Help the ScreenwriterScripts are your babies. You create them, nurture them, and polish them into perfect expressions of your creative vision. Sometimes, you do such a good job someone decides to finance a movie based on your baby. It’s the culmination of all your work. It’s also the point where you’re most likely to lose the very child you created.

Up to this point, you’re the only one in the world who’s seen the film. It has existed in your mind from the get-go. When a director comes on-board, he/she isn’t solely concerned with your script, even if it is the basis for the film. The primary concern for the director is to turn your script into a movie that will please audiences, producers, critics, and financiers. This shift of focus and power has often times caused severe stress on the screenwriter/director relationship. And when this happens, the screenwriter normally bears the fallout brunt and gets fired.

So what can be done to avoid the strain? The following tips are based on psychological studies as well as advice from some of the most successful screenwriters working today.

It’s all about the movie

In his 2011 podcast, screenwriter John August interviewed fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin. They make several great points, but Mazin summarizes the most important thing for a screenwriter to do once a director is hired with the following comment: “So just let the document go. Once the cameras are rolling, let it go. Every morning you take that piece of paper, the two and a half or three pieces of paper, look at them, love them, and then say goodbye to them. Because by the end of the day, they’re just paper, and now it’s movie. So service the movie.”

Learn the Director’s Style

Some directors appreciate collaboration. Others are more authoritarian. They all have specialities and weaknesses within their own trade. Learning how a director makes choices and the thinking behind those choices at an early stage of your relationship can give you a better understanding of the film’s direction.

One good way to learn the director’s leadership style is to think in terms of the Tannebaum and Schmidt Leadership Continuum. This model breaks down leadership into seven levels of control:

  • Telling: the director is autocratic.
  • Selling: the director needs others to understand and buy his/her vision
  • Testing: the director comes up with solutions but runs it by the team.
  • Consulting: the director relies on the team to problem-solve.
  • Joining: the director shares ownership of the project with team members.
  • Delegating: the director assigns responsibilities to team members.
  • Abdicating: the director relinquishes responsibility to team members.

Directors can have different levels of control with different departments in a production. The levels can also vary at different stages of the production. Screenwriters typically have more freedom when writing the first few drafts compared with the times edits are needed during filming. The trick for a screenwriter is to sense when the level shifts away from the more autocratic levels. These are the times to discuss ideas, options, and alternate solutions.

Discuss Tone and Feel at the Outset

“The director…lives in a constant state of struggle with the screenplay text,” says Screenplayology, an online center for screenplay studies. “[It’s] a process of give and take, that if executed successfully, can result in breathtaking works of cinematic art.”

A big part of the process described above is the initial meeting between a screenwriter and director. Use your familiarity with the story to your advantage early in the relationship. Have references to other movies prepared and be able to communicate your visions cohesively. The beginning of the whole production effort is your chance to inject your vision into the film’s foundation. 

Recognize the Power Shift

Mazin makes an important point about the director’s job: “The story is more important than the costumes, the locations, where the lights are going to go, and what the makeup should look like. But all those things flow from the story and are mission-critical to making a good movie.”

As production gets rolling, you become one of several departments the director manages. This is another power shift that pushes the screenwriter further away from creative control.

How should screenwriters react? Mazin advises to recognize this reality, but strive to hold on to the importance of your role. “If you do it right, you’re really the only person that [the director] can look at and say, ‘You and I both get this. Everybody else is looking like the blind men at the elephant. They’re feeling the piece of the elephant they feel, you and I can see the movie.’”

Contribute Appropriately

Whether it’s at script readings, filming, or during the first-cut viewing, don’t be afraid to point out issues. In so doing, however, be prepared to offer solutions as well. Judge your director’s style to find the appropriate time to offer notes. Sometimes, he/she may not want notes at all. Both August and Mazin agree that if you’re on set, give the director space and time to get the ball rolling. They also emphasize the need to couch your points in the correct jargon (sound, special effects, cinematic, or editing jargon just to name a few).

Be an Ally During Editing

You had your chance to create the movie when you wrote the script. The director’s chance comes during filming. The first-cut viewing is the time when those two versions come together. At this stage, the director is sweating bullets. You can help him by offering an honest critique at this stage, keeping in mind the common goal of creating the best version of the movie possible. “That final product is what you’re pushing to,” August says in the podcast. “You’re always trying to write a movie, you weren’t trying to write a script.”