By David Worth, MA
On today’s seemingly endless 24/7 social media, there’s an overabundance of information about the art and craft of filmmaking. Anyone who’s made any type of a production from a short film to a web series, seems to be an instant authority on the subject of filmmaking. However, there only seems to be a handful of truly meaningful books or online sources, when it comes to really digging in and learning about the various arts and crafts necessary for film production. Namely: producing, directing, production management, production design, lighting, cinematography, sound, editing and the many phases of post-production. However, there seems to be over a hundred books on screenwriting! Why? Because writing a script can be an ineffable and nearly impossible task and nobody seems to have a direct or precise answer when it comes to actually defining or accomplishing this nearly impossible task.
Yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of precise answers when it comes to film production. The pre-production, production and post-production workflow is well documented and more or less written in stone. The producer has to oversee the entire production, especially making sure, that the money, distribution, cast and crew are in place. The director has to prepare every department, storyboard the script, rehearse the cast and always “make his day” and stay on schedule. The cinematographer has to oversee all the crew, equipment and lighting, making sure the multiple HD cameras all have the proper monitors, lenses, memory cards and personnel for capturing the entire production. The editor has to assess that there is enough coverage including inserts to make the scene work and make a compelling film. Etc… Etc… Etc…
However, when it comes to script writing, there seems to be very few precise answers but an awful lot of opinions… The protagonist and antagonist, the quest, the hero’s journey, the turning point, the reversal, and a reversal on a reversal! As well as, a twist on a twist, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 4, Act 5… Lots of ways to skin or indeed to “Save The Cat”! That could be because whatever works, works, and the formula for whatever works seem to be in a constant state of flux. Doesn’t the abundance of books on the subject of script writing, re-writing and endlessly analyzing the screenplay writing process, point to the fact that if anyone actually had the answer about how to write a good script… There would not be so many bad movies made from bad scripts!
And then, the only constant in Hollywood might cease to be the sequel and the remake of yet another superhero movie or some long-forgotten comic book or TV series!
Basically, if you have a degree in writing or have written at least one successful script, you have the absolute authority to write a book about how to follow your example. Unfortunately, that does not seem to work; if it did, then, everyone who read your book and utilized your techniques, should write a successful script. But as we know, that does not happen!
Let’s consider what actually goes into the writing, of the screenplay… After a prolonged period of research, self doubt, scribbling ideas on napkins and procrastination, the writer at long last sits before his keyboard and reluctantly types those ominous words: “FADE IN…”
What The F#@k Comes Next? Oh sure, there’s the outline, the index cards, the notes, the rambling pocket tape recordings concerning “theme” and “structure”. But precisely, exactly where and how to begin? Flashbacks? Voice-overs? A detailed pre-credit crawl or a cold open? Of course, we must have a grab-you-by-the-throat beginning, a meaningful and compelling middle and a slam-bang thrilling ending… But as Jean-Luc Godard has wisely stated, “… not necessarily in that order…”
Where, oh where, oh where to begin…
Until the writer has wrestled with these demons and answered all of the above, often unanswerable, questions: Guess what… Nobody has a job!
Especially not the writer, because they are usually writing the script on spec! Not the producer, because they have not as yet been offered the pitch, the treatment or the first draft. Not the director, because they have not as yet been asked by the producer to read the property and come on board. Not the actors because they have not as yet been offered any of the parts. Not the cinematographer, production manager, assistant directors, wardrobe, make up, props, grips, electricians, teamsters, craft service… Nobody has a job!
So, not only is facing the blank page or computer screen the hardest job in showbiz, it is arguably the most important, since without the script, there is no film, there is no production, there is no project, there is no job, and no one goes to work. That old saying from the theater is still true today: “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage!”
The writer makes it all happen! How, you may ask, can a person possibly shoulder all of that responsibility? He or she simply must be driven and have a calling from the gods of production in order to survive it! The writer exists a l o n e. That’s spelled and means: A L O N E! Then, they must have the God-given talent to literally invent the literal out of the ethereal, they have to conger up the screenplay out of their wits and imagination, word by word, line by line, scene by scene, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, and often, month by month, and even, year by year!
Barely hanging on to reality with their bitten and bloody fingernails, escaping insanity and doom by the skin of their teeth. This job is not for the faint of heart! This is a Homeric, heroic and extraordinary undertaking! This is finding the strength to will the “impossible” into existence and make it entirely “possible,” as well as, always having to be “compelling!” This is faith in the unknown carried to its most daring and absurd extreme! The hardest job in showbiz… indeed!
That being said… Now, let’s look at all of this from an entirely different perspective. While it’s always highly recommended to have the best of all possible script, penned by the likes of the next Paddy Chayefsky, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet or Neil LaBute… Successful filmmaking in and of itself, can also be an ephemeral and imprecise art. Even a matter of simply luck and timing! If not, then why do so many of our greatest and most gifted filmmakers pray and plead and prod every day of production for the unexpected, the happy accidents, or the magic of catching lightning in a bottle?
And while the theater is almost entirely dependent on a finished script, not so the cinema! There have been any number of highly successful groundbreaking films made from outlines, improvised or actually written during production: Huge productions like: “Intolerance”, “Casablanca” and “Jaws” come to mind, not to mention the smaller independent films like: “Shadows”, “Breathless”, “A Man and A Woman”, “The Blair Witch Project” and “Once”.
How can this happen? Because cinema is cinema is cinema! As Elia Kazan has said, “Casting is 90 percent of the job!” That being the case… IF you have the right charismatic actors or non-actors, fresh faces or “names” on camera and your material is compelling… The audience cannot turn away, they will watch and be enthralled. The actor’s subtext will fill in the spaces “between the lines,” and you will have miraculously created a film, a movie, the cinema simply out of the ether of the ethereal.
If you also happen to be fortunate enough to have a moving and meaningful musical score, like “A Man and A Woman”, or “Once”, then you win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film or Best Original Song. Check out both of those small independent films, and you will discover that they did exactly that!
So, the choices are yours…
(A.) Write a very compelling script.
(B.) Get a DSLR or simply your iPhone, some wireless mikes, a non-linear editing program, a team of like-mined creative and dedicated friends…
(C.) Cast your cast, locate your locations, and make your movie!