Second Draft Misfires: Notes from the Trenches - An interview with Thomas Pope
Thomas Pope is an ongoing script advisor and mentor for Praxis. He has worked for Francis Coppola, Barry Levinson, Ridley Scott, Penny Marshall, Wim Wenders, Frank Oz and many others. He's written the screenplays for BAD BOYS, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, F/X, HAMMET, LORDS OF DISCIPLINE and numerous other projects (some uncredited). His 1998 book, GOOD SCRIPTS/BAD SCRIPTS, analyzes twenty-five of the best and worst recent American screenplays to determine what makes them work (or not). Tom Pope currently lives near Minneapolis and teaches screenwriting at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
To begin with...who would be the person giving you critical feedback on your script?
I've almost always worked for studios in Hollywood, which means, generally, there is a harried, over-worked, under-educated, under-30, politically dextrous, mildly paranoid executive in charge of the re-writes. One of the great hidden truths of Hollywood is that so much depends upon these nameless, faceless, job-threatened individuals with their 80 hour work weeks and their four-ulcer lives -- that films succeed and fail on their whims and worries -- and it's the screenwriter or the star or the director who takes the fall for their ineptitude.
Most of them, anxious to move onto the next meeting (and the next and the next -- hey, nobody said it was an easy job...) are only too happy to take an idea, any idea, that sounds even remotely possible for solving the problem script at hand and being able to tell the writer, "Go write." By so doing the meeting is ended, the executive feels powerful and competent, and the writer, armed (and intimidated) with his marching orders, drives back to his computer where he starts to work, often on an idea which sounded fine in the meeting but which doesn't always pan out when push comes to page.
I call these ideas "story-conference ideas," and more films have failed because of them than bad writers or egomaniacal directors or even addle-pated stars put together -- it's those story conference ideas, never deeply enough examined, tossed off in fear and paranoia, which are the real assassins. But most everyone, the writer too-often included -- anxious to move onto the next deal and the next assignment -- blithely marches on, never reflecting as deeply as they might or should.
As I say, the problem begins and ends with the harried, paranoid executive -- there are rare good ones who WILL take the time to make sure an idea isn't just glib, but also well-considered, and who don't say "Go write" (that's really what they say!) unless and until they're convinced the idea really is the best way to solve the problems of the script at hand. But those guys are rare as vintage wine, and as much to be cherished.
How do you approach the re-write? Does genre, budget or marketplace affect your plan of attack?
I pay little attention to genre, except in that I try to avoid the cliché. That is, I try to avoid -- hell, everyone in Hollywood tries to avoid -- the scene or bit or line which we've seen before. Genres operate by long-established rules (and therefore overly analyzed and understood rules), and it's best to avoid rules and go on your gut. The trick is that the marketplace often cries out for the predictable, or at least not the overly-unpredictable. And it's walking the tightrope between the been-done and the never-been-done, which is the ragged edge between good writing and mental breakdowns. There ARE story sessions (even good ones, with good people trying to do good work) in which it's considered what the audience wants and how to give it to them -- while, hopefully, at the same time, not entirely selling your soul to Satan. That's another tightrope, and a higher, thinner, more dangerous tightrope at that.
As for budget -- those concerns are less daunting than they might seem. I remember on F/X we needed a set piece for the opening scene and I suggested a haunted mansion (don't ask!) and the producers said, "Hey, too expensive;" so without blinking an eye a cheaper set was invented -- and one which worked as well or better at that. Budget constraints are, or should be, disguised liberations which free up the screenwriter to find new solutions -- and often better solutions. Throwing money at a problem is everyone's first instinct, and generally a bad instinct. Having to restrain the budget often unleashes the imagination -- at least it does mine.
Do you allow yourself to deviate if a brilliant idea emerges but didn't quite fit the master plan?
I do in my own work, of course. Anyone who doesn't is nuts. I remember the old adage that we don't believe in miracles, but we rely on them. The same goes for good writing: the unexpected, miraculous, brilliant serendipitous and even uninvited idea is the salvation we never expect and yet depend upon.
The trick is: a.) not being so locked into your story-board that you are too rigid to accept and even welcome those brilliant ideas (which are often pain in the ass ideas as well, because they involve deconstructing days or weeks, or careful, less audacious, planning), and b.) being at the same time able to accommodate the above-mentioned harried, paranoid executive who didn't know what he wanted in the first place, and most certainly isn't ready to think
in new ways about old problems. The trick becomes as much political as creative -- how to convince without goading, cajole without insulting, pressure without patronizing the executive into thinking your new, brilliant idea is what he had in mind all along. Down that path lies madness -- and good movies.
What usually causes the writing to misfire when you have stuck to the plan? Has the target moved -- or was somebody not clear enough?
As I say, I have a hair across my ass for studio executives, most of whom are forces for evil in the universe and, I suspect, in their spare time planned the American invasion of Iraq. But almost as large a target is the writer himself, who must talk the talk of pitch sessions and story conferences while walking the walk of actually sitting down and actually writing -- two often paradoxical and mutually exclusive professions. There's an old story that some writers can talk a great script, and some can write a great script, but damned few can talk and write a good script -- sometimes the good writer talks himself into a bad decision, let alone being led down that primrose path by the harried, paranoid so-and-sos.
Another and greater problem is the politics of Hollywood writing. Look, the goal post isn't called art, or even commerce, it's called credit (as in get it while you can) -- and the task of getting credit (which means more money, more prestige, a higher price for the next job, a bigger cut of DVD sales, and on and on) turns the saint into a sinner at the blink of an eye. You find yourself assigned to rewrite a script and come upon bad scenes -- hey, no problemo, just try to make them better and hit no fouls.
But what happens when you come upon a perfectly good scene which you can't improve, but which you can totally re-imagine in such a way that your new version isn't going to hurt the script, but neither is it going to help it -- what do you do then? An honest man (and we all know how much trouble Diogenes had trying to find one of them!) would leave the already-written scene alone. But a less honest (or should I say more human?) writer might very well rewrite the good-enough scene in the hope that they'll take his scene over the earlier one and, in so doing, he'll get that credit which makes for the DVD sales, the bigger cut of profits, and all of those other evil goodies none of us want to turn down.
That is, the system of vying for credit makes us into whores -- or whore-wannabees, which may be even worse -- and there are damned few can come out of that whorehouse a virgin. I believe that if half of the reason why scripts fail is bad executives, then the other reason is writers turned into cannibals, eating their own, vying for credit and stabbing each other in the back to get it -- and ending up with incoherent scripts. Want to know why a film sucked? -- half the time, look at the credits: if there's more than one name there, chances are you're looking at two (or three or four) total strangers who ate their young (and maimed the script) to get their names up there.
How would this whole situation differ with an independent company outside the studio structure, with your own material?
I've sold four or five spec scripts to studios, and it's a whole new ball game. Suddenly you aren't a hired gun, but a genuine artiste -- or at least they treat you that way. There is less talk of rewrites (and if there are to be rewrites, then you get to do them yourself). The trick is: a.) insist on being producer so you have on-set privileges to do the on-set rewrites that are sure to happen, and b.) get a director (beg, borrow, plead, stab your mother in the back, anything!) but get a director who is not a total fool. (They are rare as good executives.)
Remember, as soon as you get a director, whether good, bad or indifferent, your power is given over to him; but before that you are, for a few, fleeting magic moments, the actual man in the actual driver's seat. Get a good director, or, if that's impossible, at least get one who seems to understand your script -- do those things and you are rounding third and headed for home with a breeze at your back.
Why do misfires happen even more when the original writer is fired? Can the nature of a particular story contribute to the misfire -- e.g. the wrong genre, a passive protagonist, or (again) an independent executive who doesn't know what he or she wants?
All of the above. But I would say that this is finally (again!) a political question, which can be re-asked as: How do you keep the trust of your director? If he trusts you, you won't be fired and you have at least a shot at getting your words up onto the big screen. But lose his trust (or perhaps never get it) and you are dead meat before the axe even falls.
I had that happen to me on Lords of Discipline, where the director, not having worked in several years and scared he was going to screw things up royally (and he did), fired me as soon as he could. He later admitted to me he fired me not because I was hard to work with, or inflexible, or a bad guy, but rather because he was scared out of his gourd that he was going to make a colossal fool of himself on the set (boy, did he!) and so hired his best friend to emotionally (and literally) hold his hand and calm his fevered breast. I was sunk before the boat was even launched.
Are the consequences of being fired huge? How do you damage-control something like this? Is the industry accepting that this is a normal state of affairs for writers on a project-by-project basis? Are grudges and creative disputes forgiven?
Word gets around as to whether you were screwed or deserved to be fired. I was fired off Hammett by Coppola because he was going nuts on Apocalypse Now (literally, I swear!). Everyone knew Francis was going terminal on Apocalypse and so nobody took my firing as a bad thing. Matter of fact, Hammett tanked pretty badly after the new writer came in Francis' best friend from high school -- who else?), and cost Coppola his studio and Wim Wenders his shot at Hollywood, while my price as a (fired) screenwriter whose script was the only thing on Hammet which had a good reputation, quintupled in a year. But I swear I hold no grudge against Francis -- I worked for him again a few years later -- and Wim and I are old buddies. In fact, the real tragedy of Hollywood isn't that friendships are lost, but rather that they're almost totally absent. Friendship is generally a matter of oportunistic narcissism in Hollywood, and your "best friend" is usually the one who can help you the most, for this year at least. Want to know why I moved to Minneapolis? -- I wanted real friends, that's why.
How can a writer become politically astute about what is going on and best ready him/herself for battle?
The trick is to be as hard as steel about getting ahead while, paradoxically, also being soft as whipped cream about what you love -- which should be movies -- or why the hell aren't you taking it easy slacking off in your father's shoe business? It's this double walk of being tough and tender, loving and cold-blooded, which is the necessary contradiction which success relies upon -- and which is the real and ultimate maker (and killer) of dreams. Look at all the great ones, from Hitchcock to Spielberg -- they are all people with the souls of artists and the hearts of Dobermans. And how the hell they juggled the two I'll never know. But they did. And so can you.