Auteurs Rising: Filmmaking’s First Act Revisited

I recently had a brief but insightful discussion with a screenwriter friend of mine about just how long it should take to write a short script. Apparently, someone mentioned she’d taken a while to finish her fifteen-page script,  suggesting that in the time it took her to finish writing it, he or she could’ve completed the entire film from Final Draft to Final Cut, perhaps. It got me thinking about this lightning-fast world of ours and the many filmmakers in it who hold to this mentality, that the more films they make, the better their films will get in time. While this makes perfect sense from a technical skills standpoint, it says nothing about quality storytelling, and for a film to be as good as it can be, the script needs to be as good as it can be.

If the three acts of filmmaking are writing, shooting and editing, then quality can only begin in that first act, like the exposition of any great movie. It comes down to a question of quality versus quantity, and the former in any film, indie or otherwise, begins on the page. So every filmmaker should practice being a filmwriter first and foremost. Innovation in filmmaking is another integral part of the process, but a filmmaker should know his or her story inside and out and work out any kinks on paper before they can discover interesting and effective new ways of progressing that story from beginning to end.

But today, since new toys are readily at every indie filmmaker’s disposal and at relatively cheap prices, just about anyone can shoot some footage, edit it together on an iPhone and swiftly move on to the next. At this year’s Cannes Short Film Corner, for instance, my short film Cerise was one of 1900 other short films that’d been registered at the festival’s Digital Film Library. With this faster workflow in mind, it’s no wonder there are so many more auteurs out here making movies on more regular bases, and each time hoping one of them might afford them their big break.

It’s the same procedure that screenwriters undergo, really. They slave over laptops tapping away at their next feature with the same levels of hard work and hope that filmmakers exhibit when they bring those words to life on the screen. But screenwriters know the importance of composing coherent and compelling stories before the cameras start capturing them in HD; you can easily revise a few pages of dialogue, but you can’t revise a few slapdash shots that were slapdash because they weren’t fleshed out enough in the first act of the filmmaking process. Then, two wicked words are born: “Reshoot” and “Overbudget.”

Nowadays, though, it seems indie filmmakers––most of whom don’t necessarily consider themselves screenwriters––choose quantity over quality in the hopes of perfecting their storytelling skills that way because of the belief that “film is a visual medium.” This crutch seems to excuse most filmmakers from ever honing their skills as filmwriters, which might be acceptable if the story you’re telling with the camera isn’t your own (here’s the other crutch, that “film is a director’s medium.”) But with most indie filmmakers I know, the stories are our own, and stories aren’t told through storyboards alone; even comic book panels need words.

As a filmmaker second and writer first, shooting a script that’s not 100% camera-ready can be counterproductive, not to mention pricey––a laptop and a latté look better on the budget sheet! I work on a script for as long as  it needs, getting the dialog right, describing the action on paper so well that my crew will see the shot the way I see it (I rarely use storyboards, though drawing was my first art), and then shoot it swiftly and without much extraneous thought on set. It’s the only way I can ensure the quality in my work.

Aside from the two features I’ve been working on, I’ve been slowly crafting two short films in a “Memory Trilogy” I’m piecing together. The first film, Statuetory, is five years old and wasn’t entirely working until I decided to challenge myself and tell the story in a nonlinear fashion. That was all it needed; now, a story that was a bit confusing and as preachy as early Woody Allen is now a bit less talky and much more filmic. I couldn’t have rewritten this short script back then the way I’d recently done; I needed the experience of writing Cerise, then rewriting it mere days before it was shot. Now, Statuetory and the second installment of the trilogy, Café Mnemosyne, are both ready for the 5D Mark II.

This question of quality versus quantity reminds me of what a screenwriting professor told me once, which I’m sure I’d mentioned in a previous post. He said that back in Hollywood’s heyday, creative writing classes were a required part of students’ studies as tomorrow’s screenwriters. Nowadays, creative writing’s not even on the lunch menu for most filmmakers. That’s probably why there’s not many Billy Wilders out there anymore. Quality begins in Act One, no matter how beautiful and innovative your images are in Act Two or how innovative the edit is by Act Three. If it takes you a week to write a three-page script or six months to draft a twenty-pager, let it be. The audience doesn’t care how much time you spent writing the story, but it’ll be the first thing they critique if you didn’t spend enough on it.

6 thoughts on “Auteurs Rising: Filmmaking’s First Act Revisited

  1. Great piece! It’s a shame that more screenwriters don’t ever study literature or creative writing. Watching China Town, and reading Save the Cat won’t make someone a great storyteller.

    1. Very true, Brendon! Chinatown and Save the Cat do help steer an aspiring screenwriter in the right direction, as with the plethora of other books out there, but only as supplements to the meat (knowledge) and potatoes (practice) of a well-balanced meal! Thanks for reading and responding! Always great to get some conversation going on this blog site!

      1. My pleasure! You always present great topics to discuss. So true. You can get the meat and potatoes at any super market, and whip up a burger and some tots; it takes craft to make steak bearnaise with pommes frites.

      2. Touché, my good man. Touché!

  2. Wasn’t it Master Alfred Hitchcock, who answered a journalist’s question about what’s the most important task in filmmaking…: “To make the film on paper.”

    1. I believe it was, Spoxx! Thanks for the reminder!

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