Rewriting Success Story: AMADEUS

AMADEUS, Best Adapted Screenplay, Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer, rewriting -

Rewriting Success Story: AMADEUS

Rewriting a screenplay sucks. It’s painful. You know the story. It was compelling enough for you to write it in the first place. Why doesn’t everyone love it already? As a screenwriter toils through numerous drafts, it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Is all this rewriting really going to make the script better?

The answer, nine times out of ten, is yes. To provide some hope, here is perhaps one of the biggest success stories to come out of rewriting: AMADEUS.

Per The New York Times, which wrote an in-depth article on this subject in 1984, Peter Shaffer spent four months at a Connecticut farmhouse with Milos Forman to turn his play into a screenplay. They called it their “torture chamber.”

Most of their afternoons were spent arguing. Milos Forma was afraid elements from the stage play would make the film “stale”, so he developed “resentment” for everything in the original play. Peter Shaffer, understandably, had the opposite perspective, and tried to get in, “as much as possible” from the play.

Milos Forman recalled an argument over a single word could go on for hours. A three-page monologue by Salieri, cursing God, was replaced by a single shot of him throwing a crucifix into a fire.

For Peter Shaffer, having his play staged numerous times (London to Broadway) gave him even more “drafts” of this property, and along the way he continually heightened the confrontation between Salieri and Mozart, making “Salieri more and more an active participant” (a note that will surely sound familiar to many screenwriters).

What did Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman get for their troubles? AMADEUS was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2019, a sign of its enduring legacy.

It was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won 8, including Best Adapted Screenplay. It also won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (among others). It grossed 90 million on a budget of 18 million, making it not just a creative success, but a commercial smash hit.

The takeaway here isn’t just that Peter Shaffer is a great writer – it’s that rewriting sucked for Peter Shaffer as much (or more) than it sucks for any writer. He hated it. Peter Shaffer surely did not want to do this. But he did it. The headache resulted in arguably one of the greatest films of all time.

 

How much do you rewrite your screenplays? What has been your experience with rewriting? Let us know in the comments below.

 


6 comments

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  • Mark

    Three different “rewriting” stories—draw your own conclusions:

    Story #1. I was friends with a writer who had graduated form USC Film School and has generated some “heat” with his career form some of his student films. He showed me a couple of really impressive letters expressing interest in his latest script. I read it and it was pretty good. He had been “rewriting” the script for the previous 3 months and insisted it wasn’t yet ready to go out, though. Fast-forward 18 months—yes, 18 months. He called me in ecstasy because he was finally done with the rewrite. The people that had been interested had moved on (literally and figuratively) and the script was dead.

    Story #2. I had written a script for a big tent-pole movie early in 1998. My manager at the time was very well connected and he got it into one of the top 3 studios through a back-door. They came back with coverage in early April and I took two weeks off of work to do nothing but rewrite and polish to address the studio’s notes. I was done the third week in April. My manager sent out enticing emails all over town, promising them the polished script by Memorial day and we began to polish the script.

    52 drafts later (I’m not exaggerating—I saved them all numerically) and it’s now Early August when he sends back my latest draft with more changes. The last 20 drafts were spent moving commas in and out, arguing about “Oxford commas” and making numerous other minuscule grammatical changes. I finally said, "STOP!!! Do you really think that a studio is going to PASS on this script because I didn’t use “Oxford Commas” throughout the whole thing? We’ve spent the last 20 drafts replacing commas that we took out 10 drafts earlier and now, on draft 52, we’re taking them out again. I think it’s time we just said that this is the best we can do until we get some external feedback." He agreed, sent the script to the printer (this was 1998). He finally got it out to the people that had been waiting since late May.

    Cue the crickets…Lots of crickets…a Biblical PLAGUE of crickets…

    And remember what happened in the Summer of 1998—GODZILLA with Matthew Broderick TANKED in one of the biggest flops in history. SUPERMAN with Nick Cage was cancelled. I AM LEGEND with Arnold Swarzzeneggger (sp?) was cancelled. And he studio that gave the promising notes and had been waiting since May for the revision: They were all busy with their newest movie, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

    …And they say that a few commas never hurt anyone…sheeesh!

    How I rewrite now: Now when I finish a script, I do one rewrite pass and on polish before I send it out to a few paid coverage services (like Script Arsenal) that I trust to see where I really am. I realize that no matter how many drafts I do on my own, I will have no idea where I am until someone else reads it.

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