Sarah Kernochan 2015-12-23 03:37:10
Learning to Revise ON THE ROAD FROM PERDITION TO REDEMPTION. No wonder the script jobs were drying up. There were four strikes against me. 1) It had been too many years since my last screen credit. 2) I lived on the East Coast. 3) I was, unavoidably, a woman. 4) I was, irrevocably, an older woman. When at last the WGA labeled me an “inactive retiree,” the degradation was complete. I was kind of over. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind being turned out to pasture. You don’t hear cows and horses complain, because it’s nice there. I’d had a good run as a screenwriter. So I stopped my subscription to IMDBPro, published a novel, and strung up a hammock in the garden where it was very, very quiet. Thus it came as a rude shock when, in spring 2013, I got a breathless call from Dana Friedman, the producer of Learning to Drive. “We got the money! We’re shooting in four months!” Yeah, right. “The new director wants a few changes though.” What a surprise. Abruptly, I was on a plane to L.A. to meet the director, the eighth one in eight years, by my count. As for how many drafts I’d written by then, I’d lost count. I wrote Learning to Drive in 2005. My manager, Dan Halsted, put the package together with myself, producer Friedman, and a first-time director who shall remain nameless, with Patricia Clarkson attached to star. Using a gorgeous New Yorker essay by Katha Pollitt as inspiration, I created the fictional story of a neurotic book critic (Wendy) who, like many Manhattanites, does not have a driver’s license. Suddenly dumped by her husband, she must now take the wheel herself. Her driving instructor (Darwan) is a Sikh on the verge of an arranged marriage to a woman he’s never met. Through the lessons, Wendy and Darwan navigate their problems, dimly aware that the language of driving teaches the language of living. Though the paycheck was minor, I was attracted to the project for a number of reasons. The underlying material was classy and appealing; I liked the people I’d be working with; and I could design a role for an actress I totally admired. Best of all, the job offered an opportunity to structure a script in five acts (just like Shakespeare!). Because my career predated the rule of McKee, I had long smarted under the three-act lash. This script, however, would be fashioned after the five stages of grief, as the heroine moved through the loss of her marriage toward acceptance. It would be a small, intelligent, intimate dramedy that I could be proud of and that I assumed would never get made. Best of all, the job offered an opportunity to structure a script in five acts (just like Shakespeare!). Since my career predated the rule of McKee, I had long smarted under the three-act lash. This script, however, would be fashioned after the five stages of grief, as the heroine moved through the loss of her marriage toward acceptance. It would be a small, intelligent, intimate dramedy that I could be proud of and that I assumed would never get made. Learner’s Permit My first draft, for Director No. 1, garnered the kind of unqualified praise one dreams of. (It became my writing sample for many years to come; I got a lot of work based on it.) After a few tweaks to the script, the team surged into action. The $4M project was submitted to one indie film company after another. There were no takers. The “package” was too weak. Director No. 1 was a commercial director but had no feature experience. And as much as critics and audiences adored Patricia Clarkson, and no matter how ardently she wanted to play the lead, she was pigeonholed as a supporting actress, not a lead. In 2006, fearful that all the air had gone out of the project, my manager slipped the script to the manager of a MegaStar, that rare actress who commanded the marquee all on her own, not needing any help from a male costar. She sparked to the role of Wendy and persuaded a MegaDirector to helm. Between them they had three Oscars. The little movie was now a big little movie. Scathed, Clarkson had to step aside, and Director No. 1 was history. I was tasked with reworking the lead for MegaStar. In the first draft, Wendy was an abrasive, thorny character for much of the film; MegaDirector No. 2 asked me to sand down the prickles; also to remove all 11 of the fantasy sequences. As I began this second draft, suddenly another of his films got its financing and he became too busy to supervise the rewrite. Instead, I took my instructions from MegaStar. She was a pleasure to work with, yet I had the uncomfortable sensation that the onceslender script was sagging under the added weight of star-mandated changes. Perhaps MegaDirector No. 2 recognized this too. Upon reading the new draft, he regretfully passed. But Mega- Star loved the revision and gave it to Highly Acclaimed Director No. 3, who said yes. Still, he thought it needed work. Because he’d recently won a best screenplay Oscar, it was natural that he rewrite the script himself. I took a seat on the bleachers while MegaStar cheered him on. So effective was her encouragement that, after a few weeks of fiddling, he said she had inspired him to go back to work on his own script, so he did. Enter Director No. 4, who had directed an Oscar-winning Best Picture. He said yes to the project then became mysteriously unreachable. As 2007 wore on, MegaStar was getting spooked. A bizarre pattern seemed to be emerging. Never mind, here was Director No. 5 waving his hand. He hadn’t won any Oscars, but at least he’d been nominated a bunch of times. Like No. 3, he was also an accomplished screenwriter. I loved his movies and felt honored to work with him. After several encounters, it became clear to me that Director No. 5 didn’t want to work. He wanted to drink and tell stories. Meetings were held in bars, where he could bloviate comfortably. I pressed in vain for his notes on the script. Finally, annoyed by my work ethic, he directed me to drop the last half of the script and replace it with a plot belonging to an entirely different movie. (The leading lady would be an attorney helping her Sikh driving instructor get his Indian bride-to-be out of immigration detention.) I called my manager to say I couldn’t work with the guy; he didn’t even seem to have done more than glance at the script. In fact, he mentioned that it was his wife who read it and urged him to do the film because it would shoot in New York, where they could have a great time. Thus I bowed out. Meanwhile, at MegaStar’s urging, Director No. 5 agreed to do the rewrite. I had a hard time picturing that. After all, to revise the script he would have to read it. Sure enough, no one could pin him down to the task and, like the others, he simply faded from the scene. MegaStar must have felt the winds were against her; she bagged the project. Traffic School 2008 dawned. Who was left who wanted to make this movie? Patricia Clarkson did—fiercely. Taking control of the proj-ect, she brought in a second producer to team with Dana Friedman, and they began beating the bushes for financing and a new director. Eventually Producer No. 2 moved on to a new job, but Clarkson and Friedman fought on. I heard nothing more until 2010, when they found Director No. 6. A woman for a change: a Spanish auteur who had made some small, well-regarded, intriguing indie dramas. Unfortunately, with her attached, the producers couldn’t manage to get financing. In 2012, Clarkson brought in Director No. 7, a MegaTV-Star actress whose name alone regalvanized the picture’s prospects. Her participation hinged on Ben Kingsley agreeing to play the male lead. Sir Ben had read the script before and passed. This time he consented, eager to work with her. I was told to get my gear ready, for there would be another draft, this time to rewrite the character of the driving instructor to be older. I pointed out we were all older and in need of a rewrite. All the same, creating a part for Ben Kingsley was my idea of bliss. And then—in what has become an overused plot twist—Director No. 7 withdrew, for unidentified personal reasons. The tabloids suggested she might be pregnant, but then again they always said that. Still, Learning to Drive had acquired some ineffable magic in the pairing of Clarkson and Kingsley, and from then on things proceeded rapidly. In 2013, Director No. 8 stepped up. He had made an Oscar-winning short, followed by a terrific feature. Seconds after he joined our project, two young investors materialized, the brothers Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, a couple of financial entrepreneurs who now wanted to make movies. A tentative start date was set for production. Neither Director No. 8 nor Kingsley would fully commit until they saw the next draft. Which explains why I was sitting in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont across from No. 8, Dana Friedman, and Patricia Clarkson, whom I had never met in all this time. (From here on, I was permitted to call her Patty.) As I got ready to take notes, I realized there remained a biggish question. We screenwriters have often labored long and valiantly on projects that nonetheless die. At the funerals we mutter, “All that work for nothing.” “Which draft am I rewriting?” I asked. Patty seemed confused. “I don’t know any other draft but this one,” she said, handing me her script. It was undated. I paged through it quickly, noting that all 11 fantasy sequences were there. I looked up: “This is the first draft.” “I don’t care what you did after, because this is the one I want to do.” We screenwriters have often labored long and valiantly on projects that nonetheless die. At the funerals we mutter, “All that work for nothing.” But instead of mourning the loss of my hard work, I experienced Patty’s words as a sunburst in my heart. It felt like a second youth was conferred upon me: The years fell away and the newborn script shone its bright white, innocent pages, as if none of those years of rejiggering toil had ever happened. I could go back eight years and be that person who wrote it. The hammock could wait. Drive, She Said Director No. 8 bailed a month later because the budget was too tight. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.) Patty didn’t like his changes to the script anyway, saying she wouldn’t do the movie at all if we didn’t use my first draft. The producers had one week to find a new helmer. And so it was that Isabel Coixet, Director No. 6, returned—to be our final, splendid Director No. 9. Ben Kingsley committed enthusiastically; he had worked with Isabel before on Elegy and loved her. After eight long years, we were off to the races. Anyone who’s had a screenplay in production knows that revisions do not end with the shooting script—and that often it is not the writer making them. Producers cut for cost, directors cut to make their day, the actor can’t reshoot because he has grown a mustache for another film so his scene gets cut, and the editor cuts away more to make the damn thing work. The screenwriter stands back and watches the script enter the flaying barn. What emerges isn’t always alive. In the case of Learning to Drive, the finished film was skinnied down to 89 minutes, yet still somehow breathed and laughed and sang. Audiences spread the word it was good. Only the writer knows what’s missing, that even a good film could have been better. I will always miss my last scene and eight of the 11 fantasy sequences I wrote that had been deleted and restored and deleted and restored again, only to be deleted. You can’t even bitch to anyone. Nobody wants to hear what was taken out; they enjoy the film for what it is. Using the Rearview Mirror What I have learned in my long career is that, through all the years of notes and revisions and production cuts, the writer must remain the shepherd of the script. She’s the one who tracks the film from the very beginning; who will know, and must speak out, when the knife has cut through flesh into bone. She has to be willing to say no to further revisions, even to quit at the point when, in the effort to please everybody, she no longer pleases herself. And if the movie turns out bad, well, don’t worry—the director always gets the credit.
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