“The end of this is obscenity. ‘Let’s really endanger the actor through stunts. Let’s really set the building on fire’. Over the course of a movie, it forces the filmmaker to get more bizarre. Over the course of a career, it forces a filmmaker to get more and more outré’; over the course of a culture, it forces the culture to degenerate into depravity, which is what we have now.”
-David Mamet, 1991.
The past five years have produced a flood of independent films created, written and shot here in New England. While our region gets its share of Hollywood productions that come for the tax incentives, the collective mindset of aspiring filmmakers in our region has become one of urgency.
At conventions, meet-ups and “mixers”, the desire to get behind a camera after gathering cast and crew is evident among newcomers. “Let’s do this, and let’s do this right now.” Sadly, the development process, which any Hollywood executive will confess is the most important part of the process, is almost non-existent in the local indie scene.
As a result, many of the films carry the telltale symptoms of a story that was rushed through the process. Gratuitous and graphic violence. Lots of blood and or sex scenes that do not enter late and leave early, or which seem to be on the screen for what the director hopes will be a novel moment in the film. Shock value. This is a telltale sign that the writer has not done their job and that the project was rushed, usually to fulfill the need of the director to be seen as a filmmaker. The art of telling the story through a series of uninflected, juxtaposed images is nowhere to be found. That very process requires patience, maturity and the ability to be fiercely honest about whether the juxtaposition of images effectively tells a story in a cinematic context.
This begins by finding the story before the story exists in screenplay format. It is simply impossible to find the best story as you write the screenplay. It must be found long before that stage of the process. Again, the need to rush behind the camera results in bad screenwriting. The idea, when first manifested in the format of a screenplay instead of the many previous formats which must precede the screenplay, becomes diluted. In order for the idea to be assigned to a series of images which, when juxtaposed, tell a story in cinematic context, the writer must spend time investigating the best combination of images. It is impossible to make an entertaining film without exploring this process. The screenplay then becomes an empty document, which may look like a screenplay, but which the writer knows, deep down, has flaws. The collective euphoria of the group of indie filmmakers is so excited to “get going”, that the flaws are never addressed. Flaws which cannot be fixed in the editing room. There will be a screening, probably in a local theater, and a party, and then nothing. The questions that follow, the first among them. “Why will no one distribute my film?” Before writing a successful film, the writer will have written:
1. Character histories. Extensive history of each character, written in narrative form, on the life of each main character. It should include everything from when they were born, right up until the day before the action in the film begins.
2. Character monologues: This is the character speaking in his or her own vernacular. How will one know what the character has to say, the inflection of his or her accent, how they feel, if you do not give them a voice? The absence of this part of the work is easily identifiable in indie films. Have you ever watched a film where the characters all sound flat, or even alike when they speak dialog? These voices cannot be discovered when you skip this process and go right to the screenplay stage.
3. An effective treatment: At least twelve pages, single spaced. Three pages for all of act one, six pages for all of act two, and three pages for act three. Note the proportion of pages to the length of each act. Can the treatment be longer? Sure. But as the format is limited, less is always more. Each act should contain the necessary plot points of that specific act.
4. Write your treatment. Throughout this process, you have, by now, begun to find your story. It is in this series of documents where the changes are made, the macro changes that always happen when the writer is in the process of finding their story. Not on the pages of the draft of the screenplay. It is here where the “Oh, no” moments of your story will be exposed, and you will indeed find them. This is where they can be addressed. Be brave and be patient, but keep going.
5. The Beat Sheet. From your treatment, identify the dramatic beats of the story. Try to keep each one less than seven words long. It is here that the initial process of creating the scene takes place. Know the objective of each beat before you commit it to the document. Who. What. Where. Each beat should contain these three parts. And most important, these units of dramatic action need to be totally uninflected. It is not mood of the actor, or the extra second that the camera holds on a location, or way that an actor does a certain task that will tell the story. It is the sum total of this series of uninflected images, placed in a sequence, that will tell the story. Nothing more. At this stage of the writing process, many writers unfamiliar with the task become insecure and will begin to impose meaning on each of the beats to quell the insecurity that now grows larger and larger inside of them as the beat sheet begins to take form. This is a natural first response. Don’t give in to it. Have faith and keep going. Keep the goal of finishing in mind and most of all, be patient.
6. Once you have identified all of the beats, it is now time to identify, in a single word, the theme of each individual beat. “Redemption” “Survival” “Escape”. You get the idea.
7. Now, sit down with your beat sheet and begin to write scenes, which will become your screenplay. If you have done your work, this entire process, at twenty hours per week, should have probably taken six months, minimum, of your life.
Last month, I was in Los Angeles to cover the premier of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS by Woody Allen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I had the opportunity to chat with Owen Wilson and Michael Sheen, both of whom star in the film. I had the chance to speak with each of them. Said Michael Sheen of Woody Allen: “He’s quite caring. He’s very hands on, very patient, and gave me more direction than anyone else (ever has). But he doesn’t make very grand statements or gestures. It was fascinating to learn how (he) works, someone who has worked outside of the studio system”.
Patience is the glue of great cinema. Don’t rush. The great ones never do.
Peter Fox is founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Writing and Cinematic Structure. He has worked as a story analyst and development executive at Paramount, Universal and Columbia Tri-Star. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute and lives in Essex, CT. www.peterfoxworkshops.com.