I first met ED GAFFNEY, briefly, at RWA National in 2009. The next time we met was in 2010, at an Off-Broadway performance of LOOKING FOR BILLY HAINES – a family affair for us both, in different ways. As a mystery buff, I knew Ed was an acclaimed author as well as the husband of Suzanne Brockmann. He is also one of the few authors I know who has tackled playwriting and screenwriting in addition to penning successful novels. I’m eagerly awaiting the day I can see Ed and Suzanne’s latest project, THE PERFECT WEDDING, on the big screen.
About a year and a half ago, I took a break from writing legal-thrillers and I co-wrote a screenplay called “The Perfect Wedding” with Suzanne Brockmann (my wife, who is a New York Times bestselling author) and our son, Jason. We liked the result, and we went on to produce the movie. (It’s an ensemble romantic comedy featuring Hollywood veterans James Rebhorn and Kristine Sutherland. It’s in post-production now–we’ll be submitting it to film festivals starting in February or March.)
As the film went through the long journey from idea to completed picture, I got a front row seat to the radical differences between telling a story through novel-writing and telling a story through movie-making. For those authors out there considering pointing their talents (and their keyboards) in the direction of the big screen, here are a few things I’ve learned.
Lesson One – When you complete the final draft of your screenplay, it is not even close to being finished.
One of the joys I experience as a novelist is reaching the end of the journey with my characters. I really like getting through the climactic moment of the story, tying up the loose ends, and bringing the book to a tight, neat closing. A closing that is very much defined by me typing the words: The End.
And I have never had a reader come to me after reading one of my books and say, “You know what? I think you should change the end of chapter three, and the dialogue in the scene at the diner between the lawyer and the investigator should be tighter.”
It’s not that I write perfect books — it’s just that everyone understands that when the book is out there for sale, it’s done. No changing the end of chapter three. No tightening the dialogue in the diner scene. A reader may or may not like any particular part of the book, but there’s no changing it. It’s published. It’s done.
So I was far from prepared when virtually everyone who read the completed script (I’m talking about everyone — the director, the actors, the investors, my mother-in-law — you name it) acted as if our completed, finished, and very very polished screenplay were just a draft.
Because for the writers, we were done. We’d gone over the screenplay many times, and we’d gotten it just the way we wanted it. We’d written the final scene — we’d written FADE TO BLACK and CREDITS at the bottom of the last page.
And yet, everyone assumed that the script wasn’t finished.
You know what? They were right.
The problem is that for book writers, when you’ve gone through revisions and editing, and you finally stand up from the computer for the last time, the writing really is finished. The manuscript goes to the printer, printed books get shipped to the stores, and then (fingers crossed) books get bought by the readers. But when you’re telling a story through the movies, when you stand up from the computer after the last page of the screenplay is written, you’re just getting started. Because what ends up on the screen isn’t necessarily what you wrote on the page. And that’s thanks in large part to something else that I learned about movies….
Lesson Two — Every screenplay has a million co-writers.
There is a very real possibility that dozens of people who work on the movie that you’ve written might end up suggesting or creating something that adds to, or replaces something in your script. The script that was already finished, and that you had deemed just right. And as unnerving as that might sound to a writer, when the right people are on the team, that kind of collaboration can sometimes lead to something very special.
For example, in The Perfect Wedding, a critical moment arises when Richard (played by James Rebhorn) attempts to reassure his wife, Meryl (played by Kristine Sutherland) that despite his recent diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, no matter what happens, he will never forget her or their children, Paul and Alana. Richard’s dialogue includes the following passage: “They haven’t invented a disease that will make me forget you, or Paul, or Alana, or how much I love all of you. Maybe my body will stop working. Maybe even my mind. But my heart — Alzheimer’s isn’t going to touch my heart.”
No matter what else Suz, Jace and I changed about the script as we went from draft to draft, we always left that section alone. We felt like we’d gotten it just right. The emotion, the language, the content, everything.
And then, our big star, Jim Rebhorn, took me aside and asked me to change it.
I had no idea how to handle the situation. Jim had appeared in over a hundred movies and televisions shows, including blockbusters (Independence Day, Meet the Parents), Oscar nominees and winners (My Cousin Vinny, Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley), and Emmy winners (30 Rock, Seinfeld, Homeland). And on top of all of that experience, he was nice, he was smart, and he was really talented. Yet every instinct I had was telling me that the message that Richard was delivering, and the way the language flowed, was going to make this monologue and this scene one of the emotional high points of the movie. I was sure that changing it would weaken the writing, and the scene.
But Jim was concerned that Richard’s message to Meryl might mislead people into believing that all Alzheimer’s patients needed to do to counteract any loss of memory was to will themselves into remembering. So he suggested adding some language to make clear that Richard was speaking in an emotional context, not in a clinical one.
And while we certainly did not intend to leave anyone with the impression that Alzheimer’s patients had some control over the loss of their memory, we really didn’t want to tinker with what we’d written.
And then, I got an idea. I suggested that Richard start to say the words that Jim wanted to add, but then get too emotionally caught up to continue. So the new line read, “…Maybe even my mind. But my heart, that’s where … Alzheimer’s isn’t going to touch my heart.”
And you know what? The addition of those two words — “that’s where” — made the scene better. You should see what Jim and Kristine did with that moment. It’s one of my favorites in the movie. And it never would have happened it without Jim’s input.
Lesson Three — You are not in control of your story. (A less delicate way to say it would be: It’s not really your story.)
Imagine this: You’ve written a book, a time travel story, set in Phoenix. The story isn’t dependent on taking place in Phoenix, but that’s what you’ve imagined, and like any good writer, you carefully weave the story into its setting. You think it would make a good movie, and so, as an exercise, you decide to write a screenplay version of the book. You show the screenplay to some people in the film industry, and they’re impressed. One (an agent) decides it’s so good that he wants to try to sell it.
Fast forward a few years. Nothing has come of the screenplay, and you are back to writing books.
Then, one day, you get approached by a producer/director (let’s call him “Mr. Hollywood”) who would like to make your Phoenix time travel book into a movie. And when you show Mr. Hollywood your screenplay, he’s thrilled. He’s even more interested in doing the movie.
And then imagine learning that Mr. Hollywood has met with an investor, and everything is a go, as long as the movie is set in Pittsburgh, and not Phoenix. Because the investor lives in Pittsburgh, and would like to fund a movie that’s set in Pittsburgh.
This really happened to Suz some years ago. And because she wanted to see her book made into a movie, she busted her rear end, researching Pittsburgh and the surrounding area to rewrite the screenplay so that it would believably take place in Western Pennsylvania.
She overhauled the script in a week, in order to have it ready for a big meeting between the investor and Mr. Hollywood.
Talks stalled, and the movie never happened.
So what’s the take-away? Unless you write, produce, direct, and star in your own movie, you aren’t in control of the screenplay that you write. Your six-foot tall African-American hero? Now he’s five-foot eight, and he’s from Japan. That beautiful scene in front of the waterfall? Didn’t have the budget — now it’s going to take place in a grocery store parking lot.
And you know that scene with the young girl and the dog? Can’t do it. The actress is allergic.
It’s probably going to drive you crazy.
But if you enjoy sharing the creative process with dozens of others, and if you are lucky enough to be a part of a caring, bright and respectful team, you might find yourself in the middle of an unforgettable and a truly enriching experience.
As long as you’re okay setting the whole thing in Pittsburgh.
I’d write more, but I’ve got to go. Because despite the fact that we wrote the screenplay for The Perfect Wedding nearly two years ago, and despite the fact that we filmed it last year, and despite the fact that we’re less than two months from submitting it to film festivals, I’ve got to help write some more dialogue for the sound edit. Because the screenplay isn’t done yet.
I’m not kidding.
Have any of you attempted screenwriting? What difficulties did you encounter that were different from novel writing?
We have a full week – not just our usual Mon-Weds-Fri, but EVERY day! Tomorrow JO ROBERTSON of the Romance Bandits is our Visiting Professor. Hope you’ll join us!
Ed Gaffney is an attorney, an EDGAR nominee for his legal thriller Enemy Combatant, the critically acclaimed author of three other novels (Premeditated Murder, Suffering Fools and Diary of a Serial Killer), as well as the co-producer and co-writer of the off-Broadway production Looking for Billy Haines, the writer and director of the independent feature film Jolly, and one of the writer and producers of The Perfect Wedding. He lives in Florida with his wife, New York Times bestselling author, Suzanne Brockmann.
Ed’s website is here: http://edgaffney.com/
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