on the graciousness of the original writer, who may be angry about being removed or happy to hear the script is progressing on toward production.
“The one time I took on a rewrite of a script I really loved, I went out of the way to contact the writer and make sure he was okay with it. That was an intensely awkward conversation, and in retrospect, it may have been a douchey thing to do.”
But another writer friend appreciated being on the receiving end of that call. “Once the new writer – an A-list writer/director of Oscar caliber – phoned me personally before taking the job to tell me how much he liked the script and to assure me he was doing it to talk the director out of his worst impulses. He was good to his word, and I have nothing but kind feelings for him.”
I’ve also been on the receiving end of that call, when a friend from my writer’s group was up for a rewrite on a script of mine. In that case, I was thrilled – I would much prefer a trusted and talented friend take the gig and get the paycheck because I knew she would do a great job and respect the work.
“In general, whether I’m adapting a story or rewriting an existing screenplay, I try to be extremely respectful of the original writers, and refer to them as the ‘birth parents’ of whatever I’m taking on.”
Killing your darlings
There is a writing adage made famous by William Faulkner about rewriting your own work. He says you have to be willing to “kill your darlings.” He’s implying that you may have parts of your draft – characters, scenes, bits of brilliant dialogue – that you are in love with, but that don’t ultimately work for your story. Maybe they aren’t as brilliant as you think they are. You have to be willing to let them die in order to serve the greater story.
This is the attitude I try to take when it comes to being rewritten. It’s torturous. I hate being rewritten. It’s an affront to my pride and I always take it personally. But short of some miraculous showbiz overhaul, it’s an occupational hazard that must be survived.
Some babies I will get to raise, and some will be raised by other parents (both responsible and negligent). Some will have my name on their birth certificate and I will be grateful, or I will wish I could disown them. Some I will have to watch grow up from a distance.
But I keep raising these script babies because I love them. And every time I’m hopeful that I’ll find someone that understands my love for them, so I won’t have to let go.