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.)
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.”
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.”