Todd Berger on Rewriting
The value in re-doing your screenplay until it is right
by Charlie Tarabour
Writing is rewriting, they say. Pure, original thought makes up a small minority of the time spent screenwriting. It’s mostly molding and forming and re-molding and re-forming until satisfied. First drafts are never satisfactory, especially to the writer. They are Frankenstein’s monsters, lacking purpose and riddled with visible stitches and inconsistencies. The necessity for re-writing is sometimes hard to notice, because the best scripts have a strong sense of naturalism, as though they just grew organically. But it took a lot of interference and intervention to give these great scripts their animate qualities. Every writer should know simple inspiration does not beget genius. It comes from steadfast, committed, unglamorous, unromantic re-writing. The value of writers is not in the ideas they create, but what they do with those ideas.
I spoke with Todd Berger, writer/director of independent features It’s A Disaster and The Scenesters, about rewriting issues. Berger has experience in the rough world of independent filmmaking, but he has also written on major studio projects like the Kung-Fu Panda spin-offs and MGM’s upcoming Where’s Waldo? adaptation.
Over-analysis can kill a script, especially on the first pass. Berger has a simple remedy for this: “Write it to finish it,” he said. “Don’t go back and look at anything until you’re done. Even if you know something’s going to change, even if you know you’re going to have to go back and change a character’s name or where they met, do it later. Don’t go back and do it now. If you fall into the trap of going back and fixing things, you’ll never finish. I don’t look back and keep going until I finish it. Then I put it away for a week, or weeks, for that matter, and only then do I look at it.”
He paints a personal metaphor to emphasize his remedy’s importance, “Someone once told me when you rewrite, it’s kind of like when you break up with a girl, or a girl breaks up with you, and you just want to be friends. You need a grace period of a month or so where you don’t see each other before you can hang out as friends. If you break up and then the next day you try to go see a movie as friends, it can get really weird and uncomfortable. You need a little space. Set it aside, work on something different. So when you come back to it, it’s like a whole other girl.” Like relationships, rewriting is never altogether pleasant, and technology complicates it.
Writing software and its screen-specific progeny, like Celtix and Final Draft, have transformed the rewriting process, so it can now happen at anytime. There is always the option to change something when it’s written on a screen. That can present a sometimes paralyzing anxiety (sometimes referred to ask writer’s block). It is the looming imposition of possibility and it demands perfection.
“Back in the day,” Berger says, “you would almost be forced to write an entire script before you would go back and change it, because it was such a hassle to go back. But now, on a laptop or a computer, you can just change stuff whenever you want. That’s instrumental. I almost wish there was a setting on Final Draft that prevented you from going back and changing anything until you hit page ninety. That way it’d force me to steamroll all the way to the end.”
An empty computer screen may be more potent than blank paper in a typewriter or empty lines in a notebook. The former is filled with resonances of everything else we use it for: photos, TV shows, movies, music videos, gifs, animations and pornography, while the latter has only the capacity for words.
Berger went on to stress the importance of writing within the three-act structure. And while a vehement believer in independent and alternative film, he knows that the three-act structure isn’t going away anytime soon and understands its advantages. “Screenplays are a mathematical formula,” he says. “It’s not a novel. It’s not a poem. Yeah, P.T. Anderson will mess with the formula and independent filmmakers will mess with the formula, but if you’re writing a classical screenplay, you have to follow the math formula. It’s a rule. Audiences expect it, and any one who works in the industry expects it. So when you take your creative idea and have to boil it down to a math problem, it takes some of the sexiness out of it. One of the hardest things about being a screenwriter is taking this classic structure that they’ve used since the beginning of Hollywood and doing something interesting with it, making it work within your own creative idea.”
The three-act structure allows for intriguing and maybe obtuse opportunities for creativity. Expectations can be used to the writer’s advantage. A good example is Berger’s The Scenesters, whose characters are filmmakers making a documentary and they self-consciously acknowledge (and sometimes force) the three-act structure as the plot moves along. The narrative definitely fits within the classical Hollywood structure, but also has the characters tactically talking about three-act structure within the conflict.
Berger also talked about opportunities when a writer has to cut a scene or a character that really means something to them. This can be a roadblock to rewriting. It can feel like the writer has wasted their time. But there’s a way to cut what’s needed and still be at ease that time wasn’t wasted. “If I ever have what I think is a brilliant idea, and there’s like this scene I really love or this character or this joke, but I show it to someone or I reread it, and I realize this really doesn’t have any place in the script, what I will do is remove it and save it for something else,” says Berger. “If something doesn’t belong, I will give it a reprieve. Don’t think you’re going to lose it forever. Sit on it and then use it at another opportunity.”
All this talk of opportunity hearkens back to Winston Churchill’s classic quote, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Screenwriters in Hollywood need to be optimists or they won’t be able to keep their head above water.
When I asked how he knows a script is finished, he responded with a poignant adage: “You know, they say scripts are never finished, they’re abandoned.” But he went on to reply seriously about figuring that out. “All you have to do is get a script to a point where someone who reads it, gets it. I will often do two or three drafts of a script, show it to a couple friends, and ask, ‘Does this make sense? Don’t tell me what you love and what you hate. Just tell me if it makes sense, and if there are typos.’ And if they’re like ‘Yeah, this makes sense. There are no glaring logic problems, which are the biggest problems with most scripts.’ Then I will share it with a producer, executive or an agent, whoever, fully expecting that they will have things to say.”
A writer has to be essentially spineless in Hollywood. They won’t be given the respect a playwright or a novelist gets in their editing processes. Dealing with agents and producers is the beginning of a new kind of struggle. Berger said, “If you give it to a producer or executive, they are going to have thoughts, they are going to have notes and ideas. No matter what you do. You could hand them the script for Citizen Kane, and they’d still be like ‘We have some thoughts on the sled.’”
But there is perspective to be gained when you compare rewriting meetings with producers who want to make your material, with meetings when you’re brought in to do rewrites on someone else’s.
“When you’re brought in for a re-write job, you’re asked to read the script. The producers will ask what you think, and you will share your opinion. Once your opinion is shared with the producers, you figure out what you’ll do and how you’ll tackle it. And there’s clearly a problem. Everyone agrees there’s a problem. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be paying you to rewrite it. It’s a lot harder when you’re hired to re-write your own script, because you immediately become defensive. And when the producers say, ‘We feel like the first act isn’t working and this character is unlikable,’ you’re like ‘Whoa! Whaddya mean? I think the first act is working fine. And I think that character is totally likable. I mean, ’cause I did the same thing when I was in high school.’ You learn that you have to take a step back and listen. . If everyone agrees that there are problems with your script, maybe they’re right. And if you disagree and just say ‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ they will hire someone else to re-write it. That’s how it works,” he said.
Berger has made a better living doing rewrites than selling his own original material, but he’s not complaining. He reiterates this has taught him how screenwriters have to make compromises on a script before selling it or making it themselves.
Another aspect of rewriting in Hollywood is the idea of the punch-up, wherein comedy writers are brought in to amp up the jokes in a script. It’s a specific purpose, unlike some of the foggy directives that come with a comprehensive rewrite. It’s important, says Berger, not to overstep your boundaries as a punch-up artist. “When you’re doing punch-ups, you’re brought in for a purpose,” he said. “Whatever that purpose is, just do it. The last thing you want to do is if someone brings you in for jokes, you start picking apart their structure or trying to challenge what is already in the script. That’s not your job. That’s not what they’re paying you to do. They are paying you to be funny. If you have problems, maybe you can mention it quietly to someone, but don’t bring it up.”
Berger finds “punching up” to be naturally related to other elements of rewriting. “You have to understand the characters, and you have to understand the plot in order to create the jokes in the first place. You can’t have characters saying lines that those characters would never say, and you can’t create a joke that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to have a character fall down the stairs and get right up if the logic of the movie states that if someone falls down the stairs, they will get hurt. So, you really have to understand it. It all has to come from that place.”
Rewriting is inescapable and that’s a good thing. The learning process involved is what makes a writer a writer. It’s probably the hardest part of being a screenwriter and, therefore, the most valuable. Novelist John Irving said, “The value is in how many times you can redo something.” Screenwriters are asked to redo everything… a lot.