Dec 30 2005

Be a Digital Packrat

I don’t have much in the way of screenwriting advice. It’s like telling someone how to make love. It’s more useful (and more fun) to figure it out on your own. But I do have one tip that I feel qualified to give:
Never throw anything away.
Keep every idea you come up with, every scene you jot down, every line of dialogue. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever throw away an entire script or story. This is not a repudiation of the “kill your darlings” maxim. I’m not talking about cherishing every crap thing you scribble down while dropping acid. I’m just saying, tuck it away somewhere. Just in case. Because you never know.
Shortly after I moved to LA, I was doing some housekeeping and came across an old floppy disk. I didn’t recognize the file that was on it, and I wasn’t able to open it, since it was written using an antiquated word processing program I no longer had. So, I pitched it into the trash can.
But it didn’t stay there long. Curiosity had gotten the better of me. I dug it out and, through trial and error, was able to convert the file to plain text.
Turns out, it was a rough draft of a screenplay I’d written six years earlier. It was maybe the third or fourth feature length script I’d attempted, but I had such a low opinion of it at the time that I abandoned it.
I started to read it right there on the screen, in plain text, all of the formatting stripped away, with action running into dialogue — and I couldn’t tear myself away.
I had put the story so completely out of my mind that it was like reading someone else’s work. In fact, as I became increasingly invested in the story and the characters, I realized that I didn’t know how it ended — or even if I’d ever written an ending.
Fortunately, I did. And that ending brought me to tears.
The story was about a precocious and vexing 16-year-old girl who is sent by her beleagured mother to spend the summer with her grandparents in a sleepy beach town. She’s so irritated at this punishment that she declares to all interested parties that she intends to commit suicide before the summer is out. And as she goes on to wreak havoc in their lives, her grandparents can’t decide whether to fear that her threat is serious or pray that it is. Not exactly high-concept, I know. But it’s a nifty story, alternately hilarious and moving.
The script was rough and needed some polishing, but the spine was in place, and the characters were vivid. To a screenwriter always in search of a new idea, this was better than finding a sack of money in the gutter. I’d essentially come into possession of a free script.
I cleaned it up and showed it to my agent, and he agreed with my assessment: this was a keeper.
The script rapidly eclipsed my more recent work to become my calling card piece. The small scale and macabre nature of the story made it a tough film to get off the ground, but a number of proven producers and name directors tried. It became the first screenplay to earn me money, in the form of an option to an independent producer who went on to hire me to write a couple assignments for him. At one point, an icon of the tweener set was even attached to star.
And, as of this writing, the script is setup with a production company and a director who are proceeding with plans to produce it on a low budget next summer. If things go as planned, it will be my first screenplay to go into production.
And for a few moments, seven years ago, the only existing copy was sitting in the trash can.
I don’t throw anything out anymore. In this age of affordable hard drives and CD burners, you simply have no excuse for it. In fact, when I start on a revision of anything — no matter how minor the changes — I save it to a new file first so I won’t destroy any previous version. I might end up with forty or fifty different versions of a screenplay, most of which I will never look at again. Who cares? It costs nothing. And every now again you might just realize you overlooked a gem.

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