The working relationship between a screenwriter and director can be the stuff of dreams or nightmares. Ordinarily, screenwriters will have worked on a project for a few years before a director even comes into contact with the screenplay. Often a labour of love, having probably gone through numerous rewrites and grappling with fundamental issues, story arcs, character dynamics and pacing, the screenwriter will be very much attached to the screenplay. This is why it’s such a precarious and pivotal moment. Who has ultimate creative control and the final say?

The director will be approaching the project with their own ideas and vision. Their intention is to craft it in a way that incorporates their trademarks and being the eyes and hands of the production, it ultimately comes down to their decision-making. However, as anyone who will have worked on a set will agree – film-making is a team effort, which requires active and full participation from every person and department in order to assimilate an illusion that best represents what’s on the pages of that screenplay.

This team dynamic is even more important when it comes to the push-and-pull or even dance between the originator of the screenplay and the person being charged with adapting that work into their own original vision. Obviously it’s a careful negotiation, where the writer must allow for changes. Some screenwriters will believe that what’s on the page should be set in stone but as the locations are locked down, casting is finalised and storyboards are realised, things do change, scenes are rewritten and the blueprint is revised even further.

For first-time screenwriters, the experience must be quite harrowing to see their cherished work get chopped and changed to accommodate practical and budgetary constraints. While submitting that polished final draft and committing it to its “finished” ink and paper may come as a relief, it’s just the beginning.

There are a number of factors that can affect this relationship. If the director has been hired in a purely professional capacity to simply follow the pages as they are written, honouring the source material without kicking up too much dust then that’s one thing. Alternatively, if the screenplay has simply been picked up without having the screenwriter to elaborate further, then the process is quite autonomous and open to sweeping changes as the director sees fit. Or, the screenwriter happens to be the director, in which case the purity of their vision can be hampered by not having enough feedback.

However, in most cases it’s valuable for both screenwriter and director to have an active role in adapting the manuscript to screen. Seasoned screenwriters will actively try to avoid becoming too precious about their work to help facilitate a better transition.

Conflict belongs in the screenplay and not really over the screenplay, meaning that while both parties will disagree on points, becoming confrontational only serves to disrupt the creative flow of ideas. It doesn’t serve the film project for the screenwriter and director to be at loggerheads, making the screenplay a war zone only serves to disrupt the storytelling flow, offer a rehashed and discordant feel. As with any relationship, both parties need to identify problems as being external to themselves, making it much easier for them to come alongside one another in unpacking issues relating to character, dialogue, flow, scope or theme. If there’s too much compromise, the film runs the risk of becoming bland or too generic.

Taking a director’s notes shouldn’t be the first time that the screenwriter is forced to engage in some collaboration. After polishing your screenplay, it really pays to have a friend’s advice, the eyes of an industry professional or someone’s opinion you trust. Getting this kind of valuable feedback whether by contact or an independent service from helps you to step away from the project, breaks the intense focus and opens the screenplay up to continuous improvements. When prospective directors read screenplay, they too will evaluate it, identifying weaknesses and foundational flaws.

Getting your screenplay to the point that it’s almost bullet-proof will make it a much easier process to unpack further down the line when collaborating with a director. Obviously getting the right director for the job is half the battle won. It also helps if as a screenwriter you’ve worked with that director before, understanding each other’s process and how to get the most value out of your engagements. Having a shared vision and wanting the best for the project will help foster that sense of trust and the ability to discuss notes with more open-minded ease. It really is a symbiotic relationship that requires consideration, trust and understanding.

It will even serve that screenwriter or director to approach other people that worked with them in the past in order to get a better semblance of their method. Knowing what works best, how to find commonality and essentially become friends in the process of delivering the screenplay into a film format makes this working relationship much more productive and conducive to achieving the best possible result.

The Push-and-Pull of the Screenwriter-Director Dance…
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