Friday, February 22, 2008

Screenwriting tips for Oscar Week

Oscar week… how many writers dream of being called up on stage? One thing I know for sure – I don’t have to write an acceptance speech this year.

However, I do have some good movie news. The first screening of a movie that I co-wrote will be taking place in Dallas in a couple of weeks. Yeah!

The movie is Closure: The Problem with Money. It’s a comedy about a wealthy businessman named John Money who is more concerned about money than his family. John is visited by a quirky angel of death who wears a loud Hawaiian shirt and likes chocolates and donuts. John finds out he’s about to die soon, so he spends his last few hours trying to understand (mostly without success) what life and death are all about.

This script was originally written as a stage play for CrossWise Players, a local community theater group, in Dallas. The story originated from my co-writers imagination in the 1980s and sat on a shelf until it was resurrected and reshaped for the stage about five years ago. It was produced twice by the CrossWise group and once by another community group (CATZ) in Lewisville.

I’m telling you this because I’m mulling over a talk I’m suppose to give in March -- about screenwriting. My first question is “What do I know anyway?”

Okay, I guess I learned something. Let’s see, for one thing I learned that novel writing and stage writing and screenwriting are similar and different. Wow, what an insight! Bear with me -- all three forms have common story elements. For example, you want the first act – first few minutes or first chapter to do at least three things. It must set the time and place, it must introduce the main characters (or at least some of them) and it must contain some kind of inciting event that hooks the reader or spectator.

Once the plot is in motion, there must be challenges for the main characters, conflict, twists and so on until a final resolution. Hopefully the end is a surprise and wraps things up nicely. These things are common to all three venues.Here are some differences. In novels you can go anywhere you want as many times as you want. To can create fictitious places, go to the future or the past, go a castles and dungeons – anywhere you can imagine. For a stage play, your action must be limited to a few places because of scene changes. You can only have a handful of locations (fewer and simpler in Community Theater than on Broadway or where you have a larger budget). For film you are also limited to the number of scene changes – mostly determined by your budget. You have to be pragmatic about your scenes when writing a screenplay.

Okay, if you are Stephen Spielberg and have a hundred million dollar budget you can do anywhere on film.

For a smaller budget film, (i.e. independent films) you’ve got to keep scene locations in mind. First or all, you’ll probably have to film at real physical locations (except for green screen shots or CGI which can get expensive). Let’s assume you’re writing for an independent film with a limited budget. It’s best if the story is contemporary – chances are, you can more easily find locations to your scenes. For a limited budget, it’s best to film in one general location (i.e. one city). If your story takes place in Amsterdam, New York and Sydney then you’re going to spend a lot of money traveling. It’s better if your locations are all nearby. In fact, you might consider writing “location neutral” so the film can be made anywhere (unless location is important to the plot.)

Another expense to keep in mind is how many crew setups and breakdowns you’ll need. Don’t throw in a new scene just for the heck of it. Each location change may add many thousands of dollars to your budget – and take valuable time. If you’re creative, maybe you can make one location look like two (or three) with a few changes of furniture, lighting or shrubs. It might be easier to change these things than to move the crew, cameras and lights.

These are some practical things to think about when writing for a smaller budget film.

But, you ask, how did you get your screenplay into production?

Continued in part 2…

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