This past week I approached the near half way point in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. And coincidently some great articles recently came out about the process of screenwriting, the spec market and a wonderful piece about Kevin Walker who wrote Se7en (one of my favorites). All three of these articles are a must read for those of us that write screenplays. But some of the biggest takeaways for me was Jason Buff’s INDIE FILM ACADEMY: Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay.
As I have often said, if you ask 100 people an opinion about your screenplay (or film) you will get 100 different opinions. Are you going to take all those opinions and redo your entire screenplay? Of course not and rightly so. But I promise you there are those selling their services that will talk to you like you’re a third grade moron. Why? Because they want to sell you something—their expertise. There are many great experts in this industry, but like all things Caveat Emptor applies “Let the buyer beware”.
I could not agree more with Jason when he wrote “As many successful screenwriters will tell you, there are no rules”. Of course you need some sort of structure in your screenplay. Your characters need to do something in the world you have built for them. I think the important thing to remember is that you are writing for an eventual audience, but it should also be a story that you want to see. I believe that’s where the word “passion” applies. As writers, we are passionate about our stories. If we aren’t, why should anybody else be?
I was a reader once for a film festival and it didn’t take me long to see who had passion and who “phoned it in”. Yes, it’s important to understand what EXT. and INT. mean, when to use (or usually not use) a parenthetical, flashback sequences, intercuts, etc. At the end of the day, the very end of the day, you have to simply assume that someone other than you is going to read your screenplay. Does it flow? Do the characters move from one action to another in a logical progression? That doesn’t mean that they don’t go against their own character, it just means that they move along in the story. Think about it in real life. We all know someone who for some odd reason does something out of character and then falls back into themselves. If it’s one thing contemporary audiences like it’s a twist.
Writing a screenplay, again in my view, should be an enjoyable experience. While it’s certainly not easy creating new worlds and characters, the joy is in that creation — you’ve created something from nothing. At one point in your story you’ll find that the characters start to talk to you. Thankfully, as I’m a Gemini and have a split personality, that Zodiac trait helps!
To quote one of my favorite films “Now, pull your own weight. I’ve taught you the technique, now use it. Forget you’re a hidebound New Englander. Unbend, take part, contribute. Be interested in everything – and everybody.”
This past week there was a great article published in MovieMaker magazine titled A Script Is No Longer Enough: Why First-Time Feature Directors Must Make a Proof-of-Concept. For those of you with a completed script that you want to see on the big screen, this is an absolute must read. This is the exact path I took to make Justice Is Mind.
My first script was not Justice Is Mind, it was a sci-fi epic titled First World that was nominated for a few screenwriting awards. In my view, once you’ve been nominated (or won) some screenwriting awards, that pretty much should signal that you can write. But the next obvious step is going from the printed page to live action. That is easier said than done. The former largely consists of time and the one time purchase of software. The latter, no matter how you slice it, requires real cash.
In 2007 I produced a short film version of First World for $14,000. With a feature film budget of $2 million, there were certain concepts and scenes I wanted to present (we needed a motorcade). The short did really well on the science fiction convention circuit with over 20 screenings and some solid press (it’s now available on Amazon). In 2008 I pretty much had the financing lined up (Chinese investor) along with a distributor in Germany. But then the economy crashed as epically as the story itself. Indie film financing around the world was crushed. But it was the short film that opened up the doors for the feature. Since then science fiction enthusiasts made this fan trailer to promote the project and I still present First World when the opportunity comes up. As I’ve said in earlier posts, it’s about patience.
As a producer told me when I was living in L.A. while you are developing one project, you are working on another and another and another. The idea is that they may be in various stages of development and you are presenting along the way. With luck, one of them may take off. For me, that launch was Justice Is Mind.
Having written the feature film version of Justice Is Mind in 2010, I wanted to produce a short film version as a “proof of concept”. At this point it wasn’t so much proof that I could direct, it was to see the concept itself come to life to present it to financiers and production companies. In addition, I also wanted to see actors in what would be the starring roles. After Evidence was produced in 2011, there was something else I discovered the project had – audience and distribution interest. Those two things by far are THE most important – obviously. After two theatrical screenings in Massachusetts and Connecticut, followed by several sci-fi convention screenings and VOD placement, the funding came together for the feature film.
The rest as they say is history. Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 and has enjoyed a theatrical run, is available on VOD and had an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Two of the stars from the short film version carried over to the feature along with several of the crew. In fact the key grip from Evidence, Jeremy Blaiklock, was the director of photography on the feature film version. With over 200 people involved in Justice Is Mind when the next project comes online I have a proven network to approach first.
As for the next project, I will say this – I’ve already selected the “proof of concept” scenes for the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating along with SOS United States. For me, I’m not pursuing a “spec sale” deal, I’m only interested in directing and producing. But at the end of the day this is a business so one considers all options.
Lights, camera, concept.