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Playing The Long Game: 12 Movies Writers Can Learn From

Playing The Long Game

No doubt you’ve been advised to ‘play the long game’ when it comes to  making movies, but what does this mean?

Well, it’s gone down in screenwriting folklore that it took writer-producer Allan Scott 30 years to get his Netflix smash hit The Queen’s Gambit made.

Walter Tevis’s chess novel was published in 1983 – and Scott optioned it immediately, buying the exclusive film rights in 1993. Over the ensuing years he concentrated on trying to get a movie version made (“I won’t embarrass all the directors with whom we didn’t make the movie but I worked with at least eight different ones,” he says).

In the end it was writer-director Scott Franks’ realisation that the story would work best as a limited series, rather than a movie, which meant it finally made it to our screens.

Passion Project Movies

If your passion project is taking an age to get off the ground – or if your screenwriting career is! – then take heart from these 12 acclaimed hit movies.

Like many movies, their journey from small spark to big screen took many, many years. Find out why and what we can learn from the writer’s experience on each.

Read Part 2 of this post, HERE.

1) The Theory of Everything (2014)

“The initial spark was reading Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time in 1988,” explains Anthony McCarten about his screenplay for The Theory of Everything, “but at that point it was a spark in the dark because I never presumed I would be in a position to have a role in telling that story or making a movie of it.”

Several plays and a couple of movies under his belt later, in 2004, McCarten read Jane Hawking’s memoir of her life with Stephen. That was the second spark. After multiple drafts, it got in the hands of the right producer in 2009 and principal photography began in 2013.

“It would have been advantageous on my nervous system for this to have happened years earlier,” McCarten says about the then 10-year journey from script to screen.

“There are good and bad things about a long fuse. No doubt it allowed for meditation and script tinkering, but the trouble is, you believe all along you have a script that is ready to go, and you want to believe we are in an industry where a good script gets made. But that’s not always the case. Seeing the movie we’ve got, it was worth the wait.”

Lesson: Don’t be disheartened if your screenplay doesn’t get made as quickly as you’d like. Hold on to the belief that even if it takes a long time, it will be worth the wait.

2) Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Taikia Waititi’s mother gave him the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens in 2010. Soon after, he optioned it himself.

He’s like, ‘If you want to make a movie that much, write your script,’” explains producer Carthew Neal. “So he did. He didn’t wait for anyone to give him permission.

Waititi wrote the resulting adaptation – Jojo Rabbit – shortly afterwards and although this script made the 2012 Black List, the film’s development stalled due to the lack of a big name to play the role of Adolf Hitler.

“It was all about what actors are a box-office draw when it came to making period movies,explains Waititi. “So a lot of the investors said, “We need an A-lister to play Hitler.”

It was 4-5 years later while Waititi was in post-production on Thor: Ragnorok that Fox Searchlight said they would back the film if he himself played Hitler. Waititi felt ready to take on the challenge.

“This subject matter is very sensitive, and I knew I had to get it right,” he says. “That’s another reason I made Jojo Rabbit – because it felt scary to me. At this point in my career, I felt I was up for the challenge.”

In January 2020, 10 years after he first read the book, Waititi was holding the Oscar trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay. Challenge accepted … and overcome.

Lesson: Creative challenges help us to grow, learn and become better writers. So don’t be afraid to take on a challenge that scares you (in a good way). As the late, great Susan Jeffers said: Feel the fear and do it anyway!

3) Superbad (2007)

Seth Rogen penned the rough draft of Superbad with his childhood friend Evan Goldberg in Vancouver back in the mid-‘90s when they just thirteen.

“There were no movies that were really capturing what we were experiencing, so we wrote one, basically.” says Rogen.

The two continued to work on the script through high school and over the ensuing years (as this look-back describes it, it was “a point of obsession… something that they’d write and rewrite constantly”). They even worked over the phone after Rogen broke into Hollywood with Judd Apatow’s teen TV series Freaks And Geeks.

When that show was cancelled in 2000, Apatow encouraged Rogen to write as well as act. Several studios did express an interest in Superbad, but only if Rogen and Goldberg cleaned it up enough to make it a PG-13 (“And we were just like, ‘No,’”).

This lack of a home for several years gave the two writers more time to make their script even better. They improved its structure, held table reads and worked with mentors like Apatow. By the time a studio was finally ready to make it,  their work on Superbad’s screenplay had paid off.

“I cannot stress how good the writing was by the time I got to read it,” says Jonah Hill. “It was just insanely funny. And quite moving.”  Millions of us agreed with him.

Lesson: Sometimes you can only snatch time here and there to work on a passion project, which means it takes longer. No matter. Keep working at it, keep improving it – and don’t be afraid to seek out (and take on board) any advice and help you can get along the way.

4) Carol (2015)

Phyllis Nagy was approached in 1997 to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s book The Price of Salt, and it was the first time she’d been hired to write a screenplay.

Nagy finished the draft in six months, but, she notes: “After the first draft we had about 13 years of false starts and people coming and going… producing partners, potential financiers, directors. Because it was so difficult to get financed, people went on to other things.”  This included Nagy herself.

Over 10 years later, she was asked to work on the project again, but it took producers a whole year to convince her to do so.

“I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to replicate that first genuine flush of youthful electricity,” she says. Besides, she told them, there was “too much water under the bridge, it’s too painful … I’m tired of it. Go find some nice, unsuspecting, fresh writer.”

But they persuaded her and “once I came back on, I thought: ‘Why was I afraid? Of course it’s easy, you know this material so well’.”

Fast-forward 18 years after Nagy wrote her very first draft – to 2015, a time where, as she notes, people would also respond better to a film with two women leads – Carol was finally released, to huge acclaim.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to revisit an old script project if now is the right time – in the industry, in society, in yourself – to do so.  If you loved it then, chances are you’ll love it again. And now could be the time for it to find its audience.

5) Arrival (2016)

Eric Heisserer loved Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story Story of Your Life (“it had a very profound emotional effect on me”, he says). This meant  he optioned the rights to the story himself and wrote the screenplay as a spec script.

“I had a lot of passion about this particular project, and that’s why I wouldn’t let go of it,” he explains.

But it was an uphill battle, over several years, to get others on board and to take that leap of faith with him and his script.

“We tried to pitch it around to all the studios and everybody said no”, he says. Some producers were only interested if he changed the lead character to a man.

But, as Heisserer says, the fact that it was a spec meant “we held all the cards and that was the lovely thing about it. I wanted to write this on spec, I wanted to do this on my own and deliver this script to show them what I meant.”

Finally, after extending the option with Chiang, and writing/directing the film Hours in 2013 – “you have to prove yourself” – Heisserer’s passion and vision for Arrival paid off.

The team at 21 Laps came on board, worked with Heisserer on more drafts of the script, and took it to director Denis Villeneuve who loved it.

Lesson: Feel passionate about an idea or a piece of source material? Consider writing your script as a spec ­– it will mean you hold (more of) the cards and improves your chances of working with collaborators who share your vision.

6) Get Out (2017)

It was the 2008 Democratic primaries – specifically the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – that inspired writer-director Jordan Peele to pen his social-horror-thriller Get Out.

“It had me looking at race and gender in terms of one another,” he explains. “The way some of my favourite movies – The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby – had dealt with gender was inspiring to me. I felt like it was time that there was a movie that dealt with race in a similar way.”

Thinking of it as “a fun project” without a deadline or even a chance of getting made, Peele worked on the outline and script for about five years. ( “I’d go home, smoke a little bit of weed and I would write,” he says).

When Peele’s idea was picked up in 2013 by producer Sean McKittrick (“I said right at the table, “Okay, I’m going to buy this pitch and pay you to write it,” McKittrick recalls. “I think he was a little shocked”) the script was only half-written.

But then “I got a draft done in two months,” says Peele. “There were years before that of just conceiving of the movie. By the time I sat down and actually started writing, I already knew every scene.”

Four years later, the result was the one of the best movies of 2017. Peele also made history as the first black screenwriter to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Lesson: Smoke weed when you’re writing. Just kidding! Peele said in his Oscars speech: “I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible… I thought nobody would ever make this movie.” So there’s the lesson: Don’t stop. Write for fun. And keep the faith!

Read Part 2 of this post, HERE.

 BIO: Andrea Mann is a screenwriter and freelance writer. Her first feature film is now in pre-production (around 9 years after she first had the idea for it).

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