it turns out, convey many different impressions to the creative community. At least it is clear what they are not. I once produced two films for a director who couldn’t abide seeing a film he’d directed after it played in theaters or was otherwise shown to the public. When I asked him why that was, he replied that each film he made began as a perfect undertaking, comporting exactly to the vision in his head. From the moment he said “Action!”, he claimed, until the film went to release printing, it would move further and further away from that vision. And at some precise moment, he could no longer work to try to realize his idealized vision.
Whatever else they are, first drafts are not etched in stone. They are part of an evolving process of endeavoring to tell a story with characters whose humanity can affect us in some fashion. So what are realistic expectations of a screenplay labeled “First Draft”?
For my brother, a working screenwriter, first draft means one of perhaps six passes writing the script, attempting to “break the back” of the narrative. Technically, he would call each a revision of his contractual first draft as he works out his ideas on paper, in script form. I have often been sent a screenplay by him for comment and responded, I thought, very quickly. Getting back to him within forty-eight hours, I have been told, “Yes, I caught that and have already changed it.” Like the sculptor chipping away at a block of granite to reveal the sculpture inside, he keeps after it until it’s time to deliver.
Other writers with whom I have worked seem far closer to finished scripts when they press “Print” and serve up the first draft from their word processor.
Both types of writer are trying to get to the same place. All that differs is their route. In this sense, the treatment of first drafts is no different than the choice of writing times and environments. Some writers prefer to work in the quiet of the night while others find they can work best in the clarity of the morning.
Many writers have gotten to the first draft by preparing extremely detailed outlines, starting with “FADE IN:” and plunging ahead to completion. Others favor beginning by writing the three or four pivotal scenes in the picture and then filling in the rest around them. Again, the end is the same—to tell a compelling story. How a writer reaches that goal can be a highly individual effort.
Some first drafts incorporate months of research as the screenwriter comes to grips with an historical period, arcane speech patterns, or a set of unfamiliar data. Some writers won’t begin until they are satisfied that the research is complete. Others prefer to work on the narrative (or the characters) and layer in technical information of specific details in a subsequent draft.
However it is done, thorough research directly affects the quality of the final work. Students here are at something of a disadvantage. The time constraints of an academic semester often require a student to hit the ground running in cases where a professional screenwriter would still be in a research mode. As I guide students through what is often their initial first draft of a feature-length screenplay, I am cognizant that time to adequately research a screenplay is a rare commodity. This will unquestionably be reflected in the student’s work.
One part of the first draft that is not a matter of preference is that of establishing writing credit. Above all else, the first draft should be able to meet the tests applied by the Writers Guild of America in determining which of several writers on a project should get first credit on screen and in contracts. This is especially necessary with original or spec scripts.
In disputed cases, the Arbitration Board, comprised of professional WGA screenwriters, reads each version of the script to see which writer “broke the back” of the story. The arbitrators look deeply and carefully enough that merely changing the names of the characters will generally not deceive them. If the original writer of the first draft has done his or her job with diligence and care, he or she will usually receive first credit even if—as today’s business models seem to favor—different rewriters are employed to tweak the script in some fashion.
One of my favorite aspects of studio life was making the designation, after a screenplay was turned in, that the screenplay was 82 percent—or some other arbitrary number—“there.” This never meant that 82 of 100 pages had been delivered. Rather, it spoke to the quality of what was turned in and suggested that the mandatory rewrite had to bring it up another 18 percent if the studio were to green-light the project. This way of looking at creative work remains a mystery (perhaps reminiscent of a marketing campaign employed by some deodorant that proudly proclaimed that it was X percent dryer than its competitor).
In an industry where most screenplays are rewritten fifteen or twenty times before they get to the screen, first drafts are but a step along the way. If they establish the desired tone and delineate interesting characters in a compelling narrative, they will have accomplished most of their purpose.
It has been said that screenplays are not so much written as rewritten. This is definitely the case. Whether to accommodate the financial concerns of the “suits” at the studios, the vision of the director, the casting opportunities at hand, the alleged desires of the target audience, or any of a host of other considerations, first drafts will be rewritten. Expect it. But if the screenwriter remains open to suggestions and can be cooperative in what is ultimately a collaborative process, the first draft will be a giant leap forward for the project—and the writer.
The illustration is an edited page from the screenplay for The Road to Utopia (1946) with Bob Hope (Library of Congress exhibition).