Writing Movie Scripts

Professional Scriptwriter Stephen Hickey writes about his experiment using Universalis to help write a script for a 48 hour film contest:

The Process

1.  First thing is to agree that everything we introduce into the story (locations, characters, props) we have to be able to obtain in real life.
2.  We go around the table and each choose one element that we want to see in the story.
3.  Once that’s finished, let’s take a step back and examine if we’re happy with the overall elements we have introduced.
If we are, let’s start on telling the story.  If we’re not, let’s cherry pick any elements we like and begin again.
4.  We tell the story and challenge any elements we think have the potential to get too ridiculous.
5.  After we’ve finished, we do a highly focused brainstorm about the story asking: “How do we feel about it?”, “What are the problems?” and “What ideas do we have?”
6.  Sort out the biggest problems and brainstorm solutions.
Here’s the biggest change. Normally Universalis would finish at (4). However, let’s treat what we’ve just created as an OUTLINE. Now that we’ve got an ending and characters and an idea of the main problems, let’s go back and re-tell it, fine-tuning the thing …
7.  A second draft of the story, making any changes we figured out at (6).

The Hurdles

1. Maintaining genre. 2. Avoiding silliness. 3. Getting everyone to buy into the process. 4. Managing the transition from first to second draft. 5. Keeping the story simple.
This’ll be a good opportunity to test the differences between: a) going into a writer’s meeting with a pitch for the situation (and a rough idea of the act breaks); and b) Uni, which is more about discovering the story through the process of sitting your asses down and creating it (and then retro-fitting act breaks or whatever else is necessary).

The First Attempt

We did a run-through tonight and played through a second draft of the story using Universalis. Things of note:

1. It was non-silly.
2. The use of coins and complications diminished in the 2nd draft.
3. Lots of challenges and debate.
4. The ending was difficult to resolve – but this is only a trial run.
5. The 2nd draft radically simplified our original outline. In fact, that was our biggest debate between runs – how to do that. Figuring out what the issue in the setting was and what relationship would best illustrate it.

This 48 hour competition randomly assigns each team a genre. We winnowed the list down to the ones we were weak on and randomly selected “Superhero”.
Our story (Version 1) was a fascist state where the Capes are treated like Jews. In a Casablanca setting, two brothers try to escape. They’re hunted by the brainwashed ex-lover of one of the brothers. There is a gunfight. There’s also much Big Brother-like news coverage of the Mayor speaking about the superhero menace.
Version 2 kept the Big Brother stuff. Made the central relationship a husband and wife – the guy has just discovered he’s a hero. The wife is the head of the secret police. Neither of them know the other’s secret. This irony is played to the max. They meet at a raid on the base of the Underground Railroad. There is much superhero fighting. The ending is unresolved (due to time pressure) but we were debating quite a few ideas.
Simple story with a cool setting – 2nd draft of an outline with lots of dialogue within 3 hours … this could work.

The Real Deal

We got ‘Disney Family Movie’ as our genre.
Working round the table, we easily established our feel. Then the Tenet round gave us a clear idea of our story: An evil property developer is trying to destroy the library. He falls into a magic book and in that fantasy world he learns the value of imagination. When he gets out, he saves the library.
The first round of Uni gave us the story but it stumbled and was slow. I I learned an important lesson about the Tenet round. For the game to get super-charged, it looks like I (and maybe each player) needs more than one tenet they’re excited by. For instance, the Supers film we plotted out on Tuesday had: “Play it from the perspective of the Normals”, “there’s an origin story” and “Supers are treated like the Jews in Nazi Germany”. Those three things really sparked my imagination and I made a full contribution to the game. There were rarely any pauses.
This time round, the only one Tenet that excited me was “Max finds his imagination”. That meant whenever the story wasn’t centering on that, I found it hard to make a contribution. I’m going to assume that most of the other players suffered from the same thing. Rather than a smoothly flowing game this was more cautious, with lots and lots of moments when none of us knew what to do.

[See also this important essay on Tenets]

Of course, the massive time pressure might have had something to do with it.
Second, we need to set a time limit or scene limit to focus the story. An hour, hour and a half is more than enough to produce 4-7 minutes of screen story if you play the Uni scenes at a very personal scale.
Uni gave us awesome details and characters who turned out to be extraneous when we had to edit. Our first draft of the script came in at 22 minutes. The maximum duration of films in this competition was 6.5 minutes. But culling was reasonably easy because we’d decided in our between-rounds-of-Uni discussion that the basic conflict of the story was between Imagination and Max’s Evil Business Unimaginative Nature.
All in all, using Uni gave us a really strong base to work from. I’ll be using this process again next year. Haven’t thought about its broader applications to film and TV writing yet.

The Revised Process – Lessons Learned

1. Establish Genre: its conventions, whether we want to subvert or support it. Assign a Genre Cop (to make sure we’re staying true to the feel of the Genre).
2. Then do the Tenet Round. Is everyone excited by at least 2 (or 3) tenets? If not, cherry pick and start again.
3. Outline Draft 1. For a short film, set limitations like: 3 scenes or a specific number of locations or complete Draft 1 in an hour. Outside of the writers, only the Director should have input here.
4. Go around the table and establish how we feel about the story, its major problems, the order we should tackle the problems in and possible solutions. It’s a reduced version of De Bono’s 6 Hat process. Ask “What are the Stakes (the main question the script is trying to answer)?” What is the basic conflict? Has the problem been set up clearly?
5. Then dismiss as many people as possible.
6. After doing Draft 2, analyze: do the scenes have Turning Points? Conflict? Do they tell a coherent story? Do a page budget for the scenes. 5-6 pages max.
7. Assign scenes to writers. Probably 2 writers per scene – one to type, one to assist. Across all the teams I interviewed post The 48, this consistently seemed to produce good results. Meanwhile … cast the script. Do up a Locations and Props document. Write the scenes, compile them, print them out.
8. Read-through and timing. Afterwards, go through the script again and identify problems. For each problem, the Head Writer determines if they are an A, B or C. As are solved immediately, brainstorming solutions. Cs are left for the Head Writer to tidy up. Bs can be gone through again if there’s time.
Edit. Print. Read-through and time the script.
9. Now it’s time for the Head Writer to rewrite. Break it into Beats, Camera Setups, Number the scenes. Email to everyone as a .doc and a .rtf. And then go to sleep.
10. In the morning, there’s a read-through. The Head Writer makes any necessary adjustments due to casting and actor feedback.[

 —Stephen Hickey

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