Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jeff Fisher's Butt-Kickin' Rewrite Process

by Jim Cirile

Here's what's supposed to happen: you send your script in for coverage; the notes come back, and finally after much groaning, agonizing and denial, you rewrite the script, solving all the problems that deep down you suspected all along.

Except, it NEVER happens that way. The way it actually goes down is: you do a rewrite based on the notes, and while some problems may get solved, new issues are created -- those knee-jerk solutions may not be all that well thought through. One step forward, two back. So after yet another rewrite, one sends it for coverage again. But now when the notes come back, it seems you're even further from the bull's-eye than you were on the first draft! Pretty frustrating, right? It always takes way more drafts than we would have hoped, and it's seldom that linear progression forward from "pass" to "consider" we all hope for.

Jeff Fisher
Unless you're Jeff Fisher, that is.

A few months back, Jeff sent his script "Cloud Nine" in to Coverage Ink for analysis. According to the notes, it had a lot of good elements, but also needed a lot of TLC -- rather like many of the scripts that come our way. But the most amazing thing happened when Jeff sent along the rewrite about 4 weeks later: the reader (AK, who had also read the first draft) was blown away. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "This guy nailed all the notes." In less than a month, Jeff Fisher went from pass/consider with reservations to consider/strong consider. He skipped right over the 16 drafts it usually takes the rest of us to achieve that! So with great admiration (and just a smidgen of jealousy,) we figured we'd ask Jeff just how the hell he pulled this off.

Jim C: Hi, Jeff! Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Jeff F: My first "industry" job (unless you count movie theater usher) was a Craft Service PA on a Paramount feature called ARRIVE ALIVE, a romantic comedy starring Willem Dafoe and Joan Cusack that shut down production after nine shooting days.  : )  From there,  I was lucky enough to PA on some awesome features ("Cape Fear" was a biggie for me) back East where I'm from.  I moved to LA and worked as an assistant at ICM and then Columbia/Tri-Star, always shooting little spec music videos and stuff to build a reel on the weekends.  I shot my first short film "Garage Sale" over a week's vacation from ICM.  Off my short films (and thanks to my awesome friend Toni Gallagher), I was able get a gig on a few early reality shows ("Bug Juice" was my first) and worked my way up to Director on shows like "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge" and "The Simple Life."  I wrote and directed my first feature ("Killer Movie") which premiered at Tribeca in 2008 and stars Paul Wesley, Kaley Cuoco, Leighton Meester, Nestor Carbonell and a gaggle of other actors I loved working with.  It was about a reality film crew that gets into all kinds of trouble -- something I knew a thing or two about.  There's lots of mayhem going on, but it's all very "Scooby-Doo."  
JC: Nice. Give us a quick heads-up on what CLOUD NINE is all about and what you hope to do with it. You're planning to shoot this puppy?

JF: CLOUD NINE is the grown up version of a little musical short I did called "ANGELS, BABY!" back  in 1999. (Watch it right here.) I always loved the idea of having an angels around looking out for our best interests.  I actually got the idea for the short watching Steven Spielberg do a press interview for the movie "ALWAYS."  I'm paraphrasing, but when he was asked about the angel in that movie, he said he loved the idea that when he was trying to figure out where to put the camera and got a great idea, maybe it was the spirit of some great director from years gone by whispering in his ear.  That was the impetus -- along with a musical number I once saw the actress Jessica Tuck perform (that's another story though.) It has just been growing into a feature in the back of head since.  I've had some great notes and help from friends along the way too.  

And the plan is to make it this summer!
JC: What was your reaction to the first round of coverage on it?
JF: "YIKES!"  But -- and I think you say this in your video -- it resonated.  I knew the notes were valid and I was determined to make this as strong a script as possible.  I let it marinate for a week.  I asked for some advice from writer friends I respect -- and dug in on the next draft. 
JC: Smart move. I always let stuff simmer for a while.

JF: I had to sit with the notes for a beat.  Digging right in that day was too aggressive.  I actually wrote out all the notes I received and started writing possible solutions in the column next to them.  By the way, some AWFUL solutions!  I'd call a friend and ask -- and they'd talk it through and often give me a good idea or get me thinking of something emotionally honest.  I found a lot of my initial solutions were way too "on the nose."
JC: Exactly. We're often in such a rush to get the rewrite process over with that we often choose the easiest fixes, which may not be the best ones for the script. The first things we think of might be inelegant or contrived or cause plot holes down the line. You did an amazing job on the polish. What sort of advice would you give to other writers who might be in a similar position -- ten pages of notes, now what the hell do you do?

JF: That is so cool of you to say. Thank you! Honestly, I'd say don't sweat it. Just read them through (hopefully with a strong drink close by) and put them aside for a beat. You'll know when it's time to check them out again. You don't have to solve every problem all at once. Just pitch one solution to yourself or a friend. The next one won't be far behind.

JC: Thanks a bunch, Jeff! Looking forward to hearing more about CLOUD NINE as it heads into production.


Michael Lent said...

Cool to read this. I've known Jeff a long time. He's super smart, works his butt off, and is a nice guy.

essie said...

I met Jeff on Vampire Diaries set. Immediately I noticed his kind smile. Jeff has "good face" as we say in Asia. He's humble because he's immensely intelligent. I can't wait for the "Cloud Nine" to go into production. The scrip is faaaaaantastic!

Essie Cha
Makeup Department Head
Vampire Diaries