Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thirty Minutes for the Last Line

Recently I was in a notes meeting for a screenplay I had been hired to rewrite. In addition to myself, the producer and a development exec were in the meeting (I’m going to avoid using names because I’m not sure if I’m really allowed to talk about the project). The script in question is a romantic comedy.

At one point the development exec pointed out that the last line in the script was delivered by the love interest instead of the main character, and wondered if that was a problem. What followed was a half hour discussion about the last line of the movie. Half an hour – about a single line of dialog.

The first question was, does the last line actually need to go to the main character? The general consensus was “not necessarily.” Giving the last line in a romantic comedy to the love interest didn’t seem inappropriate. But, we kicked around ideas for what the main character could say as a last line, just to see what we could come up with.

Or rather the producer and development exec kicked around ideas. I mostly sat and listened and thought. Finally I threw out a suggestion – a call back and twist to an earlier line that served as a thematic tag on the story and the character’s arc. It went over so well the other two people actually applauded. It was the first time I’ve gotten applause in a notes meeting!

I’m not telling you this to brag (well, maybe a little), but because I think most aspiring writers would be surprised to find that we would spend this much time in a meeting discussing a single line of dialog. I think there are a few things this anecdote reveals about the real world of professional screenwriting.

First, they care a lot. True, I’ve had many more meetings where someone gave me notes who only read the coverage and a couple pages of the actual script. Which is frustrating. But this screenplay is about to go out to movie stars, and everyone knows they only get one shot at any given star, so they want the script to be perfect. And this producer and exec are experienced filmmakers who know the importance of the final moments of a movie. So if they are unsure about the last line of dialog, they will work on it until they are sure.

Second, details matter. Students often grumble when I criticize them for formatting, grammar or spelling errors, but those little mistakes send a signal that you are sloppy about the details. And the people who hire writers care about the details.

Third, screenwriting is a collaborative business even though 98% of the time you are in a room by yourself staring at your computer. You never get to just hand in the final script and walk away – unless they’re going to replace you with another writer. You have to work with your fellow collaborators on the movie. And that’s good, because often those people are smart and experienced.

A corollary to this is that a great screenplay does more than just follow the structural outlines described in “how to write a screenplay” books. You need to have a sense for how movies work. That means understanding what final emotion you want to leave the audience with and how to achieve that emotion. It means understanding that the ending should be about the main character because that’s satisfying, not because someone gave you a “rule” that the main character should get the last line.

Fourth, a big part of your job is finding the best solutions to these kinds of problems. I’m really glad I came up with the perfect last line – because that’s why they hired me! You have to know your craft better than the other people in the room. This doesn’t mean I (or you) will always be the one to come up with that great line. I have been given terrific bits of dialog during notes sessions, ones where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it. But if they’re giving me all the best stuff, pretty soon they’re going to wonder if they really need me at all.

It’s extremely hard to write a good screenplay. But the job of screenwriter actually requires more than just that ability. Hopefully this little anecdote makes clear why that is.

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