How Much Creative Control Do You Have as a Screenwriter?

3 things you need to know about the screenwriter's relationship to the filmmaking process.

“A reader experiences a novelist’s work directly. An audience experiences a screenwriter’s work through someone else’s lens.”

Throughout my years as a script reader and while working as Lights Film School’s screenwriting instructor, I’ve spoken with many screenwriters and students who share the same apprehension about the filmmaking process:

Will my script be changed by the director and actors?

In fact, one person went so far as to assume that – because they’d heard that the director and actors tend to change a script during production – they didn’t need to worry so much about their final draft containing writing they weren’t happy with. “If it’s going to change,” they asked, “Won’t it just get fixed anyway?”

Well, yes, the script may change during production – but no, you shouldn’t rely on that change to polish your draft. Where possible, your draft should be the version of the script that you’d be happy to have followed to the letter.

Scripts can evolve throughout the filmmaking process, including on set, for a whole range of reasons. In a best case scenario, those changes are made directly by the screenwriter, or – at the very least – involve their consultation.

Sometimes, however, the screenwriter isn’t involved in script changes at all. Even so, lack of involvement is not grounds for waving away the responsibility of producing an excellent screenplay!

It’s important to remember three key points, which we’ll explore here together:

  • Many script changes involve changes to the dialogue, some of which the screenwriter can anticipate while developing the draft.
  • Contrary to a common assumption, the director and actors usually are not eager for changes. The main goal of the production crew is to take a screenplay and turn it into a film; in fact, the fewer changes there are to a screenplay, the easier the process is for everyone involved!
  • There are very real, not uncommon scenarios in which the screenwriter is involved in rewrites when scripts changes are necessary.

Let’s examine each of these three things in detail.

I. 4 Reasons for Dialogue Changes

Leading up to production and on set, some of the most common script changes involve doctoring the dialogue. At risk of over-simplifying, there are four primary reasons a line might change:

  • As is the case in many films, the dialogue is supposed to feel “realistic” – meaning, the lines seem like something someone would say naturally in real life – but as phrased on the page, they don’t. When the director or an actor highlights dialogue that seems unnatural, it might be changed to express a similar meaning in a way that feels more true-to-life.
  • The dialogue does not feel authentic to the character or setting, as interpreted by the director and/or actor. Of course, depending on the film, not all dialogue needs to be “realistic”; stylized lines are very much a possibility. But even they must feel consistent with the world of the film.
  • If something has changed in a different part of the script that affects the facts of the story, dialogue may need to be altered to reflect that change.
  • A different way to say something is improvised on set and incorporated into the film. For example, an actor comes up with something funny that makes the director and crew laugh, and the director decides that it’s better than the way it was written originally.

How to Write Realistic Dialogue

“How do I write dialogue that sounds realistic?” is one of the most common questions I get from Lights Film School students. In fact, writing the way that people speak is one of the first lessons that many screenwriters learn!

You’ll be able to avoid scenes like this:

Throughout my screenwriting studies at university, professors often stressed the importance of writing words for actors that seemed so natural that there was nothing funny, awkward, or inauthentic about them. I was taught that being a good screenwriter – or playwright, for that matter! – involved understanding the cadences of speech.

One of my professors went so far as to task us with spending a day alone in a public space, where we were asked to eavesdrop on conversations between people who spoke differently from us. Listening to how people speak, my professor argued, was the only way to actually write how they speak.

Of course, she was right.

In this respect, screenwriters are kind of like reporters. A reporter’s job is to observe the world – an event, a news conference, an interaction between people – and relay that information to the reader.

Granted, a screenwriter may not be relaying actual events, but they nevertheless must communicate what they see, even if the first and only time they’ve seen it is in their imagination. The screenwriter commits their observations to the page, and eventually, these observations reach an audience in the form of a film, enabling the audience to see what the screenwriter saw.

Legendary author Steven King describes it in more mystic terms in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. For him, writing is nothing short of “telepathy”:

“Look – here’s a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes… On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8… The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We are close. We’re having a meeting of the minds… We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy.”

As screenwriters, we hold a mirror up to the world, allowing readers – and by extension, viewers – to witness the reflection we’ve captured.

But in order to capture that reflection and effectively represent reality, you have to know what reality is. You have to observe it first. That’s what my professor was saying by asking my class to go and observe how real people speak. The goal, of course, was to train us to write dialogue that an actor could read and feel so natural speaking that they wouldn’t feel the urge to change it, taking into account the specifics of the film and its style.

II. Why You Should Stick to the Script (Usually)

Some screenwriters assume that the director and actors can’t wait to get their hands on a script so that they can rip into it.

But let me ask you a question… If you were a director or an actor and you received a script that was so well-written that you felt like you didn’t need to change a line, then why would you change a line?

This point bears repeating: it’s much easier for everyone if the script is excellently written, minimizing the need for changes. Although I can’t speak for every director and actor out there, having worked with many of them myself over the years, I can say that the idea that they’re eager to tear apart a screenplay simply isn’t true, certainly at the indie level (more on the studio level later).

I recently encountered an interesting discussion online in which actors were debating the question, “Does an actor have to read what is there directly in the script or can they change some words if they prefer?” Most respondents shared that they prefer to stick to the script. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of their answers:

“It is generally considered very bad form to not follow the script provided, unless the cast is specifically told it is partially improvisation.”

 

“…The script was chosen (in 99.9% of cases) before you were, which means the director/producer liked what they saw on the page and wanted to work on THAT script.”

 

“I have worked with many directors, as I do when I direct, who allow the actor, within reason, to change some of the dialogue. This is mainly because the actor has a ‘feel’ for who the character is, and what and how they say and refer to things. On the other hand, I worked for a director who wanted everything to be word-for-word from the script. “

 

“…When we stick to the words written in the script it helps our co-actors and gives smoothness to the act.”

 

“The actor should always be able to say exactly what’s on the page. If s/he wants to talk to the writer/director/producer about saying something differently for character or story reasons, it’s ok to have that conversation. It is not ok for an actor to change the words because s/he didn’t take the time to learn the script as written.”

The consensus? It’s often best to stick to the script.

A Quiet Place | Paramount Pictures, 2018

There’s an exception to every rule, though!

Some productions encourage improvisation. In the case of auteur directors like Christopher Guest and Robert Altman, for example, improvisation is an essential part of the creative process. As a result, the script is considerably more fluid – closer to concept art than “a blueprint”. Other outliers include George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road – which began as a series of highly-detailed storyboards, not lines of text on the page – and more recently, the screenplay for horror sensation A Quiet Place, which was unconventional to say the least.

Improvisation is a discussion for another day. For now, just know that many productions set out to bring to life the vision cast by the screenplay. The team does not set out to “kill your baby”.

Are There Times When a Script Literally Can’t Be Changed?

Sometimes, screenwriters are very particular about their scripts and insist – contractually – that no words change during the filmmaking process without their consent.

For example, Aaron Sorkin is famous for his intelligent, lightening-fast dialogue, as showcased in The West Wing, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, among others. Danny Boyle, the director of Steve Jobs, had Sorkin on set throughout production in case any changes needed to be made to the dialogue. By and large, the script was realized as written. Perhaps aptly, Boyle drew a comparison to Shakespeare, whose words typically remain untouched in performances of his work:

“[Sorkin] incrementally builds meaning through rhythm… You’re building this rhythm and you’ve got to get on beat. It’s almost more important than understanding what you’re saying. That sounds weird, but, it’s true. If you get the rhythm right, you understand it. It’s like Shakespeare. You read some of it and you’re like, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ But you say some of it out loud and it’s, ‘Oh, I see what he means.’ He’s a dramatist like that. That was the big thing, to get the actor’s ear and start speaking it. You can hear them hear the rhythm and then it just flows. They get ownership of it. The confidence comes. They go, ‘This is mine. It’s not ours anymore, it’s mine.’ Which is absolutely essential for an actor in this piece. You’ve got to get on top of it and grapple it to the ground.”

Sorkin’s unique style, as evident especially in his dialogue, is one of the reasons that people tune into his films and television shows. It’s not every project that honors the writer’s every word, let alone invites them to set! In this instance, however, Sorkin retained tremendous creative control.

Steve Jobs | Universal Pictures, 2015

III. Write One Movie, Shoot Another, and Edit a Third

Many students at Lights Film School ask if me directing what you write is the only way to ensure that your script doesn’t change.

Other than working closely with the director and their team throughout production, yes, being both the screenwriter and director of an independent film is indeed the most surefire way for you to control what changes are (and aren’t) made on set.

Before you decide to run out and buy a director’s chair, take a moment to consider the fact that not every screenwriter is cut out to be a director, and vice versa. If the only reason you’re directing is to ensure full control, then you might want to reconsider how you’re spending your time and energy. It may be more advantageous for you to spend that time developing the best, most authentic, least in-need-of-changes script you possibly can.

Invest in your strengths!

How Come the Script I Read Online Is Different from the Final Film?

I’ve found that the fear of drastic script changes often can be traced back to a screenwriter’s discovery of a version of a screenplay that’s different from what’s on film.

It’s important to understand that, generally speaking, the most available PDF of a script online is the one that got sent around to industry professionals – either when the screenwriter’s agent or manager was working to get a studio or producer to option the project, or when the producer or studio was sending the script to an actor’s agent or manager in order to get them to audition and/or sign onto the film.

At this early stage in the game, the script gets sent around to many people: actors, agents, managers, assistants… Although some higher-profile film scripts are watermarked with the name of the receiving party, most are not, so perhaps it’s no surprise that these PDFs float around the internet, discoverable with just a bit of digging. Remember, a script doesn’t get much attention until after the film has been released (if ever) – the general public is not typically clamoring to read random screenplays.

In any case, these PDFs are making the rounds, attaching talent. After a team is assembled, the changes begin, sometimes with the screenwriter’s involvement. When a producer or studio buys the rights to a project, it’s not uncommon for there to be a contractual clause stipulating that any notes and revisions be passed along to the writer for implementation. This results in a collaboration between the purchaser and content creator that changes the script from the original version.

The reality is that rewriting – and in some cases, getting rewritten – is par for the course in Hollywood. “Determine if you have the personality that can handle being rewritten,” Scott Myers recommends:

“If you don’t, then consider becoming a novelist. Or a playwright. Or commit to only writing scripts that you will direct yourself, thereby ensuring control over the material. But if you search your soul and deduce that – for whatever reason –  you simply cannot imagine yourself coping with being rewritten, then screenwriting might not be for you.”

Ruby Sparks | Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012

Sometimes the same can happen when an actor comes onboard.

Perhaps they have an idea about how their character should behave in the script, or they ask a penetrating question that opens up a new line of thought for the screenwriter. Filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative process, and new ideas are always cropping up – all the way into post-production.

Another reason for differences between the script you find online and the film you watch onscreen is that sometimes changes get made during the editing process. At that point, the script has been shot, and although it’s still important, fine-tuning the story as it exists in the editing room is less about making sure that the script is 100% adhered to and more about telling the story most effectively with the footage. As the saying goes, you write one movie, shoot another movie, and edit a third movie.

“In post-production, the director’s primary collaborator is the editor,” screenwriter John August elaborates, “And the two of them will have the same kinds of disagreements as the writer and director had during pre-production. The writer’s involvement during editing is unfortunately rare, but can be extremely helpful.”

In short, not all screenplays available for reading are equal! Some are pre-revisions, others are pre-production, most are pre-edit. It’s very hard to know precisely what changed, when and why, unless the reasons are documented or filmmakers tell you themselves.

Even so, a lot can be learned from reading scripts online.

For example, you can learn a ton about formatting and style, especially when it comes to scene direction! Just try not to get too hung up on the fact that when compared to the final film, a line changed here, a story beat changed there, without knowing what version of the script you have at your disposal.

Make the Cake! 🍰

Let’s be honest. For many writers, what we’re exploring here today touches on a fear of loss of control.

That’s totally natural and worth thinking about.

When you’re writing, you’re the god of your world, in complete control. As Myers suggests above, it is indeed a bit scary to think that, assuming all goes as planned, you’ll hand over your creation to a giant team of people who will take your words on the page and transform them into frames of a film, quite possibly without your guidance.

In that way, screenwriting is unlike any other form of writing, really. A reader experiences a novelist’s work directly. An audience experiences a screenwriter’s work through someone else’s lens.

But that’s also kind of awesome, right?

I imagine every player in the filmmaking process as adding a layer of meaning to the script. The writer’s work is the base layer, while the director, actors, cinematographer, and the rest of the production crew add their own layers. It’s the filmic equivalent of a delicious cake, full of variety and surprise.

If you’re a screenwriter who doesn’t have their heart set on directing, then given the right opportunity, I’d encourage you to let go of the reins and experience the joy that can accompany a successful translation of your words from the script to the screen.

Yes, it’s possible that some things will change over the course of production – but the end result can be delightful.

 Lauren McGrail, with


Want to learn more about the screenwriter’s role throughout the moviemaking process?

Then we invite you to enroll in our online film school! It’s the training you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.

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