What's past is prologue
We need good scripts with lots of action.
And we need them now. Do not think that because we're working on another movie right now that we don't need your new script right away. Many writers believe that they need to hand in the first draft of a screenplay the day before principal photography begins. To understand why this is so not true, read the section on scheduling.
There is a whole lot of great screenwriting software out there. Final Draft, the Movie Magic software, heck even Microsoft's Word (or Open Office's writing program). You could even use Google Documents in a pinch, but getting the format to work exactly right might be a tad funky.
We use Celtxas our screenwriting program. We use it for three reasons:
- It's free
- It's cross-platform
- It's free
There's never an inappropriate time to tell you to back up your data. Send the script to yourself every night by email and then archive the email. Get yourself a free Sugarsyncaccount to synchronize your home computer with your laptop. Or use Dropboxlike everybody else. Whatever you do, make a backup every day. Heck, email your script to me so there's an extra copy around.
Obviously, if you haven't heard the words "Save the Cat", you aren't actually writing a picture for Pandora Machine.
Blake Snyder wrote a book, called "Save the Cat". In it he describes a beat-sheet which can be used as a structure for all commercial feature films. Heck, I'd use that same structure for all art-house films too, if you don't deliberately want to bore the socks off your audience.
So what's the big deal about Save the Cat?
The most important thing, and the thing that most (but not all) writers have trouble with, is story structure.
The Blake Snyder Beat Sheetis the way to solve your structure problems.
Now, there are many screenwriting books out there. And they mostly try to explain the structure of a screenplay at some point, and then add a little collection of amusing "rules" to follow when writing. But Save the Cat gives the most explicit guide to the structure of a screenplay.
Also, if you're the kind of writer who gets most frustrated with structure, having a clear beat-sheet makes your writing free-er. Suddenly you aren't sweating where the big decisions should go (the first Big Decision comes from the Protagonist and catapults us into Act II) and you're able to write.
This is good.
- Start with a logline.
- Write a synopsis.
- Board your movie so you can see where all the beats go.
- Then write it.
Why? Why, why, why do it in this order? Sometimes you just want to write, you know? Not deal with all this technical stuff.
The advantage to working with a strong log-line is that you know what kind of movie you're making all the way through the process. Every morning you look up at the log line and you remind yourself: "Yes! THAT's the movie we're making."
I was working on a post-apocalyptic movie where this woman wakes up to find everyone gone, she meets a homeless crazy guy and... yeah, all that is boring. I pitched the movie to our sales rep and he was like "Er... you got anything else?"
Montserrat Mendez said to me "You should call it "Day 2". On day one, aliens take over the Earth. On day 2, we take it back."
My sales rep jumped for joy when he heard that. The script still had the homeless dude and the woman waking up to an empty New York, but we knew every day that we were shooting that this is Day 2, the day we take it back.
The fact is, that frequently you start writing first. And then go back and do a beat sheet. And then you write. And then you change the beat sheet. But if you can do it the right way (logline, beat-sheet, script) it'll save you a boatload of time.
Weirdly, almost everything in the script can be easily saved on-set except for the structure. You have lousy "on-the-nose" dialog? Actors can save that by not saying anything. You have an underdeveloped character? Actors will save that by giving them limps. I'm not saying you want to have your movie saved by on-set improvisation, I'm just say it can be fixed.
But if the structure is screwed up, then emotionally nobody knows where they're supposed to be, nobody knows where the scene they're in is going. Nobody knows nothing. And the movie is guaranteed to suck.
Here's an example of a beat sheet. It's screwed up. We have two drafts of this screenplay and we've had to re-"beat-out" the movie. That happens.
1004 Beat Sheet
- Opening Image: page 1 John wakes up on ship with the dead
- Theme Stated: page 4
- Set-up: pages 1-8 “Two years later” John hunts Raut in the wasteland.
- Catalyst: page 9 John is rescued by Morgan
- Debate: pages 9-20 Morgan wants John to help the ensemble
- Break into Two: page 20 John agrees to let the digital cat help the ensemble rebuild the shield — as long as he can kill Raut
- B Story: page 24 this must be the love story with Morgan, no? But John only wants revenge.
- Fun and Games: pages 24-45 Fighting robots on their way to the repeater.
- Midpoint: page 45
- Bad Guys Close In: pages 45-61
- All Is Lost: page 61 Morgan and John are trapped outside of the city
- Dark Night of the Soul: pages 61-69 Morgan asks John why he hates Raut so much. John tells the story of his “coming home”
- Break into Three: page 69
- Finale: pages 69-90
- Final Image: page 90
Note that some of the beats aren't even filled in. They were at one point but we had a structural problem. Now we don't even know where the midpoint is or how the bad guys close in. But we will. And we'll finish the screenplay. And we'll shoot the movie. And we'll have fun doing it, even if people have to die.
Get Save the Cat. Read it. Love it. Know it. I don't even care if you disagree with a couple things Blake says, don't focus on what you might think is wrong — focus on how to make a great screenplay. There are a lot of great books out there. The advantage to Save the Cat is the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet which clearly lays out the structure we all crave in a story.<span class="tiki_plugin" plugin="html" style="position:relative;" syntax="
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Is there another way to get great structure without
A. Being inherently great at structure, you don't need any help thank you very much
B. Using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet?
Yes. Go ahead and take a perfect script from a movie or TV show or whatever, and re-write each scene with new characters, new dialog, and a new environment but with the same structural things going on in each scene.
Is that cheating?
Have I gone on and on about getting the screenplay to me on time? I haven't? OK. I'll try.
"But" you say "the draft is harder than I thought it would be — it's taking more time than I'd thought."
I don't care. Get us the draft. "Even if it sucks?" you say?
And this is why:
The hardest part of a screenplay is that dreadful first draft. Our man Henry Steady calls that the "brain vomit" stage of screenwriting. Once that first, bad, draft is out there it becomes so much easier. Rewriting is easier than writing — especially if you're not the writer.
This is why it's best to hand off the screenplay to someone else for edits.
"But I'm not a good collaborator!" "I have very specific ideas, nobody else can understand them!" "How can I let go of my baby??!!"
If any of these statements are true about you then don't make movies. Write novels instead. Actors are going to interpret you, people are going to make stuff up on the stage, and Ganesha knows what the editor(s) are going to do with your script.
The screenplay is a blueprint. And not only are a whole lot of people going to put their fingerprints on your blueprint before we get to the stage, the stage (and post-production) are going to make lots of things change.
Are you over it? Tell me when you're over it.
OK? Now. Let's go on.
Writing for the Stage
There's a notion that a writer should never "write for the stage". I can kind of understand this notion, the writer should be free to write whatever they want. Unicorns and butterflies and armies of space marines.
As a notion, however, it is completely impractical. Really a writer should know everything that's in this wiki and more. Maybe, on your own, you could write a first-draft with all those things in it — unicorns, butterflies, and space marines (all because it's part of your "process"), but to actually get your work produced you might want to think "OK, only one space marine, and we just talk about the unicorns and never see them. The butterfly is a hologram of a butterfly."
In a World
Remember how for a while all trailers had the voiceover "In a world where x happens, one man/dog/robot/girl must y before z happens."
That, dramatically, is an awesome sum-up of a story. Those are exactly the things you need to know. What is the world? Who is our protagonist? What do they want? What keeps them from getting what they want?
Mincedand made up curses are my favorite things. Sure, we could get all Firefly-y and make up minced curses. If we ever get a TV deal it'll be a lot better than "I've had it with these monkey - fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane!"
Actually, now that I think of it, monkey-fighting and Monday to Friday are awesome minced curses.
What Not To Do
- No fake-out "it was just a dream!" bits. Buyers hate those. I know, it worked once in Aliens. Unfortunately that was the first and last time that was ever going to work.
- No cowboys. What's the best movie we ever made? Solar Vengeance. Did you see how well that picture did? Yeah, neither did I. Did you notice how Firefly bombed at the box office and as a TV series? We love space cowboys. Nobody else does. No cowboys.
- Text. Stay away from text. You ever notice how characters always read notes aloud when they get them? There's a reason for this: overseas distribution. English language text has to be translated. Nobody likes a movie with subtitles so they need to hear what the text you have on screen says. Ergo: somebody says the text aloud. But for some distributors that won't be enough and they're gonna want to replace your dumb English language text with their own language. In post-production this becomes a major pain in our bunny-butts.
What To Do
Action pictures. Anybody who can do a decent Aliens-like picture gets a prize. Everybody loves those.
The real trick is to make an action picture with a minimal number of locations/sets, minimal number of actors, and minimal number of CGshots. You'd think all of those demands would conflict with one another. They do. That's why writing a low-budget action flick is hard.
Doing it on time and without whining is nigh-on impossible.
Increment your draft numbers
The names of our movies are typically things like "1002". The first draft, even if it's not a complete draft, will be called "1002 v1.00". A few times a day, one should save as a new draft number ("1002 v1.01" etc.)
As a genre film company (as opposed to an art-house film company) we have a lot more leeway in what we do in many ways. As long as there are giant insect robots and things blowing up, we can do pretty well what we like. Personally I'm a fan of adding as much Milton and Shakespeare to the script as we can. But the fact is only Star Trek can pull that kind of thing off.
We do get to deal with the big themes though. Existence, God, Humanity, all that stuff. What seems pretentious in an art-house flick is sort of run-of-the-mill in a good zombie picture.