Yesterday I attended the Sargent-Disc BAFTA Filmmakers Forum
and gathered some golden nuggets of wisdom to remember and share. These are from the session on The Re-Draft
and here is another post on Managing Production on Independent Films
The first wonderful women to take the stage for these anecdotal conversations were Desiree Akhavan (Director, Writer and Actress) and Cecilia Frugiuele (Producer) who worked together on
They showed us some fun clips from Desiree's web series The Slope
about superficial, homophobic lesbians which she would shoot for an hour or two per episode with friends. They wanted to capture this same sense of humour in a feature film and Desiree's initial idea was to write something that could be shot on weekends with favours alone, but when Cecilia came on board she insisted they do it "for realsies" (the technical term).The Thesis Statement
After a few drafts, Desiree delivered a version which she calls "a clusterfuck of nothing" which seemed like a series of sketches and it prompted her to really work out: "What is the thesis statement of this film?"
It's a great way of thinking about it and in my own experience of development this question can actually be one of the most important discussions. As a producer I would love it to be addressed and worked out just after the main research phase and during the bashing out of the Treatment since it saves a lot of time later if everyone understands upfront what the film is trying to say
In Desiree's case, she discovered when she looked at her screenplay that she was saying: two people can be cool and very much in love and still not belong together. Once she had thought of it this way she immediately saw parallels with Annie Hall
and was able to use that film as a reference for structure.
Desiree and Cecilia would then read through drafts together on the couch to make sure they had "two feet on the ground" and were being honest and real.Structure
Desiree mentioned that when she reads books like Story
and the many other tomes on scriptwriting, she hears the same "nyahnyahnyah" noise in her ears as the Peanuts characters hear when adults speak. "I don't work that way," she says. I wholeheartedly agree with her that everyone needs to find they way they work and it's okay not to love those books. There are obviously other writers (like Tess Morris who wrote Man Up
) who find it immensely helpful to work with a book on structure.
Desiree also mentioned that if a scene is really hard and you feel like you need elbow grease to massage it in, maybe you don't need that scene. It takes effort to make everything flow effortlessly.Your Opening Shot
Desiree said she had somehow only remembered how important the opening shot is when she was in the edit suite. Now she's writing with much more awareness and pushes people she mentors not to choose a shot just because it "looks great" but make sure it actually means
"Your first shot needs to say something really important," she reminds us.Name Cast
If you can, Desiree thinks it's better to work without
name cast as a debut director. She thinks she would have been totally intimidated by someone on set who had years of experience which would have caused a power imbalance. Once you've made at least one film, then your name actor can watch your movie and they will be able to have a conversation with you, but before your debut no one knows what you can (or can not)
The next duo to take the stage were Juliette Towhidi (Writer) and Rosie Alison (Producer) who worked together onTestament of Youth
This was the adaptation of a 600 page book, quite a different beast from Desiree's auteur-driven original story.Structure
Once again, the standard script structures didn't work for these women. They saw the story would not fit into the traditional 3-act structure and so they chose some important building blocks (eg. this is Vera's story) and then made the decision to build around them.
These blocks would also move around during the process. In an early draft they had opened with a prayer in voiceover and that moved all around the script and finally ended up closing the movie.
"With every screenplay you write, where you begin and end is key," said Juliette. It seems really obvious, but as Desiree mentioned above, it's all too easy to forget the importance of these book end moments. Juliette and Rosie worked through many versions of the opening, which they wanted to be a concise introduction to their main character Vera, and finally they hit on the idea of starting with Armistice Day, a day of celebration in which we follow Vera through a celebrating crowd and see she is out of sync
with the others around her.
In an adaptation, they discussed how you have to bring out all the important moments in the character's journey and combine them into scenes which express all the same things, but did not exist in the book. This movie is based on an autobiography and there are scenes which never happened and are not in the book, but they are needed to concisely cover many of the points from the book. For example, in reality Vera only met her husband after all the events portrayed in the film, but it's not a good idea to introduce any
characters - especially not key characters - at the end of a movie, so they introduced his character in an earlier scene where he took over the plot function of another person from the book.
It was also really important to play each scene so that it conveyed the most amount possible about Vera's character and how she was growing and changing throughout the narrative.
"You're always looking for ways to bring out your unique character," says Juliette.Filmic Narrative
Juliette and Rosie talked a lot about how to play out moments in the most filmic way.
For example, (spoiler alert) there is a moment in the book where Vera receives a phone call on her wedding day to inform her that her fiancée has died. Traditional script wisdom says that a phone call is not very filmic and so Juliette experimented with setting the scene on Brighton Pier with Vera receiving the news from her mother in law, but in the end the best way to play this ended up being to suppress the emotion of the scene, have her receive the phone call and then play up the emotion in a later scene when she really feels the impact of the death (along with the audience) and finds the last poem her fiancée wrote for her.
"So much of what you write is not about dialogue," says Juliette. "It's about finding the images."
She shared the anecdote of a fellow writer who, when asked how the script was coming along, responded: "I'm almost done. Oh, nothing's written
Of course every writer has their own process, but it seems to make sense that scriptwriters think very much about images, structure, dramatic expression and emotional journeys and however you work that out - "playing it out on the page" by writing in script format or simply chewing on an apple in a park while you think - there is a point at which it moves from "working it out" to "writing it down" and that last part is a very small percentage of your time.