I got this question recently:
“I have written a script which is my baby and I want to ensure that the producer and director don’t mess up my vision for this story. How do I bring this up when talking with the producer? How can I ensure that my vision wins the day when this film is produced?”
I’ll take the second part of that question first, “How can I ensure that my vision wins the day when this film is produced?” The short answer is simply that as a screenwriter you can’t in any way ensure that the final movie will even remotely resemble what you had originally conceived of. Even if you, the producer, and director basically share the same vision it’s quite likely that you won’t recognize parts of your movie. Filmmaking is a very complex and collaborative art form. It’s extremely labor intensive and relies on lots of different people to do their job correctly. It’s not just the producer and director who can mess up your movie. It’s the actors, the cinematographer, the art director, the location scout, and even a P.A. could accidently lose a roll of film which could result in your favorite scene being cut from the movie because there was no budget for a re-shoot. A lot can go wrong. And this is assuming that you, the producer, and director share the same vision.
It’s quite likely that you and the director (or producer) will disagree on many major story issues. This is just the reality of a collaborative art form. The screenwriter is never in charge on a movie set (unless he’s also the director or producer) so in the end your voice won’t matter much unless the director and producer agree with your ideas.
I’ve recommended this before and I’ll re-iterate it here. If you’ve never had anything produced that you’ve written I highly recommend that you write a 10 or 15 page script, round up a few friends, and go produce it with whatever equipment you have even if that means shooting it on your cell phone camera and editing it on Windows Movie Maker (standard on all Windows machines). The point of this exercise is not to win an award at a film festival or jump start your career; it’s to dive into the logistics of filmmaking. You’ll quickly gain an appreciation for how hard filmmaking is and how difficult it is to make a good film. Your script may get destroyed but it’s not always as simple as “the director sucked.” From a writing perspective it’s fascinating to see people breathe life into your script and see how they interrupt your material. It’s not always as you expect.
Now back to the first part of this question, “How do I bring this up when talking with the producer?” The answer is you don’t unless you want to seriously hurt your chances of selling your script. You have to be ready to sell your script and all rights in perpetuity and the producer can re-write it however he likes. That’s just how filmmaking works.
When you first meet the producer there’s really no point in giving him a bunch of demands because he’s either going to walk away from the project or just nod his head politely and ignore your comments when production begins.
What I usually do when I meet a director or producer for the first time (before I’ve optioned my script to him) is to start the conversation with a question like, “what do you think needs to be changed?” I’ve never had a producer or director hold back. They’re usually more than happy to tell me all the problems with my script and how it can be fixed. If the producer asks me a question about my script I answer it accurately and thoroughly but only if I’m asked. Otherwise I simply listen. I usually figure out pretty quickly if the producer and I share the same vision for the story. Then I decide if it’s worth it for me to option it to him knowing full well what I’m getting into.
After I’ve optioned the script to the producer and re-writes begin I don’t hold back and I try to politely fight for my ideas. They’re usually ignored but I knew they would be.
It really boils down to nothing more than money. Whoever is in control of the money has the final say on all decisions. I firmly believe that this is how it should work, too. The hardest and riskiest part of filmmaking is raising the money. Whoever is in charge of the money is the one who has the most on the line. Think about it if it were your money. Wouldn’t you want final say over everything? Or course you would. And you would deserve it, too, if it were your money.
Some directors have enough of a track record and reputation that they get to make virtually all story decisions – but make no mistake about it – it’s the producer (who’s in charge of the money) who relinquishes this power and gives it to the director.
After you’ve been in the business for a while you’ll hopefully meet some directors and producers who do share you artistic sensibilities and will shoot your scripts as you intended them. But this could take a while to build those relationships and when you’re first starting out your main goal should be to get some credits.
So that’s really the answer: if you want control over your projects become a producer and raise the money to shoot them. Then you can either direct the movie yourself or hire a director who shares your vision.
The obvious next question is “how do I attach myself as a director to my script.” It’s your script so you can control its fate before you option it to someone. So you can simply refuse to option your script to a producer if he won’t let you direct it. But realize that this is killing your chances of ever optioning your script. No producer in his right mind is going to want to get involved with a prima donna writer who thinks he can direct no matter how good his script is. Remember, raising the money is the hardest part about filmmaking so it’s the producer who truly has the power. Finding a person or company willing to put up the money to shoot your film is much harder for you then it is for a producer to find another good script.
My post Should I Have Specific Actors In Mind For My Script? covers similar material in that I explained how to handle it when you want to cast yourself as an actor in your script. It’s a very similar problem and not something you really want to do if writing is your real focus.