What is the main attraction of writing scripts?
One of the reasons writers are attracted to writing scripts is that as a general rule, script writers, certainly those working in television, are better paid than novelists. But of course, money is not the only reward. Writing scripts allows a writer to work in dimensions which go beyond the verbal, to include performance, design, lighting, sound, music and dance, to create, when it all comes together, something magic.
Can you explain a little about the life cycle of a script?
A script has three main stages in its life. In the first stage, the script is a document to be read. Its purpose is to get someone, a producer from a film or television or theatre company, to like it and to want to put it into production. The script needs to be a good read.
In the second stage, the script becomes a working document. This is the final draft of the script and will have been shaped by input from a script editor, producers, network executives, a director, heads of production departments and will have been through several or even many drafts. This is the script which the actors and production team work with and in many ways is a more technical document. It may even be a quite messy document with lots of pages of cuts and substitutions.
The final stage is the published version of the script which will incorporate all the changes which happened to the script during rehearsal and production and final editing. However, if a writer does not agree with some of the changes which were made in production, the published script may represent what the writer believes is the best version of their work. It’s a bit like the Writer’s Cut, as compared with the Director’s Cut.
Does this mean that script writers have a bad time?
Only sometimes. Writers in television probably have the simplest lives – from the commission to write an episode, they’ll usually start by attending a story conference and then work to a set timetable to write an outline, a scene breakdown and then three to four drafts of the script. At each stage, they’ll be given notes from a script editor and possibly also from producers and network executives. When the script is finished and handed over to a director, there is usually little further involvement for the writer and any changes are made by the script editor working with the director and the producer. At this stage, the writer is probably working on another script.
Writers of film scripts will usually start by writing an outline of their idea, or, a proposal for an adaptation of an existing work, and use this to convince a producer to commission at least a first draft of the script. Between a first draft and production of the film, there can be many drafts spread over quite a few years, and each draft will be written with input from a script editor as well as notes and feedback from the producer and probably also from assessors for the various State and Federal funding bodies. (Most film scripts are subsidised by one or several government agencies.) Although film production varies, the writer may well be expected to be around for the entire production period and to be available to make changes when necessary.
In theatre, commissions are hard to come by and most playwrights would write a first draft on their own. Once a theatre company is interested, further drafts may be requested and during the rehearsal period the writer, especially in a first production, will be expected to work with the director and cast and refine the script.
Do you enjoy the collaborative aspect of writing for performance?
There are two important aspects to the collaborative process which I really like. The first is that working with others can bring ideas and insights to my work which make the work better. A good director with a talented cast and production team can add detail and richness as well as offering criticism and suggestions which make the whole work stronger and are part of the refining and writing process. The second aspect is social. Writing is a pretty solo activity and collaboration means working with other people, being part of a team which has as its goal, the production of a work which might have started with the writer, but which has become a project for a group.
Is it necessary to be open to changes – perhaps more so than in other forms of writing – that others may make to your work?
More people are involved in the process of putting a script into production than in, say, publishing. Each of those people; director, cast, designer, producer and so on, has talent and experience which can add to the success of the project. Script writers are wise to take advantage of all that talent and incorporate the thoughts and suggestions of the team when they will make the word better. Judging when to say yes and when to say no can be difficult and it’s something script writers develop with experience, but it’s worth remembering that no matter who has the suggestion or idea, if it makes the script better, the writer will get the credit.
You have extensive experience in writing for performance – is there a project, award or accolade that you are particularly proud of?
I’m proud of the United Nations Media Peace Award which I won for BabaKiueria, a satire on race relations in Australia shown in ABC television. But I’m really pleased with the production of my most recent play – Liberty Equality Fraternity. I’m pleased because this was an example of the collaborative process working perfectly – what the director and cast and production team brought to my play made it much better than the way I’d imagined it.
Can you tell us one common mistake that you see beginner scriptwriters making?
Writing too much. Scripts are very economical bits of writing and the trick is to say a lot with a little.
Geoffrey Atherden will be teaching Writing for Performance on Saturday 4 May.