The problem with unpaid scripts pt 1

June 8, 2013 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Bowing to the pressure to get some moustacheless footage on my showreel, I broke down recently and applied for five unpaid roles on CCP. One was a play (‘cos I have a hankering to get back on stage), the other four were short films. Thus far, two have got in touch, and I have rejected them both outright, on the basis of the scripts.

One of them was something I wouldn’t have minded being in – a kinda-sorta gangstery short film with some magic worked in – but the script was all over the place. Themes just got dropped halfway through, there was a (deliberate, but still very jarring) tonal shift in the middle, and the treatment of women was appalling. The writer seemed to have given no thought to the mechanics of the magic in his film, or how it works psychologically, which undermined its function within the story.

The other was… not good. The writer was Spanish, but writing in English. It was correctly laid-out, but it had mistranslations and grammatical errors everywhere, to the point of near-unreadability. The story, from what I could discern, seemed to have neither direction nor purpose, there were no themes at all, characters were weird for the sake of being weird… I had no compunction in turning either of them down.

The art of script-writing is the art of condensing and expressing nuance, of generating raw emotion through action and dialogue, without recourse to simile, metaphor, or adjectival/adverbial diarrhoea. You cannot express nuance if you cannot write coherently in your chosen language, and especially if you don’t know how screenwriting works.

Also, consider this: if you’re shopping around for actors who will give of their time for free, there are only two reasons that they will work for you: (a) they are desperate for showreel footage and another credit on the CV, or (b) it’s a story worth telling, with characters worth playing. I’ve done some amazing shorts with student directors over the last few years, and my prime motivation was always that the essence of the characters and the compulsion of their circumstance leapt off the page. If you can’t offer me any money, you’re going to have to offer me something meaty to engage with, or there’s just nothing in it for me.

All this points to a deeper problem, especially (though by no means limited to) where students are concerned. There seems to be a prevailing opinion amongst wannabe filmmakers at the moment that anyone can write a script; and what’s more, that good enough means good. You’re a filmmaker. You don’t have a script, so you write one. Fair enough, and fair play. But if you subject your script to no scrutiny whatsoever, nor professional analysis, or even peer review, it will likely be bad. It will probably suffer from cliché, incoherent characters or plot, muddled (or non-existent) themes; it will almost certainly be too dialogue-heavy, and your dialogue will either be too on-the-nose, or in trying to avoid that, your characters will waffle for ever without saying anything; it will almost certainly not be compelling, and may well not even manage interesting. You may be trying to tell a 10-minute story in a 3-minute script (based on one minute of screen time per page, a reasonable estimate) or, just as bad, stretching out a 1-minute sequence to 5 minutes through interminable jibber-jabber.

In some ways, one can argue, this doesn’t matter – it’s an amateur attempt, it’s all pro bono, it’s not likely to haunt anyone’s career, and it’s a chance to learn the craft of filmmaking on something inconsequential, etc. etc. etc. But here’s the kicker: there are loads of budding screenwriters out there who are also honing their craft, making mistakes, and learning how to be really good screenwriters. The script should never be the least important aspect of the film you’re making, it should be the most important – more than the lighting, more than the sound, more than the mise en scene, even (gasp!) more than the actors – because if your story is terrible, there’s no reason to watch it. So instead of churning out something that you’ve produced through necessity, shop around for someone desperate to have their script made! Film is at its best when it is truly collaborative, so collaborate with someone who’s devoted as much energy to learning how to write as you have to the mechanics of directing.

Here’s why I feel entitled to say this (and I am at this point open to some degree of accusations of hypocrisy re: not multitasking) – I am an actor, and I also write scripts. I write, largely because it helps me stay positive and motivated in times of not acting, which, as I am not currently in the front line of people being considered for Game Of Thrones/Homeland/the next Dr Who, is most of the time. I take enormous pride in my scripts. My shorts always undergo re-drafting and peer review, and my first feature is in its eighth draft, having been read by two professional script readers and a slew of other writers.

My first attempt at writing was the feature, and it was pretty shoddy. It’s bloody hard to hear from other people exactly why your script is shoddy, especially if you’ve poured your heart and soul and months of research and endless mugs of tea and five months of your life into it, but it’s the baptism of fire that your script must undergo if it is ever to be worth making. The worst bit of it is that, when you do cut the umbilical cord and accept purely objectively what is wrong with it, your reward for braving the slings and arrows of peer review is months more work of redrafting.

There is one reason to undergo all this voluntary brutality, and thankfully it’s a good one: for every criticism that you take, and weigh carefully, and consider from the reader’s angle and not your own (“How can you not see that?! Your opinion is wrong because you have not understood my genius!”), your script will become that much better. You don’t have to make every change that everyone suggests; you just have to understand why a criticism has been made, and what has led the critic to that conclusion.

Now, to come back to the budding filmmaker: you have a camera, a crew and a limited budget. You are going to make a film of extraordinary skill and artifice, that will buy you an instant ticket to Cannes, Hollywood, fame, fortune, the whole bit. At the centre of your crowning achievement, do you want an amazing script, a veritable Koh-i-noor, written by someone who lives to write, and who’s dying to see their story onscreen? Or do you want something you dashed off over a weekend, because really, it’s the way these actors are framed that’s the really compelling thing about this movie, seriously, never mind what they’re saying or what they’re doing….. hey! Wait! Where are you going! It’s not over yet….!


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