Thursday, August 16, 2007

Movie Production Series Pre-Production Screenwriting

"Once you've decided to become a screenwriter, you can never again go out and enjoy a movie. Because if it's a good movie, your basic screenwriter will get depressed, confident that he'll never be able to turn out something that good. On the other hand, if you see a bad film, you come down with high blood pressure thinking, 'How Come that piece of dreck got produced, when my stuff is still sitting in a trunk in Toledo?'"
- BARRY SCHNEIDER (Screenwriter of Harper Valley PTA and Take This Job and Shove it)

To some in the film industry, the screenplay, the written version of a movie before it is actually filmed, is the most vital aspect of the film. To other filmmakers, it's merely a vague outline of a story to be altered as much as they see fit.

A good way to become a director is to start off as a writer. Several good screenplays can be the route to achieve the responsibility of producing or directing a film. Unfortunately, getting that many scripts made and sold is not an easy thing to do.

When deciding a story to write about for a movie, there are a few things to take into consideration. Try to avoid issue oriented screenplays. This is recommended for many reasons. First, if your opinion is contrary to popular public opinion, the movie could become a box-office failure. Even if you think you take the same perspective of most viewers, public opinion might change from the time you write it to the time it makes it to the screen - if it makes it to the screen at all. Another general thing to avoid is basing a screenplay on a current fad. When Can't Stop The Music was written to be the first starring role for the Village People, Disco music was still popular. However, by the time the movie came out, there had been a disco backlash, and the movie bombed.

The easiest thing that can be taught about writing is the format, but another thing to remember is to "write what you know." A script will be better if you can draw from your own experiences. But if you do want to write about something that you have little knowledge of, you should do research to make a credible script. Also, the screenplay must be a story that you care about or feel is important in some way, or you'll eventually lose interest and have trouble forcing yourself to finish it. To keep the reader's interest, something must hold tension, whether it be comedic or dramatic, throughout the entire script.

Know your characters. Everything a character to does or says should be consistent with the character's personality. Some people like to envision a particular person or actor in the parts being written to make it easier to decide how to write the character.

The screenplay needs to be completely self-contained. It starts off with an inciting incident somewhere in the first ten pages which tells the reader what the movie is going to be about. After that, every ten pages must have a plot point which keeps the story moving. A little bit before the middle of the screenplay, about page 50 to 55, a mid-point crisis should occur that takes the story in a logical but unexpected direction. The conclusion should come at page 105 to page 120 (each page is a minute of film time, and most movies are two hours or shorter).

For first time screenwriters, low budget scripts are going to be the easiest to sell. No studio is going to trust a $100 million investment to an amateur screenwriter with a spec script, which is a screenplay written with the speculation that it will sell even though no body has told you to write it. Any scene of extravagant action or special effects must be necessary to the plot, or should probably be avoided all together. Fantasy, horror, and science-fiction should not be attempted by the beginning screenwriter, because of the expenses of the special effects involved. Period pieces can also be pricey because of the sets and costumes used to re-create the era, so it is best to stick with contemporary times.

Don't let your screenplay get too top heavy with dialog. If a story editor - the person who goes through the entire script to decide whether or not it would be profitable for the production company to film - sees that the script is full of characters talking but rarely doing any sort of visual action, it will be harder to sell.

The most common mistake first time screenwriters make is to try to direct the movie while they are writing it. For instance, if a screenwriter wants to have a certain word emphasized in the dialog, he might put it in all caps. However, it is the job of the actors and directors to decide how a line should be read. The only things in screenplays that are all caps besides scene headings and dialog headings are sound effects and the name of a character the first time we see them. The scene heading, visual exposition, and dialog are the only necessary elements in a submission script. Numbering the scenes, camera angles or movements, and scene transitions only matter after the screenplay has been purchased, and is the director's problem, not the writer's. All of that is decided for the shooting script.

Be sure not to leave gaps in visual exposition (which explains the actions or setting). Often, your mind will see one thing, but what you write won't convey it accurately. On the other hand, be sure not to overdo the visual exposition. It's not good to use six words when three can convey the exact same thing. You want the story editor to have an enjoyable, smooth read, and not have to spend time scanning through unnecessary words.

Starting small and working up is the best approach to writing a script. Before the screenplay is written, it is very helpful to write a logline and treatment outline first. In the logline, simply write a one to two paragraph synopsis of what your movie is going to be about. This prepares you for the more formidable task of writing the treatment outline. The treatment outline is a bare bones version of the entire movie. In other words, the treatment outline briefly describes what happens in every notable scene in the movie and in the order that it will appear. It's like the screenplay, except without all the dialog and the extensive visual exposition specifics.

Even in the treatment outline, the scene headings, which describe the location of the scene, are mandatory. The scene heading begins with either "EXT." or "INT," depending on whether the scene takes place indoors or outdoors. EXT. means exterior and therefore shows that the scene takes place outside. INT. means interior and thus is used when the scene takes place inside. After that, the exact place of the scene is displayed, such as "HOTEL ROOM." The last thing that must be described is whether it is night or day.

So, here is what a completed scene heading might look like:




Writing what happens at this location is the difficult part. In the treatment outline, each scene can be summed up in about a paragraph. After all of the scene summaries are complete, the treatment outline can be anywhere from 15 to 40 pages, but the shorter, the better. Once the treatment outline is completed, writing the actual screenplay is much easier. Without a treatment outline, it's easy to stray from the spine of the story, because the treatment outline is like a map. It tells you exactly where you need to go in case you start to ignore the script's main idea.

The actual screenplay, which must be done in courier font, starts out with a title page which consists of the title, whether the screenplay is original or based on a book, and the writer's name. After the title page, every page must be numbered. The preferred method of page numbering is to put a footer at the bottom of the page which has the title followed by a dash, followed by the word "page," followed by the page number. For instance, if the movie were called "Extreme and Desperate Measures," this is what the bottom right hand section of the page would look like: "Extreme and Desperate Measures - Page 1."

The first page of the screenplay starts with the title at the top of the page and is followed by the words "FADE IN," which is followed by the first scene. Scenes almost always open up with visual exposition no matter whether we've seen the particular location already or not. The location must be described first so we can better envision the action that's about to take place. Also, before any of the characters start talking, we need to establish which characters are in the scene in the first place. The name of the character speaking the dialog is centered and underneath it are the words that are spoken, which are left justified. The visual exposition is also left justified. The screenplay ends with the words "FADE OUT."

When the screenplay is complete, three holes are punched in it, white card stock with the movie title and your address or the literary agent's and number are attached to both sides and it is held together with brads. The only thing left to do is to sell it or film it.

Quick format tips:

(V.O.) = Voice Over is used when a character's voice is coming over the sound track. This is utilized mostly for narration or to let us hear the character's thoughts. The dialog heading looks like: NARRATOR(V.O.)

(O.C.) = Off Camera. When we hear a character's voice, but don't see the character, like when they are in a different room, this is used. The dialog heading looks like: DAVE(O.C.)

(Beat): This is used when there is a pause within a character's dialog. There are a few variations such as (Pause) and (A beat), which perform the same function. For instance:

You're welcome!

Son looks at mother angrily.

Did I thank you?
(A beat)
If I didn't thank you, you have no right to say that I'm welcome.

(Filtered): This is used when we hear a character's voice coming from something such as a speaker or a telephone. The dialog heading looks like: DANNY(Filtered)

(Overlapping): Used to show that two characters are talking over one another.

If we'd gotten one of those normal marriages, we'd probably be divorced by now. Isn't that terrific, honey?

Husband looks at wife expectantly.

Hooray for covenant marriages.

I said, aren't covenant marriages great?

MOS = Without sound. This is used when we see two characters talking, but we don't hear what they are saying. For instance: Janine and Ken are talking MOS.

It's a good idea to get someone to proof read your script not just for grammatical errors, but for overall impact. No matter how good a screenwriter you are, it is very difficult to look at your own work objectively. A great way to get feedback is to find a group of fellow screenwriters and organize a meeting wherein one person will read aloud about 15 to 20 pages of screenplay, and the other members give constructive comments and suggestions. Then the next person reads his pages, and the others comment.

After you get input, rewrite the script over and over. Finally, you should register your screenplay with the Writer's Guild Of America. The Writer's Guild will prefer to receive a copy of the entire screenplay to give it a registration number, but can also accept treatment outlines. This protects your work from plagiarism, and gives you the ability to sue if someone makes a movie from your screenplay or idea without giving you any credit.

If you have enough confidence in your screenplay, it's a good idea to enter it into well-established and reliable screenplay contests, because an award winning screenplay is easier to market than one without any specific credentials. But be careful - some contests are just scams to get your money.

A good way to attempt to sell your script is to go to a literary agency, which will usually not charge to market the screenplay, but will get a percentage of the money paid to option or buy it. Usually, if a production company thinks the script might be a hot property, they will take an option on it, which means they pay you a particular amount just to allow them to hold onto it, giving them time to decide whether or not to buy it.

Once you sell your screenplay, it doesn't belong to you any more. The producers, director, studio, and editor are basically free to do whatever they want with it. Even the cast members have the right to change lines if they have trouble vocalizing your words. Very rarely will a script come to the screen completely intact.

In 1927, the first film with spoken dialog, The Jazz Singer, was released. One year afterwards came The Lights of New York, the first "all-talkie" movie. With the advent of sound movies, writers suddenly became important.

In the beginning, many writers looked at the movie industry with disdain, and decided to avoid it all together, while some secretly submitted scripts. Because of the lack of willing writers, the industry had to turn to vaudeville, such as W.C. Fields.

When real writers finally did decide to participate, they found that the contract system caused quite a few hardships. Writers weren't given creative control, were looked down upon, and made modest salaries. Yet, the contract system also had its good points. Novice writers were taken under the studio's wing and learned the techniques of movie-writing. The writers were also given the opportunity to work on a variety of different films and different genres.

In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences authorized a study to develop a standardized script format for the entire industry, and by the mid-thirties most scripts were adhering to strict guidelines. They were all about the same length; action most often took place over the course of three acts; most major characters were introduced in the first act; endings featured good triumphant over evil and all of the plot lines were resolved.

This standardization can be attributed in part to the studios' system of dividing up work among screenwriting departments. The process of scripting a movie was broken down into various stages, with the original draft of the screenplay being given to dialogue writers and to story editors, who rewrote and deleted unconventional elements. Standardization can also be perceived as the result of interference from the Hays Office (a motion picture industry association with a strict self imposed morality standard). Hays officials read every script to be shot by the studios and often demanded changes, which caused the mainstreaming of both movie morality and narrative structure.

During the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a large amount of screenwriters were blacklisted. The Writers Guild, a trade union started in 1933, was ineffective in preventing artists such as John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo from being barred from working in Hollywood.

In the 1960s and 1970s, with the presence of cinema clubs in major cities and film studies programs in the universities, aspiring youthful filmmakers were exposed to alternative films made by European directors or by members of the American avant-garde. Directors associated with Italian neorealism or the French New Wave, as well as Americans like Andy Warhol and George Kuchar, worked from looser scripts, relying strongly upon improvisation. Many future mainstream filmmakers began to utilize these techniques. Some writers refused to tie up any or all plot elements at the end of their screenplays, rejecting the notion that the story was one of the most important aspects of the film. Ambiguity was often built into the motivation of characters, with some scripts using a stream-of-consciousness approach rather than a linear, causally linked narrative. The screenwriters who employed these techniques included Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern with Easy Rider (1969), Adrien Joyce with Five Easy Pieces (1970), and Terrence Malick with Badlands (1973).

The 1980s saw the economic revival of the feature film industry and a return to the "classical" Hollywood movie script that was originally developed in the 1930s. An "outline," or synopsis, precedes a "treatment," or narrative summary, which is followed by the "shooting script," the final draft of the screenplay that contains indications of camera angles and movements for all scenes once it is bought by the studio. Currently, most feature-length scripts have a limited number of major characters. The actions of the main character are focused on pursuing a goal or resolving a problem, encountering obstacles along the way. The development of the plot occurs over three acts. In most cases all story elements are resolved, usually in favor of a happy ending.

Courtesy of


Paper Fan Club said...

A superbly informative post! I've actually picked up a book or two on screenwriting and preparing treatments but find they're usually big on technical method but low on encouragement. I guess that's reality for ya.

Baby Photos said...

Love ur blog a lot, very informative

Calista said...

Hi, u have changed many things here!

It's still mystery for me how good scripts find > good directors > find good producers and <<< backward.