The Top Ten Things Producers Wish Writers Would Do
I get a lot of screenplays across my desk. Sometimes from filmmakers who hope I command the funds to get their movie made, sometimes from writers who value a critical eye on their work, and sometimes from producers or directors who want my expertise in preparing a shooting schedule and production budget. In any case, someone has poured a significant piece of their soul into the pages in front of me in the hopes that their literary work will become movie.
The first time I read a screenplay I try to approach it as if I were entering a theater to watch the movie. No I can’t read in the dark and I don’t eat popcorn, but I do set aside a couple hours to get through the script in one sitting and I leave my editing tools in another room. I want to experience what the theater audience will experience should this film successfully be made. Sadly, it’s rare that I don’t find myself making notes or getting out my editing tools before I get through the first 10 pages. Part of that is my critical nature but, more often than not, a mere ten pages in I’ve encountered something that has taken me out of the experience – – usually a number of things.
1. Get Coverage. If you can afford to have a seasoned writer or script reader go over your screenplay, do it. If funds are tight (and they usually are for independents) get a former teacher or professor, another filmmaker you trust, someone who can put fresh eyes on the story and knows what a screenplay should look like. Oh, and who’s not afraid to be brutally honest with you.
2. Run Spell-check. In today’s computer literate society it’s absolutely amazing to me that I still get scripts with so many misspelled words. I’m not talking about “there” versus “their” versus “they’re,” and those types of things that spell-check will often miss, I’m talking about “the Kign and Quean” and the “cowboy on his hors.”
3. Know Screenplay Format. There are many conventions in the style and they all exist for a reason. Margins, fonts, line spacing, capitalization when introducing a new element, and the like all affect the page count which directly affects the schedule and, in turn, the budget. A pet peeve of mine is writers who put the title, copyright info and written by on page one. It belongs on the cover page. Page one begins with FADE IN.
4. Character Description. The reader doesn’t know your characters until you introduce them. What the movie audience will see in a moment the screenplay reader needs to read. The other side of this coin is you should never write character descriptions or motivations that can’t be seen by the movie audience. They won’t have the script.
5. INT versus EXT. I can’t count the number of times I see a slug like INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY only to find the characters finishing their dialogue on the patio. In creative writing the “juices” need to flow, I get that. And people carry on conversations as they move in real life. But shooting a movie often involves using one location for an interior shot and another location for the exterior of the “same” place. If the movement from inside to outside is important to your story, slug it. INT./EXT. LIVING ROOM/ PATIO – DAY.
5a. Cars are Outside. Moving from a conversation inside a vehicle to seeing the vehicle run a red light and then back to the conversation really should involve scene changes. But a whole bunch of slug lines can be distracting too. Again, use something like INT/EXT DAVE’S CAR, MAIN STREET – NIGHT.
6. DAY versus NIGHT. This is really a continuity note. As you write you might move scenes around to heighten the drama. Double check your slug lines. I’ve seen a lot of sequential scenes that jump from day to night and back again.
7. DAY/NIGHT versus CONTINUOUS. It’s convenient to use CONTINUOUS for slug lines in a series of sequential scenes but use it sparingly. We often shoot scenes out of order so it’ll be changed to DAY or NIGHT on the breakdown, the shooting script and shooting schedule anyway. Plus, it keeps the reader current. On screen the audience can see if it’s day or night, the reader only has what you’ve written. I once had a writer who used CONTINUOUS on every slug line for almost 10 pages. In the end I lost track of what time of day it was and so did he! An EVENING scene followed an all night chase.
8. EVENING/MORNING. Everyone loves the look of a scene shot during “golden hour.” Writers need to realize that their page and a half scene on the beach at sunset will probably take 3 – 5 hours to shoot (assuming the indie rate of 4.5 pages per day). Nowhere on Earth does evening light last 3 hours so the director or producer will probably change the scene to DAY or NIGHT unless the sunset is critical to the story and/or they’ve got the budget to create “golden hour” with a talented DP, lighting crew and extensive lighting package. If you use the EVENING or MORNING slug sparingly it conveys that the look is important to your scene.
9. It’s a Visual Medium. I alluded to this earlier, the screenplay is a unique form of literature. Everything you want the theater audience to know has to be conveyed visually but some of the things that will be obvious in the visual form (descriptions of characters, props, sets, etc.) have to be written out for the reader. Sure, you can have your exposition in dialogue but too much of that and your character becomes a tool. Finding the balance between exposition through dialog and exposition through visuals is part of the art form. A good director will have a handle on this but, do you really want someone else rewriting large portions of your screenplay?
10. Don’t Direct. You may want to direct your film but don’t do it in the screenplay. References to cameras, lenses, angles, framing and the like take the reader out of the story. Besides, that’s the director’s job in the collaborative effort of filmmaking.
Finally, before submitting your screenplay to any producer, production company or studio make sure they accept submissions. For legal reasons most won’t read your screenplay unless you’ve made prior arrangements. Similarly, protect yourself. Register your screenplay with the WGA, have it copyrighted, or otherwise establish your creative work and its date of creation.