I´ve had the idea to start writing a blog about something that might take a few years as a cinematic process. The genesis of a movie or a tv or web pilot or series starts as an Idea. David Lynch, the celebre film director, once said that the idea is the most important part of the beginnings of a motion picture. One can find ideas almost anywhere at any moment in time, at any place, at any city, at any country, anywhere and everywhere.
A news story, an article, a live event, and millions of other happenings could trigger an idea, and when they do find these ideas, writers must write them down because the fast they come, the fast they go. I guess its the same with musicians who are writing a song. The song comes from an idea, but in my case, I usually tend to have an open canvas in terms of the ideas I see. Then I think about them, and I filter them, and I pick one or two, and I start imagining a certain scene of that idea, with camera shots, sounds and sometimes even dialogue, and then is when the lights are turned on. A screenplay is born. So, what happens next?
We writers tend to sit around with these ideas and think for hours, days or even months into how are we going to develop these ideas first in our heads, then in our computers. Many screenwriters have different methods to put their ideas in order, so that they can commence the writing of a screen play. Most create a backbone or a skeleton that will help them structure a three act story and once this is done, they start thinking about the main characters of the story, but you have to have a clear view of what the story is going to be like. Many writers write treatments that will self explain where the story is going. A treatment can be as long as one likes it to be. It can be five, eight, ten, twenty of even thirty pages where you describe: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Its all about actions. Then when you clear that out, some writers create outlines, so they know exactly where is the breaking point, point of no return and climax. Once you have this figured out, then you go more in detail, like for instance: character development.
Creating the characters based on the idea one has of a screenplay is definitely my favorite part of the process and a key element in the writing because characters are the elements of the screenplay that move the story forward. And so you ask yourself: Who is going to be the protagonist, or who is going to be the antagonist. Is the protagonist going to be the typical run of the mill person or is he or she going to be an anti hero type of character. Then you think about each character's narrative arch. How does a character start at the beginning of the story and how does the character end at the end of the story. All characters change because most of them are chasing a goal. I love creating great antagonist because it's going to force me to create an even greater and stronger protagonist. Some writers like myself we indulge ourselves in writing a full page (almost) biography of each character, because we want our heroes or foes to have different dimensions and complications. We as human have thousands of dimensions because we are complex beings with our own doubts, issues, diseases, ticks, habits, emotions, temper, hobbies, traumas, likes and don'ts and so many other things, and since each and every single one of us is an entire universe, then our characters should also be like that. I truly believe that characters should be empathic with their audience in the sense that people (the audience) need to find a connection between them and the characters.
We writers are not and should not be drawn to fake and feeble characters (at least not me) and we should write any character regardless of the time it appears on the pages of the screenplay as important and as interesting as the main characters. For instance, let's take the movie Amadeus as an example. Aside from Wolfgang and Salieri, all of the characters that appear on that motion picture have a very strong resonance in my mind because of what they do and who they are even if they appear for five or ten minutes on screen. I remember for instance the cleaning girl who is hired by salieri to spy on Mozart as he is writing the requiem so vividly (and growing crazy and sick as the story reaches its climax). First of all, she is played by a then teen actress now turned great actress Cinthia Nixon. I just remember her tears and her fears of watching Mozart go crazy as he gets more desperate trying to finish his requiem for Salieri as if it was yesterday. Did she had doubts or fears? Absolutely. This girl was a character that did not have enormous screen time, but the minute you saw her, I am pretty sure that you where blown away just like me. When Peter Shaffer (the screen writer) and Milos Foreman (the director), where crafting the screen play of Amadeus, they thought that every character, no matter how small or big role he or she has on screen, were as important as Mozart and Salieri, and I think every screenwriter should approach the character building just like this, but we also have to know, what purpose is each character serving to. How are they going to move the story forward. If they help the story we keep them, if not we toss them away. So, now that you have a strong idea about your characters, What do you do next? You probably will start writing the first scene of your first draft, and you look up and you say: Before I had to talk the talk, now I have to walk the talk.
Here , writers tend to go in different directions, or they start writing as their mind tells them to or they construct scene by scene in cards that they attach to a wall prior to commence writing. Either way is fine. Some writers have a clear picture of the story and they start writing, while others have to have the house in order before they write, and I have to tell you something from my own experience, the first option takes much longer than the second one, but which ever path you take, one thing is for certain: You are about to embark on the longest and probably most painful, lonely and head wrecking process of the entire motion picture making: THE WRITING. Sitting down in front of your computer (or typewriter), and write. I don't want to play victim here, but, we, screenwriters, are often looked down upon, beaten up and overlooked in film industries. We are easily disposed off, written down, stepped down and looked down, but the real deal is very simple: No screenplays means no movie, no tv drama, no web series, or no sitcoms. That's the importance we have in this chaotic universe of making motion pictures.
So we put the first god damn words to it, thinking of either selling the screenplay as a spec or speculative screenplay to an industry, or writing it for ourselves so that maybe just one day.... One day... Far ahead or somehow close by... we could direct it. All countries have film commissions, but very few have industries where screenplays can be shopped around or pick up by producers, so, based on where you are, you are going to have to think: Is this screenplay going to be a spec screenplay or a screenplay I want to direct. The process varies for instance if you live in the United States and write in Hollywood (or want to write for Hollywood) as an independent or hired screen writer, versus a screen writer in Ecuador, where there is no film industry.
No matter if you are in Vanuatu, Ecuador or the United States, writing takes months, or sometimes even years, and it get's lonely. Sometimes you want to throw your computer to the ground out of frustration and other times you want to kiss the screen because you have come up with a fantastic scene or dialogue. Get used to this. It's like being a manic depresive. You swing back and forth, between the highest of emotions, to the lowest of self esteem lows. And get used to the fact that you might never ever see it made to nothing, but as screenwriters, we always have a force within us telling us: Do or die. This allows us to have the strength to survive every beating, swearing and teasing we might and will encounter on our climb to what seems to be a mountain higher that Mount Everest, where every bruise and punch is felt horribly bad. We might even encounter writers block, which is basically: not knowing what else to write. You are out of bloodyideas and you don't know how to continue. What do you do? You wait for them to arrive? You write more until something satisfies you that allows you to move? You procrastinate and decide to play gold instead? I've been on such break for almost two years but I didn't procrastinate because Ive ventured into photography, and just now , I feel more confident to keep writing a Mexican screenplay I began a few years ago. Its horrifying but it happens to novel writers and play writers as well, because the more you think about it, the more panic you get into.
Then you write the first draft, and you read it over and think its absolute shit and crap. You think to yourself, nothing makes sense, yet you find elements that make sense, you scrap the fat off and you re write it. Then the third version comes, you read it, you think its less shitty than the previous one, you add and subtract things, scenes or even characters that do not move the story onwards, you mutate the plot and you make it better than before, then you make a fourth, fifth, sixth or seven, or twentieth version, until you say, ok, let's take it out to the world. You make sure the elements are understandable and that there are no grammar issues, and then? You copyright it of course because you don't want your screenplay idea to be used by anyone else.
Almost all all countries have copyright institutes where if you submit your screenplay and they find that its not infringing any other copy right, they can protect you. In Ecuador you do this legally via an attorney who handles copyright laws and inserts it in the IEPI institute. If you are in the United States, you insert it into the database of the Writers Guild of America. They study it to make sure it doesn't infringe any similarities with other works, and if they find all is clear, your screenplay is sealed and protected. In any case you pay fees, but your work is is now legally protected. In most copyright institutes, they require a physical copy of the screenplay without considering the version number, and I always recommend registering it to go to bed thinking that you now have some rights over your material, your baby.
For a screenplay to be a screenplay, it needs to be formatted very specific and every writer should master this formatting by using multiple softwares out there that are meant to simplify your life in this matter. The most accessible one in my opinion is celtx because of costs and then you have the premium Final Draft, which is also recommended but at a higher cost. Anyway, both programs have excellent features like multiple participants, cloud storage and so on but what its most important is the user friendly platform when it comes to writing and formatting your screenplay. But you also have to know what a scene header is, and how to write it properly. A scene header indicates where the scene is located (a house, an office, an apartment), and what time of the day it is. A scene begins like that.
Then you have a big or small paragraph where in within the action, you introduce a character. You describe who are we seeing on screen, what is he or she wearing, how does he or she look, what type of hair color this character has, but furthermost you concentrate on what the character is doing and you have to be very specific. In the writing, when you introduce a character you use CAPITAL LETTERS of his and her name, then the description of the character (brief) and then his or her actions. When I'm writing scenes, no matter if they are introductory scenes or not, I tend to highlight in capital letters SOUNDS as well, just as I imagine how they will sound: An old phone RINGS and RINGS and RINGS with a screeching EEEEEEEEE sound, followed by a: John gently picks up the phone. Now here, my intuition says that dialogue will come right after, Right? There can be dialogue or not, depending ON FIRST what the scene story is all about, and SECONF, who is on the other side of the line, or not, Maybe the character answers the phone but no one on the other side replies, but let's just say there IS someone on the other side of the line. We ask ourselves, Do we see this person who is at the other side of the line or not? if we don't, then when this person's dialogue comes in the screenwriting format, if this is the first time this character appears on the screenplay you write is or her name in CAPITAL letters, then a brief description of the person, and then me move to the dialogues. If we see this person, we introduce who this character is as I mention previously, and then, in most screenwriting softwares, there is an option for split screen dialogue. This is when you have more than one characters who are interacting with each other from different physical spaces, but, when you have two or more characters interacting in the same space in the scene, the order of the dialogue is vertical going down.
And speaking more about dialogue, it is the words that the screenwriter puts on paper that allow the characters to move the story forward, but in my opinion, when you over do dialogue, things can get a little dodgy. French films love to do that for some reason, and I believe that when we write, we have to think about the audience, and really balance action and dialogue. Remember, the screen is action. Is what you see. In some movies that I can think of, there are scenes with no dialogue, just actions from the characters, and that's great too. Both actions and dialogue should make the characters move the story forward.
In programs like CELTX or Final Draft, in the interface, all action buttons are on the left, so if you are going to start a dialogue, the program automatically formats the CHARACTER NAMES in CAPITAL LETTERS in the center, and if the character is not seen but heard we usually put the CHARACTER´S NAME in caps followed by a (OC) or off camera sign right next to the name, so then, we know that this person is not there physically, but none of the less, he or she is part of the scene. This might sound a bit mumbo jumbo to a lot of people but trust me, if you can't format properly a screenplay nobody who is in this business is going to read your screenplay, and most are going to throw it away. Its like a calling card that presents your abilities at the highest and most basic level.
A few years ago, I was teaching a screen writing course at al local university here in Quito called Universidad Tecnológica Israel to Junior students in their BA communications program. One morning I asked them as a homework to bring me written a scene that they would have to write of a short film that they had to produce at the end of the term. When I saw the papers handed to me I was astonished by their lack of knowledge in turning in a proper, well structured and formatted scene. Nothing made sense. The Dialogues where in the right and most had terrible grammar to name just a handful of all the problems I encountered with what they were turning back to me. But it only was a test to see if they knew something, and it turned out that none knew anything about formatting. So, instead of screaming back at them wich trust me I really wanted to, I spent two weeks teaching these kids on how to properly format a screen play, and telling them that if they don't get this right, NOBODY will probably be interested in reading their work, even if the work is genius. TRUST ME, it is a complete turn down when I see screenplays that are badly formatted. I hate them, actors hate them, producers hate them and studio heads hate them too, which takes me back to the next step.
So you've spend endless days, nights, weeks, months or even years writing a screenplay a thousand times over and over and you finally think it's finally time to take it into the next level and show your spec screenplay to the world. What do you do?
You hustle and take it everywhere with the expectancy that nothing is going to happen and everyone is going to shut their doors at you, yet thinking that someone will probably decide to read it. You take it to a producer, and so you pitch to people here, there and everywhere. You do this here in Ecuador, in Bollywood and in Hollywood. If the project seems interesting, the producers will certainly ask you for a copy of the screenplay.
In places like Hollywood there are many ways that a screen play can be picked up. A very common practice, specially in production companies is that it passes through filters (usually done by underpaid screenwriters like one self) who put a stamp on many written works that will make the screenplay either go up to the producer´ s office or be thrown to a garbage can or stored away. Another way is to reach out to the producer´ s assistants and ask them to hand the screenplay over to the producers. If and only if the product reaches the boss desk, he or she will either like it, put it away or dislike it completely. David Peoples, one of Hollywood's most recognized screenwriters (blade runner et al), gave a copy of a screenplay called Unforgiven to Clint Eastwood. The story goes that he read it, liked it, purchased the rights, and decided not to do it at that moment. A few years later he picked up the screenplay again, called back Peoples, produced and shot the movie with an extraordinary ensemble of cast and crews, and won a couple of Academy awards.
If producers like the screenplay you are delivering to them, they could do many things with it. The first being is buying the rights of your work. This allows them to take the product and shop it around to find financing. Sometimes, if the work is outstanding, they might even ask you to join the team of writers via a contract, or they pay you and you go and start writing more screenplays. This is true for many speculative screenplays, and this is where you truly develop a way to let go of your work and start something else. You can also write a screenplay under contract, but for this to happen, producers should be aware that you are a talent they can use. Now this is somehow the way it happens in countries with film industries, but what about in places like my country Ecuador?
In here, most writers are writers-directors who often have a group of friends who are producers (if they are not themselves producers too) and start prepping the screenplay for those awful and bureaucratic and sometimes biased state funds. Here, a writer-director can have several screenplays but he or she must choose which one goes first to the limelight. I believe that an industry should have many trades and each trade should produce people who are good at one thing only, even if there are wonderful writer-directors out there. I feel that sometimes writers - directors tend to be so biased of their written work that they will hardly accept anyone else giving them opinions of their writing. But in any case, and in countries like Ecuador, and with state funds being the sole providers of film money, the process of getting cash for the different stages after the writing can be long, bureaucratic, grueling and certainly with many strings attached. In Ecuador, the process of giving money from a public entity is expected to be used properly and wisely. Most film commissions have film grants and in those grants they have specific financing for different production stages, and in all cases you will have to prepare yourself to present your project to a jury who under their considerations will evaluate if you are a proper recipient of the funds or not. This process might take months or even years, and its not mostly a fair battle. Nobody is going to care more about your screenplay but yourself, because that's just a rule, and second, most of the people that work in these so called film commissions are themselves unaccomplished film makers who ended up doing bureaucratic work instead of films.
So, in a nutshell, as a writer, it is you who is going to put on the chevalier armor and truly go to battle while writing your screenplay, because putting a screenplay out and making it a motion picture is a completely different battleground. At this stage, as a writer, you just hope for the best and dream that what you have written will end up in a screen somewhere, which is going to be the subject of my next blog: Development and pre production. Good luck!!! Godspeed and make it happen!