Ask the Expert: When Will It Be Done

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As a producer and former VP of Development for production companies based at Sony, Universal and Disney, I have had the privilege of working with award-winning writers, directors and actors.  The most successful of the writers always put in the most work.  I never heard anyone ask, “When will it be done?”  Over the years however, I have frequently heard eager new writers who are working on material say:  “I just want to hurry up and get it out there!”… “When will it be done?”… “How soon will it be ready?”

While it’s great to be enthusiastic and want to move quickly, these comments are “tells” that someone is green and their motivation might stem from ambition to find the Golden Fleece more so than ambition to do the best work possible.  With rare exceptions, the writers, directors, and producers who have become rich and famous achieved these results by creating great material.  Oscars prove this truth over and over again.  In shooting an indie film that no one wanted to finance, Kathryn Bigelow, clearly did not take it on because she had the end goal in mind to win and Oscar or to become more rich and famous.  She took it on because she clearly fell in love with the project and the screenplay.  Mark Boal, the writer of “Hurt Locker” did not set out to write an Oscar-winning film.  He drew upon his experiences as a journalist in Iraq and wrote a script that resonated with him deeply.  Jeff Bridges in accepting his Golden Globe and Oscar said over and over again that they were hoping they’d get a distributor and this was not something they felt was a guarantee.  The bottom-line:  great work comes from passion, lots and lots of hard work, and taking the time to make it great.

The strongest writers I’ve worked with understand that scripts go through several drafts and that crafting their project into a great piece of work is a process that does not happen overnight.  Beginning screenwriters don’t always know the truth behind many award-winning films and the fact that many were in the works for seven years before getting made.  Examples include:  “Shakespeare in Love”, “Crash”, and “Forest Gump”, to name just a few.  Of course a lot has to do with timing, having the right talent attached at the right time and finding financing; but much also has to do with the evolution of the script itself.  It has to be good enough to attract the people passionate enough to want to invest their money, time, and talent.

Another case in point:  Judd Apatow is a comedic icon and every comedic writer would love to emulate his career.  His status is well-deserved and well-earned.  Do you think he became a success overnight?  He has been writing for years and years, continually evolving his craft.

Every time I watch Charlie Rose or Tavis Smiley interview award-winning actors, film-makers, and best-selling authors, 9 out of 10 times, the guest will tell their host that they have been working on the project that has won so many accolades for several years.

I site all these examples to illustrate the following point:  If great artists take years to create a great piece of work, why is it that the person just starting out expects to create a masterpiece, big-sale or high-profile project in just a few months?  Sure it can happen, but that would unequivocally be the exception.

So, the “Tip” is:  Be excited, be enthusiastic, have the energy and desire to move quickly – but never without realizing that great work comes from serious work.

To answer the questions “When will it be ready?”  “When can we take it out”, the answer is:  “It will be ready when it’s ready, or in other words, when it’s good enough!  How do you qualify “good enough” because isn’t “good enough” subjective?

To a degree, the response to every piece of art is subjective.  However, if you are working with someone whose opinions you respect and trust and they offer feedback for improving your script in ways that make sense, it’s a good idea to incorporate those suggestions and work on the revisions until you both feel satisfied.  Once this happens, I would recommend test-flighting your project by sending it out to friends in the business (again people whose opinions you trust and respect) before sending it out to your dream list.  These can be fellow writers, an assistant at a production company, agency or management firm. By pre-flighting your project, you can address red flags that come up before blowing everything you’ve got prematurely, so to speak, with the big guns, i.e. the people you really want to be in bed with and make a lasting impression.

In the above process, it is important to be receptive.  You need to be honest enough with yourself to know you want candid comments and constructive criticism as opposed to validation.

Further ways to determine whether or not your project is “good enough” and therefore “ready” occurs when you send it out to a number of people who give you consistent feedback along the lines of: the dialogue isn’t good, the plot doesn’t feel original or it’s predictable, the characters are not believable, and so on.  If you are lucky enough to get honest feedback, listen to what your readers are saying.  If it’s just one person who has a problem, you can evaluate whether or not to address the note.  If however, there are several individuals with the same comments, chances are they might be right and others will have similar concerns as well.

Inexperienced writers will often boast about the various companies they sent their script to and how these companies “all liked the script” but passed because it just wasn’t right for them.  One time, years ago, a writer sent me his material along with a package of responses from the companies that reviewed his material and had passed.  He was showing me “look at all these companies that wanted to read my script! And they liked it enough to send me a response!”  What this screenwriter didn’t realize was that these were “polite” rejection letters and more or less a standard form executives use when they don’t care for a project.  Denial does not help you improve your craft and become a better writer.

I am often reminded of the time I heard the great South American author, Jorge Luis Borges, speak while being honored at Columbia University.  His career spanned over six decades and included hundreds of published works and the highly coveted stature as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  He was in his 80’s, still writing, and nearly blind.  And he said something that has stayed with me to this day.  He was grateful for his long life and the depth of experiences he lived through, as these provided a great wealth of resources which he could pool from for his works.  He concluded that he was only now starting to get good at his craft.  This statement, coming from a man who had been writing for over 60 years, was astonishingly insightful and humbling, to say the least.

If a writer of his stature could assess his work with such humility, there’s a valuable lesson in his words for all of us.

Recap:

  • Don’t buy everything you hear just because it’s flattering.
  • Take your craft seriously and do the work.
  • Learn to recognize and appreciate the process.

As a friend of mine said, “You need to have sex before you can orgasm.”  You need to put in the effort in order to reap the reward.

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3 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: When Will It Be Done

  1. Pingback: #22 TOM WORSLEY | passion pods

  2. Bill

    Wendy’s words of wisdom are so on the mark. I will keep the article handy so that when I brashly believe my screenplay is ready for scrutiny, I will take the time to make sure it truly qualifies as “ready.”

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