There’s a scene in Moneyball I particularly like. Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, and his first base coach, Ron Washington, are talking to Chris Pratt’s character, Scott Hatteberg, about playing first base. The washed up Hatteberg is surprised that anyone would want him; especially for a position he’s never played. Pitt tells him, “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.” To which Washington responds, “It’s incredibly hard.”
It is unfortunate that I’ve heard a surprising amount beginning filmmakers reflect Pitt’s sentiment about this about the writing process. I get asked by filmmakers to look over their scripts from time to time, partially because of my schooling and partially because I’ll read anything someone shoves in my face. After I finish, the first question I normally ask is how many drafts they went through. It’s gotten to the point that I’m not even surprised anymore when they tell me it’s the only one or the worse response, “Drafts?”
It’s not difficult to tell when a filmmaker has put the bare minimum into their script. It’s often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, lacks any cohesiveness or the structure is all over the place. When these things are pointed out, the most common question I get is, “Well, what can I do real quick to fix it? I plan on shooting in X number of days.”
I understand why this is the case. Just like Beane in Moneyball, amateur filmmakers suspect that writing is probably the easiest thing to get around. As a result, they write up a random amount of scenes, devoid of common screenplay structure, and simply figure they’ll fix whatever problems during shooting or in post. This lack of concern for the script is fueled further by the need to get to shooting the film (the fun part) as quickly as possible. They will come up with an idea, set a date for shooting, and rush to bang out a script a month before filming.
There’s a great benefit that beginning filmmakers often overlook when working independently. Hollywood will, at times, set a date for shooting well before anyone has written a single line of dialogue. One of the reasons for this is because they often hire more than one writer to go through the various stages of a script, adding things as they see fit. As a result, these hired writers are given deadlines they must meet to make sure the film gets to shooting on time. For the independent filmmaker that chooses to write his own film, they will most likely be the only writer. This allows filmmakers a freedom that hired Hollywood screenwriters rarely have the luxury of, the ability to take their sweet time.
George Clooney has a quote that’s always stuck with me:
“You cannot make a good film out of a bad script. You can make a bad film out of a good script – easily. I’ve seen that happen before, but you can’t do it the other way around; it always has to be the screenplay.”
This is how I believe all filmmakers should look at the screenwriting process, that if they decide to half-ass it the only result they can hope for is a half-assed film. Your film is only as good as your script because you can’t turn shit into gold. This is why it’s imperative to try and get your script as good as it can be before you get to filming.
To help you visualize the importance of a script let me give you an example I’ve always used. It has always helped me to envision a film as a living, breathing human entity. I know that sounds ridiculous, but bear with me. Try to imagine the screenplay as the base or skeletal structure of the film. It controls the plot, characters and structure of your story. As you move on to shooting your start adding the flesh of it all, the actors, the locations, all the moving and textural parts to the film. Finally in post, you piece all the parts together through the editing process and breathe life into the film. I know this sounds like something out of Frankenstein, but I’m sure many filmmakers can to relate to Victor’s obsession with breathing life into a creation.
Now, imagine the script is not structurally sound, is full of plot holes or lacks cohesiveness. Without a strong foundation all you’re left with is a formless mound of flesh and organs, something that could only be devised by the three-way lovechild of Picasso, Dali and Pollack who was then given paint and a canvas. With this in mind it’s not hard to recognize the importance of getting a script as perfect as possible. The only way to do this is to take your time and edit, edit, edit.
Professional Hollywood scripts often go through multiple drafts. For instance, The King’s Speech wet through a whopping fifty drafts before they got to shooting the film. Now I’m not saying you should go through fifty drafts, even I think that’s insane, but if it takes a seasoned writer like David Seidler, who’s been writing for over forty-five years to write that many, it should probably take someone new to writing more than one.
Another thing to keep in mind is that of all the stages of the filmmaking process, writing is easily one of the least expensive. As they say, time is money. This is often a result of rental fees for equipment, payment for cast and crew (if you choose to pay your cast and crew), electric for lighting, etc. Literally the only things you pay for during the writing process are paper and ink. Maybe copies at Kinkos and those fancy brass fasteners as well. Furthermore, any plot holes or bad dialogue that you don’t notice till you start shooting is just going to take up time that you’re now paying for. Since your time is not costing you anything during the writing process, you might as well take as much as you can now before it becomes a valuable commodity.
I’m sure many of you might be asking what makes a structurally sound script? I’d love to get into it, but quite frankly I don’t feel like testing the character limits WordPress allows on a single post. Plus, there are far more skilled writers than myself who have dedicated their lives to teaching screenwriting. As it so happens, I know a few popular ones that I would suggest any budding filmmaker read before they attempt to write their next film.
Anything from Syd Field is good. I particularly like The Screenwriter’s Workbook. Another book I would recommend is The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Finally, although I haven’t read it myself, many people swear by is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
Believe it or not, after you get the hang of screenwriting it can become a very fun and rewarding experience. I can tell you that nothing beats the feeling of completing that first draft or knowing that you wrote a truly great scene. Not to sound grandiose, but writing is as close as having godlike powers as you can get. No other profession I can think of allows you to create unique people with their own voice and experiences, and allows you to do whatever you want with them. Reward them, hurt them, give them riches or outright kill them, the choice is yours. Furthermore, a good script will excite the rest of your cast and crew. Believe me, nothing makes an actor drool like a good character written well. With this in mind, why would any filmmaker choose to rush through the writing process?