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What Does Development Look Like?

Script to Screen’s April Writers Room found a succinct if unenlightening answer to the evening’s topic of discussion, with panel members repeating variations on the theme “It’s always different”

as the discussion advanced.

Editor Cushla Dillon wrangled script editor Brita McVeigh, development executive Emily Anderton, filmmaker Jake Mahaffy and producer Philippa Campbell through a conversation that picked around the edges of the oft-maligned beast development but rarely became specific enough to expose anything concrete.

As an independent filmmaker, Mahaffy was in a slightly different place to the other panel members, as he was essentially on the “other side” of the development process. Sadly, he didn’t have war stories to share, because he doesn’t have anyone to answer to other than himself. He writes, he shoots.

“I give myself external parameters, work towards those. Nobody ever feels ready to shoot but it’s all me – and I don’t need funder approval.”

In the case of his Free In Deed, which he took to the Sundance Writers Lab in 2006, the 30 or so drafts took another seven years before he did shoot. He’s now editing.

Mahaffy explained the Sundance Lab as a lot of people offering a ton of different opinions and suggestions about your work.

Taika Waititi once offered a similar assessment as an explanation for why he decided not to take Boy to a Sundance Lab. Mahaffy’s take on the process was that all the input was not to push you to accept another person’s opinion above your own, but to assist you to discover for yourself what was the heart of a story.

With or without Sundance, with or without a formal development process, Mahaffy has a way that works for him. His first feature Wellness won Best Narrative Feature at SXSW in 2008.

Given the many times filmmakers refer to development hell – often in years gone by in conversations that also mentioned the NZFC – Writers Room attendees might reasonably have expected some juicily entertaining horror stories (with names changed to protect the innocent), but even those didn’t emerge.

McVeigh came closest to that territory, sharing that a client with whom McVeigh worked for some time eventually reached the point of signing her emails “Thank you and fuck you”. Even that, McVeigh claimed, wasn’t evidence of a development process gone bad.

McVeigh believed the writer’s intention when signing off in that way and McVeigh’s understanding when reading the sign off were different – and negotiating the gap between intent and result was an issue that raised its head a number of times during the evening.

When that gap appeared, what should the script editor do? Assist the writer to better deliver the intention behind the script? Assist the writer to better deliver the result? Find middle ground that satisfied both?

“It’s always different.”

Dillon moved the discussion along from a logical starting point – why have a script editor? – through trying to uncover what a script editor does or doesn’t do, should and shouldn’t do or be, and look for pointers to something that people could say indicated good, or bad, development.

Annoyingly, it turned out that writers, readers, script editors, development executives and the many other people involved in the filmmaking process were all individuals, with their individual ways of doing things, and so there were no simple answers. Or complex ones, really.

Anderton’s response to “why have a script editor?” was the most pragmatic of the evening: because it seems the NZFC wants you to have one. She did acknowledge that there were other reasons too – not least of those being to offer a different perspective.

She also suggested that someone who is skilled at offering that different perspective, who can ask the questions of material that seem blindingly obvious to a first-time reader (but might have been answered off the page in the writer’s head), who can help move a writer forward rather than bring them to a crashing halt, and can do all that without insulting them, might be good reasons to use a script editor rather than one’s producer or spouse.

Unlike producers, whose relationships with writers and their scripts Campbell counted in years, McVeigh suggested that, for script editors, there was benefit in shorter term relationships with more clearly defined expectations: “I want to lose 10 pages … Why have I got this protagonist? … Will you be my script editor for this application to the Film Commission?”

Sometimes the thing that needed fixing was undefined, possibly not even understood by the writer. Both Campbell and McVeigh talked about approaching that with a writer and uncovering it.

How?

“It’s always different.”

One thing there was agreement on was that it was often the writer that needed fixing. Not, necessarily, in a bad way, but because the script came from the writer. The only way to change the script was to change the writer – not for a different writer, as often seems to be the approach in the US – but to offer the writer the opportunity to look at something that might not work as well as it could in a different way and resolve it in a different way.

“It’s always the ending!” said Anderton.

If there were no great revelations, there were no great surprises either. Campbell spoke positively about the opportunities of forming relationships, the care that she tried to bring to her dealings and interactions with writers (and others).

It was at risk of turning into a sixties love-in. Mahaffy didn’t help a lot, returning to his Sundance experience to explain that he tries to reinforce for his own students that anything anybody says about their work is “only an opinion”, and no one opinion has more value than another.

Unless, some might say, it’s the opinion of a funder.

Like “It’s always different”, the theme of frustration also became a serial offender during the evening.

McVeigh acknowledged frustration as a danger for all parties, something that drove laziness, a lack of engagement or even disengagement from the process, either on the part of the writer or the editor.

Campbell suggested that a more active disengagement, a formalised break or pause, could sometimes be a useful tool to help move people past frustration – especially if that frustration was because progress had ceased.

“It’s always different.”

Frustrating though that repeated phrase was, some of that frustration was because it’s true. Which leads to the one question: if there’s no blue-print, how can a writer assess whether or not someone might be “good”, the right person to help develop their script?

It’s always … you got it.

One question raised in the Q&A was about how panellists chose the projects they became involved with.

Campbell, as most producers do, selects projects where she can see herself being able to sustain a relationship with the material and people for the several years it’s likely to take to bring something to fruition.

McVeigh and Anderton both claimed they’d happily work on pretty much anything except horror, because they didn’t watch horror. Anderton also explained that her job at Libertine was to get scripts ready to be made within the next year or two. She was therefore perhaps less interested than some of the other panel members in developing writers, because she needed to find and develop material that could be put into production.

There were, she suggested, no magic bullets, in development as in life. “Everyone’s got bad stories (about the process) but the reality is that even really good stories don’t get made.”

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