C J Powers

CJ Powers is an author/speaker residing in the Chicagoland area. As a Writer/Director/Producer he is an international script consultant and conducts screenwriting workshops. His films released internationally and television programs aired on CBS, PBS, ABC, the Family Channel, and various syndicated stations. The majority of CJ’s directing awards, including the Silver CINDY and Crystal Communicator of Excellence, were for family films. He received additional honors from the U.S. and International Film and Video Festival and the New York Film Festival. He is a guest writer for Christianity Today’s Singles Connection eNewsletter and has also been an Arts & Entertainment columnist for the DuPage Christian.

CJ can be reached through his blog at http://cjpowersonline.com/

Rewriting the Rewrite

Rewriting the short film “Family Law” (http://www.facebook.com/FamilyLawMovie) consumed my time recently. The premise of the film is law firm partner Carol Peters fights to keep the legal sharks away from a teenage boy who wants emancipation from his oppressive home life. Cornered by the boy’s choice, Carol risks disbarment unless she can find the deal-changing answer in a gentle whisper.

During the rewriting process, I had numerous conversations with the actress who stars in the film and with a copyeditor. Both were experts in their fields, but neither fully comprehended the rewriting process. In fact, though the actress loved the overall story, she felt the dialogue was too “in her face and wordy,” which was true for the draft she read.

In trying to explain the process and how I typically don’t rewrite the dialogue until the fifth draft, I realized that many writers probably don’t fully understand the rewriting process either. This resulted in my scrapping my column last weekend for a complete rewrite on rewriting.

Five steps that help the rewriting process:

1. Rewrite for Excellence
I haven’t met a writer who didn’t love their first draft. This is a byproduct of the writer’s attempt at reducing their great story idea to writing. However, as a script doctor, I’ve had to inform many writers that their job isn’t done after the first couple drafts. It takes me several examples before the writer realizes that he only placed the foundation of the story on the page and not the entire movie that he envisioned.

Through self-examination of my feelings and a second objective look at the story, I find that my first draft scripts aren’t what they were meant to be either. While my story concept stayed intact, the rest of the story needed to be fleshed out. After a banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few years back, I had the opportunity to chat with two of the Oscar-winning writers of the movie Cars. They shared how it took them three years to rewrite the story, with some scenes having as many as twenty-two rewrites. But it won them an Oscar and a sequel.

2. Throw Away the First Draft
After my final rewrite of “Family Law,” I realized that no sentences from my first draft survived and only a few sentences from my second draft were unchanged. I could have easily thrown out the first draft and started over with a better chance for achieving my story goals. Unfortunately, most writers fight to keep as much of their original writing intact, lowering the quality of their stories. My first draft was about the teenage boy, but I found a stronger story by shifting the perspective to the female lawyer.

Jack B. Sowards, known for his television Emmy-winning scripts, wrote Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Until the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot, Jack’s story about Khan was considered by viewers as the best Star Trek story out of the dozen features released. Jack is a man dedicated to quality, and as a matter of practice, he literally gets up out of his chair, walks over to the wastebasket, and drops his first draft into it.

3. Rewrite the Good to Make It Great
Having the producer of “Family Law” looking for a great story that would win her a 168 Film Project festival award put a good deal of pressure on me. It was the kind of pressure that causes you to rewrite very little to avoid the sections of the script everyone already thinks is good. However, I learned a long time ago that greatness could happen only when you are willing to scrap what is good to make room for the great.

Just about everyone wanted me to change the climax of the story and make it bigger. They were missing the important fact that it needed to be realistic, plausible, and lead into the resolve. While I accepted some rewrite recommendations, I chose to hold to my third draft version of the climax. During sneak previews, I

watched every person tear up during the climax, proving once again that a writer should rewrite only what she agrees will improve the story and not just change it.

4. Be Clear, Not Obvious
Every rewrite should help clarify the story and main character. It is important to keep the audience in the emotional flow of the story and not bog them down with huge backstory or in-your-face dialogue. The writer’s focus should be on bringing out the characters and plot, rather than muddying the waters with attempts at iconic phrases like “I’ll be back.” French writer Gustave Flaubert suggested that the “artist should be felt everywhere and seen nowhere.”

In “Family Law” I rewrote what I perceived was a perfect climax and resolution, but my producer was concerned that the audience might not catch the visual nuances that turn the story into a grand slam. She asked if I should write a more obvious ending. Because I always understand a film well before the writer hits me over the head in hopes that I will “get” his film, I decided to trust that my audience will be more visually intelligent than not. I kept my ending intact because it was clear and didn’t need to be obvious.

5. Take Time for Another Rewrite
Going into a film project with a goal of completing at least seven rewrites helps me to depersonalize the story and see it more objectively. Though I’m not suggesting that my passion for the project drops, I am being realistic about the numerous drafts that lead to a successful story. Many screenwriting consultants have been quoted saying, “Screenwriting is not about writing but rewriting.”

The Script Supervisor from “Family Law” argued recently with her friend and screenwriting professor about the number of rewrites it takes to make a good script great. He cited a recent student who did two rewrites and sold the script to a production company, who did two more rewrites before production. While the professor suggested that four rewrites was all that was necessary, the Script Supervisor couldn’t help but wonder what the minimum number of rewrites would be to guarantee a strong and tight story. For me, “Family Law,” a six-minute short film, took five rewrites to pull on the heartstrings of the audience and deliver the theme to their hearts. Had it been a feature, I’m sure the rewrites would have been well over a dozen or two.

I learned a long time ago that rewrites are not something to avoid, especially since the WGA makes sure you get paid well for rewrites. Instead, it is a tool to double check the tightness of your characters, plots and subplots, emotional patterns, dialogue, etc. If each rewrite focuses on just one area of a script, like format, continuity, visualization, etc., it would take a minimum of a dozen rewrites to make sure every aspect of a script is excellent. Like I said earlier, I typically don’t bother to tighten the dialogue until draft five.

The scriptwriting process is indeed all about rewriting. The fear of having too many rewrites is held only by beginners, while the professional counts on polishing each aspect of his story through the rewriting process. When you have a powerhouse actor on your film project like Tom Hanks, you plan on lots of extra rewrites to live up to his excellence in performance. Tom Hanks’s Cast Away saw 250 rewrites over five years before he was ready to film, leading to twenty-two nominations and eleven awards.

Content Copyright © 2010 by CJ Powers. All rights Reserved.

CJ Powers can be reached for script consultation and translation work at cjpowers7[at]gmail [dot] com.