Business, Collaboration

How to Make a Movie – The Job

Once you know how to write and how to network, the next step to being a working screenwriter is just that: working. Here are insights into the day-to-day life of a working writer and what you can learn from them.

From Bedroom to HBO Part III

To make it in this career, as I’ve said many times, you have to know how to do three things:

You must know how to write a story.

You must know how to network.

– You must know how to work.

Now, finally, we get to explore the last one.

Writing A Movie

To catch you up, in 2018, after a simple meeting over coffee I was asked to write the screenplay for the film Long Gone By. Three drafts had been written by the director, and while he was happy with the story, he felt that the screenplay could be stronger and wanted to bring in a writer. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and we got to work on our rewrite.

We only had so much time, so making sure we understood each other was crucial. This meant outlines, and lots of them. (I didn’t have Arc Studio Pro’s story-building features at the time.) Sometimes I’d outline in the morning, have notes by lunch, and revise it by the evening. I wanted to make sure the plan was approved, because there was only so much time to go back to the drawing board, because even though I was doing close to a page one rewrite, the first day of principal photography was locked in, and it was approaching fast.

The film was in pre-production, which means I was receiving location photos, cast photos, production necessities and anything else you can think of emailed to me daily to ensure my rewrite would stay within the bounds of the production. 

In order to make this work, I had synced my Dropbox account with the production team so that I had access to location photos, actor agreements and other documents, and I had a folder with drafts of the script that I updated every day so that the director could give me feedback in close to real time.

This is of course was before I had Arc Studio Pro, and one of the things I enjoy about it is the way you can receive and manage feedback. Keeping it all in a single document is incredibly helpful, and way better than a billion emails and PDFs back and forth!

So I was working on the puzzle of piecing this film together, and here are a few of the restraints I was faced with:

  • Not to utilize actors more (or fewer) days than they had been booked for
  • Not to add more than one or two new speaking roles
  • Not to create more shooting days than budgeted for
  • Not to create expensive shots or setups that weren’t planned
  • Not to add new locations that would be difficult to find/book

It may sound like a lot of restrictions, but honestly, if I had free rein, I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish in the short time allotted. By removing a number of options, it narrowed the choices available and I could quickly write what we needed.

Production, Post-Production, & Distribution

After two rounds of revisions with the director, the script was finalized, they shot in Indiana, and I didn’t hear anything for a few months. Then I saw a rough cut. Gave my two cents. Then I saw a final cut, and heard next steps were going out out to festivals. And then again, I didn’t hear anything for a few months, and then got word that we were going to premiere in New York City, at HBO’s Latino Film Festival in September of 2019. I missed the premiere and festival because I was out of the country, but I heard it was well received and HBO was looking at buying it.

And they “looked” for what felt like ages, but finally in late April 2020, I heard we sold to HBO, and it would be on their platform the second week of May. A few months later the film released on iTunes and Amazon

That’s it. A film I wrote was purchased by one of the top distributors in the industry, and is now widely available. I made it! Well, sorta.

At the West Coast Premiere of Long Gone By

Now

“Breaking in” is a little bit of a misconception. You’re pretty much always breaking in. So while I have a great credit, on top of some good festival wins and a decent industry resume, my life hasn’t changed drastically.

On an average day, I normally only do about 4 hours of ass-to-chair writing. And I try to do it earlier rather than later. That way, my writing is getting my best energy.

I spend the rest of the time essentially “running the business”, which in this line of work means calls, meetings, reads, and other gigs to pay the bills. Yes, I still do other work. Lots of it. Sometimes it’s industry-related work, sometimes it’s not. I have a good friend that produces and I help him develop work with other writers. I consult with other writers working on their scripts. I write for blogs like this one here. And some days, I pick up shifts at Trader Joe’s. Yes, I’m still in the system over there. You can watch a film I wrote on HBO, and I can bag your groceries the same day. Welcome to Los Angeles.

An example of two of my common workspaces in Los Angeles. And the view from a third.

You Must Know How To Work

Over the process of my first feature film (and many other false starts and unproduced projects) I’ve picked up a few tips.

Balance Your Time & Energy

You have to know how to balance your writing time with the other needs of your career and your life. Sure, you can write for eight hours straight, but how many of those will be quality? You have to understand what tasks take what sort of energy from you, and balance appropriately. This is why I try to write earlier in the day, but what works for me may not necessarily work for you.

Additionally, make sure that you’re spending an appropriate amount of time on all aspects of your career. If all you do is write, you may have great material, but nobody to read it. If all you do is network, you’ll have plenty of contacts but nothing for them to read.

And perhaps most importantly, remember to give time and energy to the other aspects of your life. Your relationships, your health, your interests and everything else that isn’t writing provides the support system on top which your career rests. If these aren’t attended to, you won’t be able to weather the inevitable ups and downs of this career.

Collaborate With Others

It is nearly impossible to make a film or tv show alone. We are in an inherently collaborative industry. Learning how to work with others is crucial, and a big part of this is learning how to listen. A big mistake I made early in my career is that I would constantly jump to solutions, but I didn’t actually understand the need I was proposing a solution for. Listen and make sure you understand the needs and feelings of your collaborators.

There will be times when your collaborative relationships will be tested, and in these times, I always recommend taking a step back and communicating openly and freely. A relationship is like a bridge that you traverse to get to your project’s destination. Most of the time, you’re crossing the bridge and focusing on the project, but sometimes, you need to pay attention to the bridge itself.

Put The Project First

One of the interesting things about being a writer is that the artistic contribution you make is actually a simple functional and logistical document for the majority of those that use it. The end goal isn’t to make a screenplay, it’s to make a film or a tv show. Never let the needs of the screenplay come before the needs of the project.

On Long Gone By, we had planned for four bank robberies, each at a different location. But when it came to production, we just couldn’t find four bank locations. We even examined if we could use one location twice, and double it with some production design, but it just wasn’t going to be feasible. So we changed the screenplay. You could say that some of the artistic integrity of that original screenplay was lost, but if it meant keeping the actual integrity of a finished project, then it was worth doing. And ultimately, part of the job of a writer is to make the story look inevitable, so it’s your job to make those necessary production obstacles work with the story, and not against it.

Another interesting thing that came up was the use of phones and texts within the script. I had an idea to use them, and wanted to use pop-ups on screen, but artistically it wasn’t what the director was going for. And he was right. I had to find a way to get the same communication across without the use of smartphones in any way.

(Related: Arc Studio Pro has a Custom Element editor. I always want to call out this feature, because it is so incredibly useful and gives you great control over your script. I didn’t have Arc Studio Pro for Long Gone By, but if I had, it would’ve been so simple to make Text Pop-ups their own element, which also would’ve made it easier to take them out as needed. Sometimes I just look for excuses to make a new element!)

Continue To Grow

Simply put, you can’t stop growing. Growing your craft, growing your network, and growing your artistic inclinations will keep you both interested and interesting.

Pushing what you want to do will force you to learn new skills. New skills will then allow you to approach new things you want to do.

There is a comfort to staying in your lane, and trust me, once the industry picks a lane for you, you’ll have plenty of time and work in it, but if you want to expand your career opportunities, you can’t wait for someone to ask you to make the switch. You have to do it yourself, so make sure you’re stretching yourself with new scripts and new ideas.

Multiple Eggs in Multiple Baskets

I’m sure this is true of any industry, but particularly the creative arts. Projects will “not happen” for a myriad of reasons, and make no mistake, projects not happening is the status quo. So at any point, you want to have as many things going as you can handle.

When something falls through, you have others to focus on. Something that I do is I’m always writing a spec of my own. At any point, I can focus on that, and have complete control over the progress of it. It gives me something to do when I’m awaiting news about another project or in a holding pattern on something, and eventually, it’ll be another finished script.

In having multiple projects going on, you never want to be overstretched. You’ll end up doing sub-par work on multiple projects, and eventually your career will dry up because of it. When you are working on a project, be sure that you are focused and present. Don’t “phone in” any work. As Ron Swanson says, “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Remember Your Why

In my first post in this series, the first thing I discussed wasn’t actually how to write, but why to write. And the answer is of course different for everyone. A key to working in this industry is remembering why you’re doing it.

Not only does it provide inspiration for you to complete parts of the job that aren’t your favorite, but it also provides key insight into your greatest skill.

If you write because you love creating worlds, but you’ve been focusing on specs for existing shows, you may be leaving your greatest tool in the toolbox. If you write because you love the collaboration, but you’ve been focusing on features, perhaps examine looking for work in television.

But most importantly, remembering your “why” will connect where you’ve been to where you are to where you’re going. Your career trajectory will not look like how you think it will look. The one thing that will be consistent will be your “why” and it will keep you tethered and help you make the decisions that you will face day in and day out.

Replicating Success

Now you’ve read my story. And my tips. The big bummer is that no path to making it in Hollywood is replicable. Which means I’ve just told you a story that you can’t possibly recreate on your own. But I think there are universal elements that contributed to Long Gone By, my first break in the industry:

  • Put in the effort on everything you do, and provide value to those you work with.
  • I did good work in Atlanta, and maintained those relationships – without those relationships, the connection to Long Gone By’s director doesn’t happen
  • Show up where things are happening.
  • I made the decision to move to LA – without it, I can’t get coffee with potential collaborators
  • Get involved with people doing the work, even if it’s not in the first role you’d choose.
  • I took an internship – even though it was a “step down,” it led to a relationship with managers, and they ultimately closed that deal for me
  • Learn and practice the job you want to know and work.
  • I studied (and continue to study) the craft – I couldn’t have had that conversation over coffee so confidently, nor could I have written the film under such time and production restraints

No good protagonist just follows instructions from FADE IN: to FADE OUT: and neither should you. You must make your own path. These tips and insights aren’t a rubric for you to follow. They are a guideline for you to chart your own course.

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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