Human beings are creative animals. Just about every one you meet has an idea for a novel or a film… Novels you romantically write on your own, locked in a dusty garret, existing on a diet of peanuts and whiskey, emerging sometimes years later, to a less than rapturous reception. Film on the other hand seems more glamorous, but more complicated. All those people to collaborate with, camera equipment, lights, European Union co-production and distribution agreement contracts…
But how hard can it be? Really?
At this moment every screenwriter in the country is banging their heads on the table going “Just tell them it’s really hard! Tell them how you’ve been sat in this chair for 14 hours solid, you’ve got a really bad back and you probably won’t even get paid…”
But I’m not going to do that. Once we get over the fact that some people simply can’t write (that’s for you to work out in your own sweet time, though I did read somewhere you have to write a million words before you’re any good, so it’s probably more about perspiration than inspiration) there are hundreds of books, screenwriting courses, filmmaking courses online seminars out there that tell you how.
So what are the basics?
The first thing is the idea. And quite often the last thing should be the idea. Most ideas for films are not ideas for films. They are ideas for books, plays, poetry, songs… The tricky bit is working out which is a movie idea. A film is storytelling, specifically about a character in conflict within their world. It can have the inner monologue of a book (V/O), or the two characters talking of a play, but somehow this character has to relate to the bigger, wider world. Hence ‘The Big Screen’ I guess.
So assume you have a really great idea. What next? Well the practical aspect is an expanded Pitch document of some sort, to be honest the sort of thing you’d find in just about any business where you are trying to take a sketch idea, and turn it into something substantial. In screenwriting there are all sorts of stages – the elevator pitch, log line, three-page treatment, 10 page treatment, 50 page treatment… But however you work up your idea, your main aim is to eventually write a Script.
Why? Because the script is the most important document in the whole process. (Though the screenwriter would say that wouldn’t they?) The script is the document that directors sign up to, attracts the actors, financiers, distributors, sales agents, it’s the 90 to 120 pages the production team make their schedules from, the screenwriting programs even lay it out so that everyone can see each page is one minute long.
Okay, so how to write the best screenplay? Well, you could do worse than sit down and watch the best of your favourite films with a copy of the script (all available online) and study… some personal favourites are Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde, Alien, Seven, When Harry Met Sally. Look at the structure, the way the visuals are written down in the script, how the plot throws up something new and interesting every few minutes. But most importantly how the characters in conflict with themselves and others, or the outside world, through the dialogue, but often by saying nothing, convey emotion that everybody understands. At the end of the day if the audience don’t feel what’s going on with these people they won’t engage, doesn’t matter how fast the car chase, or beautiful the landscape.
Then obviously read all the screenwriting books, do the online courses, seminars, workshops, and write a million words etc…
And once you’ve got the greatest script all you gotta do is get it made. The first port of call in the industry are producers. But they usually don’t take unsolicited scripts except from an agent. So you’ll probably need an agent. But they don’t take unsolicited scripts. But if you’ve got a really amazing script, shown it to some people who know and they think it’s amazing too, it’ll probably find a way on its own…
The other alternative is to just make your own film. Only a few years ago you needed lots of really expensive, clunky equipment – now most of it is excellent, lightweight and available relatively cheaply.
Which has begged the question if it can be done so easily now why aren’t there hundreds of brilliant self-made films coming out every day? The screenwriters say “Because there’s not enough brilliant scripts!” (Well, they would, wouldn’t they?) But the truth of the matter is that making films is a strange alchemy of collaboration, bloody hard work, persistence, a lot of luck and some strange stuff that people don’t seem to be able to bottle. Screenwriter William Goldman articulated it for us all, when it comes to trying to make a great movie “Nobody knows anything!” But it’s obviously fun trying, so why not have a go?