HowTo: Pick the Right Screenplay – Part 1

All great (and not so great) projects start with a blueprint. Buildings don’t go up unless they have a blueprint. Public Works projects don’t get built unless they have a blueprint. The same goes for your film/video projects as well. In any form of media project, the Screenplay (or script) is the blueprint and before you roll your eyes and exclaim, “I knew that”, take a moment to review the recommendations below because there are so many things you may NOT know about picking the right screenplay for your project.

The Right Screenplay is suited for film

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, the first thing to know about making your next opus;

1) THE RIGHT SCREENPLAY IS SUITED FOR FILM:  

So many people approach me everyday with their “Amazing Idea” for a film. You know the types; they’re your hairstylist, butcher, cab driver significant other! Many of them have just bought their first DV Cam or home video recorder. Everybody has a story and most of them are dying for you to make it into the next blockbuster film. Take it from me, I’m one of the founding members of the largest screenwriting group in the country (see below for links) and I read and give notes on over 100 scripts per year!  99% of the scripts I see are not suited for film and here’s why.

According to all the great screenwriters and filmmakers of the last 100 years, the overriding definition for a great script is the following; “A screenplay is a story told in pictures”. Now what does that mean exactly? It means that screenplays (and the resulting work) are a VISUAL MEDIUM. They are meant to be consumed with the eyes and ears. If your story (or your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s story) is of the type that can not be presented visually… then either find a way to translate it into pictures… OR DON’T MAKE THE DAMN THING! Two people TALKING for 90 minutes is NOT a movie. Two hours of your home video cam focused on your 3 month old infant is NOT a movie. Just because the pictures are moving, doesn’t make it a film.

All modern movies (and videos) are derived from CAVE DRAWINGS, which evolved into PAINTINGS which evolved into STILL PHOTOGRAPHS, which evolved into SILENT FILM (moving pictures). They called it “silent film” for a reason. They had NO SOUND TRACKS.  No hip music from hot new bands. No “cool” lines mumbled by overpaid actors.  As amazing as that may sound to us in the Net Generation who consume trillions of bytes of content over our TV’s, Computers and Cell Phones, the fact still remains. If you can’ t convey the story with pictures… it ain’t a movie. 

Lascaux Cave Drawings - France

Let’s look back at those ancient cave drawings from that famous cave in Lascaux, France.  You know, the one that you’re always marveling over on PBS at 2 am in the morning when you’ve just rolled in from a night out with the gang. How? you ask, could those really old guys like Fred Flintstone or the Caveman guys from the Insurance Commercial have created such stunning and impactful images; Images that seem to speak to us from over 30,000 years ago? It was easy. They had NO DIALOGUE to get in the way!

They were forced to create a series of images that conveyed ideas and emotions directly, through the eyes,  without explanation.  If they figured out how to do it way back in the day, so can you.  Look at your script, does it contain phrases like “Bob turned around and thought about leaving”, or “Mary was frightened and didn’t know what to do”.  In short if your script is describing feelings, thoughts, ideas and concepts you’ve probably picked a loser.

Now don’t misunderstand, all the great and memorable films portray feelings, thoughts, ideas and concepts however what makes them great is that the writers, actors and directors (including DP’s, Grips  etc.) have figured out a way to convey these  subjective expressions in  a visual way that is instantly communicated to us through the images on the screen.  

Face Hugger From "Alien"

Face Hugger From "Alien"

Remember the famous scene from Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, when the “face hugger” explodes from its egg sac and latches onto John Hurt’s face plate! Did anyone have to tell you to scream or shit your pants? Probably not. The series of images (ie the set up and pay off) in that sequence created the mood, and the terror all though pictures. 

The dialogue, what little of it there was,  is almost superfluous. That is visual storytelling. If you read the original script, you’ll see that the “on page” description of that scene is little more than a few brief words. Here’s the exact unedited excerpt from that scene, in the original formating from “ALIEN” written by Dan O’Bannon & Ron Shusett, Directed by Ridley Scott.

EXCERPT:

Kane peers closely at the leathery ovoids. Turns away.

Raised areas begin to appear where he touched it. He moves
his light along the rows.

Turns back to the one he was examining. Something has
changed.

The opaque surface begins to clear. Object becoming visible
within.

Kane shines his light on the floor at the base of it. He
studies it.
  
  KANE
 Jesus…
  
  DALLAS
 (voice over)
 What?

Viscera and mandible now visible. The interior surface
spongy and irregular. Kane shines the light inside.

With shocking violence, a small creature smashes outward.
Fixes itself to his mask.

Sizzling sound.

The creature melts through the mask. Attaches itself to
Kane’s face. Kane tears at the thing with his hands. His
mouth forced open.

He falls backward.

END EXCERPT

Even if you’ve never seen the film (really!?) just reading that short passage evokes a chilling set of images in your mind.

What you see written above is a “LIST” of pictures, in sequence with a brief description of the tone and action needed to bring them together. In my opinion, a great screenplay should read almost like poetry. And I don’t mean the soppy horsecrap you find on greeting cards, but real poetry. Poetry is a form of writing that is designed to evoke atmosphere, tone, emotions and images in our mind’s eye with a minimum of words. Great screenwriting is the same.

Conclusion: First find a screenplay that has a great story to tell. One that people are interested in BUT make sure that it’s written VISUALLY. Even if the script isn’t formatted properly, or scratched out on a series of napkins soaked in beer and Hot Wings sauce, it MUST evoke visual images in your mind.

Next Up:  Tip #2) The right screenplay has only two (2) characters!

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