Francis Ford Coppola on Re-writing

I was having breakfast the other morning with D.B. Sweeney, the actor/writer/producer. He told me a story about working with Francis Ford Coppola that was funny and charming and loaded with writing wisdom.

This was from 1986, when D.B. had been picked by Coppola to play the leading role of Jackie Willow in Gardens of Stone, with James Caan, Anjelica Huston, and James Earl Jones.

(To refresh our memories, Francis Ford Coppola won a screenwriting Oscar for “Patton” and two more for “The Godfather I” and “The Godfather II.” He has won six Academy Awards in all.)

D.B. Sweeney in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone”

During the rehearsal process, D.B. began to get to know the great writer/director. Here’s D.B.’s account, from an email he sent me a few days ago.

With Francis, family style meals are everything. So after an intimate cast dinner, he retreats from the table and finds a big chair to thumb the film script. After a bit I wander over and ask if he’s thinking of changing anything in it. Sensing my unease and perhaps trying to diminish the mountain of intimidating elements I was facing, he starts chatting. He asks me about my theater work, knew I’d directed some things. Finally he asks me what I thought was wrong with the script, which had been adapted from a novel.

I said I’m no expert, but it seems a  little talky. He liked that answer, said he agreed and then said “I’m going to teach you had to do a full production re-write.” He took a piece of paper and wrote “Page 99” at the top. Then he wrote “The End” at the bottom. “You write a script front to back but you re-write it back to front.” And he proceeds to furiously scrawl the key plot events in reverse order. “If it’s not directly tied to these things, it goes.”

Coppola’s shooting draft was much tighter than the original script and then in the edit phase he made big changes again. When I did a voiceover narration after he finished the assembly he said, “You really write three movies. The script everybody signs on for, the movie you shoot, and then the one you create in the editing room.”  

Francis Ford Coppola

Page 99 is shorthand for the final page of any screenplay. That’s about how long a script should be. In other words, in a rewrite where of course you know how the story ends …

Start at the finish and work backward.

All I can add is, “Thanks, D.B., for telling this great story.” Even the tiniest insight into the mind of a great writer or filmmaker—or in Francis Ford Coppola’s case, both—is priceless.

“You write a script front to back but you re-write it back to front.”

 

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47 Comments

  1. Mike on May 19, 2021 at 4:02 am

    This reminds me a great deal of the “backwards planning” a tactical unit goes through upon receipt of a mission.

    Taking the key plot points/essential tasks in reverse order seems to have a universal efficiency.

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 5:01 am

      It’s like discovering an archetype, ya, Mike? Recurring patterns in nature.

    • Brian Nelson on May 19, 2021 at 7:13 am

      Mike,
      I had exactly the same thought. The second thought that came to mind was from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, “Begin with the end in mind.”
      bsn

  2. Joe Jansen on May 19, 2021 at 5:00 am

    A quote that’s always grabbed me is one from James Michener:

    “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

    I figured an admission like this, from a guy who’d written dozens of books, some longer than 1000 pages… novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, screenplays (not sure if he wrote them, but tons of TV and film adapted from his work), history, memoir, travelogue — if a guy like this can say “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter,” none of the rest of us can lean on the excuse: “Rewriting? Who’s got time for that?”

  3. Stephen S. Power on May 19, 2021 at 7:20 am

    Similarly, before a tournament, Ben Hogan would walk a course backwards so he could see, while standing on the green, where the course designer wanted him to be hitting his approach shot from. And so on to the tee.

    This works for writing too because it’s easy to excuse or ignore flaws in a chain of occurrences going forward, but tougher going backwards without the support of other occurrences and the momentum of reading.

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 10:23 am

      That’s pretty interesting, Stephen. What endeavor *wouldn’t* benefit by viewing it from different angles. Good stuff.

  4. Michael Esser on May 19, 2021 at 7:25 am

    Ford Coppola came to the Italian Film Academy for a lesson, where I was studying at the time. When I asked him what was the most important lesson for him in his time at UCLA film school, he said that he always liked to remember the stair step academy. When we asked, he explained that he had learned everything he knew about film from his fellow students on the stairs on campus after class.

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 12:02 pm

      Some of that seems to be going on here, right?

      • Michael Esser on May 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm

        You are so right, Joe, thanks for mentioning this. I think there’s nothing better than learning from and with our peers, people who are trying to get a grip on what you are trying to accomplish, too. It still was somehow illuminating to hear this from Coppola about his experience at UCLA. At the time we all dreamt about learning, working in Los Angeles. Hearing that the situation there wasn’t that different from what we were doing at the time in Rome was great.

  5. Maureen Anderson on May 19, 2021 at 7:37 am

    This is why I proofread backwards. I start at the very last word (in a book, even!) and read backwards, one word at a time. You may not believe how many typos (and other mistakes) you catch that way.

    Off the subject — or maybe not — shouldn’t this site get some kind of award for classiest online hangout?

    • Peter Brockwell on May 19, 2021 at 7:41 am

      Maureen, are you dropping a hint that some of us should unsubscribe and find online homes elsewhere?? Sniff…. (tear rolling slowly down cheek)

      • Maureen Anderson on May 19, 2021 at 7:51 am

        Hardly! 🙂 And your other comment reminds me what Carl Sagan supposedly said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

        • Peter Brockwell on May 19, 2021 at 9:25 am

          I agree, Maureen. That’s a beautiful sentiment. The world misses, and needs, Carl Sagan. Another enormously thoughtful and intelligent person. At least we now have Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, and we still have Ann Druyan. My enormously heavy hardback copy of ‘Cosmos’ is a treasured possession, much like my hardbacks of Steve’s. Also from Carl: “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

          • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 10:09 am

            Maureen and Peter… I traded a couple notes with Joel Cherrico, who makes the Spartan kothon mugs that have been part of the AMAA promotions. He mentioned that Neil DeGrasse Tyson owns several of his “Cosmic Wall Platters” (porcelain, cobalt, wood ash, gold): https://store.cherricopottery.com/



          • Peter Brockwell on May 20, 2021 at 7:20 am

            Neil clearly has excellent taste, plus a beautiful mind. He wouldn’t be out of place here.



    • Kate Stanton on May 19, 2021 at 7:49 am

      Yes, Maureen!! I think this is a very classy and fine group of people online 🙂

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 10:24 am

      Maureen, this IS becoming something of a salon, isn’t it?

  6. Peter Brockwell on May 19, 2021 at 7:37 am

    Really interesting. Damn. Let me see if I have any original thoughts about this. Hmmm.

    This reminds of the concept of an ‘inverse problem’ in science. So, ideally you’d have an event, A, and then we try to understand B, which we are the consequences of A. But so much of life is the reverse. ie we see B, and we ask ourselves “What the heck was the event, A, that caused all this crazy B stuff to happen??”

    We examine our own lives to deduce or identify the earlier events that brought us to where we are now. We see the vibrant universe around us, and try to work backwards, and in fact we manage to find our way back to a zillionth of a second after the Big Bang. The neurologist Lisa Feldman Barrett was talking in a podcast a few weeks back about how the brain processing perceptions is also an inverse problem. The brain receives a stimulus from the world, and asks “What has occurred that caused this stimulus?” It then uses past experience to generate a model that suggests what has probably taken place in the world that caused the perceptions.

    I’m thinking about this similarly. Rewriting a draft backwards, we’re searching for the ideal novel/screenplay that exists in the platonic world of imagination, on the scroll in the hand of the Muse, that gave rise to this present draft? We’re trying to retrace all the way back to what the Muse is whispering in our ear, draft by draft.

    Hmm. Still mulling this…

    • Joe Jansen on May 19, 2021 at 10:19 am

      Peter, one thing I like about these symposia on Wednesdays is seeing what else from the world around seems to be resonating with what Steve is saying, or what you all are saying. In this, the word “inverse” is resonating this morning.

      I was listening to a Sam Harris podcast the other day, where he was talking to Irish poet David Whyte (becoming a favorite of mine). Sam had David read aloud one of his prose poems titled “Close.”

      There was a line in there: “We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity: an intimacy calibrated by the vulnerability we feel in giving up our sense of separation.”

      It was fascinating to then hear David talk *about* that line. He says (I’m paraphrasing): “I wrote it, and didn’t understand what it meant. I had to read it three or four times to understand it.”

      This seems to point (if not as evidence, at least as a suggestion) that we might be receiving some of this creative-process stuff from somewhere else. The subconscious, at least.

      In his voice: https://bit.ly/DavidWhyteClose
      On the page: https://www.kolhai.org/close_david_whyte

  7. Kate Stanton on May 19, 2021 at 7:46 am

    “You really write three movies. The script everybody signs on for, the movie you shoot, and then the one you create in the editing room.”
    I think this could really help me with my songwriting. So many times I start a song strong, only to wonder where the bridge, which usually connects the mantras from my chorus to the stories in the verses, should go. I can’t help but feel like I should brainstorm with a strong bridge idea THEN write the story in the verses and the mantra as the refrain. I’m certainly going to try!! Thanks Steve! Nice discussion with The Warrior Poet. I listened during my morning commute. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f–06RmgVnk&t=966s

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 10:28 am

      Kate, I think there’s room in here somewhere for a mention of the third chapter in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, titled: “Shitty First Drafts” (https://archive.org/details/birdbybirdsomein00lamo/page/20/mode/2up)

      • Kate Stanton on May 25, 2021 at 10:01 am

        Well said, Joe. The “fantasy of the uninitiated” indeed. Oh how I wish it came out perfectly upon the first draft. Roll up the sleeves and get to work seems to be the consensus here. Doing the work without waiting for inspiration to strike me with brilliant ideas. Daily existential crisis thinking I won’t be able to recreate that sound or song. I’m exhausted after typing this reply!! haha

        • Joe on May 26, 2021 at 12:14 pm

          All kinds of good metaphors for it. Liz Gilbert talks about being a mule, hauling sh!t up a mountain trail. Another one is downhill skiing (not sure who said it), but going over the edge and letting gravity earn its keep.

  8. Chuck DeBettignies on May 19, 2021 at 8:10 am

    Have you ever watched an athlete do something, or a magician perform and exclaimed to yourself, “How did they do that!”?

    I feel like I’ve gotten to see how some of the magic is created here, by hearing Francis Ford Coppola’s technique.

    Who hasn’t seen a movie or read something that’s transported you to a place completely different from where you began in a simple, elegant, streamlined flow?

    And seeing how a bit of the magic is created, doesn’t make it any less magical in my eye!

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 10:32 am

      Right, Chuck. I also appreciate the opportunity to see under the hood.

    • Mike on May 19, 2021 at 1:55 pm

      The actual sleight-of-hand has always fascinated me more than any supposed magic.

  9. Peter Brockwell on May 19, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Isn’t it great that a person of Steve’s standing would share with us some of his interactions with other luminaries. It’s a wonderful thing.

    • Amanda Carlson on May 19, 2021 at 5:43 pm

      Yes!

  10. Ingmar Albizu on May 19, 2021 at 10:28 am

    Great piece of wisdom.
    I like to write backward knowing the ending in advanced. It simplifies the process.

  11. Renita C Wellman on May 19, 2021 at 10:29 am

    Amazing group conversation.
    What rings out to me is that there is a design in heaven already in place to be written/created on earth. When we start the process, we don’t see it. We see it at the end. Then we can chip away at it until the design is clearly seen.

    • Sam Luna on May 19, 2021 at 12:03 pm

      “What rings out to me is that there is a design in heaven already in place to be written/created on earth.”

      That’s a really lovely thought, Renita.

  12. Julie on May 19, 2021 at 11:26 am

    Amazing! Very helpful! I love Coppola!

  13. Mia Sherwood Landau on May 19, 2021 at 11:28 am

    Sometimes I catch myself leafing through a non-fiction book or a magazine from back to front. After reading this priceless post I have started wondering If I am catching the highlights that way. Hummmm… another way we start at the end is by picturing our readers first, before we begin writing. Finale First works in many ways for me!

    • Joe on May 19, 2021 at 12:04 pm

      I like to eat dessert first. Because… you know… if something bad happens, at least you got ice cream…

  14. Ben Weeks on May 19, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    If police interrogators wish to test someone’s story, they’ll ask them to tell it backward. Often those who are lying find this extremely stressful as the juggling they’re doing becomes impossible.

    • Brian Nelson on May 19, 2021 at 2:37 pm

      Ben,
      Now that is an interesting tidbit! I sent a company of my HUMINT Soldiers to the Reid Interview Method early in the war. We were all excited about the training–good stuff…or so I thought. Now looking back at my combat experience, and the entirety of the war effort–I’m beginning to see it differently.

      I also have read of how often people admit to crimes they haven’t committed because of very effective, persuasive interrogations. Makes me question a lot of what I once ‘KNEW FOR SURE’.

      That said, I still find your text fascinating. Might be a great way to get to the truth in many other settings, beyond inside on interrogation booth.
      bsn

  15. gene on May 19, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    Loved the article. Loved the singular insight from Coppola. Rewrite from the end. Great. I have a little story of my own about it.
    When I moved to Hollywood in the 70’s to work as an actor, I decided the best way into the business was to write a script. And despite zero experience, I decided to write a thriller. Who can resist a good thriller? I reckoned. And before I’d written a single word, an amazing ending popped into my head. That ending guided me through the whole painful ordeal: Six weeks writing eighteen hours a day in my tiny bathroom, refusing to leave except to eat baloney and cheese slices and Wheaties. Shut off. Lost all sense of time. Finished. Had it typed, and gave it to a friend who was the assistant to the personal manager of Andy Griffith. He passed it on to others and suddenly, I was meeting working people, Jon Voight, Richard Donner, producers, etc. VP of Simon and Schuster wanted me to turn my screenplay into a book.

    I knew the end. THAT was my morning and evening star.

  16. Brian Nelson on May 19, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    I always look forward to Writing Wednesdays. Something I’ve come to realize is that whether or not Steve’s post stirs something in me–give it a few hours, check back into the sight, and see all the insight his post has had on others.

    Today’s wasn’t a post that hit me directly in the solar plexus ‘demanding’ a response, but seeing all the wisdom, kindness, and other wild tangential thoughts from others has made this place my favorite spot in the internet.
    bsn

    • Maureen Anderson on May 19, 2021 at 4:49 pm

      Same, Brian! Ben’s note, Gene’s story, this is all so thought-provoking and inspiring.

  17. Tolis Alexopoulos on May 20, 2021 at 12:08 am

    Thank you dear Steven,

    if someone asked me this period “what is your job?”, I wouldn’t say “a writer” but “a re-writer”. I remember it was either mr. George Lucas or mr. Steven Pressfield that said at an interview that the most important part of his job, and the most exciting probably, was the editing part. In my experience, re-writing is the editing part of the writer, and it makes him/her create something unique.

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  19. Bo White on May 20, 2021 at 5:54 am

    The Chicago based novelist Marcus Sakey once said ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’ when asked about first drafts in an interview on his writing process. He said the ‘getting it right’ comes later. Seems similar to some sentiments here.

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