Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

The Value of a Good Script

March 25, 2011

As a follow on from my last post, about a general idea of the kind of film you might like to go see, I want to talk a bit about the value of a script. Unfortunately, there's a lot of romance surrounding the idea of having a great story, and telling it well, and having that greatness guide you through the dark and dangerous world of filmmaking.

The difficulty is that story is just one of the interesting things about the movies. I'd say, and of course lots of people say, that it's the most important thing, the thing out of which all else climbs. But it's not the only thing.

The point I'd like to make (and that others have made), is that for an independent filmmaker, or the at home DIY equivalent, the story is the only thing you have.

Well, that's fine, you say, Hollywood blockbusters have rubbish stories, I could write something better, anyone could write something better. Now, while I don't believe that's true, let's assume that it is. Let's say that your script is way better than a $70m blockbuster (a relatively cheap one by today's standards).

If you're just by yourself, and have no budget (by which I mean NO budget, not $200k), you're not going to be able to afford to pay anyone, hire a studio, have an art department, etc. So your script's going to be based around found locations. If you do have a budget, you'll start being able to employ people, you might have some decent lighting, a set or two, a couple of recognizable actors, and maybe a couple of effects shots.

What you can't have is a special effects action sequence to rival a Hollywood film. You can certainly try, and there are wonderful books and people dedicated to achieving a high-production value look, see: The DV Rebel's Guide. But let's not get too carried away. You're still going to have trouble shooting that awesome alien invasion, for a number of reasons. One, I suspect that studios make things as good as possible for as cheap as possible, even on large-scale sequences. If you've ever done any 3D or 2D effects work, or any visual arts, you know these things take time. So as a low-budget filmmaker you're going to restrict yourself to a couple of money shots to sell the idea. The rest will be compensated for by the quality of your script. Because there's only so far you can get not paying animators. And that distance is the length of time it takes the animator to realise they're getting screwed over.

If you don't have a budget, you can't afford to hire anyone, and no-one, unless they're personally invested, or it will definitely benefit their career, will (or should) stick out the ride of your production.

Which means, the strength of your script has to compensate for the lack of effects. We like to think effects films compensate for a lack of story. I think it's a little different. A good effects film (Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Avatar) will have just enough story (and not too much or the story will take away from the action) to justify and motivate large-scale sequences. The simplicity of the story ensures that you follow the action, because then you know where you are, and who you're rooting for. Otherwise, all becomes a mess, and people walk out saying 'what the hell was that?' (Inception - and I thought Inception was good clear storytelling!)

But in your no-budget script, not only does the story have to be good, and well told, and not only does it have to compensate for lack of sets, cast, production values, it has to be $70 million worth of effects better in the story department. Because the story has to be more interesting than a dinosaur.

It's not about making big bucks off your little film, it's about making your little film so special that when someone heads home after a busy day, they'd rather be in the company of your little, unique, exciting, original film, than the well-known (yet reliable) spectacle-fests.

What's so tough here is that your options for what you can tell are severely limited. And you're constantly faced with that horrible question, not 'is it any good', not 'is it good enough', but is this a damn fine film I'd love to watch again and again?

Those independent filmmakers that people my age grew up on, made some damn fine films. Tarantino, Rodriguez, Lurhmann, Kevin Smith, and the others of that early 90s Sundance period, and perhaps before them, prior to the Blockbuster boom of the late 70s and 80s, the New Hollywood, these filmmakers came out at a times when, socially, people desired new kinds of stories on the screen. The films captured a yearning in the public spirit. So it's tempting to sit and think, well, what's going on right now, how can I tap into that? But as soon as you do that, you step outside of your own creative life and you're trying to design something to be successful. You're trying to market. Each of those people who came before, whose work is genuinely inspiring, I feel, were faced with what we're all faced with in coming up with ideas.

The desire to make something special, that they themselves would love, matched with honest questions, the kind that pop into your mind when you're alone. 'What excites me?' 'Where do I want to go?' 'What would I love to see up on screen, but have never seen before?' This kind of creative writing, ultimately, I think, is the natural extension of a kind of dreaming. And filmmaking is a way of sharing that dream collectively.

Here's a clip from a couple years back, advice Tarantino, Rodriguez and Sam Raimi gave at Comic Con, about getting into filmmaking, and the current state of the indie-film world. (NSFWish - but there's lots of bleeping)

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