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Tim Baker: 10 things I’ve learnt rewriting screenplays

Tim Baker’s hotly anticipated debut thriller, Fever City, about a sensational kidnapping that leads to a plot to assassinate JFK, combines bullet-fast action with dark satire on the super-rich.

Here he offers some lessons on what he’s picked up during his career in cinema as a rewrite gun for hire.

Over to Tim:

Tim Baker: 10 things I’ve learnt rewriting screenplays

1. If the first meeting’s in a dump, walk away

This is the simplest rule of all. If someone sets up a first meeting in a ‘little neighbourhood place’ that turns out to be a dump, walk away. Giving you a rendezvous for a lousy rewrite gig in a dump is like turning up to your grandfather’s funeral in a leaky wetsuit: adding insult to injury. Not walking away is the worst thing you could possibly do – apart from giving cooked chicken bones to a dog.

2. Better out than in

The script stinks and you don’t know where to start? Cut, cut and cut some more. Be a butcher, not a MasterChef; a slash and burn arsonist, not a horticulturist. Never be afraid to cut: after all, the people who hired you probably can’t see the forest for the trees…

3. I’m in the dark here

You hear ‘things are moving’, but no one will tell you exactly what’s happening? Relax, it’s normal. You’re just the writer. If things are moving, it means your fix has worked. Now comes the hard part: putting the funding together, and that doesn’t involve the writer. You’re in the dark, and that’s where they’ve always kept mushrooms and writers.

4. If someone promises a fifty-fifty split, run

The eyes twinkle with an honest sheen and then come the magic words: ‘I can’t pay you now but we’ll split everything fifty-fifty’. Don’t hang around. Run, as fast as you can. You can be sure the same 50-50 split has already been promised to dozens of others. Remember The Producers? Springtime for Hitler. Winter for Writers and France.

5. If they describe themselves as a Creative Producer, run

Befitting an industry where there’s more subterfuge than at the height of the Cold War, the film business is all about code. And so when someone describes themselves as a creative producer what they’re really saying is a) they have no money themselves, b) they have no access to other people’s money, c) they want to take control of your script with a non-paying option for all eternity and beyond. Run.

6. A league of our own

There comes a point when you look at your hapless collaborators and ask: why am I stuck with these losers? It’s a moment of despair and the answer – the only logical one – is devastating: because you’re a loser too. Opposites never attract unless you’re applying a defibrillator to a dying tennis player. If you want to hang out with winners, you need to join another league.

7. Existentialism

They’ve hired you to rewrite a script and insist they want to work closely with you, but you’ve done all the heavy lifting on your own. Never be surprised when the promised collaboration turns out to be a solo act. It’s normal. If they could have fixed the problem themselves, they would have. You’re always on your own and frankly it’s better and faster that way.

8. Never touch Waitress, College Student and Model

What’s with all these insignificant female parts called Waitress, College Student and Model? Can’t you simply combine them all into one meaningful female character who actually has a name? You could, but you’ll be fired (as I was). They’re there because some producer has promised his girlfriends roles in a movie. You think I’m kidding? It’s pathetic I know, but so is Donald Trump running for president – and he’s not kidding either.

9. Tip-toe through the mine fields

There’s a star attached – great news, right? Not if everyone’s afraid of the star, because finance and distribution are dependent on her, and if she walks, the project’s dead. Behind the star’s back, various hangers-on will claim they know how to guide/control/reason/manage/influence her, but they’re exaggerating and it’s really a matter of tip-toe through the mine fields until someone goes boom – and it’s never the star.

10. If you don’t like it, leave it

People are very fond of saying this to anyone who might question the logic, or lack thereof, of some of the more dubious aspects of the film-making process. This is really excellent advice. If you don’t like it, leave it. Go jump in the lake. Or even better, if you think you’re so smart, go write a book!

Fever City: A Thriller (Faber & Faber) by Tim Baker is out 21 January, £12.99

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