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Let your screenplay brew

The other day I saw a locally made feature, The Actress. It was really quite good - for what it was. But my heart sinks when I see a well-directed film with huge writing holes. Holes which are easy to fix if you give your screenplay time to brew.

Directors are Stupider Than Writers


It is common knowledge that directors, in the main, are stupider than writers - often led into projects ego first. But even the stupidest director could probably do well with a short course in screenwriting. Because if you can't read a feature film in the first place, how can you direct one?

Sam Mendez and Alan Ball are a case in point. After the success of American Beauty, Alan went on to write the multi Emmy Award winning Six Feet Under. And Sam? Well . . . just have a listen to the audio commentary on Six Feet Under and you can hear what's driving Sam's engine. Interesting that the commentary is credited as Sam Mendez with Alan Ball.

Writing is one way to remain humble. You get lousy pay (if anything) you get to stand in the shadow of an ego-maniacal director and you get ignored at parties. Nobody sleeps with the writer . . . Except in TV . . . Where writers get to be producers.

So. Back to me. I'm (supposedly) both writer and director. However this year, I've spent about 4 days actually directing anything and about 2 weeks writing. So mostly, this year, I've been a university lecturer - or a web developer. Hopefully I'll get a gig on Marx and Venus - but one can't count on such things.

Yesterday, at least, Phil Jeng Kane and I returned to writing our feature screenplay - probably because this week we have no students. It's a Curtin Uni / FTI holiday. We did a little preparation. Coffee, toast, diary entries etc. And then we started analysing our script with a tool shown to us by Claire Dobbin at an Arista workshop.

The Plot Matrix

If you haven't visited your screenplay for a while (in our case nearly a year) then use the plot matrix. In your spreadsheet program, make 5 columns:
  1. Scene number.
  2. What is the scene about?
  3. Whos scene is it?
  4. What is the emotional subtext?
  5. Do we need the scene?
Then read through each scene (aloud) and answer the questions. The final column we chose to colour:
  • red means remove the scene
  • orange means modify it
    • we'd write a note about how we will do that
  • green for leave it pretty much as is
This way, you get a quick visual representation of how your screenplay is. If the last column is all green - then that's teh writers' green light! It means go find a Producer you can trust with all your hard work.

You will end up with a bunch of notes for your next draft and you will know more about your main character/s journey. Plus you will have the feeling that you've just breathed life into something that seemed permanently in a state of suspended animation.

I found our clarity of purpose was very acute. Because after a long time:
  1. We approach an old subject with fresh eyes
  2. Our critical faculties weren't distracted by precious writing.
  3. Any ill-feeling / previous bad dealings we had regarding the project were gone.
  4. We re-discovered the energy we had when we originally started writing it
    1. in our case - all those years ago.
  5. If you're writing with a partner, you're also working on a friendship.
    1. After all - if two people are co-writing the same project over a long period, then there has to be something special about the idea.
In about half a day (5 hours) we got through 20 scenes this way and hope to finish the other 80+ by early next week.

So - my advice is - leave it on the shelf. And if you have another idea - work on that. Do a rough draft. Even if it's crap - a lot of good stuff will bubble to the surface later in your screenplay's life. If you use . . . The Matrix!

Comments

Mister Trivia said…
I endorse all your comments, Ed, except the one about using the Plot of The Matrix (see what I did there?)

As much as I like The Matrix, it's the ultimate "It was all just a dream" movie.

As for writing the same thing over years and developing it, I would like to say this. We started writing our script in our late 20s and now we are in our late 30s. As we have shifted in our lives so has the script.

Some of what we are doing is turning ideas that just seemed "pretty cool" when we were younger into something more structural and essential now we are older, crustier and have read a few hundred more books (both screewriting ones and the other kind).

I find writing especially a lengthy screenplay to be somewhat like being asked to throw a dart at a board which is shrouded in fog about two kilometres away.

But if it wasn't hard then we wouldn't find it difficult.

Phil (Mr Trivia) Jeng Kane
Why do it if it isn't hard? We may as well come back as cats and be fed each day - until we die.

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