While there are many tangible things that you can learn as a writer, such as structure and format—all the things that make up a strong foundation for your screenplay—it’s what you do with that knowledge, and also how you apply the intangibles, that will separate you from the pack.
For many indie filmmakers, they never set out to be writers at all, so the entire screenwriting process becomes a learning curve (even more so than usual). The necessity of having a script to make a film dictates that they become writers as well, even if they only initially saw themselves as directors. Add a collaborator into the mix of coming up with and finishing a screenplay, and now there’s a completely different dimension.
The struggles of the screenwriter come in many forms. For some, it’s the characters; for others, it’s coming up with an original idea (or at least a fresh spin on a tried and true formula). And once you have that idea, what are the characters going to do for the next hour and a half? Do you have a great first and second act and no finish? Or maybe you have a great third act and your build up needs tweaking.
So there’s no shortage of potential obstacles that you have to consider when it comes time to write what is either your first script or your tenth. But then again, nobody said it was going to be easy.
Writing out of Necessity
You may have never considered yourself a screenwriter, but you need a script to film. Even if there is no dialogue, movies generally need some kind of road map to follow. In the indie world, finding a quality screenplay and story is no small feat. Finished scripts rarely fall from the sky, and it has to be something you are passionate about. So what comes next?
Jordan Bayne found herself in that situation. A working actress with several stage and TV credits on her resume, Bayne became frustrated with the lack of quality roles for women. She began writing, mostly with the intention of acting in her own material. But then the call of writing and directing, and crafting stories became more important. Her first short film was “Argo,” starring Jordana Spiro (TBS’ “My Boys”), and she recently completed “The Sea is All I Know,” starring Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Peter Gerety.
“I was lucky actually, because I worked (as an actress) almost immediately,” Bayne said. “Then I got hit with the sense that there are 10 roles for guys out there but there’s only one for a girl and I got very frustrated because those roles were very limited.”
As she became more immersed in the writing and filmmaking side of things, she began to realize what would be required of her to make memorable films. Bayne said she had no problem stepping out of the spotlight.
“I decided to start writing fully with the intention to act in my own stuff but then as I got closer to doing ‘Argo’ and ‘The Sea’ it was more important for me to serve the story and make sure the story is done really well,” she said. “I don’t want to compromise that by being in front of the camera and behind the camera as I’m learning and growing and exploring as a filmmaker. Even as an actress, for me the story is what you’re serving. It’s always the first thing, and if you’re just serving your ego then you should just basically…get off the stage.”
Write What You Know
A great idea is a great idea, but if you want to flesh it out, write a complete screenplay, and then turn it into a film, you have to think about how it can be executed (and how you are going to do it, if you are the director). If you are writing a spec script or are already working under contract, then the budget limitations are a different kind of concern as opposed to if you are making the film yourself. Writing from experience works because you have spent time with the story; you know the ins and outs, and probably have been constructing it in your mind for quite some time.
Coming from a background as a Hollywood publicist, Ava DuVernay, who recently wrote and directed her first feature, “I Will Follow,” wouldn’t seem like a typical indie auteur. And as an African-American female, she readily admits that she’s part of an underserved demographic when it comes to making and viewing small budget movies.
But through working and traveling with well-known and established directors on movies such as “Dreamgirls” and “Copout,” she realized that she had the ability to tell stories and the desire to do so. Her screenplay is based on events that happened to her own family, which absent a sizable budget (she made the film with money taken from her personal savings), is a route many first time screenwriters take. Writing about what you know usually eliminates the need for costly set changes, effects, and many other things that can hamper a first film. DuVernay’s film was made using one location, and shot in two weeks.
“It’s a personal story based on the true experiences of my family,” DuVernay said. “I Will Follow” tells the story of a grieving niece struggling with the death of a close aunt, and all of the complications within her family. “The story revolves around an everyday slice of life, in the life of a woman who is grieving the loss of a loved one. It all takes place in this one day in this one house, and she’s moving out of the house…It’s something that we don’t see enough of, which is a female lead, and a black female lead.”
The Third Act Blues
It’s where a lot of screenplays—and finished movies—fall off the rails. You’ve come up with a solid concept, and the first and second act has your audience hooked. So how do you wrap it all up? It’s hard coming up with something that is not clichéd, yet you don’t want to turn a complete 180 just for the sake of shaking things up.
Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan, better known as The Vicious Brothers, recently found distribution for their movie “Grave Encounters” through Tribeca Film. The two have collaborated on four scripts, and have become familiar with the challenges of writing a complete screenplay.
“I think it’s always easiest to come up with this really solid first act and the second but bringing it all together and creating a sense of closure for the audience that doesn’t disappoint is probably the most difficult thing in filmmaking,” Ortiz said. “There are so many movies where you love the first and second acts and the third falls short. That’s definitely something you’re conscious of when you’re writing it.”
And while it is important to draw the audience in with the set-up, Ortiz recognizes how crucial the payoff is, because that’s what will be freshest in the minds of the audience as they are heading out to the parking lot.
“On a certain level the third act is the most important thing, though, because that’s what the audience walks away from. If your third act sucks, then people think your movie sucks, basically.”
So as a screenwriter, you have got to be in it for the long haul. It is so important to not only have a strong understanding of the fundamentals, but also to realize that this is a long term deal with peaks and valleys. You may not always end up exactly where you thought you would, but then again, how much fun would that be?