One draft for the road
It’s an interesting exercise, reading the early draft screenplay of a film you’ve seen and noticing what changed between that screenplays to what must have been the immensely different final draft of the same film. Sometimes the changes are large and leaves even the premise unrecognizable, at other times, its minor changes; a few scenes, some character quirks and in some cases the title.
In an early draft of John Wick (2014) screenplay, originally titled, “Scorn”, Wick was a gray haired man in his 60s, the Baba Yega monologue was more verbose and not as memorable. There was also more exposition on Helen’s illness and eventual death.
Ripley in Alien (1979) was written as a man. Red in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was a Red haired Irish man.Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) in an early draft gave Ferris and Jenny two younger siblings who didn’t exist in the final film.
In an early draft of “Edge of Tomorrow(2014), an adaptation of the 2004 Japanese graphic novel, “All You Need Is Kill” the lead character was much younger than the 50-something year old Tom Cruise who eventually took the role and did a fantastic job.
The point is, Screenplays are like marble sculptures which need continuous shaping. The Sculptor (Screenwriter, in this case) must chip away at unformed bits, polish, stand back and then chip away some more until the desired masterpiece emerges. To accomplish this we must put in the same dedication and skill as the greats. Think of Michael Angelo’s ‘David’ or Rodin’s, ‘The Thinker’- these masterpieces required time and perspective to become art that would outlive their contemporaries.
Most notable classics, which are arguably worthy of countless revisits, had multiple drafts. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) had 3 screenwriters. David Franzoni the producer who came up with the story wrote the 1st draft. John Logan and William Nicholson would work on story, dialogue etc on other drafts at different stages.
It’s easy to assume that this amount of time and recrafting only happens in the well-financed Hollywood studio system, not so! Indie filmmakers can sometimes take years to write that personal screenplay, while working other jobs.
Is it possible to write a screenplay without prior preparation in a week or month? Yes, it’s done all the time but the final output is rarely memorable or free of issues if its never further evolved. Many have heard the story of how Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in three days. But Stallone will tell you that very little of that 3-day draft made it to the final movie it was very dark and lacked the optimism and inspiration of the landmark film it became.
Multiple drafts allow refining, taking out irrelevant, derivative and cliché scenes. Reworking and cutting dialogue, infusing it with subtext and making sure it’s not on the nose or obvious exposition. Imagine rushing the foundation of a story building because the client is impatient about moving into the house. They may get their building quickly but that building will eventually cave in on itself.
Now, there are numerous factors which allow American screenwriters in the studio system write multiple drafts over months and sometimes a year, a system and the Writers Guild, which studios are signatory. Our screenwriters are often working on multiple projects at the same time, sometimes literally with two windows open. Why? It’s currently not financially feasible to work on one just feature length screenplay for an extensive period of months.
We’ve proven we can telling complex, compelling stories via our exported prose writers Achebe, Adichie, Okri, Soyinka, Habila, Cole etc. They didn’t knock out those novels in weeks or a few months, even before they became globally known.
I don’t know what it is but something needs to be done about the remuneration of screenwriting if our stories on the screen are to match the shelf life of the novels which have transcended generations. Professional screenwriters need to be given the time and financial compensation to craft enduring stories if we want films to have 20th, 30th and 50th anniversary celebration releases like in other countries. We need to create a system to enable this sort of financing and protection from exploitation.
Many films could have benefited from more time on the screenplay, an extra draft or two, in some cases another writer taking a crack at it. However, with the current economics of filmmaking, writers aren’t given the chance to walk away for a few weeks and come back with a fresh perspective to fix narrative or character problems. Is it a guarantee that multiple drafts will lead to a great film? No, not really. Have films with a single draft become classics, I am sure there are some out there. But why play the odds?
We have improved on production value, shooting with better cameras, lighting equipment and set design. I think it’s time we come together and figure out the financial solution required to give the same attention and resources to the blueprint which makes them all possible. We owe it to ourselves, the fans and the legacy of the industry.