Tag Archives: script writing

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – a book review

This book is not as crass as the cover suggests....

I don’t do many book reviews, which is weird for someone who reads around three books a week. This year I’m trying to kick myself into a better set of working habits, so I’ve been looking for books that will inspire me. This one – Writing Movies for fun and profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant – was highly regarded by the good folks over at my favourite screenwriting website, www.scriptshadow.blogspot.com and so I thought I’d give it a go.

I found it in my local library (always the first place to go to try out new books!) and glanced inside on my way to check it out. The first chapter deals with why you should live in LA. I sighed and checked it out anyway. I’m not moving to Los Angeles, even for a movie writing career. For one thing, I hear it’s in America. For another, I live in Vancouver, the Hollywood of the North. Why do I need to go anywhere else?

It wasn’t an auspicious start, but I picked up the book again a couple of days later. Tom and Ben write in a matey, buddy, beer and a slap on the back style that might set your teeth on edge, but I found it quite refreshing. Screenwriting “how-to” books can be a little dry. This pair are more concerned with explaining what the world of writing for movies is like than telling how to get it done, but they do get round to the nuts and bolts of work in the second half of the book. What I found most interesting was that they answered questions a lot of people don’t. How much can you expect to get paid when you sell a screenplay, for example. They actually give a dollar value ($109,783), but of course, it’s not as simple as that – you need to be a member of the right Guild, you won’t get your script seen without representation, and you won’t get an agent until you prove yourself by selling something etc etc. But it’s not endless doom and gloom, because they cover finding agents, and what agents/managers/entertainment lawyers DO, in the book as well.

What makes this book very different (apart from the fact that the authors can point to movies they’ve actually written and have been made  – are you listening, Mr McKee?) is that they talk about the BUSINESS, how to speak to people from the studio, what to do when a Star attached to your movie gives you notes you don’t agree with. They’re not there to help you win an Oscar, they’re talking about making movies for entertainment.

That brings us back to the old question about whether or not you prostitute your talent for money. Tony Jordan was talking about that this week in response to a fellow TV writer complaining about falling standards in the BBC Drama Department. Tony said “Do I prostitute my vision for a fast buck or do I stop the process and put my beloved script back in the drawer and wait for its time to come? As I write this, my bottom drawer is bulging with scripts that saw the light of day briefly and came under sustained attack before being rescued from the brink of whoredom.”

I appreciate his point, and there are certain projects I’ve been writing that haven’t been completed because they’re not working out the way I want them to. I won’t produce them along different lines, so they don’t get done yet. If you’re working on a movie script that you believe will change lives and alter the way the Universe works, or even just think you’re the next Mike Leigh (God help us all) then this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you watched “Night at the Museum” and thought “I could write something better than that!” then DO read this book. Tom and Ben DID write that movie, and the sequel, and the insight to be gained from reading about the process involved is invaluable.

So the book won me over, in spite of the LA-centricity, the blatant product-placement and endless lists of good restaurants to go to. I’m not moving to LA, but I am still working on my movie script, and it’s going to be entertaining, not great art. Sorry, Mr Jordan.

Setting the scene

Even with a minimal set, the description is important. As is the sofa.

It’s dark. There’s just the rustle of whispered conversation in the auditorium. Then the lights come up and the curtain swishes aside to reveal….What? That’s a pretty big question, and one that’s been very prominent this week.

Reviewing scripts for my publisher has kept me busy for the last three years, at approximately eight scripts a week. At such a volume of material, it’s inevitable that a pattern of errors or common mistakes should emerge, and this week the top offender seems to be a lack of description.

It’s something that’s easy to excuse. The playwright sits at home, imagining their play running on the stage. They concentrate on the characters, on the dialogue, but probably have a vision of the staging too. The thing is, they don’t want to be too proscriptive : if you say “There must be entrances here, here and here, and the heroine must recline on this chaise longue here…” aren’t  you restricting the Director’s creativity? Isn’t it better to just say “Curtains open on a living room” and describe the characters coming and going?

Well, no. If you’re hoping to sell your script, you should be aiming for your writing to conjure up an image in the prospective director’s mind. To do that, you need to describe each set at the top of the scene. That way the director knows what the room looks like as the characters move around it. It doesn’t matter that the director is envisioning a blue sofa instead of a paisley one. It doesn’t matter that he/she thinks a drinks cabinet is six feet tall instead of a little cupboard. What’s important is that when he/she reads ‘Charlie crosses to the sofa” it isn’t the first time the sofa has been mentioned. This is important because up until that moment the reader will have a scene in their heads. You mention, perhaps, a study. For me, that means a chair or two and a desk for working at. I’ll also imagine oak panelled walls. Sorry, can’t help myself*. Anyway, my personal view of a study doesn’t include a sofa. So, when I read that Charlie crosses to a sofa, the sofa appears BING! in the middle of my imaginary study. It’s annoying and surprising. You don’t want someone reading your script to be annoyed.

“But what about the stifled creativity?” you cry. Fair point. This is, indeed a tightrope you have to walk. Your first step here is creating a vision in the reader’s head that means they can see what YOU saw when you were writing the play. They don’t have to get every nuance, but they should understand the physical reality of the world you have built. Their challenge is to translate that vision into the performance space they have. So, in writing for the community theatre where facilities are often more limited, you may want to restrict the number of trapdoors you mention in the stage, or flying entrances, or holographic monsters. But don’t skimp on the description – tell the reader what you see, and do it at the top of the scene so they start with the correct picture in their heads.

*In case you’re wondering, my study doesn’t have oak panelled walls. They’re a kind of yucky green colour. There’s no sofa either.