Rewriting Secrets for Screenwriters

Seven Strategies to Improve and Sell Your Work

Tom Lazarus; Foreword by Scott Frank

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter One

Why Great Films Are Great

Gone with the Wind

Based on Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Sydney Howard’s first-draft screenplay for Gone with the Wind was an excessive four hundred pages long. Over the next two and half years, the producer, the legendary David O. Selznick, hired writers Jo Swerling, Oliver H. P. Garrett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Van Druten, and Charles MacArthur to do rewrites before Gone with the Wind went into production. George Cukor started shooting, but was fired as director two weeks later. He was replaced by Victor Fleming, who refused to film a single scene until he had a realistic shooting script, prompting even more rewrites by Ben Hecht. Still unsatisfied, Selznick brought back Sydney Howard’s screenplay and Ben Hecht rewrote that.

Right before production, Sydney Howard himself was brought back to do some additional writing. Six writers. Countless rewrites.

The Wizard of Oz

The first of a dozen screenwriters consulted on The Wizard of Oz was Irving Brecher. Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the official first draft, which was rejected by MGM. Then, Ogden Nash did a rewrite as did playwright Knoll Langley, who continued on the project for three months and wrote many, many drafts. Langley’s rewrite was ultimately unfilmable and the producers brought in another writer, Samuel Hoffenstein, who only worked for a few days. Langley continued rewriting and finished the “shooting script.” Producers Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed brought in the veteran writing team of Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf to do a rewrite, but it was still not considered right by the studio and they brought Langley back. He rewrote Woolf and Ryerson. Edgar “Yip” Harburg, who had worked on the score, was also brought in to do some rewriting. Writers Jack Mintz and Sid Silvers did even more rewriting. When Victor Fleming was brought in as director, he had writer John Lee Mahin hired to do some final rewriting before they started shooting.

Citizen Kane

Arguably the greatest film of all time was a collaboration between Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz wrote an excessive 250-page first draft. (Screenplays today run from 95 to 135 pages. It better be good if it’s 135 pages.) Changes were made in that script and a second draft was completed. Mankiewicz left the project, but rewrites continued under the supervision of John Houseman. A writer named Amalia Kent was the next writer to do a rewrite, then Welles worked on the rewrite after her. Welles rewrote a hundred seventy pages and deleted more than seventy-five pages. The picture was budgeted ... way over budget. Welles was forced to do even more rewrites. After that, Mankiewicz was brought back onto the project and generated three new rewrites. Another rewrite was generated for the Hays office, a self-regulating standards and practices organization set up by the motion picture industry. Finally they had an official shooting script.


The film classic Casablanca began its life as a play by author Murray Burnett. Hal Wallis, the producer of the film, brought in his brother-in-law, Wally Kline, and his writing partner, Aeneas MacKenzie, to do work on the script. They worked for seven weeks. Even before they finished, Wallis was talking with twins Julius and Philip Epstein about the script. They wrote and rewrote until they completed the “final” script. Another writer, Casey Robinson, was hired and worked for three weeks doing rewrites. Still unsatisfied, Wallis brought in Howard Koch to rewrite the first part of the script.

Lenore Coffee also worked on the script for a week. It turned out the Epsteins were rewriting the second part of the script and Howard Koch was rewriting the Epsteins’ first act. Ultimately seven writers worked on Casablanca.

So, What Does All This Mean?

It indicates to me that a great film from a great screenplay takes lots of work, great creativity, and most of all rewriting. I know this isn’t a surprise. After all, this is a book about rewriting.

When I started writing I thought that writers wrote what I was reading first time out of the chute. That it just came out onto the page perfectly the first time. That’s what a writer was.

I didn’t know about rewrites.

I didn’t know about restructuring.

I didn’t know about working scenes to make them better.

I didn’t know about developing threads and arcs and subplots and subtext. Hello?

It’s clear to me now that it takes time and many drafts to make a script great. It’s clear to me now that the cliché‚ “A horse designed by committee is a camel” isn’t true at all. Sometimes, a horse designed by committee is a triple-crown winner.

Copyright © 2006 by Tom Lazarus