How important is the research process, and how long do you usually spend on it?
The obvious (but not very helpful) answer is that it depends on the project, and one’s definition of "research."
Most of the projects I’ve worked on haven’t involved a lot of research in the classic sense, such as pouring through books, searching the web or interviewing experts. For instance, neither CHARLIE’S ANGELS nor SCOOBY-DOO called for tremendous historical or scientific accuracy. In fact, the best gauge of whether a detail in your script works is usually the "Yeah, I’d buy that" believability test — whether the average uninformed person off the street would accept that item x could do y, or that historical event z coincided with with Korean War. Even genuine, certified facts are useless if they fail the "Yeah, I’d buy that" believability test.
Both Charlie’s and Scooby did call for tonal accuracy, by which I mean the sense of being true to the spirit and rules of the original series. That meant looking back at old episodes to remember the details that set them apart, be it the hair-flips or the offsetting forces of Shaggy’s hunger and cowardice. Technically, that’s research, but it doesn’t quite feel like it.
In the case of JURASSIC PARK 3, the producers wisely referred to an expert paleontologist named Jack Horner, who was always on-call to answer dinosaur-related questions. But it’s important to note that even he would fall back on a, "Yeah, I’d buy that" test, although his opinion was much more informed than the average person’s.
A few times, I have had to do serious research. A project I’ve been working on for several years involves everything from evolutionary brain science to cult formation, so that’s involved a lot of orders from Amazon and several dinners with various smart people to discuss theories. Ninety-percent of what I’ve learned won’t make it into the script, but the research process itself has led to new questions and insights.
One technique I’ve found helpful for all my projects is keep a fat file for each one, and add to it anything that strikes me as interesting or helpful. Thus, my Fantasy Island file has articles and pictures of yachts, sea planes, the Lincoln asssasination, various abstract sculptures and lots of scraps of paper with ideas and snippets of dialogue. Again, most of it won’t be used, but it’s the process that often helps ideas take shape.