Learn Basics to Becoming a Film Maker
Start With a Good Story
To begin with, in a nutshell, filmmaking is broken down into three parts. Pre-production, Production, and Post-production. Distribution is the last part, way down on the timeline and doesn’t come into play until everything is in the can. However, if you are ever going to get to distribution you will need to spend a great deal of time in the Pre-production phase. There are times when you don’t have that luxury, especially if you are shooting on the fly, but more often than not a film can take years to make. This can keep it in the Pre-production process much longer.
If I was to write about filmmaking, and I am (wink), I guess I would have to start with the script, story, or concept. Screenwriting is usually split into three different styles. They are: narrative (linear), non-linear, and documentary. Narrative stories follow a timeline taking the story from beginning and moving chronologically to the end.
Non-linear is the opposite of chronological. An example of a non-linear is the movie “Momento” or “Pulp Fiction”. These directors chopped up time and used time sequencing to throw the viewer off balance. While non-linear has gained popularity, it seems that the narrative film is the more enduring style. It is much more difficult for folks to figure out what is going on in the non-linear format, that may be one of the reasons it is used.
The third format would simply be, documentary. This is a real-time reality presentation letting the facts present themselves with little or no direction or editing. Documentary is different from Narrative in that the director works to keep from manipulating the production as little as possible. Narrative film is all about the director manipulating a scene to illicit certain reactions from the viewer, therein lies the difference between the two.
Depending on the story you are telling, you will choose the best format to use. While the narrative and linear may have traditional scripting, you may have to refer to an interview script in the documentary format. This may simply be a list of questions to be asked, usually by an off camera interviewer, allowing the subject/talent to drive the dialog.
Many times there is no real dialog to script except for the questions an interviewer will ask. Much of documentary film is done by showing up and filming things as they are happening with some narration to explain to the viewer what they are watching.
There was a type of documentary films referred to Cinema Veritέ. This means “cinema truth” in French and of course was made popular by the French in the 1950’s. This was done as an effort to remove artifice from film to allow a more truthful depiction of a story.
In Veritέ the camera is to be merely set up and turned on. Additionally there is to be as little editing as possible. The theory being that even the act of editing a film is
manipulating the true representation of what is really (truthfully) happening. Hey, these guys would have loved Reality TV, but at the time (1950’s) Veritέ was considered cutting edge.
So now you need an idea, a concept, an inspiration. If you want to make film you have to have a story or two in you, so if you don’t already have a story itching to get out, then you need to brainstorm. The word brainstorm means that your brain puts out, literally, a storm of energy with all the ideas pouring out like swollen rain gutters.
This will happen somewhere after your first cup of coffee on a Sunday morning or in the shower, maybe even on a street corner. You got into the idea of filmmaking because to some extent you must be a creative person. So, I recommend lots of caffeine and your favorite conditions for daydreaming.
Your most comfortable chair, and a good computer are always good, but inspiration can come at inconvenient times when you are away from the comfort of your own computer and desk. Always have something to write with and a piece of paper handy in case of the “writing rapture” or sudden inspiration.
Another way to handle this is to have a small tape recorder or a voice recognition software. There are several inexpensive MP3 players that play/store music as well as letting you record. These will have a small microphone already in the device. Use this to get your ideas down.
When you are in the grocery store or just crossing the street it is a good idea to be able to get it (your inspired ideas) down before it leaks back out of your ear. I swear from the crosswalk to the car I can forget an idea, that is how scattered my brain is. If however, all you are left to write down your ideas with is a purple crayon and an old piece of paper, well then, just go with it.
It is always nice to have a partner in the writing process. Actually, it is good to have a partner through the whole production process. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are the most notable partnership that comes to mind. Having each other to bounce ideas off of can make things happen quicker and it is a hell of a lot more fun.
Dialog is not done in a vacuum. Someone has to write it and someone has to say it, then someone has to hear it. This is a symbiotic relationship, each part depending on the other, hence the need for a partnership of some sort to use as a sounding board.
The most exciting time for me in the whole screenwriting process is to have taken a class in writing screenplays and to have a panel reading in that class. Everyone in the class has to pick a scene from their screenplay and have a panel of people read it aloud to an audience consisting of the rest of the class.
All participants in the class have an opportunity to be the author, the actor and the audience each in their own turn. After the reading, each student’s script is discussed. This has got to be one of the best experiences in writing I have ever had especially for writing comedy.
In comedy, you know immediately if you’ve got winning dialog just by whether you get the laugh or not. Not everyone can achieve this so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a laugh. That is what your group can help you figure out afterward, this is where the brainstorming comes in. Comedy is difficult to write. You have to have a good sense of timing. It seems with comedy, you either have a gift for it or you don’t.
The trick here is to do these group readings regularly with a line of progression happening in the film writing process. The idea is to have a whole screenplay at the end of it all. It doesn’t matter if it is two people or a whole group of people, but do meet with your partners, meet regularly and do your writing in between. At the end of a few months you will have something to show for your efforts.
It’s all in the rewrite. Rewriting will be the Bain of your existence as a writer but you will eventually find out that it is a process that pays off greatly in the end. Additionally, you will want to save your drafts from each rewrite because you may want to refer to them later, so try to keep each version complete. I suggest making files expressly for your different drafts and you may want to keep these and all your writing in a safe place. Make back-up copies on a Thumb drive or disk and keep that in a safe place in case something happens, like your computer crashing.
Once you have it on paper, tell your story to you parents, your wife, your kids, your sister or brother, your best friend and just about anybody that knows you intimately. Observe their reactions. If they are negative don’t worry, move onto telling a friend or someone else that may be more objective.
Be careful how you tell your story because you are not in the business of giving away your ideas for free however, do tell it or parts of it and see how people react. You do not tell stories or write screenplays in a vacuum. You must want at some level to please the public, therefore you must have some sort of an arena for you to gage how effective your story is.
I wrote a screenplay for class and I felt very passionate about it. I was very excited to hear what would happen after it was read by a panel of students in my class. The reaction to the reading was a split, one half of the class loved it and the other half had a big reaction to it. It made them uncomfortable and they didn’t like it. They all had loud opinions about the script.
At first I was very worried but then the teacher finally had his word with the class on their split opinion. He told them that my screenplay was effective. Not necessarily because everyone liked it, but because it had people on both sides of the issue reacting and talking, this caused them to engage in a dialog about the issues that the film brought out.
The teacher told the class that it didn’t matter what they said, at least they were all talking. I thought it sounded a bit like “all press it good, even bad press”, but he seemed to think that this was a good indicator of how my script would be received. After I thought about it I saw that he had a point.
When the movie “Monster’s Ball” came out I heard what people said around me about it. There were those that just did not like it and there were those that thought the sex in the movie was just gross, yada, yada, yada. I, however, saw the sex as an integral part of the film. While the act of Hallie Barry having sex right after the death of her son was considered an irreverent and inappropriate one, it was also seen by other’s as very honest and very human and life affirming.
Most importantly, it had people talking and you can’t ask for better press that that. Hallie Barry needed this vehicle to punch her through to the success she gained in being the first Black Woman to win an Oscar. She would not have made it through with a role that was written limp-wristed. It had to have an edge to it. The old Hollywood formula of screenwriting has changed.
There are some that still prefer a good conflict neatly resolved at the end of the story but there is now an equal share of the market going to those that write about stories that do not have nice neat resolutions to them. These are the movies that are meant to be unsettling and make you ask “now what did they mean by that?” So whatever you story happens to be, just tell it.
When you are out observing people at someplace like the mall, notice their movements and expressions. If they are talking, listen shamelessly to what they are saying. If it is interesting you won’t be able to help yourself. Use it in your screenplay. This type of observing can help you to make your sketches for the characters in your script.
There can be several triggers to get the script out on the page. Do character development borrowing from you own environment. Your story can spring up from a well-developed character sketch, or perhaps a story can be found in the location. Certainly location can drive many things in the script. Time period can also drive a screenplay. While many a script is written in the present, there are those that are written in the past or even in the future. This can determine many different factors in your story.
All of these elements of story development are used when creating your character’s back-story. The back-story consists of the details of life prior to your character in the here and now. The back-story can make your character more three dimensional, more real. The back-story provides the character’s motivations as well.
You might think writing a back-story to be a waste of time, but you will find yourself referring to it again and again. While this may not prove to be useful for the present film you are working on, many a sequel has been built off of the back-story to the original film. You will also refer to the back-story because it may give you motivations and keep you consistent with your “facts” so the continuity of the script is not compromised.
Scriptwriters for screen and television have very specific formats for their scripts. This is something that you should study before you actually submit a completed script. If you are working off of your own script for production you generally don’t have to worry about the form being perfect, but if you submit it to the studio or their representatives then keep as close to the expected format as you can.
I hate the red pen. They even call it “red-lining” a script. If you are fortunate to shop your film and get it picked up by a studio then you may have to deal with the red pen used to hack your original story into more of what the studio thinks it should be. This is the main reason that Independent film has grown like wildfire. The artist can maintain the integrity of his screenplay with no major changes to the script.
It is important to remember that there is a distinct difference between writing for film and writing for television. Television, although it has expanded, it still in the box and on the small screen. Television is dialog driven while film is not. It is not necessary to have dialog in a film for a story to be told. So when writing for Film, understand that there is a difference.
It has been said that the test of a good film is to watch it with the sound turned off. You should be able to follow the story just by the movement of the film. None of that talking head stuff works in film the way it does in TV. One can easily write for both Film and Television but you have to keep in mind that they are 2 very different mediums.
If you are used to watching TV or you have written for TV you will be expecting dialog rich scripting, but with film be careful with your use of dialog. When writing for film, remember not to write too many stage directions as this is the director’s job and they get a little fussy about that.
There are many sound elements to write from. Some of these are the ambient sound in the film environment, the musical soundtrack, the character dialog, or voice-over narration. These are all elements that can be written into the script like dialog. They tell the story just as effectively as straight dialog.
There is screenwriting software available with the templates already in place for you to plug in your script. Shop and see what is out there, but at the least try to get a book on how this is done. Upon further research I found a site to help out. Lester Crombie from the Queensland School of Film and Television has kindly made available a simple template for download.
Put “Lester Crombie ” in Google or the search engine of your choice and he has for download a very simple template for screenwriting and also a download for a manual in PDF file format. There are software packages out there that are costly… about $100 but this one should get you started. Personally I feel you don’t need all the bells and whistles, just a basic template that you can use to plug your screenplay into.
One of the things that can drive you crazy is worrying about getting “it” just right. Writing dialog can be challenging in that a natural flow will need to happen. Audiences will be turned off by stiff and phony sounding dialog. While that is the ultimate goal, you may have to rewrite a line several times to achieve this.
It is ironic that you have to work so hard to make it sound natural but this is important. However, that can all be changed and reworked later, first just get what comes out of your mind down on paper. If you sit and look at a computer screen for hours and type nothing you will never start.
There are a few simple things that all full-length screenplays have in common. They will all have the same length. The Hollywood movie has gone with the same formula for many years and it is still the standard by which most screenwriters all write.
A typical screenplay will have 120 pages. It will consist of 3 acts separated into 30 pages for each act. Each page of scripting represents about 1 minute of screen time with the majority of films running between 90 and 120 minutes.
As a first film it may be easier for you to write a short film. There are many short films that have really wonderful stories that can’t be told in 90 minutes. This gives the short film a chance to be made. This is a great opportunity for you to make your first film. Short films can be good for the first time filmmaker for a number of reasons.
The first reason in favor of producing a short film is that you have a greater chance of having your film being completed. A short film is manageable on a low budget and the financing of your film will assuredly be the biggest stumbling block. Producing a 60 second Public Service Announcement seemed like it should be easy, but you have no idea how long 60 seconds can be. I do because I had to produce a 60 PSA for a station I once worked for. My advice is to try the short film first, as a matter of fact, do a couple before moving on to a feature length.
Also in the beginning you will have to depend on the good graces of your actors and crew. A short film is a good way to have your actors in and out quickly so they don’t get peevish about their time spent. You never know when you might need them for the next film. The most important thing you need to remember to budget is food service. You must feed your people or they will revolt. The one thing you want is to keep your talent and crew happy.
When you have, for the most part, finished your script and wish to share it with others it is recommended that you write a treatment. A treatment is a short description of your screenplay outlining what the story is about. Treatments consist of 3 or 4 pages and each page represents one act of your screenplay. They can be a bit longer but no more than an extra page or two.
The treatment has to be the best of your screenplay and it must be written in a very clever way. This is what you show around to garner interest in your screenplay. Show the treatment to your mom and dad, your sister and brother, your best friend, and maybe even your instructor at school. While they are offering advice you have a chance to gage their
reactions, and decide if these responses are what you want from your viewing audience. Listen to their feedback and make whatever necessary script changes that may come to your attention.
Call this group of people that you share with your “Core Group”. This group has to be people your trust. Not necessarily your mom or dad, but people that you are sure of in your trust of them. It is a difficult thing to have to discuss and while it would be nicer to pretend it doesn’t happen, there are those people out there that will steal your work. Read up on how to protect your ideas before you put them out there on Front Street.
Look up copyrighting your work on the Internet. You will probably find an example of the “Poor Man’s Copyright” as one of the ways of protecting your work. Maybe one of your classmates suggested you use this method, but I would advise against it. Instead register your screenplay with the Writer’s Guild of America.
Next send away for a copy of the application for copyright (Application Form PA) at the following address:
Register of Copyrights, Copyright Office
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20559
Don’t be foolish and let this one go unchecked. It doesn’t cost much to at least register copyright on your screenplay. As you move forward with your production you may need to revise your copyright to extend to other aspects of the production but at least register it with the Copyright Office and the Writer’s Guild in the beginning.
Once you have done this you can move forward with shopping your script if that is what you want to do. One thing that you must remember though is that once you sell your screenplay or enter negotiations to do so, it might be necessary for you to compromise. If the producer and director decide to, they can cut your film or rewrite it to the point that it may not even resemble what you originally wrote. Avoid the red pen by making your own film any way you can.