Thursday, May 21, 2015

Development Hell 1 – The Purpose of a Screenplay

Today I present the first in an occasional series of posts about screenplay development. The series is titled “Development Hell,” which is the industry term for when a project gets stuck in development – an endless series of rewrites are commissioned from one screenwriter after another, and yet no movie is forthcoming. It can, indeed, feel like you’re being punished for your sins.

If you haven’t experienced development then chances are you haven’t worked in Hollywood. If you are just starting out, there may be a temptation to bury your head in the sand and ignore this aspect of the business. And no wonder – it’s so much nicer to think of the pure creative process of imagining your dream movie on the page. But that also suggests why you shouldn’t ignore the realities of development. And that brings me to today’s topic.

There’s an obvious truism about screenplays that most screenwriters seem to forget at one time or another:

A screenplay is not a finished product.

No, a movie is a finished product. A screenplay is simply a step in the process of creating a movie. A screenplay that does not get turned into a movie is a failure by definition. Sure, the writer may learn something by writing the screenplay. They may get an agent and/or meetings using it as a sample. They may even earn money optioning or selling it. But the ultimate goal of any screenplay is to be turned into a movie… or at least that really ought to be the goal.

As writers, it’s easy to forget that the screenplay is not the finished product. After all, it’s usually the final thing we produce. We must remember that we are creating a plan for the making of a movie. This has certain consequences for our writing, some obvious, some not. For example:
  • We must write in proper format. Much of the weirdness of screenplay format is designed to aid production. For example, the production manager uses the slug lines to schedule the shoot. They need to have each scene identified by slug line so that they know how many pages are to be shot in each location. They need to know whether it’s an interior or exterior scene, and whether it requires a night shoot or day shoot (which is why you should not use things like “afternoon” or “3 p.m.” in your slug lines).
  • We can only write what can be seen and heard. Prose can tell us what’s going on in a character’s head or what they smell or what something feels like, but a movie can’t. We should only write what can be communicated on film.
  • More subtly, some things work better on the page than on screen and vice versa. For example, every scene looks the same in a screenplay – black words on a white page. But in the theater, we usually want visually interesting settings. Good screenwriters think about how the scene will look, not just how it reads.
  • Similarly, your dialogue must actually be spoken by actors. Something may read well but be very difficult to say.
  • Your decisions carry production implications. Every 100 words cost the writer the same as every other 100 words. But for the producer, the content of those words has serious budgetary impact. “He makes a sandwich” is not equivalent to “He blows up a bridge.” And producers have to worry about legally clearing things like hit songs or brand logos that screenwriters blithely write into the screenplay.
A screenplay is often compared to a blueprint, and that is really an excellent analogy. Just like an architect’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a building, the screenwriter’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a movie.

This does not mean you tell everyone else how to do their jobs, though! The architect doesn’t tell the electrician what kind of wire to use or the decorator what color the drapes should be. Those professionals bring their own expertise to the project. Similarly, the screenwriter should not be telling the director how to stage the scene or the cinematographer what kind of shot to use. This is why actors hate parentheticals like:

I hate parentheticals.

They want to decide how to play the line!

Instead, the screenplay should capture the vision of the final film to allow the other creative artists to make good decisions. You don’t describe each character’s wardrobe in detail, you provide a clear vision of the character and environment so the talented costume designer can create a better wardrobe for that character than you could imagine.

Many screenwriters get annoyed when their script changes throughout the production and post-production process. But this is actually what’s supposed to happen! You want all the other artists to bring their valuable contributions to the final product. Film is a collaborative medium after all. In the best cases, the rest of the creative team makes your work better. All too often, however, the opposite happens. But the solution is not slavish devotion to the screenplay.

So to review, I’ve discussed two major purposes for a screenplay:

One, through proper formatting, provide the basic technical information for the planning of the production.

And two, carry the vision of the story so that the rest of the creative team can make good decisions.

There is one final important purpose of a screenplay: Give the studio, producers and financiers a clear idea of what the film can be so they can decide whether they want to make it or not (and movie stars can decide if they want to play a part, and directors can decide if they want to direct it, etc.)

This is really what we talk about when we talk about development. Development is the process by which the movie is repeatedly made and remade on paper (or pdf) until everyone agrees it should be made on film – or until they agree it should remain forever on the page, never to be seen by an audience!

If you think of it that way, development is a good thing. Even though it often feels like hell.

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