REWRITERS IN HELL
Here is a very abbreviated version of a question by Rick from Scottsdale:
When you (or anyone) are hired to rewrite a script, is it industry practice to mimic the voice of the previous writer(s)?
In his full question, Rick explains that he was hired by a writer/producer to rewrite two of her scripts. Despite explaining to her what he would be doing to the scripts, at the end of the process, she was incredibly unhappy that he changed her tone and feel. (His full original question is set out below.)
Well, Rick, you got screwed. You had the worst of all possible worlds, being hired to rewrite the work of your employer. How could you possibly have passed that test? All writers know, we hate being rewritten.
To answer your question, there is no standard. In studio circles, writers are ordinarily hired to rewrite based upon their existing work, so the employer knows somewhat what kind of voice they can expect on the rewrite. However, that in no way guarantees the employer will be happy. Development executives really don’t know what they want until they see it. They give notes, but their notes are just a guess about what will work. As every writer also knows, outlines are just outlines and notes are just notes. Something happens in the process of execution that is different from notes and outlines. If you slavishly follow the executives’ notes, you are no more likely to satisfy them than if you simply nod nicely while they give you the notes, then write whatever you think will work.
At the end of the day, you listen diligently, work hard to understand the executive’s point of view, consider the rewrite work you intend to do carefully in light of the employer’s goals for the piece, then execute in whatever manner you think will turn out the best story for the intended audience. Your own ultimate judgment is your best guide.
By the way, congratulations on being hired for rewrite work. That is the meat and potatoes of the motion picture screenplay industry.
For more on rewriting, you may want to check out the Artful Writer.
Enough. Now go rewrite….
P.S. Here is Rick’s full question:
I’ve been hired to rewrite scripts written by two producer/writers. To be honest, neither script was very good, but the stories were quite good. In each case, I was asked to analyze their scripts first. When I gave my report back, each agreed with my analysis, after which we had long story meetings for how I would repair the scripts. In each case they agreed with me, and where they didn’t we talked it through. Liking my writing as well as my understanding of the projects, each decided to hire me to rewrite their scripts. And in each case I would get shared writing credit. I told one it would be a page-one rewrite, and the other agreed to so many changes that logic would dictate a near complete rewrite.
In the case of the page-one rewrite, the producer agreed my script was a huge improvement, and aimed to film my script, but when her funding fell through, she opted to go back to her draft and rewrite it based on my suggestions. In the other case, she fired me, moaning, “I am so upset — It reads like [William Goldman], but it doesn’t sound like me anymore!” (Seriously.)
So, before I cut off my nose to spite me face again, is it industry practice to maintain the voice of the previous writer?
Granted these two cases might be special (i.e. producer-written), but I really need to know. Because they feel I’ve stepped on their toes, I can bet that neither will help spread any positive word-of-mouth about my abilities. And as I try my best to build a professional career as a feature writer, I cannot afford to inadvertently sandbag myself by writing too well or in my voice if that’s verboten. (But that seems like a Catch-22!)
With your experience, what do you say?