Sunday, January 15, 2012

Denis Edwards on writing for the movies

The 44th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1997 issue. The intro read:
You could write something along the lines of Die Hard, Terminator or Waterworld. But if you want your movie to be made, think low-budget. One location, two actors, no children, no pets. Your script adviser: Denis Edwards.
Sitting down to write your film script and hoping it will sweep you from Grey Lynn or the Aro Valley to a life of having to decide whether or not you want to get out of your Malibu pool? Then it’s worth making a start on learning the rules for writing a low-budget feature film, because unless you happen to be Peter Jackson, the chances are you won’t be writ­ing anything else.
There is nothing wrong or sinful or embarrassing about this. Low-budget films can be massive successes. Once Were Warriors, Truly Madly Deeply, Strictly Ballroom, Sex, Lies and Videotapes and Dead Man Walking were all low- or comparatively low-budget films. All of them made a lot of money, with the latter two winning at Cannes or on Oscar night.
What they had in common was that they were about people and their relationships. Not a massive “boom boom” action sequence or a “blow them away” set of special effects in any of them.
That left the burden falling on the writers’ talent and knowledge of the craft, the Hero’s Journey, the three-act structure, dramatic throughlines and, above all, an understanding of people and the ways they interact.
Dead Man Walking is a textbook example of low-budget film writing. It has only a few locations, and only one big outdoors scene, going into the woods for the rape/ murder scene. Outside that is a series of increasingly tense and gripping interactions between the characters.
It would be interesting to see which lingers in a filmgoer’s memory, that moment of terrible quiet when Susan Sarandon began her siege on Sean Penn’s last layer of denial, or the biggest action sequence ever filmed. Bet on the former.
To thrill and excite an audience, or even get the movie made, on a minuscule budget, means both knowing and applying the rules.

General Rules
1. Drama is better than comedy. Drama is slightly more bullet-proof against miscasting, unimaginative directors, dull photography, or even less than brilliant writing. Because expectations are higher – that we will be made to laugh – comedy is much more exposed.
2. Contemporary drama is better than a period piece. It is easier to get the details right, and it can be done without all those animals. See #10 below.
3. Limit the number of lead players. Daily players are much cheaper. Less is more.
4. One location beats two, or three or 10 locations. Less is more.
5. Exteriors are better than interiors. They save on lighting. Actually this one tends to apply to places like India or Southern California, where they know they are going to have reliable light. So, in New Zealand’s unpredictable climate, interior is probably the way to go.
6. If there’s going to be location shooting, choose locations to suit cameras rather than sound. Sound can be dubbed in later.
7. Scenes with no talking are better than scenes with a lot of dialogue. Less is more.
8. Talking about a bank robbery is much better than staging a bank robbery. Quentin Tarantino did it in Reservoir Dogs. Less is more.
9. Two principals are always better than three. Having three means having to move the camera around too much, adding to shooting time. Shooting time is money. Less is more.
10. Adults are always preferable to children, who are preferable, but only just, to animals.
11. If there’s a place to really go over the top and to hell with everything, it is in story ideas. This is the one place where more is better.
Just in case anyone happened to miss the core point in all this – less really, really is more.

The Producer’s Questions
The producer is the person who takes the most meetings, scares up the money, hires the people and says “no” a lot, often on a cellphone.
Producers have rules of their own for deciding whether a script begins moving from the pile on their desk to development, shooting and finally decisions as to whether it even gets released.
1. Do I like the characters and the story in the script (because I’m going to be stuck with it for a long time)?
2. Are the writer, director and actors up to the work?
3. Can the writer do rewrites, or quickly re­target the movie? That happened with Once Were Warriors, when the focus of the story was shifted from the husband to the wife.
4. Is this a project which could be got going quickly if money suddenly came available? Implication: writers shouldn’t even think of setting a low-budget movie in another country.

The Director’s Questions
This is the person who moves the actors around and generally has a vision as to how the movie will be when he or she says “cut” for the final time. Directors tend to get most credit when the film is a hit, and but will generously allow the writer a place in the limelight if the film fails.
1. Will there be time for rehearsals to try to get everyone involved thoroughly, understanding how they fit into the story, preventing delays and confusion while actors struggle with their motivation and at the same time 35 crew stand around waiting for something to happen?
2. Has a good part of the budget been set aside for the exciting and visual stuff?
3. Do I like the story enough to be dealing with things going wrong on the set and the constant reminders about budgets and the need to get everything done to a precise timetable?
4. Will the writer be able to step in quickly and help out if a rewrite is needed?

The Great Truth All Writers Should Understand
Writers rewrite. The need for this is finally over when the film appears on the screen in a commercial cinema.

The Difference Between Film and Television
Time was when television was indoors and movies were outdoors. Television, with its hi-tech gear, has caught up. The most obvious distinction nowadays is length. Movies have got a lot, lot longer, to the point where it is rare to get out of one without going through the two-hour barrier.

Warning Signs for Writers
1. “You are OK about an occasional tweaking of a scene here and there, aren’t you?” 2. “You have a lot to gain by getting your name on the credits of a movie, don’t you?” This is freely translated as “You are ready to crawl over broken glass to get a career break and we know it. This means we can get away without paying you very much and we don’t have to give you profit participation and can ensure you a slow death by rewrite.”
3. “You are the really creative person here. Just write whatever you feel flowing out. Don’t you worry yourself about the budget. We’ll sort all that out later. What we want is for you to get it all down on paper, and not to deny us any riches.”
Writers hearing this have just heard the introduction to that feared oration, the Producer’s Speech of Wounded Reproach. It is a variation on this: “Oh dear, dear. We [mean­ing the writer working alone] will have to do a lot of work. All those locations are going to have to go. So are all those vehicles, child actors, horses and five of the seven leads.
“Let’s start thinking about those special effects. Oh, and that old mansion in the Hokianga? I’m afraid it’s gone. We’re pulling everything back to Mt Roskill. I’ve done a contra on a house there. And we’ve only got 18 days’ shooting instead of 31, so we might have to have a little look at a couple of those story threads.
“But hey, the basics of the script are great.”

The Writer’s Survival Kit
1. Be such a good writer that no one would dream of changing a word of your script. The money for the Cracker series was raised on the quality of Jimmy McGovern’s scripts, and they were shot as is. In the US, Elaine May, Robert Towne and William Goldman are kept on $100,000-a-week retainers to bandage wounded scripts and to ensure their employers get first look at any original material they might choose to write. New Zealand writers seldom need to trouble them­selves with how they would feel about being in the McGovern, May, Towne, Goldman situation.
2. Understand that the writing of a film script is less art than the preparation of a blueprint for an industrial process. Blueprints get changed. Your script will be changed. It is better for your psychological well-being if you get control of the process by, figuratively speaking, dropping your trousers and assuming the position before someone else does it for you. Putting it another way, be prepared to do rewrites.
3. Make sure you are part of the process right from the beginning, and if possible stay in the loop.
The latter, the writer being part of the collaborative effort, is the key to success in low-­budget film scripts. There isn’t the time or the money to explore alternatives. One producer describes his job as making sure that everyone is working on the same picture. This avoids having one person viewing the material as a comedy while another sees it as having considerable potential for a remake of Silence of the Lambs.
This has happened. So has success, fame and money. Good luck.

Thanks to Michael Brindley and his “Writing The Low-Budget Feature” workshop, the New Zealand Writers Guild and Jonathan Dowling of Zee Films.

No comments: