The 1 Thing I’m Doing To Write My Best Screenplay Ever: Make My First Feature Film
Last January, I posted 6 things I was going to do to write my best screenplay ever in 2013. I even reviewed my progress midway through the year. Did I achieve my goal? I guess that's subjective. Am I satisfied? Never. So, this year, I am doing only 1 thing to write my best screenplay ever: I'm going to make my first feature film. Here's why making my first feature film will help me write my best screenplay ever.
Improving your screenwriting is very difficult if you never actually see your screenplays turned into movies.
Screenplays are not books. They are not meant to sit on a shelf in a library (even though you certainly can learn a lot about screenwriting by reading great scripts). Screenplays are written to be blueprints for movies. As such, they go through many iterations. A screenwriter must write several drafts of a script to get the story right before production. Screenplays are rewritten constantly during production to deal with the realities of a shoot. Finally, screenplays are all but forgotten in post. The editor essentially rewrites the movie based on the existing footage. The screenplay becomes merely a reference tool for the editor to understand the initial intention of the story before the cameras rolled.
Without experiencing the process of turning a screenplay into a movie, a screenwriter is lacking vital knowledge of what works and what doesn't work in a script.
I have written and directed a number of short films and produced several more for other filmmakers. I understand how to translate a screenplay into a film on a small scale. I have made audiences laugh so hard that they miss the next joke and want to see a short again. I've made people shed a tear for a good reason, and not because the short sucked. What I don't have experience doing is turning a 90-100 page screenplay into a 90-100 minute film that tells a captivating story. I believe I have written a very good screenplay for CENTS. I also know it will only get better if I go through the process of turning the screenplay into a feature film.
Understanding how a screenplay is translated on the set is hard if you don’t direct or collaborate with a director.
Writing screenplays day in and day out and never learning how to direct a cast and crew to transform pages into a film leaves a gaping hole in your knowledge of screenwriting. The director translates the screenplay into his/her vision of the film. The best screenplays make that vision clear on the page for the director. But if a screenwriter hasn't seen those script pages through the eyes of a director, that screenwriter will never know if the vision is clear on the page.
This is why I believe it is imperative for all screenwriters to direct their own work or collaborate closely with directors to see how their screenplays come to life in front of the camera on set.
I have to admit that as someone whose primary responsibility is to be a father to two kids, I haven't directed as much as I would have liked. That said, I have been incredibly fortunate to spend so much time raising two amazing kids. As a result, I have spent hours and hours writing and rewriting my screenplays early in the morning. When I get time to direct, I make the most of my experience. That directing experience informs my future screenwriting decisions.
I am also not a cinematographer. I am grateful when our visionary CENTS DP Corey Weintraub translates my concept for shots into actual footage that exceeds my expectations. These collaborations help me visualize my next screenplay so much better when I return to the keyboard.
Understanding how a story evolves from the set to the final cut is challenging if you don’t edit or participate in the editing process.
The story is far from told once the film is "in the can". The real story in a film only comes to life during the editing process. At this point, the structure of a story in the shooting script is completely flexible. The visual elements can be cut, rearranged and streamlined to tell the best story possible. Entire chunks of dialogue hit the cutting room floor because an actor's look says it all.
If you as a screenwriter have not edited a film or sat alongside an editor at work, you cannot understand how a story evolves from the set to the screen.
I have cut some of my own work out of necessity, but I am no editor. I truly appreciate a professional editor's fresh eyes on a film I have directed. I really enjoy sitting in a post-production suite going back and forth with our very talented CENTS editor, Reuben Finkelstein. I get to make suggestions for tweaks, and Reuben shows me his ideas to tighten sequences to serve the story. After working with a great editor, the cuts and transitions for my next screenplay are much more apparent in my mind.
The tools and technology available to write, shoot, edit and distribute a film are now very accessible.
Writing screenplays is basically free. Perhaps this is why so many screenplays are written every year that will never get in front of a camera. While shooting a professional feature film is not exactly inexpensive, the amount of affordable tools and technology available today makes filmmaking very accessible. And with the success of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, a well-written screenplay combined with a well-researched and planned crowdfunding campaign can lower the financial barrier to making a feature-length film. New digital distribution platforms make distributing a film available virtually to all filmmakers.
All combined, the traditional obstacles to financing, shooting, editing and distributing a feature-length film have been significantly reduced.
I feel that I have worked hard on my craft as a screenwriter, pursuing directing opportunities as my life and schedule have allowed. I have waited patiently for the moment when the right story and right technology come together to allow me to make my first feature film. And I have worked closely with my CENTS producing partner Ella Sitkin to craft a budget we believe we can raise that matches our vision for the project.
One more thing: An unbelievably supportive spouse will make you a better screenwriter and filmmaker.
I honestly don't know how screenwriters and filmmakers manage to write and make films without a supportive spouse, partner or significant other. I have pursued my craft and my dream for more years than I care to count, and at times, my wife Jennifer has believed in me more than I even believed in myself. She has supported me and our family financially as I have worked to become a better screenwriter and filmmaker.
I would not be able to make my first feature film CENTS without my wife's unwavering support.
I should add that I feel honored to get the opportunity to contribute to No Film School. I learn so much from my fellow NFS writers and from the community as a whole through your comments and feedback. I have become a better screenwriter and filmmaker because of No Film School.
If you would like to learn more about CENTS and how we plan to make our feature film, I hope you will check out our CENTS Kickstarter campaign. [UPDATE: The CENTS Kickstarter is indieWIRE's Project of the Day for Jan. 14. Thanks, indieWIRE!]
I look forward to your thoughts and constructive feedback in the comments.
Link: CENTS Kickstarter