How Much Does a Screenplay Change During Production?

Oct 5, 2023

A common question new screenwriters ask is if a screenplay can change once filming begins. Some go a step further to inquire just how much a screenplay can change during production. The answer to the first question is yes, they can. For the second, it‘s not usually a total rewrite, but certain parts might get a touch-up for various reasons.

Let’s peel back the curtain and explore different reasons why a pre-written script may have to be re-written during production.

 

1. Director’s Interpretation

While scripts lay the groundwork, they aren’t set in stone until filming is complete and the movie hits the screen. Directors and producers might have flashes of brilliance during production, leading to on-the-spot changes. This is allowed because they’re at the creative helm of production and are responsible for whatever the final output will be.

 

2. Unforeseen Twists

Seeing as nobody can predict the future with 100% certainty, there is no telling what can happen during the production of a movie. Members of the cast and crew can fall ill or, in some cases, even die before production is complete. Such events can dramatically alter a movie’s course.

A popular example where an off-screen event positively altered a movie can be seen in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The scene in the crowded market square where Indiana Jones shoots the bad guy doing the crazy knife stunts. Although seemingly simple, this legendary scene exists because actor Harrison Ford was ill on the day of shooting and couldn’t go through with the long fight scene already choreographed, which made director Steven Spielberg change the whole thing to one simple gunshot.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) | Lucas Film

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) | Lucas Film

3. Actor’s Influence

A-list actors sometimes wield the power to tweak their lines, ensuring their characters are portrayed authentically. This can happen typically when the actor has portrayed the character for an extended period and has invaluable insights about them.

4. Contractual Agreements

Actors with negotiation power might have specific requests in their contracts, from avoiding nudity to unique preferences. Samuel Jackson once asked that his character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nick Fury not run in any of his movies. His request was mostly adhered to. Another example is Robert Downey Jr. requiring Marvel Studios to place sweet treats all over the set during filming as Tony Stark/Iron Man so he could munch in between takes.

Nick Fury and Tony Stark | Marvel Studios

Nick Fury and Tony Stark | Marvel Studios

 

5. Multiple Takes

In comedies, various takes of a line are explored for maximum humor. Some jokes may not make the final cut, and controversial lines might be axed to avoid long-term consequences.

6. Production Limitations

Sometimes, the grand visions in a screenplay hit a wall on set due to budget constraints. Producers then need to find alternative, cost-effective solutions without sacrificing the essence of the story.

7. Lack of Production Access

While a script may vividly paint specific locations, obtaining the necessary permissions can turn into an unforeseen obstacle. When location-based hurdles arise, script adjustments become a necessary part of the movie-making dance.

8. Financier’s Cut

Financiers play a pivotal role in shaping the final product. Requests for script changes may stem from audience expectations. Explicit scenes might need toning down to align with the anticipated viewer experience.

9. Personal Flair

Actors might inject their own personal flair into a script, leading to unexpected changes. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson once requested a purple lightsaber for his character, adding a distinctive touch to the Star Wars universe.

Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu | Lucas Film

Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu | Lucas Film

 

With these examples, we’ve seen how a screenplay can change during production. While the core essence of scripts generally remains intact, these factors can lead to dynamic changes during production. So, next time you’re on a movie set, know that flexibility is the name of the game! Lights, camera, script evolution! 

 

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