Monday, October 13, 2008

Rocknrolla, rewriting, and outlining

After finishing off the first draft of my as-yet-untitled thriller this week, I took a few days off before launching into the rewrite. On one of those days (nights, actually) I headed to the ArcLight to catch Rocknrolla, which was alleged to have been Guy Ritchie's triumphant return to form after his last couple regrettable films.

Except I'd still call this one regrettable. Now, I realize that seeing an 11PM movie carries with it certain risks of nodding off, but I try to be conscious of that fact and only see late movies that are hysterical, action-packed, or both. Oscar-baiting films are bad choices; MTV Movie Award-baiting films are good. I don't think Rocknrolla will be winning much of either. I fell asleep more times than I could count. By the 30 minute mark I was already considering walking out, but the ArcLight's ticket prices are high enough to make you hope and pray that the film gets better. This movie never does, but it does get simultaneously more complicated and less interesting.

I blame Matthew Vaughn. As film geeks know, he was Ritchie's producer (as well as the best man at his wedding to Madonna) until 2002 or so, when he split off to direct his own stuff. The first picture he made was called Layer Cake, and while it resembled Ritchie's films in its focus on low- to mid-level English gangsters, it was in a different galaxy in terms of tone and structure. It also got better reviews than either Snatch or Lock, Stock... even though it appealed equally to jaded 18 year-olds. (And, perhaps most importantly, it served as the perfect Bond audition for Daniel Craig.) Meanwhile, Ritchie's career went into somewhat of a downward spiral.

Remember when the first Foo Fighters album came out, and it was good enough to make some critics wonder if Dave Grohl hadn't been the real brains behind Nirvana? I think it's fair to say that the same kind of doubt has arisen here -- and not just in the minds of movie whores like me. After all, Matthew Vaughn was being hand-picked to helm X-Men 3 (a job he eventually quit) while Guy Ritchie was off shooting Revolver, a film that barely even got a U.S. theatrical release. I haven't seen it, but it's hard to believe it could be even more boring or pointless than Rocknrolla. (Filmic masochist that I am, I'm half-tempted to Netflix it and find out for sure.)

I can never be sure which is more damaging to the psyche of a screenwriter -- seeing a great movie, or seeing a terrible movie. You're either left with the uncomfortable knowledge that you'll probably never write anything half as good, or with the uncomfortable knowledge that someone else got paid a lot of money to write something you wouldn't even have considered worthy of a second draft. Then again, both of those can be taken as good reasons to get your butt in the chair and write, which is what I did on Sunday.

One of the interesting things about writing this blog, at least for me, is going to be seeing how many times I end up contradicting myself. Several months ago I wrote some kind of treatise on rewriting in which I discussed the benefits of starting from scratch on the second draft, keeping the original draft in mind but not working directly from it. I'm not here to repudiate that method completely, but I will say that I sure as hell ain't going that route this time -- and not just because it sounds onerous, but because I think I wrote a good enough first draft to merit using a surgical knife rather than a wrecking ball (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

That feels pretty good, I must say -- to be starting with a script I already consider good, instead of something that I could never show someone without making a million disclaimers first. (With this one, I'd only have to make about a dozen.) I'm shooting for a second draft by the end of the month, which would be a completely insurmountable goal if I were starting from scratch. (I think the rewrite on my last script took more like three months -- and even then, it wasn't close to ready for prime time.) Writers of all breeds are inevitably pointed toward Hemingway's famous quote, "The first draft of anything is shit," in an effort to make them stop rolling things around in their head and get something on the page without fear of producing bad material.

There's something to be said for that credo -- you have to start somewhere, obviously -- but I think a lot of people misinterpret it as an excuse to write as sloppily as possible the first time around. And where does that get you? Sitting in front of a 90-100 page script that's absolutely riddled with problems can be even more stressful than sitting in front of a blank screen. (Take it from someone who's been there and ended up choosing the blank screen.) There is a venue for dropping half-baked ideas onto the page, but it's not the screenplay; it's the outline. I realize that outlining is a task few writers (including myself) enjoy, but the upside of it is that an outline is much easier to edit, rework, or gut completely. You've got the whole story in front of you in a highly compressed format, and you're not wasting any artistic energy on dialogue or prose.

A screenplay, on the other hand, does not always make for easy reference material because of how long and detailed it is. Flipping (or scrolling) through dozens of pages to get to the scene you're looking for, you inevitably get sidetracked (or I do, at least) with fixing typos or re-crafting dialogue, both of which are likely a waste of time if your script needs a total overhaul. On the other hand, if you're confident with your script on the macro scale -- when the scenes and structure are the way you want them but you just need to improve the execution -- then working from the screenplay itself can absolutely be productive. On Sunday I reworked the first 30 or so pages of my script -- including completely redoing the first six pages -- in the span of several hours, a speed I never could have hoped for if the first draft was a complete mess. Since I still have two and a half weeks allotted to this draft, it's highly possible that I'll be able to work quickly enough to do yet a third pass on it before the end of the month, which would be great.

So the quality of the first draft does matter. It matters a lot. Most importantly, it matters if you don't want to devote years of your life to a screenplay -- and I sure as hell don't; I've got other ideas that need exploring.

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