Monday, December 12, 2011

Pre-Production: The Script

So I've taken the last few weeks to look at the film industry as a whole and checked out some books and websites that cover filmmaking from pre-production all the way to post.  Today, I'm going to start looking more into the actual pre-production part of filmmaking.

With any film, usually, the first thing you have to have is an idea.  Hollywood insiders can get away with having a neat idea, pitching it to producers and Hollywood execs and manage to get studios to get on board with their idea and then go find a writer to write the script for the idea.  For most folks starting out, that just ain't gonna happen.  You don't have the contacts and you don't have the history, so studios aren't going to trust their millions of dollars to an idea some nobody came up with.  Or, they might recognize a great idea, and they will take that idea and run with it and use team of people they do trust to make that idea happen.  Ideas cannot be copyrighted.  Treatments can be registered with the Writers Guild of America, but pitching an idea to an exec who recognizes the worth but who isn't impressed with you means somebody else is going to make it.

However, if you have what you think is a great idea, and you write a great script, you have a lot better chance of selling it and getting credit for it.  Scripts are copyrighted and registering them with the WGA is just one more step to protect yourself from getting your idea and script made into a movie you're not getting credit or paid for.  (And while this can and does happen, having your script stolen and you not getting credit/paid for your work is not actually a horribly common thing, though it seems to be a fear for many writers.)

I'm starting with scripts in the pre-prodution process here, because to make a movie, you have to have a script.  It is possible to gather funds and do other pre-production things on your list before the script is finished, but it is more difficult because until it is done, you don't know exactly what you need.  The script will determine the cast, the need for a stunt department, what type of makeup and wardrobe are necessary, what locations are necessary, and many other details. 

The one exception I can think of where the script doesn't come first (or at least pretty dang close) is for documentaries.  With documentaries, the filmmaker films much of the footage with some kind of structure or theme in mind, but often, the film that is shot ends up changing or surpassing the filmmaker's expectations and what ends up in the final cut may not be at all what the filmmaker originally envisioned.  The people being filmed may end up revealing new details the filmmaker never expected, for example, which may lead to exploration in other areas that weren't planned.  Then the script will be written around the footage at the end.  So with documentaries, it can be kind of backwards.

But with feature narrative films, usually the script is either first or pretty early on.  Because of that, I wanted to talk about some resources for people interested in writing scripts.

My absolute favorite resource is the Save the Cat! series of three books by Blake Snyder.  They are awesome.  StC breaks down all stories (no matter what the genre is) to 10 basic story archetypes.  And no matter how hard I've tried, I can't seem to find any archetypes the author has missed. He breaks down those archetypes, explains how they work and the "rules" behind what makes them work.  He breaks down the story archetypes into 15 beats, explains a handy process that you can use to help you create/write your screenplay, and even has lots of other useful rules regarding plot and story.  The rules have fun, easy to remember names, too, like Pope in the Pool, Laying Pipe, and others.  Once you read them, you won't forget them because of the fun way he has laid them out.  I took five classes regarding writing scripts at college, and I found I learned more from these books, than those classes combined.

The next book I would recommend that I just finally got around to finish reading would be The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier.  This book has a primer on how to write a screenplay included in it, but what I found more useful in this book were the formatting rules.  Don't know how to format a telephone conversation in your script?  Do you have a scene labeled on the bottom (you know, like they do in TV when the characters go to some new location and the label for the new location pops up in the corner) and you don't know how to show that in the script?  Do you have a dream sequence or a flashback and you're not sure the best way to format it?  This book tackles all these tough questions.

Next week I'll talk more about this topic, as there are many resources and wonderful ways to learn about screenwriting and how to identify what makes a great script.

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