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 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.'
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...