Reinforcing the shoestring

For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.

After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.

One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.

Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.

You get the idea.

As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.

If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.

Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.

(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)

Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.

While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.

The appeal of appealing to a younger demographic

kids
Multiple generations, engaged and enraptured. Fine by me.

During a recent phone conversation with another writer, I’d mentioned having wrapped up work on the pulp sci-fi spec.

“What’s it about?” they asked. I proceeded to give them my 10-second elevator pitch, plus the “THIS meets THAT” combo.

“Huh,” was the response. “It sounds cool, but it also sounds like it would be a kids’ movie.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My preference is “a rollercoaster ride of a story, fun for anybody from 8 to 88”. That’s always been my approach when I set out to spin a ripping yarn.

Was I supposed to view their comment as some kind of insult? As if there’s something negative or shameful about writing material that appeals to kids? Because that hasn’t worked at all for Disney or Pixar.

PIxar especially has a reputation for producing films that appeal to all ages. There’s been a lot written about the immense amount of time they spend on making sure the story is rock-solid. One of the most-read articles for screenwriting is based on part of their process, and those don’t just apply to animation; they’re for ALL screenwriting.

Let me also throw a couple of “kids movies” out there. You might have heard of them.

Star Wars. Harry Potter.

One’s been around for 40 years, with no sign of letting up, while the other just celebrated 20 years of entertaining readers and moviegoers.

On the surface, both are solid, simplistic stories about the fight of good versus evil. But is that all they are? Heavens no! There’s universal appeal, engaging characters who grow and change, themes being explored, conflict like you wouldn’t believe – all told through a filter of imagination. Don’t let the presence of lightsabers, magic wands, or animated, talking animals distract you from what’s really going on.

And let’s be honest. Both of those series have done more than okay at the box office.

Not too shabby for “kids movies”.

Now, I’m not saying any of my scripts are in the same arena as those, but a good story is a good story, no matter who its target audience is. And if it appeals to a younger generation as well as my own, what’s wrong with that?

And you know what else works with kids movies? Kids grow up, and eventually have kids of their own. What do they watch? The movies the parents enjoyed as kids.

Who wouldn’t want to write something that leaves a lasting impression on a young mind, and then see them pass their love of that story to later generations?

For me, that’s what it all comes down to – writing a script that tells a fun and exciting story that anybody could enjoy. And if that includes kids, that’s fine by me.

A whopping 180 degrees

Turn-around
Which way?

The process of overhauling the low-budget comedy has proven to be quite the challenge. Notes from reliable sources had pointed out a few problems in need of fixing, and that’s what I’ve been laboring to rectify the past couple of weeks.

It hasn’t been easy.

One challenge was to let go of “what came before” in the previous draft. Sometimes it’s tough to wipe the slate clean and start anew, and this time was no exception. Once I set up how things play out, it’s not easy to push it aside and do something different.

Which isn’t to sat I haven’t been trying.

Even though you can’t force inspiration, I knew I could think my way through this. So, as has happened many times before, I stepped back and took a look at the full picture.

What was it about the previous draft that wasn’t working? Start with that and figure out ways it could be done differently. Let the imagination run wild and the creativeness flow.

First, I broke it down on a scene-by-scene basis. What’s the purpose of each one? Does it advance story, character and theme? And since it’s a comedy, is it funny? (That last one has been particularly challenging).

It’s been tough, but not insurmountable.

I’d managed to work my way into the first part of Act 2, but then hit a wall. Nothing was working.

I won’t say I was feeling desperate, but it was quite an effort to not pick up my laptop and fling it across the room.

But rather than engage in aggravated assault of electronic devices, I opted to give it one last try.

I went back to the notes. Many of the comments said more or less the same thing, especially regarding one in particular. I’d seen it before, but this time, something really resonated.

One of the most powerful tools in the writer’s bag o’ tricks is the Great What If? Use it wisely.

So I applied it to my problem. If THIS wasn’t working, WHAT IF I tried something different? And what better way to do something different than the total opposite?

And as it has many times before, there it was.

The more I applied this to the rest of the story, the more of it came together. It’ll require a little more rewriting for now, but gosh is this a lot better than it was before.

Forward momentum has resumed. Updates to be released accordingly.

-Bulletin board update! Filmmaker Diane Harder has a crowdfunding project underway for her short Penny Foster. Donate if you can!

It was good enough for Spielberg…

quint
“Eleven hundred men went in the water. Three hundred and sixteen men come out. The sharks took the rest.”

There’s a pivotal scene in my western where my main character reveals why she does what she does and what made her the person she is. Nothing too complicated. Just a couple of lines of dialogue.

It took a few passes to whittle it down so it got to the point fast and in as few words as possible. I think it works quite nicely.

It’s been suggested how this was a great opportunity to apply the “show, don’t tell” rule and make it a flashback. The logic being that since it’s such an important moment, showing it, rather than just her talking about it, would have a greater impact.

I’m not so sure about that.

I don’t have a problem with flashbacks, but have always tried to avoid using them. I guess I see them almost as a cheat; possibly even lazy writing. Like you can’t weave that information into what’s happening now, so you stop the action to show it. But once you interrupt the momentum of your story, it’s not easy to get things back up to speed.

And sometimes a flashback just isn’t necessary.

Consider the scene from JAWS pictured above with Quint’s story about the Indianapolis. Should we actually see what he’s describing? Highly doubtful. Part of why that speech works so well is how it’s delivered. You can see and hear what that experience did to him. How you’re imagining it is much more terrifying than anything they could show. The speech would lose its impact if we were concentrating on the action, rather than what Quint is saying.

Sometimes just a line of dialogue or two can be just as effective, if not possibly more so, as pausing the action for a flashback. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use it. If you think it’s the most effective way to make your point, then by all means do it.

Just make sure it’s a solid fit.

The Force is strong with this one

galaxy
Don’t get your knickers in a twist. This isn’t about that.

Star Wars: Episode VII officially opens today, and my God, what an impact this is having. I’ve been a fan since way back in ’77, but not to the point of sleeping in front of a movie theatre for days on end.

I’m opting to wait a couple of days and let all the crazy hoopla die down. It’s not like it’ll play for a week and disappear. Even the neighborhood theatre up the street is playing it on both screens. That’s saying something.

Looking at this phenomenon from a screenwriting point of view, you can’t help but be impressed with the world that’s been created here. Count me among those inspired by the creativity on display in these films and who strive to achieve something similar with our own work.

I’ve written before how I’d love to write the next STAR WARS (as would a zillion other writers), but I don’t mean a sprawling epic space opera, although that would be kind of cool.

I’m talking about an entertaining story of memorable characters and situations that you never get tired of seeing. That thrills you with its overwhelming sense of wonder. The sheer joy of being swept away as this tale unfolds before your eyes and ears.

Do I have that ability? Hard to say, but I like to think so. Nobody thought STAR WARS was going to do well, and you know how that worked out.

So in the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away, telling my own stories the best way I can, and hope that someday I come close to accomplishing something similar. At the very least, it’ll be fun trying.

See you at the movies.