Craft Your Script to Fit the Needs of the Moment – The Blueprint vs. The Sales Document
SO YOU THINK THE SCRIPT IS READY?
You think your script is perfect. It’s wonderful, it’s awesome, you could shoot it tomorrow if someone gave you all the money for it. At least, that’s what I thought after I finished the second draft of Found In Time. However, this is rarely the case. Scripts are never really done, because their purpose changes over time. It’s important to craft your script to fit the needs of the moment, and spend some time on this even before you start your script analysis and breakdown work.
WHAT IS YOUR SCRIPT?
During the financing and development stages, your script is a sales document. Your audience is potential investors, the agents/managers of “name” actors, and sales agents and distributors.
It’s also a blueprint for your producer or line producer to base the budget and (prospective) schedule on. Your audience is your producing partner (or you, if you’re doing the budget yourself).
During preproduction, your script becomes a design document, pointing the way to your story. Your audience is your casting director, cast, crew, and the agents of prospective cast members. To your assistant director and production manager (or whoever is filling these roles), the script is a logistical asset, like a terrain map.
During rehearsal, your script becomes a scaffold that your actors will then breathe life into.
During production, your script becomes the baseline and is rarely followed with 100 percent fidelity. The script supervisor and editor use the script as the means of comparing what you wanted to shoot with what you actually shot, and try to reconcile the difference in one way or another (either by trying to force the footage to follow the script, or jumping away from the script to fulfill the story).
At no time is the script the story. This may seem strange – what were you writing, if not a story – but the truth is that the story of the film is what’s in your head. The script is a vehicle for telling it but it leaves a lot out. This is both bad and good. The bad is that no matter what, your story will always become somewhat diluted in the act of fitting it into the script format. The good is that your cast and crew will fill the gaps and make it into something that may be better than what you could have thought of on your own.
You’ll notice that some of these roles conflict. Blueprints are supposed to be specific, as are design documents; but sales pitches are generally more broad, and scaffolds are (as the name implies) rather barebones. But jumping between these different roles is not as difficult as it might seem.
I’m spending time on these seemingly academic points because it’s important to put some distance between you and your work. You have to have a certain flexibility (without being overly compromising) in order to rework the script to fit these different roles.
CREATING THE BLUEPRINT
Now it’s time to hand off the script to a line producer, your producing partner, or yourself, to do a breakdown and budget.
A line producer looks at a script as a collection of elements – cast members, locations, picture vehicles, lighting setups, props, wardrobe changes, special effects, etc. – that need to be analyzed, scheduled, and budgeted. Seen from this perspective, your script probably has some obviously expensive elements (like that night exterior car chase) and some obviously cheap ones (like two characters sitting in a room talking).
Without fundamentally altering your script, you can maximize the value some of your elements have, and eliminate others that are just costing you money but aren’t furthering the story. Here are a few concrete examples:
The one-line character. You have a character who says exactly one or two lines but otherwise sits at the bar as part of the background. Guess what? You now have to pay that person a cast salary, which could amount to a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (depending on your SAG agreement, and including employer fringes). Can you throw those lines to someone else who already has dialog? Do the lines really need to be there in the first place?
The one-scene location. You have a location you only need for one relatively inconsequential scene – the reception area of an office, or the slacker boyfriend’s living room. Consider that during production, unless this scene takes up a whole day’s shooting, you’re also going to have to change locations to shoot whatever else you have on the schedule that day. Anytime you’re moving from place to place is unproductive. Plus, you’ll probably have to pay a location fee, and buy/rent equipment and props for the location, etc. Can you move this scene to a location you’re already using for other scenes?
Tough locations. Airports, courthouses, train stations, subway stations, major bus depots, sports arenas, the observation deck at the Empire State Building … you can certainly shoot in these places, but insurance requirements, bureaucracy, and/or outrageous location fees relative to your budget could put them out of reach. You can try to steal the shots you need, but what happens if they kick you out? What do the scenes add to the story? Can they be set somewhere else? Can you grab an establishing shot as B-roll and then shoot the actual scene somewhere else?
Licensed music. Licensed music is probably the biggest budget sinkhole that filmmakers fall into. If you’ve written “and then The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ comes up on the loudspeaker” into your script, you just bumped the budget by $50K or more. You may want to keep the music cue in the script for now to give your investors, cast, and crew some idea of what you have in mind, but be flexible on this once it’s time to start shooting. Also, obtaining music rights is a huge time suck.
Licensed footage. Clips from famous movies or television shows will also cost you a fair amount. Do you need these clips at all? Can you re-create them somehow?
Phone conversations. Keep in mind that these have to be shot twice – so you can get both sides of the conversation on camera and intercut later. So if you have three phone conversations in your script, totaling 6 pages, you actually need to shoot 12 pages of dialog. Can you make these in-person conversations? Can you trim out one side of the conversation?
Rooftop scenes. Rooftop vistas can add a lot to the production value of a film, but they’re more difficult to shoot on than you’d think – you have to cart all the equipment up (usually some very tough stairs), you’re at the mercy of the weather, and the odds of getting clean dialog are iffy (it depends on how exposed the building is to winds). Do these scenes add to the story?
Big crowd scenes. You can probably afford one or two big set pieces in your film, but if you’re going from one big crowd scene to another, you may have a problem. Do you think you can shoot all the crowd scenes in one or two days? How many people do you need? Can you take advantage of an existing crowd?
If you have any of these elements in your script, you shouldn’t necessarily just start cutting them out. But you should be aware that they will cost you something in production (either in time, cash, favors, or all three). If on the other hand you find that they’re not doing anything for the story, take them out now before the line producer gets down to factoring them into the budget.
At this point, you should have a script that’s error free, and somewhat frugally constructed, so that you can create the budget and breakdown.
CREATING THE SALES DOCUMENT
Once your baby is ready to present to the world, you have to carefully consider who it’s going out to, and what you want them to take away from the read.
Your first audience will be investors, actors’ agents/managers, and possibly sales agents (if you’re trying to get presales). The investors may or may not know much about filmmaking, so it’s key that they don’t get put off by reading the script. You want to make the script as “user-friendly” to them as possible.
Actors’ reps and sales agents are insanely busy people, and it’s likely that they will not actually read the script (unless they know you personally or are too small to have assistants) but pass it onto one of their underlings. These underlings have a mountain of scripts on their desk, and go to bed crying at how many they will have to read the next day, and at how many of them suck. These folks desperately want to read something good.
Your objective is for your script to be fast and good. The good part is up to you, but there are a few ways to make the read fast:
1. Take out excessive camera direction. It slows down the read and most people (myself included) can’t really visualize the directions that well. Or the direction is physically impossible (camera dollies THROUGH THE WALL – what?).
2. Minimize scene transitions. Your script will be harder to read if it keeps jumping around every 1/4 of a page. Can you consolidate some scenes?
3. Trim your descriptions. Go for poetry instead of prose. If your descriptions are longer than three lines, consider breaking them up or losing something. I’ve had more than one reader tell me that if he sees long paragraphs of description he just turns the pages.
4. Trim your script. Before I even read a script I look at how long it is. If it’s longer than 110 pages, I start to sigh. If it’s longer than 120, I groan. If you find that your script is soaring past 100 pages, it’s time to see what you can trim out.
5. Smooth out the technical talk. Technical verisimilitude is a good thing, but a little goes a long way. If you find that your characters are talking to each other like they’re repeating nuclear power plant operating manual instructions, dial it down a bit. You’ll notice that even on more dialog-driven films such as The Social Network, with its multiple court cases and programmers talking about code, expositional dialog is interspersed with action. The dialog doesn’t get in the way of the action, and yet a lot of information is conveyed in a very short time (especially in the first half-hour, when we learn about Zuckerberg’s hacking abilities, how honors clubs work, and the details of the two court cases pending against him).
6. Make the blocking clear. When I’m writing I usually keep the blocking pretty sparse. But your investors will want to get some sense of the physical action, so don’t be afraid to be specific about character movement, or the choreography of a chase or fight scene. Just don’t over-complicate it, either. If you’re writing every parry, dodge, and punch of a fight, you’re probably slowing down the read.
You want the style to “pop” but not get in the way of the story. Your goal should be for the investor or reader to pick up the script and read it all the way through despite having a full bladder. This may seem like a high bar to aim for, but unless these folks know you, you have to prove that you’re worth their time and risk.
Excerpt from Preparing for Takeoff by Arthur Vincie © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.