A few months ago, I asked several screenwriters to write a bit about their process for the First Person section. The first one to email me back with an answer was David Dean Bottrell. While I waited for the others answers to come in, I promptly misfiled his response.
This week, David emailed me to ask what the hell happened, and I could only cite my own idiocy. Fortunately, he’s a kind person who will forgive me for it.
When I have an idea I really like, I launch into a fairly detailed treatment of it. This is where I find out if my seemingly ingenious idea will really translate into a viable (and fun) story. I do this because once I start writing the actual screenplay, my focus will naturally shift to the characters and dialogue and I can easily lose track of the big picture. Writing a treatment gives me a clear perspective on the overall story that I’ll never have again. And since (as we all know) story makes or breaks a screenplay, attention paid to it now will save me a ton of time and grief later.
Once I start the screenplay, the task is to make sure my story is fully and truthfully lived out by the characters — and if they seem to want to do things a little differently than I had planned, I let them do it. I never try to write well on a first draft. I just hammer it out. I never edit while I’m writing (that comes after I’ve finished a draft). After about three passes on a script, I’ll show it to someone I trust. Usually they confirm my worst suspicions and then the repair work begins.
From this point on, other people are going to be involved and my job becomes about shaping and reshaping the script based on the feedback I’m getting. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from this part of the process is that (contrary to MY former beliefs) other people sometimes have terrific ideas that can significantly improve my script. Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes I agree to a change that I don’t initially like only to find that within a couple of days I love it and can’t wait to take full credit for the idea! In my experience, screenwriting (kinda like life!) is about choosing a path, then accepting the inevitability of change and learning to deal with it creatively.
I have yet to have a normal day at work. I write daily though I don’t keep specific office hours. I’m not one of those guys who can write in coffee shops – mostly because I live in L.A. and inevitably someone always comes up and asks what I’m writing and then wants to tell me about what he’s writing and then I somehow wind up agreeing to read his script.
Sometimes, my work day is dictated by deadlines so there are occasional late nights. Generally speaking, I protect my writing time by turning off phones and disconnecting from the internet – which can be a very tough thing to do since writing is at times a lonely process. I’ve found that not much good work happens if I am in a bad or cynical mood so I have lots of goofy (AKA “borderline idiotic”) tricks I play on myself in order to stay happy and interested in the work — And if you think I’m going to tell you what they are, you’re sorely mistaken, bub. Mostly, I try to respect and take pride in being a writer which helps me sit there and do it when I’d much rather go out and get drunk.
David Dean Bottrell co-wrote the screenplay for the Fox Searchlight feature, Kingdom Come. He has sold both spec scripts and pitches, rewritten scripts by other writers, adapted novels and written for feature animation.