Monday, December 20, 2010

A Screenplay Is Only As Good As The Idea At Its Heart

As film audiences become increasingly savvy and demanding, it’s more important than ever that screenwriters have something authentic and meaningful to say.

It’s that time of year then, willing or unwilling, you get swept along by the general wave of people evaluating the past year and looking forward to the next one. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from doing this every day of the year, but somehow the symbolic nature of our calendar and the annual cycle of seasons and festivities seems to encourage this annual stock-taking. For me, this past year has been mostly one of writing short screenplays, of which a few have been doing nicely in competitions and receiving encouraging endorsements from script readers and fellow filmmakers alike. And the process of writing shorts has taught me a lot of things, not least of all the paramount importance of good ideas.

Quick and Dirty or Slowly but Surely?
It seems to me there are basically two schools of thought in this respect. On the one hand you have the “quantity first” school and on the other side, the “quality above all” folks. Either you believe that writing a lot of screenplays, regardless of their originality, inevitably leads to you writing your best possible material, or you believe that the only screenplay worth writing is one based on a killer idea. I’m increasingly coming down on the side of the people who advocate brainstorming a lot of ideas and finding the most suitable one before embarking on a first draft. “Suitable” can mean marketable or meaningful or both. And I think this is true for short scripts as well as features. I came across an old post on Christopher Lockhart’s blog, The Inside Pitch, which sums it up nicely. It’s from the beginning of 2010, and it features advice from Hollywood Exec Adam Levenberg. Among the tips Levenberg gives is the following:

Be willing to NOT move ahead to a screenplay after completing your beat sheet.
Some writers need to write 3-5 full beat sheets to find the idea they are excited about and that works. Not all stories are movies. Most aren’t. Yet some writers finish a beat sheet and reflexively jump into a first draft. Don’t. You’re better off writing twenty beat sheet outlines over the next year and waiting until [next year] to pick the best one to take to the next level (a first draft screenplay).

Beware of Your Talent
It’s that last sentence more than anything that caught my attention. Don’t jump into writing a screenplay before working out its essence and judging whether it’s worth the time and effort. This resonates with what I’ve written previously about the ten things to ask yourself before you start writing a screenplay, and with something I’ve heard Linda Aronson say a number of times: Talent can be a disadvantage. Because you love writing and you’re good at it, even a mediocre concept can start looking attractive if you let yourself get carried away. One of the most difficult things for a screenwriter, is recognizing that a particular story or concept isn’t good enough to do your writing talent justice. It goes against all your instincts to say: I’m not going to write this script because I can write a better one. It’s difficult for other reasons too, including the influence of people who insist that not writing a mediocre script is worse than writing it.

The Only Thing that Counts: Believing in Your Material
Of course, nothing is this black and white. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to screenwriting. The point for me is, looking back on 2010, that I’m very happy to have achieved this insight. Regardless of whether any of my shorts and other projects are ever produced (statistically, I know most of them won’t be), it feels good to be completely at ease with the ideas at the heart of my work. Finding outlets for scripts is hard enough as it is, but at least this way I don’t have the added handicap of having to pitch material that I don’t genuinely believe in.

The Most Interesting Questions are the Unanswerable Ones

So that’s my little message of hope for the coming New Year: Take the time to find the really good, authentic ideas before you start writing the scripts, using whatever method works best. For me personally, that means constantly trying to push past questions I’ve seen dealt with far too often already in films, until I encounter awkward, uncomfortable questions to which I don’t know the answer. I know that’s a risky attitude (for one thing, I might turn out to be embarrassingly stupid) but then again, at least I’m constantly learning more about life...


Anonymous said...

Beat Sheet?
I hate them, will never use them.
Would somone like Tarantino or Zallian use Beat Sheets?

Raving Dave Herman said...


It's not about the specific method you use to test a bunch of ideas before you choose one to invest your time and energy in. It's about being able to stop yourself going with the first idea that comes to mind, because it might not be the best you can come up with.

So, writing numerous ideas up in some kind of short form (perhaps just a logline, or a short synopsis, whatever works for you), and only then deciding which one to turn into a screenplay, increases the likelihood of you choosing an excellent idea rather than a mediocre one.