Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rough Draft to Final Draft

Since my last post, I completed production of Are You with Me. It's amazing how having a great cast and crew make a director's job far easier than it otherwise could've been. Directing, regardless, is not an easy task. When I ask my production students at the beginning of the semester who wants to direct, most hands go up. As they find out over the course of the semester, if it comes easy to you, you're doing it wrong.

My favorite director is Stanley Kubrick. His daughter, Vivian, made a 35-minute documentary on her father's directing of The Shining. It's astounding to watch Kubrick prioritize, direct, and come up with some of the film's most iconic shots. I highly recommend it, not just for fans of the film, but for fans of the art.

As I'm sure you might imagine, Are You with Me went through several drafts and changes. Very often, I'm presented with an obvious first or second draft from a writer who thinks that they're ready to roll. With only one exception that I've ever heard, two drafts won't cut it. Nor will five. Or 10. Good writing is hard. Period.

What's the exception? In Virginia in 2010, I heard screenwriter Scott Kosar (The Machinist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Crazies) tell an audience that he had only written one and a half drafts of The Machinist before it was picked up. Kosar is phenomenally talented, but stories like his, I promise, are the exceptions to the rule. Children's book author Avi is known to have written over 50 drafts of the first chapter to his book Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Chapter one is only four and a half pages.

A lot can and should change between draft one and the final version. But for what in particular should you keep an eye out?

As an example, I thought I'd share my first draft and final draft of Are You with Me.

Here's the first draft.

As you can see, the first difference starts on the title page. The original working title was Under the Blanket. Like a lot of working titles, this one changed over the course of production. But why? True, there's a little boy under a blanket within the film, but the phrase "under the blanket" doesn't really evoke the film's theme on its own. It sounds like it could be a horror film, or worse, something dirty! That's definitely not what I wanted folks to think!

The first draft also begins with Courtney the babysitter, speaking to Lorraine and Jeff. On page two is our exposition moment, and it's painful. It's not integrated. We don't see it. We just hear about it. Far more effective would be to see Courtney's discovery of the drugs. To see the pain on her face. Like I tell my students, it's not a radio play. Show, don't tell.

It's hard enough to exhibit a character's emotional transition in a feature film. In a short, it's a monumental challenge. In the first draft, it's unclear when or if Courtney's transition from unforgiving to merciful takes place. Jackie cries, Courtney rolls her eyes, and simply embraces him. But what does she learn?

Finally, on pages four and five, comes the twist. It may not have been Eddie under the blanket at all. Hysterical parents over the phone. Lots of conflict. But is it the best way to spend the limited time in the script? Another phone call?

Here's the final draft.

The title is different. As mentioned in my prior blog post, it's a quote taken right from a conversation I had with my late Aunt Wendy. "Are You with Me" struck me as evocative of the theme. Literally, are you with me or against me? What will you decide?

This draft begins with Courtney arriving home to discover the drugs in a beloved stuffed animal. We see it. We don't hear about it afterward. That surprise, anguish, and fury are all there for us to see. Far more interesting than hearing about it all afterward.

I have to be honest. The line "Monsters aren't real. Or is that your word for scared and alone?" gave me the most trouble. That line must have gone through about a dozen rewrites. It's a key line, as it's what triggers a switch in Courtney's head. It's the moment at which she realizes what she's been doing and what her new purpose must be. I wanted little Eddie to be a parallel to Courtney's brother Phil, and the words she speaks to Eddie to soothe him are really being said to Phil. The word "monster" is also integrated into the film, being said three times. Once to refer to Phil, once to refer to Eddie, and once when Eddie challenges Courtney to redefine it. Far tighter.

The decision to drop the final phone conversation was a late change. However, I realized two things: one, if Jackie's spirit was really under the blanket, he wouldn't leave it behind for his parents to discover. Second, the phone call put the focus less on Courtney's decision to forgive Phil and more on the supernatural aspects of the story. This was always meant to be a story about a girl forgiving her brother, not about a girl encountering a possible ghost. So I dropped the phone call and instead inserted the quicker visual image of the blanket simply not being there anymore. Show, don't tell.

Incidentally, I'm running a Kickstarter for the film. The following link has the trailer as well as other information to help you become involved with this exciting project. I hope you enjoy it!

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