How To Make A Short Film - Part 2: The Script
A series on the film production process, with filmmaking tips for beginners. This week we look at how to get a short film script that sets you up for success. Learn how to write a short film script, or commission one - and what makes a screenplay sing.
Making a short film is an incredible experience. There's nothing quite like being on set, especially when it's your own project. That’s why I created this guide to offer filmmaking tips and tricks, on how to make your first short film. These are geared towards low budget filmmaking. Because you shouldn't be afraid of making the leap into production!
But I won't lie to you. It's hard work. It eats up your time, your energy and your life, just like any passion project. So you've got to be sure you want to commit to the project. Which means you've got to be unbelievably excited by the script.
In Part 2 we have to look at the foundation of filmmaking techniques: your script
The Most Important Part
Some people might start with the goal to "make a movie". That they don't care what it is, just as long as it's something. I admire this. I admire the bravery and tenacity it takes to throw yourself into something.
But I think it could end up being unfulfilling if the final product isn't in line with your taste. Beginning with the script, or having a great one, is arguably the most important part of the process. It is the bedrock on which the rest of the film sits. So it’s worth doing as much work as you can on making it rock solid - and representative of you as an artist.
Finding Your Voice
It's important to try and investigate your voice. If you don't have anything written or even an idea yet, then this can be a good jumping-off point. If you have one already, this exercise can help to tighten what you have.
Because it's so important to assess what it is you are bringing to the table. What can you bring an original or interesting point of view too? We all have work and heroes we admire. Look at what you find speaks to you, and then ask yourself: what is it you can offer?
This can feel overwhelming for some, like myself, who struggle from too-many-ideas-syndrome. Or equally triggering for those who come up empty.
So, here's a nice exercise to use as a launching pad. Using some exercises from the amazing Right To Write by Julia Cameron.
Try to do the following using as little judgement or censorship as possible:
Finding your voice - complete the following:
3 topics you read about most often?
3 topics you often think about?
Your 5 favourite books.
What do these books have in common?
Your 5 favourite movies.
What do these movies have in common?
Where do your movies and book favourites intersect?
Which of those intersecting topics feels the most urgent?
Reflect on what this may mean for your creative work.
Hopefully, this process makes your direction clearer on what it is you want to make and how you want to show it in your film.
Writing The Script
There are two ways of doing this. You can find a writer, or you can write it yourself. Both have benefits in their own way. An outside writer can add expertise and perspective. Alternatively, if you write it yourself you will know the details, intricacies and key moments you want to bring out on the big screen.
This will depend on your budget. If you have a healthy budget you can always commission a writer (offer them payment to write for you).
If you have no or very low budget, some writers may work for free. They may have scripts already in their arsenal they would like to see produced. Or they may even write one for you if they like your idea enough.
For example, the writer of our film was a friend who always sent me his screenplays to read and give feedback. The Dinner Party was so compelling I asked if I could produce it. He agreed!
If you don’t know any writers try the below:
Do an open call-out on social media - let writers know you are looking for scripts on a theme or story.
Send an email to organisations like London Playwrights, they have a huge database of writers who are looking for opportunities.
Attend scratch nights - where writers test out new material.
Watch short films on Youtube and other platforms. Find writers that speak to your style.
However you find your writer, it's important to have contracts in place about ownership and payment. You should make sure you have something called an assignment agreement (or option agreement).
What this means is the writer agrees to hand over the intellectual property to you. Meaning they can't make a copyright claim against you at a later date. Sometimes an assignment agreement includes payment for the intellectual property. Alternatively, we instead chose to operate our film on a profit share basis. This meant we offered the writer (and the team) a share of any profits made instead of an upfront payment. This was helpful due to a constricted budget.
Here is the template for an assignment agreement. You can adjust whether or not payment is included
If you are concerned about copyright, it's best to get in touch with a copyright lawyer or expert.
Writing Your Own Screenplay
If you enjoy writing - then it's a great option to write your own. It also means you have no copyright worries. And it keeps the budget down!
Using the "Finding Your Voice" prompts above is a great way to start to single out what it is you want to say to the world. Then use the tips below.
It all starts with a story. And we all have stories to tell. But to do it justice takes some rigour and some honed techniques.
Here are some great resources to make the most of your idea and create a killer script:
Lessons From The Screenplay - A free Youtube channel chock full of great writing advice. My personal favourite is the video on Theme in Jurrasic Park. Closely followed by Gone Girl and American Beauty.
The Anatomy of Story - A thorough and comprehensive guide to teasing the best out of your ideas.
Into The Woods - Another great insight into the craft of storytelling. Yorke uses examples from great screenplays to show how technique serves to elevate story.
My biggest story tip?
A central question. A question poses a theme to be explored. The question may not be answered, it may just be examined. But it's an active process. It means your characters go through change. That is what excited audiences.
Whilst story is infinite and ever-changing, it's important to be mindful of your limitations. For example - a budget Indie film can't afford to hire a supermarket to film in. Similarly, it's expensive to blow up cars, make people fly or use branded products. Unless you are making an animation of course...
So be mindful when writing what your budget can stretch too. For this, I always refer to The Duplass Brothers for wisdom. Famous for creating a 3$ film that won at Raindance, they prove it doesn't take flashy action to tell great stories. Watch that film. It's simply a man agonising over his answering machine message. And it's gold dust.
"I’ve seen so many filmmakers attempt to make “The Avengers” on the budget for food for one day on a Marvel set. You are setting yourself up to fail. When starting out work within your limitations."
The Dinner Party was chosen as our script for this reason. The story takes place in one room. This room belonged to my parents (thanks Mum and Dad). It meant we could focus on the story and keep the costs down too.
Don't be afraid of limitations. Let them feed your creative ingenuity. Get scrappy and savvy and write killer scripts!
Formatting is important. It allows the Director and team to use the script to create a storyboard and shot list.
Use this free formatting template to help you (just copy and paste it into word or google drive).
Or, if you have the budget, these pieces of software can help. Don't forget they are tax-deductible if you are self-employed!
Scrivener is a lovely piece of writing software that allows you to keep track of notes, character profiles and settings. It has a screenplay option which allows you to write in the proper format. It has a 30-day free trial too, which gives you a mini deadline for yourself!
Most professionals use Final Draft (but it's pricey!)
Once you have your script, congratulations! You should be really excited!
You should now work on redrafting. Re-drafting is so important and shouldn’t be skipped. Each time, think economically. How can you make the most out of this story? How can you engineer a journey that will affect and address your audience in a way that excites you?
Share it with one or two close friends, those whose opinion you trust. Or share it with the director, if you have one, and get their opinion. Take what's constructive and leave what isn’t. It's always good to listen to those who don't know anything about a script. Are there holes you have missed? Is the desired effect achieved? Have your characters changed or grown?
The last thing to do before starting pre-production? Copyright. Copyright your script, because you never know where it might end up. And because if it's really great, you don't want all your hard work wasted if someone steals your idea!
You can register your copyright here: http://www.thescriptvault.com/
It's a small cost but offers big piece of mind.
With your script completed, you are on your journey to make a short film. With the story ready it's time to move into pre-production. That's coming next week in part 3! Stay tuned for more indie filmmaking tips including:
Gathering your team
Directing a short film
Preparing for the cinematic elements in the film
The steps towards getting on set and feeling ready to go!
Until then, happy writing!
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Author: Olivia Foan