Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

Action!

In scriptwriting, writing on December 14, 2009 at 8:25 pm

chair

It’s a commonly-held belief amongst screenwriters that Directors Are Trouble. Writers go to great lengths to create the perfect script on pristine clean, white paper. Directors insist on introducing actors and locations and cameras and stuff with the sole intention of muddying the whole thing up.

My first experience of a film director was not good. I was adapting my debut stage play for television, and met an intense young man for afternoon tea at The Langham to discuss an early draft script.

Maybe he thought the five-star surroundings and the tinkling of the cocktail pianist would soften the blow of what he was about to say. But he wasn’t counting on my bourgeois discomfort and class-envy: I was like a minor character in an Alan Bennett monologue, dreading his judgement on what I’d written. Not only was I intimidated by the poshest hotel I’d ever been in, I was completely done over by the massive slew of notes, changes and alterations he brought to my attention. There was so much red ink over the crisp white pages, that it didn’t appear that he’d edited my script, so much as stabbed it. The word “unfilmable” passed his lips, and I wept silently over my caramel éclair.

(Still, I had the last laugh. The producer became increasingly concerned that Mr Earnest maybe wasn’t the directorial genius he thought he was, and he was persuaded to leave the project a couple of days before filming started.

And where is he now, eh..*?)

CUT TO:

A decade and more later, and “unfilmable” is no longer the damning indictment I thought it was.

OK, it’s not exactly a compliment for a screenwriter, but I’ve learned that it has a far more specific meaning that I’d imagined all those years before. “Unfilmable” is simply a reminder never to put something in a script that you can’t point a camera at. “The room fills with an air of quiet disappointment” is unfilmable. “Kenneth bashes his head repeatedly against the desk” is not. It’s pretty basic screenplay advice.

But this week, for the first time, I’ve really understood why it matters so much. Because this week , I’ve not simply been working on a short video project in suburban Nottingham. No, for the first time in a long career, I have been directing.

And admittedly, “directing” may be a pretty grand way of explaining my involvement in this ninety second segment of a four minute educational video, but I am still, quite literally, calling the shots. I have before me two experienced camera operators, a team of child actors, and one requisite carefully crafted script, which I about to muddy.

Because what I discovered from first-hand experience, and what all screenwriters need to internalise completely, is that the moment a director sets foot on set, the number one and only question he or she is programmed to answer is “where exactly do I point the camera?”

At this moment, the script is no longer a structural academic chalkboard of turning points, reversals and third act reveals. Time is tight. For a director on the set, this film is no more or less than a series of discrete shots, that may, at some magical point in the editing process, be strung together again to tell a coherent story. The job in hand is no longer to craft a brilliant story to amuse, move and entertain. It’s now quite specifically to point the cameras, herd the actors, record the action, move on. Everything in your script must indicate a precise shot – some visual, some action, some specific event, moment-by-moment, through the film – and, if it’s not there, the director will leave it out or, worse, make something up to fill the gap.

Luckily, this script is OK. Cos I wrote it. And I’m experienced enough to make sure it’s right. Stuff keeps happening. Characters act. Visible change occurs. Stick a camera at it, and in the mid-December sunshine it even starts to look a bit like a movie. 100% filmable

Directing? With the right script, it’s a piece of piss.

(* Where is he now? Hollywood, actually. Directing primetime network drama. And winning Emmys. Turns out he was a directorial genius, after all…)

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  1. […] course, even though writers think Directors Are Trouble, a good director can make you look […]

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