Category Archives: Writing Process

Question from a student… Is low budget filmmaking worth it?

Low budget does not have to mean bad. Just in the way that high budget does not necessarily mean good.

Everything is based on an idea, an emotion, and finally, a superb screenplay. If you don’t have a killer script, you have nothing. Beginning filmmakers get a draft done and think they are finished. Or ten drafts. You are never finished until you reach the day when you have to give the script to the actors to memorize. That’s when you’re done.

When you’re working on a low budget script, you have all the time in the world and your time is free. You can use that time to improve the script. Once you give the script to someone and it gets covered, especially in Hollywood, you can’t change it and you can’t improve it and you can’t fix its reputation.

To specifically answer your question, yes you can make money with a low budget movie but you have to have a good script and then you have to be careful with everything. You also have to have a sales plan built in from the get-go. A lot of beginning filmmakers finish their movie, have a DVD, and then say, “Gosharootie, how do I sell this thing?” If you don’t think about it long, long, long before the end of the production process, you are lost.

The more you learn about the market. The more you learn about finance. The more you will understand about how to get a movie made.

If you don’t make money, you don’t stay in business.

Even with no money, if you’re fun and professional, you can get a good crew. You can get a good script. It does not take an enormous amount of money to rent gear. Someone may own the gear. You can pare down expenses to basically these two: sound and food. On a low budget movie, you still have to pay the location sound recordist and the caterer. The caterer is for your crew to be happy. The sound is so you won’t have crappy sound and have to spend a fortune in post fixing the mess you made. I tell this to students and they don’t listen.

Sound is the most difficult aspect of the low-budget film. Perhaps because it is invisible. I don’t know.

As Kelley Baker says, you need three things to make a good low-budget film. Good script. Good sound. Good actors. If you don’t have all three of those, there is no point in proceeding with the production.

If you do, you have a shot at making money.

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In Praise of Typewriters

IBM anti writers block gizmoI recently paid one of the few IBM trained typewriter repair people in my lovely hometown $125 to bring my slightly gummy Correcting Selectric II (the Mt. Olympus of typing devices) back into smooth running order. It was worth it.

For one thing, writing thank you notes is a pleasure because I can bang them out on the noisy typewriter and it makes me feel like I’m doing something. I can’t know how it feels to receive such a thank you, but perhaps a bit different from an email that took all of 11 seconds to write and send. Plus, I have fancypants engraved stationery I love using.

Though I have no problem with writer’s block, a lot of people do. It can be crippling. It can wreck your life.

If you read Your Screenplay Sucks!, and you should have… at least three times… you will be familiar with my IBM Correcting Selectric II. The typewriter gets a mention because of the importance of spell check. As I grew up writing on that typewriter, I got really good at proofreading because, once you pulled the paper out of the typewriter, there was no way to correct the mistake and you had to go back and retype the whole damn page.

I can imagine droves of Millennials reading that sentence and committing suicide.

Such is one benefit of a typewriter.

Another benefit a typewriter taught me, which is also wired into my DNA, is that you can’t go back. March forward or die. The typewriter sits there waiting patiently, motor humming like a throaty purring cat… There’s nothing for you to do but ponder the page and think about what you’re going to do next. Because of my typewriter’s inability to go backwards, to allow me to fix anything at the top of the page or the page before or 20 pages before, the typewriter taught me to keep writing.

This simple idea is lost on people who began their writing efforts with the computer. The wonderfulness of a computer makes it possible for you to go back and rewrite something… as soon as you write it! This is hooded Death staring you down, eyes burning red, whispering for you to fail.

If you don’t have Samson’s iron will, going back is a death sentence to your ability to write.

Stopping kills the mindset needed to get into a character or a creative space that allows you to tell a story, relentlessly living in that creative “zone.” If anything dislodges you from the zone, you are lost. At least temporarily. Some people: permanently. “Dislodge” is perhaps the wrong word. That suggests that a granite foundation exists to creative work and you are simply knocked off it.

The word “dislodge” should be replaced with “brushed” or “flicked.” The slightest distraction can flick you out the headspace, that precious zone you endeavor to stay in so you can write. Once you are out of it, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get back in.

When you write on a computer and misspell a word, a wiggly red line appears under it. POW! Out of the creative headspace. Now you correct that word. Then, all of a sudden, you look at the top of the page and see something else that isn’t exactly perfect. So you correct it in an endeavor to make it perfect. But it’s not perfect. So now you’re depressed because you can’t achieve perfection and you try to correct it again. Then you think of something two pages back that might need a little more thought. Due to the nature of the computer, you slide up a page or two and start to work on that piece of junk you wrote. Forget whatever the hell it was you were trying to write when you misspelled the original word. Now, instead of swimming forward in your wonderful writing zone, you are thrashing in an acid filled morass of depressing quicksand that will peel off your skin and leave you reduced to a sobbing carcass.

Very hard to get writing done when you are a sobbing carcass.

The main cause of writer’s block is fear. Generally, this fear is “fear it won’t be perfect.”

No worries as long as you don’t try to make it perfect in the first draft. If you know you’re going to fix it later, it’s all right if it’s not perfect now. Sometime in the future you can make it as close to perfect as possible. Not now. Not while you’re staring at that word with the red line under it telling you you’re stupid and talentless. And maybe ugly.

Enter the old fashioned typewriter.

If you write on a typewriter, you can’t go back and fix what you wrote. You have to keep moving forward and the pages will pile up and the first draft will be all right, but not perfect, but who cares? It will exist. You will get work done. Keep moving. Fix it later.

If you find yourself always going back and rewriting while you are in the process of doing your first draft, seriously consider a typewriter. It may help a lot.

My suggestion: an IBM correcting Selectric II, for around $300. Or the IBM Wheelwriter. They still make ribbons for them. Buy from a typewriter repair person or a store. Take out the correcting tape and you can’t fix anything!

If you want a manual typewriter, get one. Tom Hanks likes ’em. They are more expensive cause they’re cooler. And, wonderfully, since they don’t have any correcting feature at all, with a manual, there’s no way to go back. None.

With a typewriter, you can only go forward. For someone with a crippling need to perfect their first draft, a typewriter seems a Godsend. For one thing, it’s faster than writing with pen and paper. The idea that, for someone with horrible writer’s block, being unable to go backwards seems an exhilarating and liberating experience.

Because few people writing today have written on a typewriter, the idea of constant forward motion and staying in the writing zone has been lost. I hope not forever.

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CHINATOWN’s opening scenes… cutting fat…

t doesn’tBeen wanting to do this for a long time.

It’s difficult for beginning writers to understand the value of cutting, much less the value of cutting really good stuff they took the time and trouble to write. The more you see how a scene improves by slicing away fat, the happier you’ll be to pull out your flensing knife.

The first draft of CHINATOWN is different from the one you’ve probably read.

It opens on Hollis Mulwray, Chief Engineer for the Department of Water and Power, driving to the dried up L.A. River.  THAT’s different!  Conversely, the movie opens on a scene between Jake Gittes, the P.I. hero, and client, Curly.  It’s generally a good idea to attach our emotional wagon to the good guy right off the bat…

The movie is all about water, so opening on a dried river and Q & A with a Mexican boy about when the water comes make sense but it doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.  Then Mulwray talks to a character we never meet in the movie, and after that we go to Gittes’ office and meet his associates, Walsh and Duffy.  Still haven’t laid eyes on the hero…!  They chit chat about the client in Jake’s office, a tuna boat skipper.  They’re telling us what, later, the film shows us.

At last, at the top of page 5, we meet our hero in the familiar what-is-now-the-opening scene, with the photos of Curly’s wife breaking her marriage vows while picnicking.

Curly says he wants to kill his wife, which Jake understands but he rants about “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it.”  A powerful theme that echoes through the whole movie, only it gets cut.

Another interesting thing about CHINATOWN #1 is that the interview with the new client, Mrs. Mulwray, is between her and Walsh and Duffy, not with Jake like in the rewrite.  Give the good stuff to your hero or die trying!  In #1, Walsh and Duffy find out what Jake discovers in the rewrite, and in #1 we never see Jake in the room with her.

Check out how much time is taken up with Curly in #1, and how brief the scene actually is when you get to film.  27 sides of dialogue in #1 vs. 11 in the film!  The “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it” dialogue is still there in the rewritten script, but not in the movie.

In the rewrite, when Jake says, “Now — what makes you certain that your husband is involved with someone?” she says, “A wife can tell.”  In the first draft she said, “A wife can tell.  I mean I followed him.”  The second line is about her, not Jake.  It doesn’t affect the story at all.  It makes us think about something that isn’t the main railroad track of the tale, Jake’s problem, so it got cut.  A perfectly lovely line, but when it went away, who cared?  Nobody.  The beginning writer would have kept it in.

Finally, the Curly / Mrs. Mulwray scenes are intercut (a lot) in script #1, only once in the rewrite, and none at all in the film.

The reason to take heart from all this fat flensing is that Robert Towne was already one of the finest writers in the business, yet he had a long way to go from Draft #1 to the script they shot.  The best writers in the game make plenty of mistakes… they just don’t leave them in there.

That said, here are the first scenes in CHINATOWN #1 and the same scenes in the rewrite, with the changes marked for your edification…

CHINATOWN 1st two scenes First Draft and Last Draft

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Start Your Own Bugaboo List!

I’ve got one. It comes in handy.

What do I mean by a Bugaboo List…? Stuff you do, pretty much automatically, with your writing that you had better root out before you turn it in.

A list of things you do wrong. Your own personal list of mistakes.

I’m noticing that “look” is like mouse droppings all over my writing. I tell about people looking from one person to another ALL THE TIME. Once I’d noticed it was there, I started seeing “He looked at me. I looked at him.” CONSTANTLY. So, I added “look” to my list. Kinda like the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing checklist, but this one is just for me.

My own particular sins, all in a row.

I have a penchant (embarrassed to admit) for starting sentences with “And.” I do it a TON. Using the computer to search and destroy is easy. Once you have the list, you don’t have to think about it. When you have a draft, you go through it with a weedeater and get rid of that stuff automatically.

I start sentences with “But.”
I use the word “stupid” way too much. Same with “weird” and “jerk.”

I’m sure you’ve got things you do that you shouldn’t. Once you find that you have bad habits, make a list of ’em and then root them out.

Finally, you’ll either not make the mistake any more… or you’ll have a great Bugaboo List and will at least be able to get rid of the mistakes once you’ve made ’em. I’ve never managed to stop starting sentences with “And…” but at least they’re not there in the final product.

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What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.


Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.


1961 Ferrari GT California

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Walking and Talking and Writing, part deux

Just got off the treadmill.

A sweaty mess. But tolerable since I’m writing. “Writing” keeps my mind off how much I hate exercising.

Walked for 30 minutes. Talked into the audio recorder nearly the whole time.

Extracted about 23 minutes of notes out of that walk. Working on a new filmmaking book, a subject I know well. Easier than a novel, so the word count is higher than if I were doing hard core character and plot.

That hike translated to 3.25 pages or 1,800 words. By the end of the summer, I’ll have a first draft.

In theory.

But, it makes me hate getting on the treadmill just a tiny bit less, knowing I’m actually accomplishing something.

If anyone out there walks and talks and writes, I’m curious to hear how it works for you…

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