1 year ago I wrote 3 feature lengths script with the intention of having them produced. They were made for low budget companies and redrafted multiple times. Through this experience I learned just how difficult it was to get a script read as a new-comer. Put yourself in the shoes of any agent or producer who receives thousands of scripts each year. You’re only going to read the best of the best.
So I took a leap of economic ignorance and decided to begin producing my own short films. At least this way I could see my stories play out before an audience. That is the ultimate goal as a writer, after-all – inspiring others through stories. With a 5 minute video you’ll get the opportunity, with a 120 page screenplay you’ll catch little more than dust.
The lessons began on the first episode of Mountain Cult, and continue on today. I can say undoubtedly that filming your own stories will make you a better writer. Here is what I’ve learned:
- Treat every line, word and syllable with razor-sharp scrutiny. You may grow weary of glossing over it in the beginning, but you will have no idea how significant your dialogue choices are until you begin production. 4 drafts is nothing! Let’s take a scene where one character is lying on the ground and the other character approaches. Let’s give the character lying down something ordinary to say like “You look lost, mate.”
- The first take is a wide shot. Here is where you realize you’ve made the character Australian even though he’s German and armed with a Samurai sword.
- The second take is a shot over the approaching character’s shoulder followed by a shot over his shoulder. He’s now said the stupid line 3 times on film.
- After you have your over the shoulder shots, you realize he’s not in frame early on because you’re using a tripod and set the frame up for when he’s standing. You adjust the tripod and film his lying down with a downward angle, followed by an over-the-wrist shot with him lying down. Now you have heard the unnecessary word “mate” 5 times.
- You have all 5 shots for the scene done. You look at your slate and realize you’ve taken 30 takes already, since shots hardly ever require only one take.
- You get to the editing room and begin what you anticipate will be an easy job, only to discover each moment you have on film will be viewed, scrubbed over, and edited 5 times longer. If you film is 5 minutes, anticipate 2 hours worth of footage. If you have 2 hours worth of footage, anticipate 20 hours of editing. You will have heard your German Samurai call the approaching stranger “mate” upwards of 1,000 times.
2. Emotional movements everywhere
I have a tendency when writing to feel the momentum of the words each character is spewing out. They go on a verbal rampage, tearing into another character mercilessly until there is nothing left to destroy. I love writing this way, but it doesn’t always play out on scene as good as it feels. Your writing will be much more dynamic by using action to compel twists and turns. Here are two examples:
Sally tells Henry she would like a divorce. Henry tells Sally to give it a rest and grab him a beer. Sally grows even more angry, grabs his beer, and throws it at him.
Does it make sense? Yes. Is it true to life? Yes. Does it reel you into the story? Not really. Why? Because everything went as we expected it to. Here’s a different version of the same sequence:
Sally tells Henry she wants a divorce. Henry sighs and goes to the fridge. Sally tells Henry his alcoholism is the reason she wants a divorce. Henry opens the fridge but Sally slams shut on his fingers. Henry leaves and Sally opens the door to find a half-eaten cake with frosting that reads “I love you and I’m sorry.” Sally tears up, chases Henry outside, and finds him sitting in his convertible with his new girlfriend, who is eating a slice of the cake. Sally proceeds to stab them both to death.
3. Write what you can film
This 3rd lesson will be tested for me in approximately 1 week, when I attempt to reshoot the climatic sequence – one that involves a gun shot & a stabbing.
I absolutely despise handheld shots. That makes filming even the most inconsequential physical movements extraordinarily difficult for me, because everything is done on a tripod.
When I filmed episode 1 of Mountain Cult, there is was a line my character delivered as he released the hiker from his shackles then opened the lock to the gated door and made entry. I literally had to turn 2 keys then let myself in. How could this possibly be difficult, you ask?
The following scene involved my character interrogating the kidnapped hiker inside of the cell. For that scene to carry any weight at all, I needed to have a gun aimed at him in a threatening manner.
So now my character had to retrieve a gun (which had yet to be shown), unlock his shackles, and open the padlock. I realized I needed to time it right. I decided I would swoop up the gun off camera, return and release the shackles, then the padlock, then open the gate and enter. I practiced until I could do these things relatively quickly, but it still wound up taking about 10 seconds. Let me tell you something – try to find a movie where a character takes 10 seconds to do a basic human action such as pouring milk on cereal, cooking with the microwave, or vacuuming a room. They do not exist because only a sloth could pay attention to something mundane for that amount of time.
So to film this basic sequence, I had to adjust the tripod for a shot of me retreiving the gun, zoom in on the padlock for a shot I could cut to, and learn how to smoothly unshackle the cuffs by flicking a safety release without it being apparent on camera. I needed to do all that all while delivering the line.
As I mentioned a short ways up, I intend to film a sequence next week that involves a gunshot, a stabbing, and a take down. I’ve already built an air-propelled “squib” to produce the fake gun blast. I have fake knifes to simulate stabbing, and I have a blow-up mattress that could assist in any necessary rough-housing. But if I don’t get each little physical movement choreographed to the last detail, the resulting scene will be unwatchable and corny. Even the camera angles will need to be established beforehand for any simulated punches to appear realistic.
That’s all I’ve got for today. I hope this post helps anyone looking to write for film, and I highly encourage you to film your own story if you haven’t before. The process is difficult but exceedingly fun and well worth the effort.