Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Advice to First Time Writer/Directors

Submitted by Scott Spears

Nothing is more horrifying to a first timer than realizing very early in your shoot that you're going way over schedule, over budget, and your crew is about to mutiny because of long shooting days. At this point, after shooting all day, you are forced to start cutting pages while trying to keep your film's story coherent and alive.

This little tidbit of advice is aimed at the beginning first time writer/director that is embarking on their first feature or even a long short. I hope this article can help you along in the scriptwriting and pre-production phase.

First, a little about my background; I have over seventeen years in film and video production, shooting over fourteen feature films, producing a couple of films and writing eight feature scripts, two of which have been produced. I have shot video features with tiny budgets and 35mm features.

Having worked with many first time writer/directors I've seen many great scripts and great plans and I've seen many of the pitfalls. I've seen writers who refused to cut scenes that were great little character asides, but bogged down the pacing and added very little to the plot. Many of the scenes were cut during editing because the film was running too long.

I've created an analogy for helping writer/directors gearing up for production. Think of your script as a wagon in the pioneer days preparing to make the trek across country. You have to carefully select what goes in your wagon before you start the long journey, just like with your script you have to select the scenes that are most important to your movie. Don't go loading that big old grandfather clock on the wagon and don't go adding a scene where a character goes to a bar and gets drunk with his friends that adds little or nothing to the story. You want to load on your meat and potatoes and the tools you'll need to set up your homestead. In your script, think of these as character development, sub-plots, motifs, plot points, and your major conflict. If your story is overloaded with extras (grandfather clocks and boxes of lace tablecloths), sometime during production, you're going to have to start throwing these items out and think of ways to patch your script back together. Doing this at the production phase is hard and can create plot headaches when you are cutting your script after a fourteen hour shooting day. Doing it at the editing stage is painful because you see all the expense and time that went into making those scenes land on the cutting room floor.

Here are a couple of stories from my rich life. A writer/director buddy of mine asked me to read his script. It was a long script and I recommended cuts. He made some of the cuts I recommended and some cuts recommended by others. It still came back a little long. He decided to stay with the length. As a side note, I did notice that his formatting was off and when he later formatted to the script into a shooting script is it ballooned to over 135 pages. On a low budget, that's huge. He ended up making cuts during production which he said were very painful because he was juggling shooting, prepping for the next day, and he was producing. Some were good and some muddied the plot. He regretted not making those cuts at the script stage.

On another film, the writer/director came in with huge sprawling script that he did cut after input. Again, he failed to format it into a shooting script and the thing exploded to 130 plus pages. So remember to get your formatting right. As a side note another friend just finished a first cut of his ninety pager and it ran only seventy-two minutes. So be aware of pacing and run time. I like to do a full cast read through with no stops so I can get timing. You can tape it to get pacing ideas.

So back to the sprawling epic, after the script grew to over 130 pages, he dug in his feet against any cuts saying that he didn't want to cut his poetry. We ended up shooting the script as written, but the days were long and nerves were frayed, but the director did adjust after some crewmembers did quit because of overwork.

Well, the first cut ran over 200 minutes. Over three hours. After much editing, they ended up with a ninety-one minute cut, so they effectively cut over half the work the crew did. It hurt because I think of all the wasted time we could have devoted to make those scenes that ended up in the final cut so much better.

What does all this mean? You have to focus on what is most important to your story. Only put in the wagon what you need, or in film speak only have in your script scenes that build your plot and streamline the story. Make those cuts before you start pre-production so you can focus your efforts on the scenes that matter, not the fluff which lands on the cutting room floor or, in today's editing room, being deleted off the hard drive.

My advice is to get as many people as possible to read your script and get a thick skin about criticism. Try to get people who have been through the process and understand filmmaking. Don't line up your close friends and family who love everything you do and aren't knowledgeable about filmmaking.

My final piece of wisdom is to raise a couple extra dollars and get yourself a producer. I know budgets are tight, but I highly recommend that you find yourself a friend, buddy, pal, right hand man or woman to help you because as writer/director you are already wearing some big hats. My friends who have tried it have said they wouldn't do it again. You'll spend too much of your time worrying about lunch, watching the clock, finding props, keeping the crew happy, setting up for the next day's shoot, and doing a multitude of other things that you'll hardly have the energy to direct and/or re-write if needed. Get somebody who's been there before, loves your project, and filmmaking in general. Some may work for free, but I always recommend that you try to pay them something. That makes them fiscally responsible to you. It doesn't have to be a fortune, but it will cover their time, any phone calls they make, and gas for the car.

In closing, during the writing process and even in the beginning stages of pre-production you must focus on what is essential to your story. You must be merciless and cut the scenes that don't help build or support your story goals. This makes you define the spine of the story, it saves you money because you don't shoot scenes you don't need, and it gives you more time to focus on the scenes that matter. Your crew will love you because they will not feel like they are wasting their time. You must FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS on story and do what's best for your screenplay.

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