What does it take to turn your middle grade fiction novel and turn it into a screenplay? There isn’t a one-word answer, but there are some secrets to consider.
First off, let’s face it…as writers, we are somewhat of an odd bunch. I mean, who else can stand to sit in a room by themselves for hours on end. This says nothing of the fact we are known to talk to ourselves now and again. Someone once said…“it’s okay to talk to yourself, just be careful if you start answering yourself”. This isn’t true for writers, we carry on conversations with groups of people and never have to leave the comforts of our minds.
While on Law & Order, I would often look up to see my boss carrying on conversations with himself as he worked through a scene he was writing. If you think I’m kidding, simply look around during your next trip to Starbucks. You can spot the screenwriters a mile away, mouthing and sometimes even laughing at the words they have written. Yes, we are a strange bunch, but at least we are in good company (our minds).
Breaking your novel down into the format of a screenplay can be exciting, but sometimes it can be a nightmare fully realized. The nightmare begins when you discover how much you have to cut…cut…cut. Adapting your book is a tough job because books aren’t bound by page count. Screenplays, and ultimately movies, are. Remember the agent who said to J.K. Rowling in a scathing rejection letter: ‘who do you think you are writing a book with 700 pages…kids will never read it.’ This just proves that everyone has their own opinion. Not everyone will see what you see, but never lose what you see because of what someone else thinks. You are the authority on YOU. Be strong.
Have you ever heard someone say, “the book is so much better than the movie.” For the life of me, I cannot understand how a best-seller can die during the process of adaptation. One would think the adaptation job of a best-seller would be a dream job for any writer. Sadly, most of time it turns into a nightmare because the studio wants something new to give to the fans of the book. A best-seller is a best-seller for a reason, why change it? Why not keep the soul of the book alive in the film version so the fans can see the evolution from page to screen?
The Lightning Thief should have been a huge film because the book was an amazing best-seller. It is the opinion of this writer that Rick Riordon should have been hired to write the script, not Craig Titley. I have nothing bad to say about Craig Titley, because I know he delivered what the studio and ultimately, the director, wanted. If he hadn’t, he would have been re-written and would not be credited as the sole writer.
With all that being said, or in this case, written, what is the best way to jump from page to screen? It is easier than you might think…but let us be real…the entertainment business is one tough cookie.
1. RETAIN YOUR RIGHTS: While it is cool to say that your novel was ‘optioned’ by Hollywood, it is a bummer to say that your rights are tied up in DEVELOPMENT HELL. What is Development Hell, you ask? It simply means too many cooks in the creative kitchen. If your book has interest form a company wanting to turn it into a film, negotiate that you not only get first draft of the script, but you remain a producer (with a voice) on the film.
2. WRITE THE SCRIPT NOW: Who knows your story better than you? Nobody. Are you a professional screenwriter? Most often the answer will be no, but again, you know your story and how it should best be told. I once learned from Walter Parkes (an amazing writer who ran Dreamworks for years) the best script is based on a simple model of 10-20-10. 10 Beats for the set up – 20 Beats for the conflict – 10 Beats for the resolution. Strip your story down into this basic spine structure and start writing. Keep in mind, the best script will always have THRUST and not some languishing scene. Dick Wolf always used to say, ‘if it doesn’t drive the story, cut it.’ Great advice.
3. THINK AGAIN: While you might not think of yourself as a filmmaker, all you have to do is change your mind and become one today. We are living in a digital age where just about anyone can shoot a film. Have your heard of Park Chan Wook? He’s the guy who shot a 30-minute horror film on his iPhone 4 and got worldwide media attention? If you want to make sure that your story is respected, begin to think of yourself as a filmmaker RIGHT NOW.
4. SET A DATE: When you set a date, you command the universe to come to your aid. My first film Kate’s Addiction happened because I wrote myself a MEMO and set a date. I then began to write letters to anyone who could help me out. Before long, I had two cameras from Panavision (this was before the digital age and needed to use .35 MM film to get worldwide distribution consideration) and a truck load of short ends from Joel Schumacher. People who have ‘made it’ want to give back, so give them a reason to help you out. It works. Sure, I used 22 credit cards to shoot Kate’s Addiction, but Lions Gate came in and bought the film after we won the Newport Beach Film Festival with it! This would not have happened had I not set a date!
4. BUILD A TEAM: Directing is a tough job, so if you don’t want to be the director, you should be aware that thousands of directors are looking for great stories to tell. They NEED writers with great stories. The first step is to find an independent producer and have your agent submit your book and screenplay for consideration. If they like what they read, have your agent or lawyer negotiate you as a producer on the film. Remember, you own the rights to your copyright and hold ALL THE POWER. Don’t give away your rights, unless they deliver a truck load of money to your door. At this point, I would suggest SELL, SELL, SELL.
5. BE A TEAM PLAYER: Filmmaking is a collaborative art and there is nothing more annoying than a writer who won’t work towards a compromise. Nobody is out to get the writer, they simply want to make the best film possible. Hopefully the team you have assembled has experience, so consider them to be your allies, not enemies. During the process from page to screen, you will discover that sometimes what works on the page, can’t or won’t work on the screen. Stay true to your material and vision, but be ready to find a compromise that works for the betterment of the filmed version of your story.
6. REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE: Writers never finish, we simply find a place to stop. The job of a screenwriter is to rewrite. First up is to rewrite your story so each moment, each scene is gripping and propels the story. Without a desire to find out what happens next, you will lose your audience. Audiences are less forgiving than they used to be. Watch a movie that was a hit in the 80’s and you’ll notice how that movie would never survive in today’s market. Pace is everything because attention spans have become that of a classroom of 4th graders. I saw a guy checking email during a pivotal scene of The Social Network, but he didn’t miss a beat. All the more reason to grab their attention so much they forget about their phones.
7. REWRITE SOME MORE: Producers will have notes. Your Director will have notes. Production will have notes. Even your actors will have notes because what fits in the mouth of one actor might not fit in another. The rewrites don’t end there. When the film is in the can, you will discover the last line of rewriting; the editing room. Whether it be a bad performance or a production problem, you will see how things come together in the editing room and how the writer is still needed. Sometimes you will discover something amazing happening with the actors performances and you will need to be there to help rewrite the scene yet again. This time, however, you’re rewriting with images and not words. If the film still doesn’t work, you will need to be there to write the re-shoots, so never think your writing is done just because production is over. Filmmaking is rewriting on steroids!
With all that being said, I hereby declare to you, my Taffy Head faithful, that I will begin shooting Saltwater Taffy during the summer of 2012. This gives me over a year to get the script right. Yes, Virginia, it takes about a year to get your page to screen…kind of like giving birth, which my wife and I are about to do on May 18, 2011.