Saturday, February 21, 2009

KIll your babies kill your babies kill your babies*

When stress is getting in the way of creativity, I like to imagine how Daleks would say familiar adages. [Hey, it takes all kinds, okay? Sheesh.] For example, make hay while the sun is shining is an invocation to enjoy yourself when life is good. Turned to Dalek dialogue, this would probable be 'Terran sun is shining. Make hay! Make hay!!!' Another example: 'Forest. Trees. My vision is impaired!' And that's how I was feeling earlier this week.

Couldn't see the wood for the trees as deadlines piled up upon each other, one after another, each more urgent than the last. So I did what any daft freelancer would do: something else. Knowing I couldn't resolve any of those problems in one day, I opted to tackle a project I've been ignoring for five months. No matter that it had no deadline attached, wasn't urgent and nobody would thank me [let alone pay me] for doing this. It was time.

Last summer I wrote a 30-minute script called The Woman Who Screamed Butterflies. It was created for the BBC Sharps initiative, an open call for half hour TV dramas about 'the nation's health'. My script wasn't get shortlisted but I didn't care - I knew there was something special about this story. It chimed with me. The BBC writersroom did let me know TWWSB had gotten a full read and even sent some feedback, identifying two key script issues.

First, the major antagonist was a rather one-dimensional, cartoon villain - which I couldn't deny. Second, the highly visual nature of the script made it feel more like an extended short film than a TV drama. Bang on again. In fact, there's two issues in that second piece of feedback - length and chosen medium. The draft I submitted was 30 pages long because that's what they required. And while short films can be screened on TV, they're no TV dramas.

Think I managed three drafts before the Sharps submission deadline. I completed another draft soon afterwards, just for my own satisfaction, and then let it lay fallow for a while. Lucy at Bang2Write got me thinking about TWWSB again with a blog post about it making a big impression on her. So I did another draft, before giving it to a writer-director. He gave some subtle, brilliant notes and underlined what the BBC had said.

But I didn't act on those notes for five months. Other things became far more urgent, and I needed to get some distance from the project. Let the notes settle, give myself time to find my own solutions. Great notes are great, but it's always tempting to simply implement them immediately and represent the script the next day. I tend to get better results if I give myself time to realise the best response, to find my own response to feedback.

Five months on and facing a plethora of ravening deadline beasties, I decided it was time to pull TWWSB out and tackle the long-delayed rewrite. Lucy kindly re-read the September draft and offered a few thoughts. Then it was time to dig in. I nipped and tucked my way through the first half, winnowing out a few pages en route. The second half offered all the challenges, with far too much schlepping back and forth slowing down the endgame.

I also had my title character do something stupid and illogical at the midpoint for the convenience of my plot. This is always a mistake, one of which I've been guilty in the past. So I had to find another way forward before collapsing the ending. Suddenly pages were falling away, as the script tumbled from 29 pages to 22 in an afternoon. Last but not least, I had to kill a few babies. Every draft had a short sequence with a Polish kitchen girl.

It was a lovely run of scenes, foreshadowing what was to come later in the script. But it added nothing to the plot and said nothing about the core characters that wasn't evident later. Much as I didn't want to, those pages had to go. I was proven correct when I didn't even have to tweak the transition created by ripping out the sequence. The script simply joined itself back together, like the sea smoothing itself out after swallowing a stone.

End result of all this rewriting, hacking and slashing? My half hour TV drama is now a 19-page short film script. Next week it goes back to the writer-director for another read, to see what he thinks of this new version. Will it ever get made? Probably not, if I'm honest. There are millions of scripts in the world and no money to be made from short films. But it's a script I love, that I'm proud of and it'll always be dear to me. And that's enough.

*Sung to the tune of Hang the DJ by the Smiths.


Dan Turner said...

Great post. It is so easy to rush into a redraft with notes. You run the risk of "trying to please" and ultimately upsetting the core of your script.

mark said...

Killing your babies is the hardest thing - after all, crafting those lovely scenes that make you beam with delight, is what got you into the game in the first place. Eddie Izzard used to ditch all the material that played well in rehearsal before a tour and replace it with new stuff as a matter of routine - just to keep him on his stilettoed-toes. Now there's focus.

Piers said...

Joss Whedon says when he's completely stuck on a script, he takes out his favourite scene, the scene that made him want to write it in the first place.

And that always fixes the problem for him.