Since I've been too busy to write any storytelling / filmmaking philosophy or pedagogy posts right now, here's another sketch. She's not quite as cool as Axe Girl, but she has her charms.
Now for something completely different...
I recently decided, in order to help clear my head when I'm stuck on either story writing or songwriting, that I'd start drawing again -- an activity I was once good at but gave up many, many years ago.
Because the idea is to clear my head, and not to rathole into yet another project, I've been doing quick sketches (5-15 min depending on how I'm felling). The sketches are done as digital drawovers of interesting photos I find.
It's become a good way for me to think about character or setting in a way that's not so over-focused as to inhibit creativity. Though I haven't been doing it long (a couple weeks now), it's led to some interesting new character and setting ideas.
My favorite so far is this one, which is titled simply "Axe Girl". She's not from anything I'm currently working on, just an interesting character riff (though she may end up becoming a story someday, since I like her attitude).
The first version of this post was originally written in 2009, and is still as true as the day I wrote it...
A 2009 post on John August's blog, titled "A hard time to be an indie," inspired me to inaugurate this blog with a post about the idea that it's a particularly difficult time to be an Indie filmmaker (John quotes a speech by James D. Stern, which is also worth reading).
It was a particularly synchronous post by John since in 2009 I attended the first annual Produced-By Conference, where a number of Producers were singing a somewhat different tune (or, perhaps a similar tune, but in a different key).
One point that several Producers made at the conference is that it's always "a hard time" to be an Indie filmmaker, and that it's an unusually bad time merely because it's a hard time for the whole industry, and the whole economy. Their perspective, as working Indie Producers, was that if your passion is for Independent Cinema then you have to make a go of it when the time is right for you as an individual filmmaker -- because the time is never "right" for entrepreneurial filmmaking.
A perspective I found especially compelling was that the demise of Warner Independent and similar big studio "Indies" is not a death knell for Independent filmmaking, but rather a resurgence. The speaker's point was this: your competitors with the deepest pockets just got out of the market, leaving the entire playing field to the real Independents.
Right now the big studios only want to make huge budget tentpole films, and as many of the veterans at the conference pointed out -- this sort of thing has happened before.
Every ten years or so, the big studios focus on tentpoles and only are dragged back into smaller films when a few Indies are both sufficiently critically and commercially successful to draw the attention of the big studios back to making "cinema rather than flicks."
However, the prevailing attitude among both speakers and attendees who work as Indie filmmakers was that Independent filmmaking is suffering from overblown expectations stemming from too much money being spent on making small films during the recent Sundance-fed Indie film spec-market bubble.
In other words, they felt too many $1-5million films were having $8-16million (and similarly on up the scale) spent on their production. Furthermore, in a crowded media marketplace an advertising arms race is on, which makes competing for audience attention so expensive that films like $7.5million Juno rose to box office numbers upwards of $100million only atop marketing budgets upwards of $50million.
This has set Indie filmmakers' expectations very high. "A Sundance Film" has become a trope, an anti-commercial approach as cliché as the Hollywood formula. As John states:
Yet the fact that we can say a script "feels like a Sundance movie" belies this intent. It's shorthand for challenging, quirky, maddening and (if we're being honest) non-commercial. We want these movies to exist. But we need to be honest about their prospects.
We do need to be honest about this. The financial expectation a filmmaker sets for his or her self when describing their story as "A Sundance Film" is Juno (approx. $140m off $7.5m) or Little Miss Sunshine (approx. $96m off $8m), not the equally excellent but quite different La Mission or Death In Love (both approx $2m budget, and both still seeking distribution). Only Indie spec market hype has taught us to assume our projects are the next Juno (and budget accordingly), not the next La Mission.
Spending $58million plus on a $4million film (or even one that's legitimately an $8millon film) hoping to turn it into a $10omillion blockbuster by sheer force of marketing is a luxury only a huge corporation has (well, had).
You can't afford to compete with that. Sure, it'd be nice to get picked-up by Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics, but it's a lot easier to do so if you've understood your audience and convey that fact through your story, your pitch, and your budget. Even if you don't win the Indie filmmaker lottery and score $8-16million in up-front financing for your first feature and a subsequent negative pick-up by one of the majors' boutique shops, you can still make a great movie -- maybe even one that makes enough money to let you do it a second time. Making a $2million film, or even a $250k film -- or even a $50k film -- isn't a failure, it's a huge success, even if other people are getting to make $10million films. Selling it is even better, and that's going to much more possible if you've chosen your scope and budget based on an understanding of an actual audience.
Which gets to part of what John (and James Stern) are saying that ties into a point about Indie filmmaking that was also made repeatedly at Produced-By. John puts it this way:
Every filmmaker would like her movie to break out of its niche and gain wider exposure and acceptance. But Stern's point is apt: figure out your base, and develop a marketing plan that succeeds even if it never goes beyond that. If this sounds more like planning a small business than planning a movie, that's sort of the point.
At the Produced-By conference there was an Indie Distro panel where the panelists recommended, in light of the current attitudes of the corporations that run the big studios and exhibitors, that Producers start thinking about the business of Distribution -- even becoming microdistributors themselves.
John's post briefly touches on alternate distribution (V.O.D. in particular) as a potential savior of Indie filmmaking (a topic that was much discussed at Produced-By), but in suggesting that you consider budgets, distribution and marketing during script development, John is basically suggesting that filmmakers (his audience is primarily aspiring Writers and Directors) think more like Producers.
Why should you think about parts of the process that "aren't your job"? Because Independent filmmaking is entrepreneurship, and in any small business everyone involved needs to think about the bottom line when doing their jobs because there's no huge corporation providing a cushion in case of failure. Most investors in truly Independent films are not in a position to throw their money away, and they want to see both a tenable budget and realistic expectations of return.
It's pretty easy to understand the basic principle at play here: you want to spend less money on making your film than you reasonably believe, based on analysis not dreams, that you can make off of it. That's the surest path to being able to make a second film, and a third, and a three hundred eighty seventh. Should you then get lucky and make $150million domestic gross off your $7.5million dollar film, that's fantastic. But your $7.5 million dollar budget should be based on an audience analysis that gives good odds for $10million gross, not a reliance on winning a $150million box office lottery (in other words, don't create unrealistic expectations in your backers).
And while Writers and Directors need to consider these things much more than perhaps they have in the past, Producers should ultimately still be responsible for thinking and acting like Producers. A good producer is responsible to both the creative team they're a part of, and the financial team that is hoping for a return on their investment so they can work with you again. And if you don't have the skills and drive necessary to Produce your own films, you really need to find someone to work with who is dedicated to the Producing craft.
Non-Producers still need to do what John and the others are suggesting and "keep their audience in mind from a project's initial conception, even if that audience isn't a typical mainstream audience." Filmmakers need to aspire to making films that are personal, yet universal -- not personal through smug inscrutability. And if your vision requires making a film with an extremely narrow appeal -- budget accordingly.
And to be a good Producer you not only need to keep that audience in mind when working with the rest of the creative team to develop the voice, style, and scope of your film, but you're also obligated to determine the realistic size of the target audience, and create budgets and marketing plans based on that.
Thinking about your audience is not anathema to great storytelling and filmmaking -- or even art. By choosing to be a filmmaker and/or artist, you've chosen to communicate your ideas and stories to others rather than keeping them in your head, so you've already decided to care about speaking to an audience in terms of structure, theme, tone, visual style, and so on.
The storytelling business is always all about reaching some audience. And understanding the business dimensions of your audience, or developing a relationship with a Producer you trust who does, will enable you to craft projects that are designed to be successful both artistically and financially.
So to paraphrase several folks at the Produced-By conference: It's always a hard time to be an Independent filmmaker. Are you going to do something about it, or just sit around complaining waiting for some big studio to give you a handout?
Have you ever met an aspiring novelist who's never read a novel? Neither have I.
I have, on the other hand, met many people who consider themselves aspiring screenwriters who have never actually read a screenplay.
"But I watch tons of movies" is often the response to my amazement that someone who wants to write screenplays has never read any. This response is like meeting an aspiring composer who says she doesn't read sheet music, but says "I listen to a lot of music." That person may be a great musician, improviser and producer, but actually composing music in the language of sheet music is not one of their skills. That means they can write for themselves and their immediate collaborators, but can’t write and sell sheet music for others to perform.
Just like an improviser who doesn’t compose is called a musician or producer (or DJ, nowadays), a writer who doesn’t write is called a creative producer or a director. They are fine professions and storytelling is part of all three, but in order to be a writer you need to develop the craft of writing screenplays.
Which means reading them. (Of course you also have to watch a lot of movies , more than you read, just like a composer listens to more music than reads sheet music.)
Some people, when confronted with the incongruity of their situation, complain that they are unable to find any screenplays to read. Others say that they don't really know what to read or how to read it. Since you can't write something you can't read, this post will help you figure out both where to find screenplays to read, and how to go about reading them.
The purpose of this article is to help with both of those problems.
How do I read a screenplay?
Screenplays have a few basic components:
INT. SLUGLINE GIVES LOCATION AND TIME OF - DAY
An action block, which contains the description of the on-screen people, places and action.
CHARACTER NAMES (And perhaps a parenthetical) Proceed their dialog.
“FADE IN” is well known example of a transition, which is an editorial suggestion in script form. It is traditional to start a script with it, but another transition might get substituted (or none at all). It is no longer common to put a transition between every scene, but sometimes you will see the once ubiquitous CUT TO being used, especially by older writers.
A slugline starts with INT. or EXT., gives the short name of the location the scene takes place in, and ends with DAY or NIGHT (sometimes the time of day is a little more specific, but simple DAY vs. NIGHT is more common currently).
Action blocks introduce characters, describe locations, and specify on-screen action (and sometimes key sound callouts). What you’re reading in the action blocks is ultimately a set of instructions to the filmmakers about how to stage the scene.
Character names, dialog blocks and parentheticals (when used, they're discouraged but not forbidden these days) tell you who is speaking, what they're saying, and perhaps gives a suggested tone or corresponding action in the parenthetical.
Those are the basics. Some screenplays may specify shot callouts as well. These would be in ALL CAPS and left justified, and may have keywords such as ANGLE ON, POV or INSERT. Or it may just describe a place, such as ACROSS THE STREEET. This is considered uncommon in spec scripts and pre-shooting drafts, but you're likely to run across it if you read screenplays, since often what you can get your hands on are shooting scripts.
Essentially, knowing that format is all there is to reading a screenplay. You can study a lot about structure and various theories about character and theme, but the main point in reading a script is to determine whether or not it "worked" for you (you enjoyed and/or it moved you), and if so, why, and if not, why not. That's not necessarily a matter of fitting the experience into a theoretical construct, but reading the form and internalizing it for yourself.
You can learn practical lessons about writing by figuring out what kind of style and flow appeals to you for both dialogue and action, as well as examining the inter and intra scene pacing.
Pacing is simply a matter of relative lengths: when action blocks, dialogue blocks, and scenes are long vs. when they're short, basically. Also pay attention to when, and how often, plot signifigant things happen. Signifigant moments for character relationships and theme, on the other hand, should happen in every single scene in a great script.
Future posts will deal more in-depth with structure and theory, but it's best to first read a bunch of scripts "fresh" -- but before you bog your mind down with such things.
Where can I find screenplays?
There are a number of general screenplay libraries on the Internet. Here are some of my favorites:
What should I read?
Screenplays on these sites are generally in one of two formats: text or PDF. Sometimes you find Final Draft (.fdr), Movie Magic Screenwriter (.mmsw or .scr), or Word (.doc or .rtf) documents as well. Generally, PDFs are most likely to be accurate replicas of a version of the script as actually written by the screenwriter(s). With the other formats, it's generally not clear whether the document is a reformatting of a printed version of the screenplay or a transcript of the dialog and scene description written by someone watching the film.
From the point of view of screenwriting craft, transcripts are essentially worthless Transcripts don't show you the actual words the writer(s) put onto the page. You're better off just watching the film. (If you're buying screenplays, which is quasi-legal at best anyway, beware of transcripts. Reputable sellers like Script City and Hollywood Book and Poster will tell you if the script is a transcript or not.)
The formatted scripts you'll run across are shooting scripts, and pre-shooting drafts. Of the two, you'll learn the most about writing spec scripts from the latter.
Spec Scripts & Pre-Shooting Drafts
A "spec script" is the name for any script written without any contract, in the hopes of selling it to someone or making it yourself. It is material written "on spec," i.e. "on the speculation" that someone might buy it.
The best way to get exposure to large numbers of spec scripts (of wildly variable quality) is to become a profesisonal script reader for the studios. But if you can't (or don't want to) do that, screenwriting community sites like Amazon Studios and Trigger Street Labs are full of spec scripts -- also of wildy variable quality. T
Critique community sites like those are basically on-line writers' groups, though an in-person writers' group (by virtue of being smaller, and more personal) is more likely to give you in-depth critique. But for the purposes of finding a lot of early stage spec screenplays to read, such sites are excellent.
Occasionally you stumble across one, but it is relatively uncommon to find spec scripts by established writers (but I've listed three above: John August's, Alex Cox', and Elliott & Rossio's).
For material that was the writers' original, and not a contract assignment, what you are most likely to find circulating online (and in the script shops) are pre-shooting drafts of scripts -- revisions of the original spec, post studio notes -- and not the spec that sold in the first place.
When you see a script that says "first draft" on it, it more likely means that you've found a first studio draft than that you've found the original spec script. However, in terms of writing style and format, these pre-shooting drafts are the same as spec scripts, the writing is just more refined in the post-spec drafts.
Pre-shooting draft scripts are your best bet for reading the kind of writing you're aiming for: the format is correct, and the writing has been polished. You should read as many of these as you can.
Definitely read scripts written by masters such as William Goldman, Paddy Chayefsky and Billy Wilder, and by contemporary "literary" screenwriters such as The Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman. But also read scripts in the genre(s) you intend to write, good and bad. If you train yourself to start paying closer attention just as you're losing interest, reading bad scripts will teach you as much about what to avoid doing in your own scripts as reading good ones will help you understand what to do.
Spec scripts and pre-shooting drafts look basically like this excerpt from John August's Go:
EXT. A DITCH - NIGHT
A full moon and crickets CHIRPING. Somewhere in the night, DANCE MUSIC is blaring, but here it's only a whisper with a beat.
Water trickles out of a jagged pipe. Splashing up mud, the riverlet weaves through hamburger wrappers and sunbleached beer cans, spent condoms and an old Rolling Stone.
The tiny stream ripples past glass and trash and the body of a woman. Face up, breathing. Dead grass caught in her braids. Her name is RONNA MARTIN. She's eighteen, black and bleeding. Bleeding a lot.
She tries to push herself up, but the dirt around her crumbles. Her legs are useless. Despite it all, there's a smile of perverse joy to her face, like she's just remembered the punchline to a favorite joke.
CLAIRE (V.O.) You know what I like best about Christmas? The surprises.
Real shooting scripts add various information that should not be in a spec script. This includes scene numbers, camera information, and revision information. Revision information comes in the form of a list of revision dates and color codes on the front page of the script, changes made in each revision printed on colored pages, and a revision call-out on the page (basically in case you need to fax the material to the talent) that looks something like this: REVISED - GOLDENROD. There may also be shot call-outs inserted into the scenes that don't use camera angles specifically, but specify MONTAGE or INTERCUT or call out shots such as "ON BOB" or "ACROSS THE STREET" that look like new scene headings (all caps, left justified) but without new INT./EXT. or time of day slugs.
Some spec scripts do the latter (shot callouts, without angles or move specifiers such as PAN or DOLLY), if utterly necessary, but specific camera angle/framing/move callouts, scene numbers, and revision pages are considered solely the domain of the shooting script. Once you know how a shooting script differs from what should be put in a spec script, you can safely read them as examples. They often don't read quite as smoothly as a non-shooting draft, and specific camera angles and moves may have replaced some of the descriptive language that you'd need in a spec, but otherwise they're relatively similar.
The two samples from There Will Be Blood below include scene numbers, camera angle callouts (CU.), and shot callouts:
5 INT. SHAFT -- LATER 5
CU. PICK into earth once again.
CU. DANIEL. He sees something in the earth here.
HIS POV: IN THE ROCK. The clear tracing, glistening vein of a SLIVER ORE CHAMBER.
HOLD ON HIS FACE. AND THE CAMERA EXAMINES CLOSELY THESE MINERALS IN THE ROCK.
CAMERA PANS LFT, becomes their POV: Coming towards them, from the distance is a man. This is ABEL SUNDAY (50s) He is very frail, small, worn;
ABEL SUNDAY Good evening. DANIEL Good evening.
They gain ground, get closer. THREE SHOT. HOLD.
That kind of camera information is verboten in a spec script because putting it there denies the Director and Cinematographer the opportunity to do one of the most fun parts of their jobs. It also makes the script a more awkward read. The screenwriter is obligated to convey the visuals with description, and the minimum amount of technical callouts.
There is another kind of shooting script, mostly used in shooting industrials and some documentaries, and is not at all like a spec script. That is the two-column shooting script. This format is useless for narrative screenplay writers, because it's never used for that. Sure, it could be used for narrative film shooting, but it isn't.
Newmarket (and similar) "shooting scripts" books
Book company Newmarket Press offers a series of books that contain the shooting scripts for various films.
However, the formats of the script books vary from actual spec and shooting scripts. They are generally not printed using 12 point Courier on 81/2 x 11 paper, so the page counts are off and/or the text has been rescaled for the smaller format. The shooting scripts in books definitely don't have colored pages and revision annotations. And not all books of so-called shooting scripts are even in shooting script format. Some do not have line numbers (in the Newmarket series, the American Beauty script does not, but Shawshank Redemption does).
Some people also a claim that the scripts that are printed in these books are revised after the film has been shot to always match the final edit, rather than to truly reflect what was used to shoot the film. I don't currently have both the Newmarket (or other publisher) book of a script, and a script that I know for a fact to really be the final shooting script draft of a film, to make a comparison. (If someone does and passes along that informaton, or if I come across such a pairing on my own, I'll write a future post about it.)
In general, the Newmarket books seem pretty good in terms of faithfulness to the format, particularly by comparison to other script-as-book offerings. But you're sill better off reading printouts or PDFs that are either scans of printed scripts as used during production, or that were made from the original computer files of the script as delivered.
Slugline is an awesome (but, sadly, Mac OSX only) screenwriting software package that, in my capacity as a credited advisor to the design team, I helped with the requirements, spec and testing of.
Slugline's best features include its stripped-down simplicity, the excellent outline / notes system (heavily influenced by yours truly), and the file format it saves your script in being human readable, non-proprietary, marked-up text .
If you're not already a Slugline customer, this latest update is your opportunity to see if it's right for you, as there is now a free trial version available.