Last post I talked about pre-writing. Today I want to discuss a particular aspect of pre-writing: research.
How much research do you need to do on a screenplay? That depends on both the writer and the project. Some writers like to do a lot of research. It gives them ideas for the story, adds authenticity to their locations and helps them find their characters’ voices. Other writers prefer to rely mostly on their imagination. They don’t want to limit their creativity by focusing on the facts of reality. Sometimes research can stifle inventive storytelling.
Some projects require a lot of research. Something historical, for example, will likely require research into the time period. A story that depends on showing the “behind the scenes” of an activity or industry probably demands some research if you aren’t already familiar with the subject.
Certainly The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard) benefited from the details of the banks and bank robbers and Black Swan (story by Andres Heinz, screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin) wouldn’t have been as successful if it didn’t reveal interesting obscure elements of the ballet world.
Accuracy is a different issue. My rule of thumb on how much research is necessary for accuracy is: the more common the experience the more important it is to get it right. If you’re writing about underwater welders, for example, you might want to do some research to get ideas but you probably don’t have to worry about all the details being correct. Sure, underwater welders will spot the mistakes, but they are a very small part of your audience.
On the other hand, I once had a young student write a script that featured several scenes set in a Lamaze class. In one I questioned whether certain activities were common in such classes. The student said he didn’t know – he’d never been to one. I pointed out that probably a third or more of his audience will have taken Lamaze, so he better do some research to get it right.
Another thing is how politically sensitive the topic is. Nobody really cares if writer Randall Wallace took liberties with the history of William Wallace in Braveheart because it’s an epic adventure movie based on largely forgotten events in the distant past. On the other hand, The Hurricane (screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon) got ripped apart for relatively minor inaccuracies – but that’s because it was advocating the release of a living, convicted felon. If people are alive or revered by a political or religious group (Jesus, Ghandi, Mohammed, George Washington, JFK), you have to take particular care with your facts.
Sometimes you’ll simply be researching facts and information, but the best research is often experiential. Maybe you go to the location of a scene. Maybe you spend time with someone who does the job of your main character. The police “ride along” is a staple experience of crime writers. It’s much easier to write with authority about something you have some first hand experience with.
I once took a short trip on a train simply to get ideas for an action scene. The details of things like how the emergency windows opened or how the platforms between cars fit together became key elements of the scene. Just by studying the train I got ideas for twists and turns and clever escapes that I never would have come up with sitting at my desk.
This kind of research can be pretty fun sometimes. I’ve visited the Antarctic Research Center in New Zealand to chat with scientists for a script. In another script I had a character that was a zookeeper, so I interviewed some zookeepers and even got to go “backstage” at a rhino enclosure. If you tell people you’re working on a screenplay you’ll be surprised how willing they are to give you access to these kinds of places. Of course flying to New Zealand isn't cheap, so budget can limit the amount of in-person research you're able to do.
On the other hand, research can sometimes be too much fun. It can be a source of procrastination. As long as you’re doing research you can convince yourself you’re being productive without actually having to write.
It’s hard for me to give you an idea of when you’ve done too much research. I usually do research concurrently with outlining. When I have an outline that feels thorough, I begin my draft. That doesn’t necessarily mean I stop researching. But my research starts to be more focused – what do I need to know to write a particular scene?
So how much research you do is up to you – just make sure most of your audience can’t tell when you’re making things up!