Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Script is a Working Document

So many books about screenwriting are about storytelling that it's easy to forget that a screenplay is also a set of instructions for a very complex operation -- the shooting of a film. I've always believed that learning about how other filmmakers look at a script is a tremendous nuts and bolts discipline. Many, if not most, new screenwriters have little or no experience with production, and so are writing a bit blind. Not infrequently they fill that void by writing a novel.

I've been working on a short film for the last several months. It's a surreal film set in a hyper-real location designed by San Francisco installation artist Megan Wilson. We had a site visit yesterday during which the cinematographer saw the set for the first time. To my mind, the set is more or less a cinematographer's wet dream: Gorgeous floral patterns mounted inches off the wall throughout the apartment, tiny details that tell a story wherever you look, a sense of the surreal meshing neatly with a very real, homey apartment. It's comfy and claustrophobic. It's unique and familiar. It's hard to take a bad shot in there: color and patterns and careful composition wherever you look.

The cinematographer had trouble with the script. "This part here, this is normal, right? But this next scene is supposed to be... weird?" Now I wrote the script with the director, and we knew the location and most of the people we'd be working with, so we didn't really worry about "selling" the idea. We knew exactly what we wanted to do.

The cinematographer went on and on about diffusion screens and 35 mm adapters and how the relationship between light needed and depth of field was completely counter-intuitive on his fancy new HD camera. I will admit that at first I glazed over a bit. And in the back of my head, I was thinking that this guy's job was relatively simple. He has to shoot a woman getting dressed, talking on the telephone, walking down the hall. One actress. Beautiful color-saturated set. It's shooting fish in a barrel. But then I started to listen.

He was trying to work out the story. He was talking about diffusion screens and F-stops because this was his way of getting a handle on the story. This is his creative process. He thinks in terms of color palettes. He thinks in terms of natural color vs. non-natural color. He understands how a long shot contrasts with a tight shot. And as he works out how and whether to gel a light, use a practical, use a dolly or a jib, he's figuring his way into the story. He's realizing the potential of the story. He's finding more. He's thinking of similar movies and camera work. The script is becoming a movie at that moment, in his head.

Many writers dislike screenwriting because you don't have a finished project when you're done. A script is just the first step. A successful script inspires that next step. I can't begin to tell this cinematographer to do his job. And I don't have to. I just have to inspire him.

On this script, I didn't really do enough. I had a mind meld with the director, and we felt like we knew what was going on. We'd break it down later, in the shooting script. So we punted. By the end of the site visit we had the cinematographer fully aboard. But you don't usually get a chance to coax, convince, and explain. I'm rewriting the script this weekend. It's gonna be dead clear by the time I'm done. And I'll know more about it too.

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