“I was fired off one big high-pressure type movie, but I heard about it in the worst way, in a form of gossip from my agent, who’d heard the studio had hired so-and-so to work on my movie. Nobody had told me I was fired, so the hiring took me a tad by surprise. I called the studio executive I’d been working with and said, “Did you just hire so-and-so to rewrite me?” And he sighed heavily and said, “You know, Dave, this is a tough phone call to make … ” And I screamed into the phone “YOU DIDN’T MAKE IT! I HEARD IT IN THE GUTTER!” That kinda sucked. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would be re-hired and re-fired on that same movie two more times.“

–David Koepp,  (screenwriter Jurrasic Park, Spider-Man)

I’d like to say I got used to being rewritten on the dozens of television staffs I worked on.   I’d like to, the truth is that it’s always awkward, and sometimes painful.  You get to sit in the room while your script is punched up, or otherwise re-written, by the entire writing staff.

Just knowing that your script will go through this process gives you plenty of motivation to write the best script you possibly can.  So you do your very best.  In a comedy, you make sure everyone’s written in character – and that the jokes are sharp.  You spend half the time punching up your own material.

You’d better be pretty good at accepting criticism, because you’ll hear about every one of your script problems in a room full of other writers.  They will go page by page.  The Showrunner or Executive Producer  will ask everyone in the room if they have any “notes.”

During the rewrite process, the Showrunner makes all the final decisions.  They are the God of their own series.  If other writers pitch story fixes, or funnier jokes,  he or she is the person who decides what goes in and what comes out.

What usually happens is this: the Showrunner will see an area of dialogue that can be punched up.  Everyone in the room tries to out-do one another.  There’s a competition for who can come up with the best joke for that particular line –in your script.

You’ve got to maintain your cool. You’ve got to act like this is “just part of the job.”  And you are, of course, invited to take part in criticizing your own script, and contributing to its improvement along with the group.

What could be more fun, right?

My first time writing a feature, it was me and my wife, Rogena Schuyler.  We spent three months outlining, then writing a feature called “Stepping Out” that we’d we sold to Raffaella De Laurentiis on a pitch.

More accurately, we’d pitched it to a producer, Bob Kosberg, and he liked it so much he had us pitching it all over town.  (We once drove out to Richard Donner’s house in the Hollywood Hills to pitch it to him).

Our movie had similarities to Donner’s film, “Lethal Weapon.”  Maybe too similar, because he passed on it.   I’ll never forget his comments about our plot –“It’s like walking on eggshells.”  Sure, we had to agree.  We didn’t know what he meant, but we had to agree.

We finally sold it to  a room full of executives at De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG).  We celebrated like there was no tomorrow.  We were in our thirties.  We sold a screenplay.  I mean,  I’d written for a few television shows, but this way the big time.  Features. We sold a fricken feature film script.

We wrote the screenplay at restaurants all over.  Beer and pizza.  Coffee and breakfast. Working ‘til 2 AM. Up at 10.  More coffee. Working at Dennys.  We spent three months together working on that script, morning, noon, and night.

We finally turned it in.  And waited for notes.  According to our contract, we knew we’d get the first crack at rewriting our script.  Unless they totally hated it.  What if they hated it?   But they liked it… a lot.  They had some notes, which we were happy to address.

We turned in our rewrite.  Our producer was very happy.  Then we all  waited for the next step.  The next step  was hearing that we were being rewritten by another team of writers.  They were rewriting it for Will Smith, who loved the project.

We were definitely disappointed that other people were rewriting us.  But we understood that happened all the time. Plus we’d been paid a lot of money. Well, not a lot.  $50,000.  Besides, Will Smith wanted to be in our movie  –how cool was that?!!

On feature films there’s a lot at stake with rewrites.  When you get rewritten, you often have to share credits.  The Writer’s Guild of America (or WGA) has a criteria for assigning credit.  When there are multiple writers on the same project, and everyone wants credit,  the  WGA asks random members to arbitrate.

I’d been a part of arbitration in the past. The way they do it is they give you several drafts of the same screenplay to read.  The writers competing for screen credit are called Writer A, Writer B, and Writer C.  It’s all anonymous –just in case you might be friends with Writer B.

The rules are fairly involved.  The first writer almost always gets some credit.  Let’s say there are three writers involved.  Writer A does the first draft. Writer B makes some huge story changes.  Writer C changes all the dialogue, but the story remains the same.

Most likely in that scenario, Writer A and Writer B would share credit, while Writer C wouldn’t get any credit at all.

The writers who end up with screen credit get residuals, which can add up to a lot of money over the years.  Not only that, but screen credits can fuel careers.  Who remembers Writer C?  Nobody.  Writer A is probably off being interviewed by TMZ.

So time went by and after a while it was staffing season.  My other partner, Steve and I were up for another TV show.  We were back on staff for a while, and there was no more news about Stepping Out.

Life goes on.  We never did see what Writer B did with our draft.  We didn’t know who writer B was. Nobody thought to call us – to let us read it.  Time went by – and one day I got a call from our producer,  Bob.

Apparently, he thinks I’ve suddenly become Norman Lear. He tells me – and this is the God’s truth.  He says that he has the “rights to the dog” from “The Mask” the big hit film starring Jim Carrey.   He wants me to help him sell a TV show with the dog as the star.  The dog is testing very well apparently.

And then he says – get this – he says, “If you can get this dog a show, I can make sure Stepping Out gets greenlit.”  OK.  What kind of a “Sophie’s Choice” is this?  My dream can come true, if I pitch a show for the dog. Can Bob deliver?  Well, who knows, he did get 12 Monkeys off the ground.

So I call my agent.  I explain it to her.  I tell her “Diane,  he’s going to resurrect our movie.  All we have to do is pitch a show for the dog from “Mask.”   She listens, and  says “You don’t need that guy.”  Like she’s saying there will be other features.  She’ll get us features. I don’t believe her.

At that point, I’m not sure what to think.  Diane has miraculously kept me working in TV.   And don’t get me wrong, I love writing TV.  Eventually, i would create some TV series.  But that day,  I said “good-bye” to getting that feature produced.  Although, I sincerely doubt any one person, even Bob,  could single-handedly green-light a film.

I just want you to be aware of what goes on in this town.  You will get rewritten.  You might have to sit there while your work is rewritten.  You might have to take part in the rewrite with ten other writers.

Your screenplay will probably be rewritten by some hot-shot writer.  You might even be propositioned by your producer trying to make some dog a “Star.”  Maybe not that, exactly.  But you will have to endure a fair amount of heartbreak.

If you’re having trouble finishing a draft,  or a re-write, feel free to talk with me, a produced screenwriter,  at 310-850-4707.

Image credit: Creative Commons, crying,  2006,  by Mary Penny, is licensed under CC By 2.