Pen to Paper

Writing the Film Script

With big budget films, a good script is doubly important, because so much money is riding on it. For the most part, Hollywood has ignored the concepts of good story and three dimensional characters. And in exchange for that, independent films have risen in popularity and have gained respect in the mainstream. It isn’t difficult to take the time to make characters more interesting, or making the story more plausible or more exciting. Unfortunately, many producers don’t seem to realize this.

As an example, I will site what I call “How To Handle Alien Invasions for Dummies” — Independence Day. This tale is almost a perfect rehash of War of the Worlds, and it disgusts me because Emmerich and Devlin have never acknowledged this. They keep calling it an homage to the Irwin Allen disaster films, which it is not. The film is also a rip-off of the mini-series, V, as well as a number of other better alien invasion films.

The characters are basically cardboard cutouts and none are terribly interesting except for Randy Quaid. As for the story, it is full of holes — how does a laptop computer link with an alien computer to upload a virus? — and the dialogue is weak. The only redeeming quality of the film are the special effects, which shouldn’t be the best part of any film. This movie cost about $100 million to make, yet the producers made no effort to take the time to devise a stronger story. While the movie was a hit, it became something of a joke to many viewers who questioned the logic of the plot and its success was based solely on the action and effects. The problems could have been fixed and the producers would have had a stronger success if they’d simply taken a little more time to make sure the script worked.

When it comes to strong storytelling, I’ll refer you to something a little simpler —The Frighteners. This was a special effects ridden film starring Michael J. Fox as a con man who can see ghosts. It also happens to be a terrific film. Although I don’t agree with some of the framing, it manages to tell an exciting and interesting tale, while at the same time contain a great character story.

Script writing is about balance. If you’ve got a strong story, you need strong characters. If you’ve got strong characters, you need a strong story. If you alter that balance, the chances of the film working decrease.

For those who are planning on sinking their own money into a film, or their family’s money, then the script writing phase is where you can assure that your film won’t cost too much. The first rule any good writer will tell you is “write what you know.” Well, as a filmmaker, the phrase is “work with what you have.”

When writing a script or developing the story, keep in mind what you have at hand — locations, people to act in the film, props, etc… I’d recommend that you try to keep the locations limited, because the more you need to move around the longer it’ll take you to make the film. You should also consider keeping your main characters to a small amount. Don’t fill the script with a bunch of people if you aren’t sure you can get someone to play them. And do your best to avoid scenes that require a lot of extras. It isn’t always easy to get lots of people together at once when they all have their own lives and jobs. You also have to remember, you’ve gotta feed’em as well (P.S. — Always treat your crew and cast well, because they’re doing you a favor and you may need them to do you another one down the line).

While it’s important to keep it simple, this doesn’t mean sacrificing quality storytelling. In fact, to keep it simple you’ll have to think harder and find more interesting ways tell the story.

If you’re concerned that by simplifying your film you will make it less interesting to watch, don’t worry. Just write the script. There are plenty of tricks you can use when actually making the film to make it interesting. Just concentrate on the characters and the story.

Now I’m perfectly willing to put my money where my mouth is. These are two scripts that I wrote in film school. They’re pretty short — only a couple of pages each — and only one of them contains dialogue. But, I think they’re pretty good. They are part of a trilogy, with the final chapter yet to be made.

1. “Shot”
2. “Ascent”

I’ve written a few others, so if anyone’s interested, just drop me a line. I’m also available if anyone is looking for help in developing their script, or are looking for a writer. Just e-mail me.

Proper Formatting…

One of the first things anyone’s got to learn before sitting down to write a script is — how to write a script.

If you’re planning to make your own film, then formatting isn’t that important. But, if you’re planning to write scripts for anyone else, especially Hollywood, then you’ve got to learn the proper format.

There are a number of books out there that can explain every element of the script, from the slugs to the “Series of shots” to the “Dissolve to:.” Here is are a pair of books that I’ve used which you may find helpful in learning the basics, as well as helping you with developing your first script:

The Screenwriter’s Bible,” by David Trottier.

Formatting Your Screenplay,” by Rick Reichman.

I’ve also created a little example page for you using a page from the script, The Rock. It’s marked with the proper measurements, as well as a few other tips.

This is important, because most agents and producers will dismiss your script if its not formatted properly. Never send an agent or producer a script in handwriting, or on loose-leaf paper, or in notebooks. Make sure you’ve got both a front and back cover — white, 8½ by 11 card stock, and three holes punched into the left side, with two brass, 2 inch fasteners in the top and bottom holes. Make sure the title and your name are on the center of the front cover, with your address, phone number, and WGA or Library of Congress copy write number — if applicable.

I highly recommend that before you send your script to anyone, register it with either the Writers Guild of America (WGA) or the Library of Congress. This helps protect your rights, in case someone steals your work. And trust me, it happens, so be sure to protect yourself. You can even seal your script in an envelope, address it to yourself, then mail it. When you get it back, NEVER open it. This is what’s known as the “Poor Man’s Copyright.” This is a simple way to prove that you wrote something on a given date. But, I wouldn’t recommend you use only this method, but it’s a good back-up plan. Either way, register your work.

Well, that’s all I can think of to say on this subject. I wish you all well on your endeavors, and I hope you find success in whatever tales you wish to tell.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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