“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.” — Alfred Hitchcock
When I decided to make a movie, I immersed myself in studying books, tutorials, blogs, and fora about the process. All of them, without exception, gave the same advice:
First you need a script.
This was great because my brother-in-law, a few years before, had gone off to the New York Film Academy, studied screenwriting, and had a cool screenplay already printed and ready to go. So I hit him up and re-read it. It could use some polish, but it was pretty darned cool.
…a lot of the scenes in it took place in a high school. And I wasn’t sure I could find that sort of location.
…and a lot of it—almost ALL of it—took place in the snow.
This would mean housing my actors and crew in actual facilities like homes and hotels instead of in their cars or tents.
It also meant we’d all be freezing cold…
…and that we’d need to shoot only on days when there was enough snow for continuity…
…and I’d have to figure out what to do about erasing footprints between takes. And blood. And car tire tracks.
Oh, heck! There are two car crashes in this thing!
As I looked through it I realized it was a script that —by studio standards would be very small—was becoming something insurmountably big when I considered making it.
Write what you know you can make.
I realized I would have to write my own screenplay. Since I was working with a budget of $0, I knew this intuitively (it wouldn’t be until I had my work copyrighted that I found out what the going rates for buying one were: WGA minimum is $130,000…and you can expect to spend around half that for a nobody trying to get their story made. So, how to write a screenplay?
I returned to my favorite text on movie-making at the time, Make Movies that Make Money by Philip R. Cable (a tad dated, perhaps, but one of the most sensible and encyclopedic texts on the subject I’ve found so far). In chapter 18, “Ten Hard Lessons About Getting Ready,” Mr. Cable suggests the following—very valuable I think—advice:
“4. List all the advantages that you possess which you are certain can be brought to the project. For example, locations, costumes, props, actors available to you, anything and everything. And when I say “certain,” I mean certain. Don’t assume that this advantage will be available when you need it. Be absolutely positive! When you get around to writing your script, make sure that you incorporate these advantages into it. They will enhance your production values and thereby make your film more desirable to both distributors and the public alike”
(from Make Movies that Make Money by Philip R. Cable).
I began itemizing our assets: properties we had access to, supplies we owned, etc. The list was short. But we had a couple of farms we could shoot on. We had a third-car garage I could dress out as a set. A couple cars. Friends with some guns and stuff. We’d have to keep it simple and small.
I went to Amazon and found the most popular book I could find on the subject of screenwriting, which turned out to be the very-controversial Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Allow me to aside here and give my two cents on this book.
Save the Cat is reviled by many professional screenwriters, maybe most. The argument against it is that it proposes a formula, and that embracing a formula will lead to formulaic writing. This is fine.
My advice on any creative endeavor, however, is: do whatever works for you. If you like Save the Cat, then use it. If you like some other system, use that. Whatever. If it gets you to your goal, use it.
“What’s the big idea?” — Foghorn Leghorn
I had been advised by the film makers to start out with a horror flick; they’re easier. The books I read on film making agreed that playing to a popular genre like horror was a good idea. The main argument for that was this:
- Horror fans are insatiable in their appetite for horror films
- Horror films are relatively easy, especially if you keep it small
The problem is, a lot of horror is annoying for me. I inhaled so much of it in my youth that I became burned out on it. And MAN…horror fans can be SO annoying:
“Yeah, this would never happen to me,” they opine during the tense scenes. “Because I always have my <insert “gun” “trench knife” “lock pick toolkit” “screeching cat repellent” here>.”
The worst part is that person is me too.
“Seriously? The hot girl that clearly runs 20 miles a day to maintain that butt is really going to trip and fall in the first ten meters? RIIIIGHT.”
What if the characters in this horror movie, I though, did everything right…and STILL get killed?! BRILLIANT!
Which led me to think about what sorts of people are the most capable. The first person who came to mind is my buddy who’s a doomsday prepper. He’s totally reasonable in every other way, but he got it in his head somewhere that he needed to be ready for the end days. So he grows superfoods and makes PVC battery things and all that. He’s a very, VERY capable person. He’s probably the most handy person I’ve ever known.
So he was the first character: a doomsday prepper. And his family could be a bunch of badass preppers too!
My original plan was to maybe have the local town council hate him because he’s not paying his electrical bills anymore or something…so they put on masks and lay siege to his property. Basically, I envisioned a cross between The Woman and The Strangers.
But no matter how I thought about it, it kept becoming too big. It would need to have too many scenes in a town. And it made no sense that my tough prepper family would ever lose to any of these people. And it wasn’t believable. And it was…
…it was too dumb. I know because my best friend and cowriter told me so.
And that’s a no-go because my best friend and cowriter is my–as Stephen King discusses in his masterpiece On Writing–ideal reader.
“Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me— once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.”
–Stephen King, Chapter 4
I know, I know. My ideal reader should be my wife, Chaleen. But it’s not. It’s Josh. And he wasn’t impressed.
The idea that it would be way better to have the dad be the villain–and that it is his own tragic flaws that drive the family to destruction–was his. So that’s where the real story comes from.
Since this was a horror film, and the character’s destruction was going to come from within himself, I needed to get personal. I began really looking at myself, my flaws. And then I created a worst-case scenario based on those.
What I ended up with was something like this:
“What if my own stupid ego drove me to be responsible for my family’s deaths and remembered not as some loving, creative, father/husband…but as a foolish, evil, moron?”
Now THAT was scary. Legacy.
Once I was able to confess that my own egotism bugged me the most, then I was able to scrape away at that problem to sculpt my protagonist/villain.
It was around this time that I developed my motto: “If I’m going to make this thing anyway, why not make it good?”
Once I had Noble, I knew that I needed a wife, a son, and a daughter. It was relatively easy to build foils out of all of them based on Noble. A foil is “a character who contrasts with another character, usually the protagonist.”
- Liz: Whereas Noble is worried about the legacy he’ll leave behind, Liz is worried about the community’s opinion of her today. She’s about appearances. STRENGTH: the best surgeon in the state.
- Brandy: As Noble seeks to escape the “grid” by becoming self-sufficient through criminal means, Brandy seeks to escape her father’s grid (the farm) through ‘legal’ means…ie, by sleeping with Dan the Cop. STRENGTH: systematic problem solver.
- Jackson: While Noble tries to spout wisdom at every turn, he gets every bit of it wrong. Meanwhile, little Jackson, his ninjutsu-studying protege, gets it right always. STRENGTH: the voice of truth.
All the characters… are spun out of Noble’s identity.
Post-It Notes and the Plot
I have heard many opinions about these sorts of methods…that they create stories by template, etc. I don’t mind. I had never written a screenplay before and I needed the story to fit inside two hours. Using the notecard system to arrange my events over three acts worked great for me. Maybe in time, I’ll use some other system for other screenplays. I still say: write what works for you.
The way I did it was, I got one of those big calendar mats that my wife is always trying to get me to use and flipped it over. I drew three horizontal lines across the cardboard to indicate the four parts of the three-act story: Act 1, First Half of Act 2, Second Half of Act 2, and Act 3.
Act 2, Part 1
Act 2, Part 2
Realizing the Solution
Then, I wrote single sentence scene descriptions on Post-It notes and bulldozed through the plot using them. The books above explain in detail how to do this, so go buy them and use them if you like.
This part was all very mechanical. And frankly, not much fun. It was hard work and took a lot of wrangling. Over a period of maybe a month, I eventually got all those beats worked out on post-its, then graduated to recreating them on index cards, focusing on conflict for each scene: what are the opposing goals in each one?
The Typing Part
Every day I woke up, made some coffee, then propped my laptop in my bed and wrote. Sometimes I would only get a half-page; other times I’d get maybe two pages. It was slow going, even knowing all the beats.
But when the characters start facing off with each other, they try to get into capers that lead them out of the story. Or I try to make them say things that don’t make sense for their identities.
Most of the time was spent thinking really hard, then typing maybe a few words. Lots of times I was deleting words too. It was an endurance race. And the thing about it is, it’s very isolating.
I couldn’t discuss it with anyone at this point for fear that some faint praise might derail the whole process. I needed to get it out and it took months.
As you may have guessed, Josh was the first one to read the finished screenplay. He is a strong adherent of the David Mamet school of thought as outlined in his book, On Directing Film.
It’s a great book, but the key takeaway for Josh (and me) is this:
Write only what you can show.
So Josh went through the script and marked it all up: “impossible to show” he’d write. And he was right. Internal dialogue, desires, motivations…none of these can be seen. All the audience can see is what you actually show them. Or let them hear.
However, he really liked it. And was excited about it.
So after many revisions, we had a finished screenplay and started showing it to people.
And they really liked it too. Because it’s pretty damned good, really. Good enough to make a good movie out of.
If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or better yet, fill out the pop-up that shows up when you land on this website to join the email list. You can contact me directly through that.