Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Make a Movie: More Screenwriting Thoughts

As I've been writing up my class notes as blog posts, I've been a little uncertain where to insert certain thoughts.

Screenwriting is, after all, a very broad topic, and trying to fit every little idea into one post seems a little haphazard.

Unfortunately, putting them in this second post still seems haphazard. I guess I could create a numbered list, but that just seems so official.

So, here are a few random things I've learned about screenwriting over the last 12 years.

(Yes, that's how long I've been writing screenplays.)

First, make sure that the movie you're writing is going to be interesting.

Most people, when they go to write their first script, forget that there needs to be a story. While I love Tarantino, and people love to debate whether his dialogue is really great, or merely very good, most people take the wrong lesson from his work.

They figure, "Oh, I have interesting conversations. I'll just transcribe those, and that'll be what the characters say, and later there will be scenes with guns. It'll be awesome."

Don't do that.

In every scene, something needs to be happening. Your characters shouldn't just sit down and have a friendly chat. It has to be a chat with a purpose.

It has to further the story. It has to tell the audience something about the character speaking.

So remember how I made you write out that beat sheet? The two or three pages that tells your entire story. Make sure you go back to it, all the time, and follow it.

This brings me to another thought: Don't say, "I'll fix it when I'm making it."

The other day, one of my students asked if, since they had made movies already first semester, if they could just improvise their dialogue second semester.

I told the student no.

When they asked why (sorry for the odd pronouns, but I refuse to tell you anything about my students... I think they're awesome, but who they are is none of your business) I explained that when you show up to shoot a movie, you need to have something to shoot.

A lot of actors like to brag that they improvised their dialogue, or made changes on the set. And that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Except at the end, when you have to cut the movie together, and suddenly the movie doesn't make any sense any more.

Don't get me wrong, there ARE actors who can improvise their words from the first scene to the last, and make it work. They get hired by Christopher Guest. If your actors aren't in his movies, chances are good the stuff they come up with on the day isn't going to be all that funny.

Don't get me wrong, your cast and crew will probably laugh. But when you start editing, and see what you actually shot, you'll realize your story wanders, your scenes go on forever, and you can't cut anything out because everyone talks over each other and you can't cut from shot to shot.

If you want to improvise on the set, go ahead. If you want to make changes to the dialogue on the set, go ahead. But before you decide to wing it, write great dialogue, shoot that dialogue, and then do a few takes where your actors play around.

Just trust me.

While I'm at it:

Don't write your script as a platform for your political beliefs. If you can slip some ideas in while telling a great story, give it a shot. But I promise you, they'll stick out like a sort thumb.

And by the way, don't do this even if you're going to shoot the movie yourself. A boring political screed is just as dull on the screen as it is on the page.

Same goes for your "poor tortured artist" story. Don't write that one either, because the story is, of course, loosely based on your life. No one wants to read it. Trust me. And if you make it yourself, no one will want to watch it.

If you're thinking about making an indie film, don't do a coming of age story. And it would probably be wise to avoid writing a drama of any kind. A good drama is awesome, but a bad drama is just painful to deal with. And even if you have a great scene in there somewhere, chances are no one will remember it, because they'll fall asleep in the first 20 minutes or so.

The two best (not easiest, but best) genres to tackle when writing a script are horror or comedy.


Because both of them can get to the screen mistake-and-weakness filled, and still be considered entertaining.

To my mind the two classic examples here are "Clerks" and "Phantasm."

"Phantasm" looks cheap in a lot of places. The acting is so-so. There are a ton of dream sequences that are freaky, but don't really lead up to anything. And the ending is a gotcha out of nowhere.

But it's given people nightmares for years, and spawned three sequels. Why? It might have been cheap, but it's got a lot of little things that stick with you, and creep you out.

And then there's "Clerks." Made for less than fifty grand. Shot at night, because they could get the place for free. Long takes because Kevin Smith wasn't much of a director. Really long scenes that take a while to get anywhere. Iffy editing.

But the movie is memorable, and launched a career. Why? It's funny, it's quotable, and people remember it.

People let the flaws go because the films are entertaining. Chances are, if Kevin Smith had made a drama, we would never have heard from him again.

This post has gotten long and wandered around a bit, so a couple more thoughts and then I'll call it finished.

If you're writing a movie to make on your own, you need to both think big and ask yourself, "What can I really accomplish?"

If you work at a University, and can get access to a marching band, go for it. Use what you've got to make the biggest movie you can.

But if you live in the middle of a farming community, and the nearest large school is 100 miles away... hold the band. Come up with an awesome scene in a grain silo instead.

If you're writing the movie for Hollywood, on the other hand... think really big. The bigger the better. Don't just write a little drama about two brothers who can't get along. Write a story about two brothers, one that's a pirate, and one that's a ninja.

Give them a dragon for a dad. Think really, really, really, really big.

Make a splash in whatever way you can.

Most importantly, have fun. Because if you didn't have fun writing, people aren't going to have fun reading and shooting.

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