“The moment the script is finished and the film is visualized, that is the end of the creative part as far as I am concerned. I’d just as soon not shoot the picture.” Sir Alfred Hitchcock on the importance of the screenplay, Los Angeles, 1972.
Recently, I had a conversation with an independant producer who was, very excitedly, telling me the about his upcoming independent feature. Funds had been raised on the internet, props donated, locations locked down. Shooting was to begin next month. Finally, we began to discuss the story. I listened to his pitch. I had some questions for him, and was trying to help him, not stump him or put down his project. But, there was a huge gap in his plot. When we discussed possible solutions, his answer was: “We can improvise that on the set.”
Each nanosecond of the story needs to be described, on paper, in your screenplay, before it can work on the screen. Every bit of story needs to live on paper before a Director begins to attempt to shoot it. This is a simple, unavoidable fact of the film trade. How can a Director, or Producer, be sure that the screenplay is ready to shoot? There are several questions to answer before
gathering your crew and gear, as well as several methods to test your story in order to be sure that it is ready to go. Here are
just a few…
Arrange a full cast table reading with readers/actors, who are not involved with the project. Why would you want to have a table reading with folks who are not involved? Because you want brutally honest, tactful, yet helpful opinions. Let’s face it; actors want to act. They want to work, right now. Not later. Delays are not fun. When you arrange your table reading, you are better off gathering a group who will discuss their questions about the story with you. If your plot points do not work and your story is full of holes, you will have a better chance of fixing them with a group of readers who do not have a vested interest in getting your story into production.
Seek studio coverage from a professional reader. After doing so, get a second opinion. Whether you send your screenplay to someone who advertises in the trades (SCRIPT magazine, WRITER’S DIGEST, etc.) or someone that you know in the business, get the problems in your screenplay identified while they are still on the page, not after you have gathered your crew and have begun shooting. By that time, it is too late. There are different methods of getting studio coverage. Many of my clients, past and present, have had success in contacting the assistants to major Producers and making arrangements with them to read and critique their work. This feedback is worth it’s weight in gold.
After gathering opinions and feedback, spend time with your story and face the plot problems head-on. There is no getting around this. It is certainly better to face the holes in your story now. I like to use a large whiteboard to address the movement of the plot. It is eight feet wide. It helps me to visualize the plot points and how the story is moving. Plus, it is also the first place where I begin to storyboard, on yellow sticky notes, underneath of, or on top of, the story note that appears on the whiteboard. Remember, cinematic storytelling is done visually, not just with dialog. If you are telling your story by juxtaposing images, not just moving from location to location where people sit and talk in a room, you are well ahead of the game.
Once you have identified and addressed the problems of your narrative, examine the orchestration of your visual
statement. To quote Sir ALFRED HITCHCOCK: “You see, it is very essential that you know ahead of time something of the orchestration. In other words, image size. What I mean by orchestration is this. Take the close-up. Sometimes you see films cut such that the close-up comes in early, and by the time you really need it, it has lost its effect because you have already used it. It’s like in music-the brass sounding loud before you need it. One of the biggest effects in PSYCHO was where the detective enters the house and goes up the stairs. The shots were storyboarded to make sure there was enough contrast of sizes within the cuts. There is a very violent murder to start with, another one less violent-and more frightening.” Using HITCHCOCK’s insights into the process, this stage of pre-production is where the Director and Cinematographer begin to navigate the visual journey that the story will take; it’s navigation begins here, not on the set! Many first time independent filmmakers make this mistake and then wonder why the acquisition executives are not banging down the door after the first screening.
Storyboard, storyboard, storyboard.
I have recently worked with a writer, Andy Feist, (quoted in last month’s issue of IMAGINE), whose process involved the use of scrolls, like ancient documents, which were over three feet wide, with story beats written on a time line. There was plenty of room both above and below the story line for additional notes, and sometimes, even small drawings. I had never seen this done before, but it worked well for her-her story is currently in development with a major Producer based in Hollywood. It is at this stage of the writing that the Writer, working with the Director, should begin to explore the process of storyboarding. Each and every frame of the story should exist on paper. Your crew and actors will thank you for this later on. You will save time and valuable production dollars. But only do this after you are one hundred percent certain that you have absolutely nailed your story, your characters and your vision of the picture. It is basically your last opportunity to fix what needs fixing before your shoot commences.
There are principles of cinematic storytelling, or screenwriting. These principles are bendable, and are not etched in stone. Every writer needs to find what works for them. But the mad rush to get behind the camera should be avoided at all costs. Go the extra mile, embrace that which is painful, and face the difficulties attributed to fixing your story before you get to the set.
This work, done correctly, with patience and some luck, can take several months. Don’t rush it. In the film biz, speed is the number one killer. Be methodical. Carefully plan each and every shot. You have taken the time to write a great story. Give it the chance that it deserves by making sure it works on paper before you start photography.
Peter Fox founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has worked as a Reader and Story Analyst at Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers, and holds a MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. For more information visit http://about.me/foxonfilm or www.peterfoxworkshops.com