Picture this: you have $20M to spend on a house of your design. Perhaps you have a vision of a grand stone castle in the Scottish Highlands. Or an island bungalow tucked away near a lagoon. Perhaps a cozy ranch in the rolling hills someplace. Either way, you have a vision for your estate. Now all you have to do is buy all the materials and get to work, right? You know the saying: failure to plan is a plan to fail. You need a blueprint for your vision. Your screenplay is a blueprint for your film.
Everything starts with the script
Producing a motion picture is directly comparable to building a house. You need the right contractors, the right location, the correct permits, professional equipment…the list goes on. But how do you know which of these are right for your project? Especially if you don’t have a concrete story?
Everything starts with the script. Say it with me: everything starts with the script. If you forget every other piece of wisdom about filmmaking, remember it once more – everything starts with the script. Without a script, you have nothing. No spine, no plan for your house. You have a mass of indiscernible, unactionable ideas. A pile of lumber and nails. Maybe. Sure, you could build as you go, if you can afford to screw up, tear down, and try again multiple times until you get it right. But wouldn’t it be easier to simply test your plan on paper beforehand? That’s the script.
The allure of no plan
I’ll let you in on a little secret: the cinema vérité movement is over. It basically ended in the late 1970s. And something about this “retro” technique captivates indie filmmakers of today. No gear, no script, no contrived circumstances…all in the name of realism. Personally, I’ve always found this attitude to come off as strange and misguided when it comes to filmmaking today. Everything about a film is contrived, even if only by the fact that it was edited.
Forget the fact that cinema vérité was mostly in the documentary scene, but the filmmaking style was largely brought about because indie filmmakers of the day couldn’t afford to do anything else. They didn’t have the money for lights, proper sets, actors, or even the paper for scripts probably. Yet this type of filmmaking is so sexy to so many, but I’ve always just thought it was an excuse to jump head-first into production. Which is fine if you make it alone. When you have a crew and actors, it isn’t fair to them.
Without a script, you cannot possibly know what type of film you’re making. Your actors won’t have a clue, and neither will your audience. You won’t know what art assets to plan for or what locations you need. No idea how long it will take to film nor how long you need to schedule people. You won’t know anything, except you want to make a movie.
Frequently, this unfocused ambition turns into a disaster “art” film that nobody can stomach but the creator. Shoot days will go into the deep hours of the night, and post production will never end. Maybe all filmmakers need to start here – but if you’re reading this, do yourself a favor. Ground yourself on paper. When your brain gets foggy mid-production and all of your crew is pissed, you can remember your screenplay is a blueprint from which to guide yourself. Write a script, even if you don’t know proper screenplay format.
A blueprint is not a house
The other side of the coin now: a script is not a movie. It is the plan for a movie. A blueprint, remember? You can’t move your couch, your Boston Terrier, and your kitschy décor into a blueprint. Similar logic here: you can’t expect the script to be an end in itself. Your screenplay is a blueprint, but it isn’t the wood and steel house. If you want to write something meant to stand alone, write a book. Scripts produce movies. That’s the whole point. There’s really only two reasons to read a screenplay – as an evaluation in terms of production, or as a learning experience in terms of screenwriting.
Still, it is vitally important to take the screenplay as seriously as if it were the final iteration of the story. How does this work? Well, simply put, you can’t skimp on script development by assuming it will be “worked out later”. So when it comes to plot, character development, and story logic, it all needs to work. Yes, pre-production works out certain details (costumes, set dressing, ect.). But the script needs strength and clarity enough for details to naturally reveal themselves as if written explicitly.
Don’t rush the drawing of the blueprint
Tell me, dear reader: would you move into a house that was built off of plans that were drawn up in a day? Never examined, never revised, never vetted as solid and sound? No? Well that’s exactly what writers do when they churn out a first draft of a script and call it “done”. No, it is not done. It is simply on paper. Screenwriting is all about the rewriting. Editing and honing of the piece until it is as sharp and tight as possible. This takes time. You cannot skip revision if a good script is expected. Your screenplay is a blueprint of your dream, so take the time to shape it well.
Of course, as with all aspects of life, a balance exists. Developing a script for years is foolhardy. I’m not talking about true development holding patterns such as lack of funding or nobody wanting to option the work. No, I mean truly writing, and writing, and never reaching “THE END” because the writer can’t be bothered to put the effort in, let the work go, or both. Nothing is perfect. Sometimes the script needs to be let go. That some-time is not after a single vomit draft.
So you see, both clarity and restraint must be exercised in screenwriting is a delicate balancing act. Speculative writers often get this horribly wrong. Over-writing is the most likely in my experience, mostly due to figuring-it-out-as-you-go styles of writing, I’d suspect. But threadbare screenplays are indeed out there.
Don’t have yours be either; strike a strong compromise that leaves the reader of your blueprint excited to see the finished product. You’re much more likely to have a strong, coherent film.