From Green to Greenlit: The Steps an Idea Takes to The Screen
October 9, 2019
Most beginning screenwriters believe this is the career of a screenwriter: Write script, get paid, repeat.
Unfortunately, it’s a long and winding road to go from idea to movie screen. Screenwriter Chris Devlin knows a thing or two about this process. His script The Wretched Emily Derringer first got him on The Black List in 2015. Next, Devlin’s script Cobweb placed him on the 2018 list, and this landed the project in pre-production at Lionsgate. Now gaining some real momentum, Devlin just signed a massive deal to pen the newest chapter in a horror franchise for one of the genre’s biggest directors in the world (it’s all still very hush-hush, but we promise you this is a horror writer’s dream gig).
Devlin is one of the rare writers these days to have a wholly original idea on its way into production, so there’s a lot to be learned from his experience. He is also a kind, humble and gloriously gruesome horror writer. We’re lucky to be able to pick his twisted brain and hear his take on how a new idea is born, developed, gets written and rewritten, pitched, packaged and finally, greenlit.
Step one: Ideas are everywhere
“No matter where I am on a project, I am always on the lookout for my next potential screenplay,” Devlin said.
“That involves obsessively collecting any and all ideas or sources of inspiration (articles, images, YouTube videos, etc.) in my various note apps. Although very few are ever substantial enough to result in an entire movie, when combined some might coalesce into something unique and interesting. Eventually I will have compiled a small list of movie ideas that I find compelling enough to keep my attention for the two to six months it might take to complete a script. When I get really lucky, I stumble upon an idea that I can’t wait to put out into the world. Cobweb came from frustration with my career; I had gotten a lot of positive attention off my breakthrough script The Wretched Emily Derringer, which was featured high on the 2015 Black List and had gotten me a lot of meetings with huge companies but not many real job opportunities. I spent a year pitching on little projects I wasn't at all right for or passionate about, or big projects I was never actually going to be hired to do. I realized I was doing a lot of unfulfilling work and had nothing to show for it, so rather than continue to chase what other people wanted, I decided I might as well keep myself happy. I had been kicking around this idea about a little boy who heard a voice behind his bedroom wall. I knew it wasn't particularly commercial, but I couldn't shake my excitement for it, and that was a feeling I hadn't had in a while. I remembered that I was never more scared than I was when I was a child unable to sleep, my imagination conjuring up all sorts of wicked ideas of what's making the sounds of the night.”
Step two: Outside input is key so don’t create in a vacuum
Devlin’s process involves sending his ideas to his managers.
“They then go about brutally and systematically dismantling just about every single one of them,” he said.
“Sometimes I stubbornly refuse to back down, privately insisting that nobody understands my genius. More often than not, I realize they are correct and move on. This is a process I used to find extraordinarily frustrating. Now I understand that they are the most useful filter system I have. Every once in a while, they respond enthusiastically to an idea and insist that is the one I should be focusing on. They are almost always correct.”
Step three: Script development is not a bad word
“The next step after deciding on which script to write is always different; sometimes I outline completely, others I drive full speed ahead without a road map,” Devlin said.
“Occasionally I’ll outline the first chunk of the story, start writing, hit a speed bump, then start outlining the next chunk. Regardless of how much knowledge of the ins and outs of the story I have going in, I’ve found that I absolutely must have an idea of what ending I should be steering toward. Something I never actually plan for but has nonetheless occurred with every screenplay I’ve written is that I will inevitably reach the first act, realize something isn’t working, and then start over completely. That’s because the voice of the script is incredibly important to me, and that’s not something that reveals itself until I’m well into the writing process.”
Step four: Time to write (and rewrite)
Along the way, there are several times Devlin will spot something that isn’t working in the script, he said.
“No matter how meticulously or not I’ve constructed my story, I will no doubt reach many points where … I’ve written myself into a dilemma with no solution,” he said.
“Here I benefit from having acquired a cabal of creative peers on which to call for advice … all have been more than willing to get on the phone or listen to me pace around the apartment as we try to solve a problem together. Many times, all it takes is trying to describe the issue to an objective party to reveal the answer. When a script is done, I send it immediately to my managers, as well as a small circle of trusted friends who have been reading my work well before I was ever a professional writer. My managers set a time to discuss, and we go through the script note by note, draft after draft, until we reach a point where we are satisfied with the finished product. This is always a hard but necessary endeavor, but one I find best to approach with as little ego as possible.
“My advice to new writers is to always know that your first draft is going to be terrible. You can't sculpt a masterpiece without a lump of unformed clay. Your first draft is that clay.”
Step five: Out to the town and landing the sale
At this point, Devlin’s managers take over and try to sell the script.
“This is an aspect of the job I try to be involved in as little as possible, instead trying to focus on what my next project will be (i.e., back to scouring my notes). Behind the scenes, my managers work with my agent (that is, until the WGA-ATA dispute) sending my script to every production company that has shown interest in my work in the past. As was the case with my script Cobweb, they sent it to Vertigo who responded positively and asked if they could take it to Lionsgate (this is referred to as a “territory”). Lionsgate read the script and opted to purchase it. I was ignorant of all of this until I received a call from my agency alerting me to the good news.”
Step six: The real work begins
“As stipulated in my contract with the studio, I was required to do two rewrites. For that, I worked closely with the production company to address the notes and opinions of an even wider set of disparate voices, navigating which notes to take seriously and which to ignore,” Devlin said.
“An important skill I had to develop was learning to read the “note behind the note.” There is a Neil Gaiman quote I’m fond of in this context: ‘Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ When responding to a note, I don’t want to simply do what’s asked; I want to find a solution to the problem that no one else had thought of. That said, it’s just as important to know when you’re wrong. There were many darlings that had to be killed; those little moments and images that were the reason I was excited about the story in the first place that nonetheless didn’t serve the larger narrative and thus had to go.”
Step seven: Letting go
“If you’re lucky, you get the script into a place where everyone involved is happy. If you’re not, best case scenario is you get rewritten. Ultimately that isn’t so bad — if they’re hiring another writer that means they’re still interested in the project. Fortunately with Cobweb the studio has remained pleased with my work. A director was brought on and then I had to start the process all over again, this time addressing the notes of the person who is now steering the project creatively. This is obviously a little harder, as the script that has so far been your baby is now in the hands of another parent with their own opinions on how to raise her. Fortunately if the partnership is a good match, as I believe it was on Cobweb, the end result is something greater than one you could have imagined on your own.”
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.