Monday, August 25, 2008

Writing for Film, or, 'Any Idiot Can Make a Movie'

by Madeline Moore

Gird your loins, Lusties and bloghoppers alike – today’s topic is writing for film. ‘Golly, Mad,’ I can almost hear you say, ‘I didn’t know that you’ve had a feature film produced.’
That’s because I haven’t, and before you question my credentials, let me tell you this: There are people in Hollywood who make their living as screenwriters without ever seeing a film produced. Imagine that. Horrible, isn’t it?

I've had two feature filmscripts optioned at Writer's Guild of Canada rates,(and many more for the token dollar or two) and one half hour film produced by the National Film Board of Canada, writing under my real name. At any time, my partner Felix Baron and I have scripts being considered by half a dozen or so production companies all over the world, from Bollywood to Hollywood. Felix has had two movies produced but don’t go looking for them on the shelves of your video store, because neither,mercifully, has been released. Poor production values will sink any film. Maybe any idiot can make a movie, but making one good enough to secure distribution is another story.

I liken the successful production of a film to the successful production of a baby.
On the one hand,it happens all the time. On the other, it’s a freakin’ miracle. Here are the first steps to making a movie: A real producer reads a script he/she likes. She pays the writer for the right to run with the script by purchasing an option, usually for 1 or 2 years. She secures distribution, financing, a completion guarantee and brings the director on board. The film is cast, the preproduction folks get busy, and the writer is paid in full before a single frame of principal photography is shot.

Dream on. Here’s how it really goes: Some egomaniacal twit with access to $$$,not his own, decides to use it for ‘seed money’ and make a movie, because any idiot can make a movie. He loves your script. He doesn’t secure distribution. If the financing fails to happen, he blames the (now lousy) script. If some sort of financing is secured, he brings the director on board. The film is cast, the preproduction folks get busy, and the film is hopefully shot. Oops, there's a boom in this shot, an open door in that one, no sound for a few scenes and the climactic scene is so dark the action cannot be discerned. 'We'll fix it in post-production.' The editing takes forever. The errors are not fixed. The writer never gets paid and the film never gets shown.

Alternately: A real producer finds a script she likes. She contacts the writer thusly: ‘Hey! I love this script! Let me see what I can do!’ The writer says, ‘Sure!’ No option is mentioned. The writer attempts to forget that somewhere out there is a real producer running with her script. You might never hear from this producer again, or you might get good news from her in short order. Or, long after the writer actually has forgotten, years later, the producer might get in touch, asking if the script is still available. You never know. In The Business Time means nothing.

How to tell the difference between a real producer and an egomaniacal moron play acting as one? Sadly, it can’t be done. All producers look like madmen, or madwomen. Perhaps all of them are mad, as it takes an ego the size of the Titanic to be a producer. There are a few telltale signs to watch for, however:

The so-called producer arranges a meeting at a café and either doesn’t order lunch, or doesn’t pay for the writer’s lunch. Real producers spring for lunch.

The so-called producer says, ‘This time next year we’ll be in Hollywood, snorting coke off the bodies of hot young actors and actresses.

The so-called producer says, ‘I’m going to build the biggest Independent Production Company in the world.’

The so-called producer says ‘Any idiot can make a movie.’

Here's a picture of one of the great real producers working today, Mr. Harvey Weinstein.

My Favorite Anecdote from the shooting of my half hour film:

The producer is oversized in every way. He’s a big, loud, fabulous Czech/Canadian who spent time in jail after The Prague Spring of 1968. He is committed to drama, and young artists, of which I am one, love him.

The director is a good friend of mine. He’s a handsome young Romanian/Canadian who aches to be a filmmaker.

The DP is an intense, dark Chilean/Canadian who spent time in jail during the Chilean Revolution. He smolders with the need to make movies.

The writer is me. Plain old Canadian, no jail time, kind of scared and who wouldn’t be in this company?

The shoot is under way when I arrive at the middle class home that is the primary location for this film, a drama about teenage suicide.

The Director works with the actors, the DP works on framing the shot, the lighting guys light the sound guys test their equipment the make up people do make up the continuity person checks that everyone is wearing what they were wearing in the previous shot, which may have been filmed last week but will be cut together with the results of today’s shoot to make a scene, and hours pass.

Quiet on the set! Rolling...and Action!’

The scene unfolds. Oh my God all these people are here to make my words live on film. I’m overwhelmed.

The Producer is watching a video playback in a back room, which is so small he seems to fill it completely with his large frame.

Suddenly, he can be heard huffing down the hallway and a moment later, he bursts onto the set. He roars, ‘WHAT IS THIS SHIT IN THE FRAME?’

Whether or not it is shit is only your opinion,’ retorts the DP.

The producer responds with this: ‘IT IS NOT MY OPINION. IT IS ABSOLUTE OPINION!’

The DP quits, the Director suffers, the Producer raves and the writer goes home, with a brand new line she will use from now on when she wishes to have her own way, but not a great feeling about the prospects for the film. However, everyone makes up and the film is shot as written and distributed by The National Film Board of Canada. My first, and to date only, film credit.

Nuts and Bolts:

A feature filmscript is divided into three acts. As others have said, write a Beginning, a Middle and an End. The beginning introduces the problem. The Middle complicates it. The End unravels it and finishes with a cathartic climax.

In feature screenplays in particular, it is very important to get the %s right – 25% for Act I, 50% for Act #2, 25% for Act #3. It’s at 25% and 75% that we put our major plot twists. That keeps the energy coming. A twist should sling-shot the viewer.

The structure isn’t always obvious. There might be several plots, each of which has its own three acts. If one writes a 120 page script, most producers will open it at page 30, to see if the twist/act end is there, then to page 90, for the same reason. If that end of act twist is missing, he might not read the script.

One page of the script is equal to one minute. As a first timer, you’d be wise to write your screenplay with a calculator in one hand. Independent producers look for a page count of 85-90. You can go to 120 pages but it had better be really good. Anymore than that and your script might be rejected merely by being held in the hands and judged too heavy. How to keep costs down? Minimal locations, minimal exterior shots, minimal cast and no special effects. No kids. No animals. This just in: Don't write a spec animation film, the studios have their own animation people for that.

Scripts may be written and submitted online or printed, using Word, but I recommend the software Movie Magic or Final Draft.

Don't worry about camera angles. The only camera directions the writer needs to provide are 'POV' (Point of View) and 'Fade to Black' or 'Dissolve to White.' Directors and DPs don't want the writer to provide the camera directions. That's their job. Yay!

Presently there are an awful lot of adaptations being done, since books have a built in fan base. Producers generally avoid the R rating, which means we likely won’t be seeing adaptations of our erotic novels anytime soon. That could change. Happily, for all the trend-watchers and money and computers and suits focussed on the question, 'What makes a movie boffo box?’ they still cannot predict it. To this I say – HO HO HO.

In my opinion, a great screenplay reads like poetry. Every word is necessary or it shouldn’t be there. Every line of dialogue must move the plot forward.
A great script to read is The English Patient,screenplay by Anthony Minghella and Michael Ondaatje, adapted from Ondaatje’s difficult-to-read novel by the same name.
The director, the late Anthony Minghella did a beautiful job of transferring that book to the screen.

A script often used to teach screenwriters is Chinatown Here’s what the writer, Robert Towne, had to say about the creative process. “It seems like it took me forever to write–at least 10 months. It was difficult; all screenplays that are highly structured are difficult–you are not relying on the momentum of some picaresque tale to take you wherever you want to go. Always the hardest part of any story is to figure out the point of entry where your story begins.” –The Hollywood Reporter, July 2002

In my opinion, the most perfect movie ever is McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Adapted from the book McCabe by Edmund Naughton, screenplay by Robert Altman and Brian McKay. All the elements: acting, writing, directing, lighting, sound, colour, and soundtrack, are terrific. Kudos to the director, the late Robert Altman.

Research: Syd Field’s book, Screenplay used to be the one and only book screenwriters read. That’s changed. Robert McKee's book, Story, is the most read these days. He also conducts screenwriting seminars all over the world. Speaking of Robert McKee…there are lots of movies about making movies, but you really only need to see one, and it is Adaptation.

This movie, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, takes an inside look at adapting a popular book into a feature film. Robert McKee has a cameo in it. Charlie Kaufman and his brother Donald, hohoho, wrote the script, (although only Charlie showed up to accept his Oscar for best adapted screenplay, hohoho) and the writer of the book being adapted in the movie is also credited, Susan Orlean. This is a brilliant movie which you should see even if you don’t want to write movies, you just like watching them.

Speaking of Adaptation, you might notice that feature scripts in the movie have three holes punched in them, but only two brads, one at the top and one at the bottom, leaving the middle one empty. This is, in fact, how the hard copy of a feature filmscript should look. The cover page shouldn’t be fancy or tarted up in any way. You can copyright it with the WGA, even if you’re not a member, but it isn’t likely to do you much good. If they like your script they’ll buy it from you. If they like the idea, they’ll just steal it.

There’s a saying in Hollywood – ‘If a great script were thrown out the window of a taxi at midnight, it would be on a producer’s desk by morning.’ Nice, but I doubt it, Ralph.

I mentioned in my Lust Bites post of August 11, 2008, Writing For TV that Felix wasn’t as yet a paranoid screenwriter. In all honesty, he still isn’t – we send our stuff all over the world every day. But he’s getting there. Here’s what happened to us this year:

Felix and I wrote a ten minute short script, as a lot of filmmakers start out shooting shorts and we wanted to have one on our list of log/syns. He connected with a fellow (hereafter referred to as 'the jerk') who works in post production on a MAJOR television series out of L.A. and had already produced one short film. The jerk ran with our script (no option, no token exchange of a dollar) and even lined up some of the actors who appear in the MAJOR series to appear in our film. Oh Boy!

The Writer’s Guild of America strike threw a wrench into his plans. Once the strike had ended, the jerk called to say he’d decided to shoot an ‘in your face’ drama first, although eventually he was sure he’d still shoot our script. In the meantime, he wondered if we had a dramatic short he could have? Felix said no. He then asked if Felix had a FEATURE script he would be willing to cut to ten minutes? Felix said no.

A couple of weeks later, we saw a distinctive, highly original key scene from our script enacted on the MAJOR television show.

We wrote to the Executive producer of the series, mildly pointing a finger at the jerk and clearly stating that while we know we can’t copyright an idea we’d like the Executive producer, one of the biggest TV and movie producers in the world, to know where the idea came from.

A few weeks later we received a reply stating that the letter had not been read, in accordance with the prodco’s policy. Pretty much what we expected – but we like to think someone took the jerk aside and sternly suggested that next time he offers the major television show a scene from his own work he should make sure it really is his own. Grumble. Now, if our little film ever does get made, when people see the scene instead of saying, 'Wow, I've never seen that before,' they will say 'Saw it on TV.'
Grumble grumble.

So there it is. If you know aspiring filmmakers you might write a short film for them and see if it flies. These days you can write and produce a movie, shooting on video and transferring it to film, but you still need investors and distribution or your movie, even completed, will never be seen. So, pity the screenwriter who is a filmmaker first and a writer second, and be glad it isn’t you.

Do you have a favorite movie? Is there a novel you'd love to adapt for the silver screen? Have you written your Oscar winning speech yet? Do tell...


magdalune said...

I've always wanted to write a screenplay of the YA fantasy Which Witch? I think that would be an awesome movie.

I'll probably never do it myself, though.

Nikki Magennis said...

Adaptation is one of my favourite movies! I love that film to bits.

But screen/script writing scares me. Too much of a control freak, I expect.

Great post, Madeline, thanks.

Janine Ashbless said...

Madeline, you are brilliant - I love these posts. Thank you for scaring the hell out of us writers!

All my favourite books are already being made into movies. LotR was a whole lot better than I imagined it in my head. Narnia and Gormenghast ditto. And I can't wait for The Hobbit (well, except that I haven't much choice)!

You'll notice I don't go a bundle on serious literary books. I'm not sure cinema is the right medium for serious literature. Serious drama, yes. Wordy movies (eg Reservoir Dogs, which I loved, just look odd, like filmed plays.
Yet a decent script is absolutely vital to make sure a film works. Look at the Mummy series, to take a pop-culture example. The first film was well-scripted with an internal logic and plot momentum. The sequels are just spaghetti-like messes of random special effects without any atmosphere or conviction. *sigh*

Erastes said...

Wonderful post and most enlightening. I would adore a sumptuous costume drama adaptation of Standish one day (happy dream) but live in fear that they would change it beyond recognition!

Portia Da Costa said...

I love all sorts of movies, but I doubt if anything I write will ever have the scope to be made into a film. LOL

Madeline Moore said...

Morning! Thanks for the early bird (for me, anyway) comments.

You never know, could happen. First thing to do, of course, would be option the screen rights from the author...after that, well, you've read my post.

You make a good point, Nikki. I'd have to think on the control freak/screenwriter issue. The $$ might soothe the ruffled feathers of a cf...or maybe not.

Ah, sequels, Janine. Francis Ford Coppola sputtered, 'I CREATED the sequel.' And his were terrific.
But they are often, probably usually, lousy.

Erastes, it is a lovely dream, isn't it? Who would you thank, if your dream came true and you were the screenwriter and you were dressed in couture and diamonds when your name was called out as the winner of the 'best adapted screenplay' Oscar? (The happy ending to the lovely dream.)

Portia, I'm not sure 'scope' is the key issue to books being adapted to the screen.

Well, the blog is launched. Time for coffee!

Madeline Moore said...

Here's another movie issue that bugs me. What's with the alternate endings? Don't producers know that a good story only HAS one possible ending? Grrrrr....

Adaptations can be surprisingly good.
I remember expecting 'Garp' to be carp, but it was really well done. There are others but I can't think of them right now. Did someone mention coffee?

Kate Pearce said...

Oh My God.
I am never going to write a screenplay despite that woman who writes to me and begs me to and even offers cast suggestions.
I am not doing it ever...
I don't know how you stand it, Madeline-but you rock!

Madeline Moore said...

Yeah but Kate, did I mention the $$$ is good? hohoho.

I rock? Why, thank you!
Brilliant, Janine? Why thank you!
My ego is stoked.

Hey! I know! Let's make a movie!

Janine Ashbless said...

Alternate endings?
I've bust a gut trying to get hold of a copy of "The Butterfly Effect" which has the original theatrical ending. But oh no - all you can find now is the Director's Cut with a different and utterly risible in-vitro ending. Ruined the film for me.

The director is not always right.

Although ... I did hear a rumour that in the US they released Brasil with a happy ending because the American audience couldn't cope with a tragic one...

Madeline Moore said...

The version of 'Once Upon a time in Mexico' I saw on TV had Salma Hayek alive at the end so I was very surprised when I watched the sequel and discovered she'd died. Bugs me.

I usually enjoy the Director's cut. I have to say most of the time I think the Director is right. Or, at least, the film should be his to make. If the screenwriter creates the blue print of the project, the director is the architect who builds it. Producers should stay off the set, but of course they don't.

Actually, that's a real problem with producers. They ALWAYS want to be part of the creative team. They aren't usually interested in just coming up with the bucks, etc. they want to feel like they're artists. Sigh. Not all of them of course, and some of them ARE artists but for the most part...gack.

Investors often want to be cast in the movie, too. You'd be surprised how crazed buttoned down suits get when they get a whiff of 'The Business.'

Madeline Moore said...

By the way I caught a neat little flick on the Movie Network last night called 'Shoot 'Em Up. It starred Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti and had lots and lots of, yeah, guns, but I think, altho it would be considered a big budget movie in Canada, it was a low budget indie by American standards.
The director was Michael Davis, whom I've never heard of.

I checked the length at the end - 86 minutes. Since my post was already up I was very pleased to see it fall within the range I suggested for a low budget film.

The story was very good and the shoot em up scenes, one basically after the other, were inventive.

Nikki Magennis said...

Um, did anyone see the alternate US end version of Pride and Prejudice?

Very. Wrong.

Janine Ashbless said...

What happened Nikki? Surely she didn't fail to get Mr Darcy?!

Madeline Moore said...

Yes, Nikki, don't leave us hanging.
And I'm sorta scared I'm like De Niro here, in 'Taxi Driver', looking at myself in the cybermirror and barking, 'You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? There's nobody ese here, you must be talkin' to me!

Hey, there's an idea. Today (Tuesday) let's do impersonations from our favourite movies.

'I haven't fucked like that since Grade School.' Helen Bonham Carter in 'Fight Club'

'I love the smell of napalm in the morning.' Easy peezy. but it's from my favourite movie - 'Apocalypse Now.' Hint - another way to avoid the cost of filmschool and get the same education is to watch AN, original, then AN Director's Cut, and then (or OK instead of one of the above) 'Hearts of Darkness' the amazing docu his then wife made of their time in the Phillipines.

One more quote, from my a real gem.
'Did you make that up?' She says, laughing at a bon mot.

'Yeah. Well, first I saw it on TV, then I made it up.' John Travolta from 'Saturday Night Fever.' Ohhhh what a movie!

Madeline Moore said...


Adaptation is a fave for you? Do you know what the surprise twist is?

Another film with a really great twist at the end - The Sixth Sense.

Janine Ashbless said...

"I say we take off and nuke the planet from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

I think that quote may be the best advice of all time. I want it on my gravestone.

Madeline Moore said...

'Get away from her you bitch!' - Riply saving Newt, the little girl, from the mama Alien in Alien 1. (A terrific sequel, equal to 1. But I hated 3...cause Newt died.)

Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

Fascinating treatise there Madeline. I've been interesting myself in the whole moviemaking thing, but the scriptwriting is something I hadn't given my full attention to until I read your piece. Nice work! I'll have to look into some of the books and movies you refer to. Do you work with some writer's guild in Toronto or are you and Felix on your own? I'm in the Toronto area too, BTW.

Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

Do you suppose the new Northern Peaks Digital TV network of Canadian-content porn will be opening up any opportunities for writers of the X-rated variety to get their scripts and adaptations on the air? Northern Peaks was reported in the Globe this past week under the title "Debbie Does Deer Lake" and in the National Post as "Debbie Does Flin Flon".

Madeline Moore said...

Hi Karl,

Felix and I are members of the Writer's Guild of Canada (under our real names.) The Guild doesn't find us work. It handles the paperwork for Guild members when we are working on 'union' shoots, which is what legitimate production companies shoot. But there are ways to make a movie for less than minimum and still retain Guild status, since the film biz in Canada is so...what's the word? Fractured? Naisent? Screwed up?

Felix and I contacted 'Northern Peaks' to see if they'd actually be using scripts for their productions, which they will not.
Porn scripts usually have a half a page of dialogue, then blank pages, one page for one minute of sex, then after five or ten blank pages another coupla sentences of dialogue and then more blank pages. They would consider buying a film from us if we produced one, but they aren't looking for scripts.

Thanks for your comments, Karl! I thought i was going to have to come in here and make a few comments up so I could reach '20'. Hoho.

I should say, though, that in my comment about Ripley I was quoting 'Aliens' (Alien 2) which I misidentified as Alien 1, making my comment confusing.

Well folks, in case there are no more comments - remember - we'll always have Paris!

Kelly Maher said...

Madeline, I meant to comment earlier! This was so informative. I *really* learned a lot about the screenwriting process :) Thanks!!