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Case History - Writing a Feature Film

WWritewords co-founder Anna Reynolds on getting a feature film up and running from scratch.

June 1999. I read a book, in proof form, that a friend who works in a bookshop gives me casually. Itís a new novel, about to come out, by a 17-year old girl, and the cover is slightly shocking all by itself. Despite this, by page 7 Iím completely hooked, and halfway through I know that I want to make this book into a film.

Iíve worked on several adaptations from novel to film, and theyíve all been difficult books, all without linear narratives or even coherent stories. But this is different- itís got great characters, timeless storytelling, and a huge emotional punch. Itís about a young girl trying to grow up and get a life- you donít get much more universal than that.

I mention all this to a producer Iím working with, and also to the BBC. At a meeting, the BBC say that theyíre interested, and let me pitch it to them, but they have lots of problems- partly they think it feels more like TV, and I donít, and we disagree about how universal some of the bookís themes are. Also, they think that some of the more controversial material- underage sex, and other stuff- is really difficult territory for them, and in the end we donít take it any further.

My producer, on the other hand, is made of stronger stuff. She can see the potential and is excited by the book, which around this time explodes onto the literary scene, making its author a bit of an overnight sensation, Lolita-style. Despite this sudden interest in the book, I meet with the author, a charming 18 year old, and she goes for my pitch. Basically, sheís had interest from other companies, but she and I get on, and I think we have the same vision for the film. I like her, anyway.

April 2000
We get the rights! For eighteen months, the book is ours. Itís selling strongly still, and is now doing great in the US and Japan. Iíve become friends with the author, which makes things a little complicated, but sheís actually very good about not asking what weíre doing with her precious book.

We get some money from a regional film funder and my producer pluckily invests in me herself. I am now officially commissioned to write a first draft. According to my contract, this is supposed to take me about 3 months. Hmm.

January 2001
I finish the first draftÖ. Some three months. In reality, this is more like a second-and-a-half draft; after submitting the real first draft to my producer, I was given extensive notes. This is partly because your average film script should be no more than 120 pages long, EVER- some companies refuse to read anything over that- and my first draft came in at a hefty 149 pages. But, hey, it was a really big book. This is no excuse however, and the first job of my rewrite is to start cutting quite brutally. The hardest thing about writing an adaptation from a book, especially one you like, is what to leave out. And how to write a film that stands on its own, not the film of the book. So certain quite major things have to change, even if they change back later. (Which it turns out they do.)

When we have a slimmed down, tighter first draft, we- or my producer- start hoiking it round companies and TV networks, trying to get finance to develop it further and to gauge the level of interest. A lot of it at this stage is about whatís topical, whether there are similar stories or themes on film companiesí slates, or whether theyíre looking for vehicles for particular actors. We have a lot of meetings- some good, enthusiastic, they love the script, or the book, or both; some feel itís not for them, or it might be if it was developed Ďin a different wayí. We decide itís best to get a director on board to work with me on the next stage.

July 2001
Iíve been meeting with the director often to thrash out the plotlines, and make a step outline. This is the basic framework- itís not the fun bit. Dialogue and character details arenít so important at this stage, but telling the story of the film is- that, and getting the tension strung tightly enough. The craft of film writing, in other words.

I finish another draft that Iím uneasy about. I feel that in some ways, Iíve gone down roads I wouldnít have done if left to my own devices, and this draft doesnít feel like an original voice can be heard. My producer agrees, and diplomatically lets me know that. Oops. This is where it gets depressing- I feel bad that Iíve turned in a draft thatís not an improvement on the first one. I go away, chastened, and kick myself up the bum, metaphorically speaking.

September 2001
Iíve turned in a draft that Iím much more excited about, to all round sighs of relief. This is good enough, we all feel, to go back to funders with. Now is the boring time- development hell, as itís known, where companies and funders um and ah, and I twiddle my thumbs and try to work on other projects without jumping every time the phone rings or I open an email.

December 2001
And waitingÖ.

July 2002
Just when Iíve almost forgotten that Iím supposed to be writing a film, we get some great news; a major film funding commission loves the script- with reservations- and is going to give us some money! Enough for me to write another draft, to do some research, even to get a casting agent on board and plan a workshop with actors.

January 2003
Yes, it really does take this long. I have no fingernails left. Finally, we spend a day working the script with 2 actors of excellent pedigrees and a wonderful, very experienced script editor/director, whose work I admire. Itís great to finally hear the dialogue, discuss the characters and their stories as if theyíre real, and to start to work out what the next draft might be like. They say that most filmscripts need about five more drafts than you think they do, so here we goÖ. Iím now able to start the research and then launch myself into another draft. Having the backing of the funders behind us gives me and the producer bucketloads more confidence about the whole thing. Iím actually looking forward to this next draft. But Iíll be backÖ

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