I recently finished a first draft of my screenplay and now I’m faced with the question: What do I do next?
I’ve heard several idioms and quotes about what it is to be a writer, but the one that has always stuck with me is that a script is never finished, it is rewritten. This has always been the step I have feared the most. It takes so much work and effort and time to finish a script, and once your done it’s time to do it all over again?!?! But where do I start?
I know there are lots of areas of my script that need reworking, but just the thought of having to go through it all again is extremely daunting. Do I completely restructure my script? Is it just characters that need more developing? Do I just redo all of the dialogue? Or is it all of the above?
Seeking some motivation I decided to read some older drafts of some recent films and compare them to the final film to see what changes they made and why. I’ll be discussing some areas of the stories that might be considered spoilers so read on at your own risk.
The first script I read was “Source Code” by Ben Ripley.
I got a hold of this script over a year ago after seeing Duncan Jones’ first film “Moon” and learning that this would be his next project. The script had been reviewed on a couple of other blogs I read and was featured on the 2007 Screenwriting Black List as a highly regarded unproduced script. The copy I have is undated but it is definitely not the shooting script. I held on to the script and did not read it until after seeing the film so I wouldn’t be spoiled.
“Source Code” tells the story of a military captain named Colter Stevens who is transported into the body of another man who is a passenger on a train that will be exploding within moments. Colter is sent back repeatedly to try to find the person responsible for the attack so that they can prevent a second attack. The film is a fast paced thriller that keeps you guessing with a clever take on time travel and alternate parallel universes.
The script is a fast read, especially through the first act. The plot moves along fast with wonderful descriptions and detail. A lot has happened by the 30 page mark and the story is in full swing at this point. It tends to slow down a bit, taking time to let things play out before coming to a quick end. The script is 120 pages, far longer than the final 93 minute run time of the final film, but a lot of that could be from the long descriptions of fast action sequences.
For the most part the story is exactly the same from the script to the final film. The structure is in tact, and many scenes that take place in the film are in the script, but there are details that are changed. First, let’s focus on the characters.
There are essentially four main characters to the story. Colter Stevens is the main hero of the story. Then there is Christina, the girl on the train with him. Goodwin is the main controller at Beleaguered Castle, the unit in charge of running the Source Code mission, and there is also Rutledge, the inventor of Source Code and the man in charge. Colter remains the same from script to screen. His goals and arc are pretty much in tact with perhaps some fleshing out of his relationship with his father in the final film that was sort of passed over in the script, but for the most part he remains untouched.
The other characters, however, go through some changes, especially Christina. In the film, Christina and Sean, the man who’s body Colter is occupying, are acquainted. In fact there seems to have been some flirting but it hasn’t materialized into anything yet. In this earlier draft they don’t know each other, or at least they haven’t spoken before, but there has been some quiet attraction. In the earlier draft Christina is also portrayed as an angry goth girl who is an aspiring artist, not much like the final take on the character. Not having Sean and Christina really know much about each other makes things harder for Colter to gather information since he’ll have to work harder to help convince her to help him, which is good for conflict. Having them know each other some, though, helps raise the stakes for Colter. In the early draft he begins to feel for this character and thus want to help her, but it seems a bit forced and happen kind of quickly and suddenly. In the film there is an obvious relationship developing and she wants to help him. Colter is hesitant at first but after a while warms to her. His wanting to save her seems a bit more realistic, especially since she is invested in him already. He now has a reason to want to complete the mission: to save the girl of course. The relationship between them is more fully developed in the final film.
Goodwin and Rutledge have some minor changes to them as well, but it’s mostly in fully developing them into more full characters. For one, Goodwin is a male in the script but female in the film. Goodwin’s sex doesn’t really play a part into the story, so that might have changed mainly for casting reasons. The character’s tone changes some though. In the script he’s pretty cold and strictly there to do the job. His sudden change and sympathy towards Colter’s situation is a bit sudden at the end and felt forced. In the film Goodwin is there to do the job, but it seems she’s uncomfortable with the situation, and feels for Colter and would really like to help him. She’s in a tough spot, stuck between doing her job and doing the right thing. This is an improvement by far for the character. Rutledge on the other hand felt like the more sympathetic character in the script and suddenly turned cold at the end. In the film he’s pretty mean and driven throughout. He’ll do whatever it takes to get his goals which makes him a pretty formidable antagonist for Colter.
There are more minor characters added to the train in the film that add more suspects for Colter to investigate. In the script it’s pretty much just Guzman the middle eastern guy, the college kid, Derek the stock broker, and the computer engineer. In the script there is no comedian riding along on the train, which is fine because I didn’t feel his character was really necessary in the film. There is no office manager, the lawyer angry about being late, the older nurse on the upper deck, and a few others. Adding more characters, and more for Colter to suspect, increases the conflict and mystery of who is guilty. Derek the stock broker is actually split into two characters. Derek, the normal looking guy that leaves his wallet behind, and the stock broker who is always on his computer and phone and a general dick to everyone. In the script his character seemed a bit obvious, and splitting him up and making Derek a character that just blends in and seems oblivious to everyone else is a much better choice.
Aside from the characters, there are location changes and minor plot details that are deleted or improved for the final film. The story is moved from New York to Chicago. New York has had enough terrorist attacks and would have seemed in bad taste. Chicago is fresh and different and makes for a pretty good choice. Colter’s time in the source code is also shortened from seventeen minutes in the script to eight minutes in the film. Shorter time means faster pace, more tension and conflict, which makes for better drama. There is a scene where a video is shown with a terrorist group taking claim for the terrorist attack that seemed a bit cliché. It’s far more scarier thinking that a normal looking American is responsible for the attacks.
There are also some changes to some of the key action scenes. For example, in the film Colter gets off the train to confront Guzman with Christina, where as in the script it’s just him. Having Christina there trying to stop him helps with the tension. Again when Colter confronts Derek off the train Guzman is there and Christina is not. The scene in the script was quite sudden, and it served the purpose of showing who’s behind the attack, but having Christina there added to the tension, especially when Colter see’s what his actions have done to her. That scene in the film also revealed the twist of the two cell phones on the bomb, which was not present in the script. And Colter’s final confrontation with Derek in the end is far different. In the script, Colter calls 911 and the police are there waiting for him at the first stop, and Colter saves the day. He’s not really involved though in it, where as in the film his confronting him on the train, locking him to the train, and showing him the phones and his plan has been foiled and he’s lost is more of an active role for Colter. As a rule, the hero should always be active rather than passive. He should be the one doing what it takes to save the day, rather than standing back watching it happen and smiling at his good deed.
There are a few other minor changes. For example, his discovery of what really happened to him, his conversation with his dad, and the use of the source code itself. The film explains it and uses it more as parallel universes being created each time, where as it seems more like plain time travel in the script. Especially with the scene of Colter speaking to Goodwin within the source code and Goodwin being fully aware of it when he returns back to the main reality. There is a similar scene in the film, but Goodwin is not aware of it because it happens within a different reality. It’s a more clever and appropriate take on the concept in the final film, especially in relation to the ending. All of these scenes exist in the script and make it into the film, they are just developed more and improved for the film.
Overall, comparing script to film the thing I noticed is that the plot and structure are intact. Characters were better developed and dialogue and scenes were polished to make it more tight and suspenseful, but the basic skeleton of the story remains the same. Many teachers and authors of screenwriting preach on the importance of structure. Screenwriting is structure. Once you have that figured out, the basic outline and plot of your story, than the rest will fall in place. “Source Code” had that figured out, it just needed some slight improvements, even though the script was a really well written story, but the improvements served the story much better and made for a strong film.
The second script I read was a much different experience, and that is Mark Protosevich’s draft of “Thor”.
The draft I read was from April 2007. Protosevich is the only credit listed on the draft, and he is one of five writers credited on the final film, and he’s only credited with story, which is about all this draft has in common with the final film.
Thor is the God of Thunder, son of Odin, and heir to the throne of Asgard. He’s an arrogant egomaniac with no discipline, and he’s cast out of Asgard and sent to Earth as a mortal where he must learn humility before regaining his powers and allowed to return to Asgard. That summary quickly sums up the story of Thor, and that is where the similarities between this first draft and the final film end.
One thing to consider with this draft is the date it was written. It was dated more than a year before the first “Iron Man” was released which was the first film to set up the bigger plan Marvel had with wanting to do an “Avengers” film. Any solo hero film that came out after “Iron Man” would have to be set up in the same universe that was created and established in that first film. So that means you would have to include S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as references to the other characters that would be appearing together. I’m not familiar with the origin story of the character of Thor in the comics, and this first draft might be more accurate to the comics, but it would not work to help set up an Avengers film.
The main aspect that comes up between this draft and the final film is the portrayal of Earth. In the film we have a quick exposition set up of the Gods and how their worlds relate to Earth and then we quickly begin in modern time on Earth. We meet Jane, played by Natalie Portman, who is a brilliant scientist who has discovered a possible worm hole event in the dessert of New Mexico. While investigating it and witnessing the event first hand she runs into Thor, who has just been banished to Earth. We then go back to see how Thor came to be outcast and quickly return to Earth for the rest of the story to take place. The tone, characters, and goals are set up quite quickly with good action and pacing and we know where things are heading. It’s a strong first act that never confuses.
The beginning of this first draft of the script is quite long with exposition, going back to the beginning of time, showing the various worlds that were created, and the Gods created for these worlds. There are quite a lot of complex names introduced, and it tends to be bogged down in it’s own weight of self importance. There is way too much information that is being given to us that really isn’t relevant to the story other than trying to set up the world. It felt like way too much information and I was quickly confused as to who was who and why I needed to know that. What really stood out to me, and what I kept waiting to see, was how they incorporated Earth. My first read through I did not notice it’s mention until much later when I realized that Earth was being called Midgard. When I realized the new name that was given to Earth I went back to read the beginning introduction to see if it was mentioned, and it was in passing, quickly passing over that the Gods created man and woman, giving different names than Adam and Eve, and how Midgard wasn’t as important as the other realms and the inhabitants, the humans, weren’t worthy of the Gods. Then it quickly moves on. Not knowing the origin, and the names of the various Nordic Gods and myths, I was really lost in this history that was being piled on. When the story finally does move to Earth, or Midgard, it’s about 46 pages into the script. If we follow the rule that one page equals one minute of screen time than 45 minutes is far too long before we finally get to Earth and finally get to the main bulk of what the story is and will be taking place.
Now that we’ve finally gotten to Earth it’s time to bring up Jane again, who was one of the main focal characters in the film, and I know was a main character in the comics. Jane is not present at all in this first draft. In fact, she probably won’t be born for another thousand years or so. When Thor arrives on Earth, he lands presumably in Scandinavia around 1000 A.D. during the time of the Vikings. This would probably most definitely work with the history and myth of the character of Thor, but not in our modern day comic book universe. The tone of the story in this script was more along the lines of films like “Lord of the Rings”, “Braveheart”, or “The 13th Warrior”. Not bad movies at all, just not what I was expecting from a comic adaptation.
Once Thor is on Earth, he is taken in as a slave for the main governor of a local village. When the village is attacked by enemies known as Berserkers and Thor kicks butt, some see him as different and special. Soon word comes from some of the clerics that they’ve had a vision of the weapon of the God of Thunder is on Earth, and anyone who finds it will take on his power and become a God. Thus begins a long chase between the governor, some local men, some of the Berserkers, and Thor in a quest to be the first to find the weapon and become a God.
Once we got to this section of the script I was finally getting involved. It was fast paced, action packed, and full of tension. My main problem is that it takes too long to get there. Up to this point I was having a hard time staying focused and interested in the story. In the first act there is the set up of Thor by his brother Loki which leads him to being outcast. It’s pretty similar situation to what happens in the film just handled much differently. In the film Loki already seems to have his plan in motion, just his motives not revealed until much later. In the script he finds out about his past in the beginning, struggles with what to do about it, and decides to exact revenge against Odin and the people of Asgard. It takes a long time to set up and was quite boring. There are more characters involved and in his way than in the final film, and that helped to weigh things down. Overall it still plays out with him waging war with Thor eventually returning to save the day.
As a stand alone film this version of “Thor” could have made an exciting movie with some tightening of the plot and focusing the story more on what is needed, getting rid of some of the heavy exposition. Trying to fit it into the “Avengers” universe however would not work, and the changes that wear made were necessary. I strongly prefer the final film version to the first draft of the script. The basis for the story is present in this draft, it just needed to be fleshed out more. And that is what the rewriting process is for.
So did I learn anything from reading these early drafts? I’ve read in several books on the process that screenwriting is structure. Once you have the structure figured out, the rest will work itself out. For the most part, both these drafts had their structure figured out. More so for “Source Code” than for “Thor”, but the skeleton was there. The flesh just needed to be massaged and tightened to make it work properly.
It took me a really long time to figure out the structure of my own script, but I think it works for the most part in my first draft. A few scenes will need to be added to clarify some things, a couple that just don’t work will need to go, but for the most part the important part of the script, the structure, is there. Now I just need to keep developing the characters some more and improve the dialogue and improve the scenes. Easier said than done.
Reading these drafts has just reinforced that notion that Structure is the most important part to writing a script. Once that is figured out, the rest will come together. A script is never done until it is being projected up on the big screen. Until you get there, as someone once said, a script is never finished, it’s rewritten. And then it’s rewritten. And then it’s rewritten. And then it’s rewritten.