You’re probably already aware that there are four phases of filmmaking: development, pre-production, production, and post-production. As a screenwriter, it’s important to understand what happens in each phase and how it affects you and your script.
This is the phase that focuses mostly on the screenplay. If you’re writing on assignment, development begins the moment you are hired. If you’re writing on spec, it starts the moment you receive notes from the producer, studio, or network. During this phase, you create ‘writer’s drafts.’ Each draft you submit will have the word ‘draft’ or ‘writer’s draft’ and the date you submitted it on the cover page. Your goal during this phase is to make your screenplay easy and compelling to read, and to implement creative notes you receive. To do that, you may use mini-slugs, mystery V.O.’s, and other ‘devices’ that help you tell the story in a compelling way.
This phase starts once your screenplay has been greenlit. There are lots of screenplays that are fall out of development and are never produced. If yours is lucky enough to be slated for production, it will enter the pre-production phase. At this point, a First Assistant Director (or a producer if an AD hasn’t been hired yet), will input your script into a program that creates a schedule. That program groups all the locations together and assigns each character a number. Within each location, it sub-groups the scenes based on which characters are in them. For example, if your screenplay takes place in a house, it will group all the scenes in the kitchen together, all scenes in the bedroom together, etc. and then within that list, it will put all the scenes in which John and Mary play together, then all the scenes in which Mary plays alone together, and finally all the scenes in which Mary and Doug play. This ultimately helps the ADs call in actors only an hour or two prior to needing them on set.
In order for the program to spit out an accurate schedule, you will need to make some adjustments in your screenplay. This is sometimes referred to as ‘cleaning up the script.’ You’ll need to make sure that the mini-slugs are replaced with proper scene headings and that those scene headings are consistent. INT. MARY’S HOUSE – BEDROOM – DAY isn’t the same as INT. MARY’S HOME – BEDROOM – DAY. The program reads those as different locations. You’ll need to change mystery V.O.’s to actual character names and make sure the name of any character that appears in the scene, is actually written into the scene. You’ll also need to make sure that you character names are consistent—DETECTIVE JOHN FREEMAN is not the same as DETECTIVE FREEMAN.
In pre-production, producers cast the film and choose locations, so you will most likely receive notes asking you to revise elements or action based on those things. If they hire a petite brunette actress to play the leading lady, you’ll need to revise the description that had her as a tall blonde (which is why I discourage writers from using physical attributes to describe their characters anyway). If in the script, Mary’s father lives in a lake house, but the producers and director fall in love with a location that isn’t near a lake, you’ll be asked to revise it. If there is an actor that is only available for one day, but according to the schedule, plays multiple days (which typically means they play in more than one location), you may be asked to change all of his scenes to a single location—so instead of having Mary’s father in scenes at both his house and hers, they may ask you to rewrite scenes so that they all play at his house.
During pre-production, the drafts are given names that correspond with colors—white, blue, green, yellow, etc. Different productions occasionally use different color orders but typically they follow a pattern starting with ‘White.’ If you look at a production draft of a script, you’ll probably see a list of colors on the title page with dates after them. Once a script is in color drafts, each time you issue a new draft, you simply write the new color and date under the previous so that it’s easy to track when changes were made. This helps the crew and cast know that they are using the most current draft. All revisions in color drafts are also marked with asterisks on the side to help people easily see what changed in the scene. If you’ve seen a script with a few, or even a lot, of asterisks, that means the asterisked line contained a revision that the previous draft didn’t have.
Colored production drafts sometimes continue after the start of production. If a mistake is made in production, like if a prop was supposed to be in the scene but forgotten, you may be asked to script in a new scene of the character getting the prop so that there are no continuity issues when the film is cut together. If a location falls out, or if weather forces a change in production, you may be asked to delete a scene and move the pertinent information from that scene to a different scene. As a writer, your job at this point to support all the moving pieces of the production. The workload is considerably less than in the previous two phases, but any changes you’re asked to make must happen quickly, sometimes within hours.
This is the phase where the writer gets to sit back and relax. The film is “in the can,” which means it’s completed shooting, and has been handed over to the editor, colorist, sound mixer, and all the other folks who turn the filmed footage into a finished movie. Once editing is complete, a ‘final script’ is created which reflects the final edited version and is delivered with the film to distributors. This allows foreign distributors to easily dub or subtitle the film into different languages. It is a transcript of sorts and when you purchase scripts online, this is often the version you’re buying.
And that’s how it works. The metamorphosis of a script into a finished film is a long one that involves many people. Sometimes things change for creative reasons, others for logistical ones, and sometimes Mother Nature has a hand in creating the need for revisions. But at the end of the day, it all started with a single person putting ideas on paper—and that was you. And that’s certainly something to be proud of.
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