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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Perilous Promise of the Polish

The irony of the polish is that in the step deal studios give to writers, the cheapest pass, the least costly for the studio, the one they determine as least work, is the polish.

Now, building a script from scratch is big work, no kidding, and deserves just compensation.

But what's the deal with the polish, the smoothing out the rough edges, being so deadly? Why does it bring fear to the hearts of executives? And why does it require such keen attention from writers?

Because it's the classic "so close, yet so far" stage. All the pieces may be in place, but the piece may have no life. Or it has the wrong life and you have to shape it, or recast it. And even though the changes are small - their impact is huge. "We're 90% there, but no one's showing it to talent yet" you may hear their voices quavering with a "please please please don't fuck it up" kind of a ring to it.

There's a great Ray Bradbury short story called "A Sound of Thunder" about a man who travels millions of years into the past on a travel adventure, accidentally steps on and kills a butterly, and returns to a present that is different. Some things look the same, but languge is different, the culutre is suddenly war-like, the colors chosen for clothing are all wrong - and he did it all by killing that butterfly all those millions of years ago. Without that butterfly, the story of the world developed differently.

A polish is delicate You don't want to kill your butterly.

And at the same time, you want to hone it, tighten it, make your characters shine and your scenes snap.

And you better go to the mat with your own emotional landscape and make sure you're really delivering true performances from your characters.

This is the nature of the polish, and why it's so ironically demanding. After all that effort to get 90% in, you need to put 90% into the polish.

What is very telling is the glee factor. You should be feeling real glee as you pass in and out of each scene - you should be able to see it in front of you in the theater. It should all feel that close and that positive.

If not, maybe you need to be writing more than a polish.

I myself have had the confounding experience of blasting out a first draft in three weeks, and sitting with my polish for twice that time. But part of creating is feeling the life you generate into a piece. You have to ride that delicate balance of allowing yourself to follow the life you've generated, while also guiding it, controlling it.

I'm closing in. Taking out my file one last time.


Blogger RationalThug said...

Nice post.

One correction: The butterfly story is by Ray Bradbury and is called "A Sound of Thunder."

Thursday, November 10, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Thank you! Corrected!

Thursday, November 10, 2005  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

One thing I've discovered in my experience is that it's never over. It's like that silver bowl your mom has in the dining room. Even though it was perfect when you bought it, you still have to take it out and polish it when you want to show it off in the center of the table.

As to who's doing the polishing: the actors, the director, the 2nd AD, the editor, the director of marketing, the MPAA, a whole host of things change the story at every level of the film's creation. Just make sure they're polishing with silver polish and not peanut oil from the gallery.

Thursday, November 10, 2005  
Anonymous Joshua said...

phil's back!

Thursday, November 10, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

bill: true, during production there's plenty of polishing going around and if you have any luck, you're doing quality control with the director. If not, that kind of polish spills over into peanut oil rather quickly and you watch your careful work go away. If you're lucky it stays

As to when it's over - that's an excellent point. It is difficult to put the work down. At some moment it's fully cooked and you know it, but when you pick it up a year later, you can always think of a new line or image. Happens to me all the time. On the other hand I have two or three scripts that are done - one is 12 years old, and is being taken around by a producer yet again and being taken to talent, (nathan lane/mattew broderick) and this script I would not touch, it's really finished.

I think that's one of the crucial aspects of the artist or the craft writer, is to be able to COMPLETE a project. For without completion, there is no product. And you need to find your own personal authority that can finally say "this is done".

Thursday, November 10, 2005  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Welcome back Phil! :-)

Saturday, November 12, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Thanks Joel! Heard the expo was a blast.

Sunday, November 13, 2005  
Blogger Q said...

As a rookie I'm really looking forward to the polish... I'm already almst 40-some pages into my first screenplay and I already have other things I want to add or change or redo... just need to get it finished... thank you for the insight!

Monday, November 14, 2005  
Blogger Grubber said...

Are you ever going to come out and play again, or are you enjoying the break from us newbies? :)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006  

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