Writing to a remit on a limited budget
An example of what it’s really like to earn a living as a screenwriter
So last week a friend of mine, the actress, Lara Heller, asked if I had any old short film scripts lying about. I don’t so I offered to write one for her. That way I could blog about its development to tie in with my upcoming screenwriting course. The course is designed to show any aspiring screenwriters what it’s really like to earn a living as a writer and so writing a short film will be a practical demonstration of all the things I’ll be talking about in the course.
I’ll be writing to Lara’s remit in much the same way as I would to any other producer or a studio. There will be limitations as with any assignment. In this case, the limitations will mostly be linked to budget constraints, which a majority of jobbing screenwriters have to deal with. Admittedly a short film has much greater budget constraints than even the lowest of low budget features but constraints are constraints are constraints, as the really boring saying (that I just made up) goes.
It’s going to be a self-funded short. The location will be what Lara has to work with (it’s an apartment in L.A. that, as far as I know, is modern, clean and a little minimalist). She wants it to be a showcase for her and one other actor (male but that’s all I know thus far). So I have two characters, one location, somewhere around ten minutes of screen time and I need to show Lara’s versatility to its fullest.
I’ll use the blogging process to show exactly what happens. For example, it may never come to fruition. Maybe Lara will find another script that she’s more interested in, maybe she’ll get a big acting gig and won’t have time to make this short or any number of unforeseen problems. Such is the film business. Any writer will face that lack of certainty throughout their career. I’ve been in the position of having a movie set up at a massive production company with a big movie star attached and an extremely well known director who I’d been working with on the project for two or three years and then the whole thing went south. You never know it’s going to happen until there are actors standing on sets in front of cameras saying stuff what you wrote (and even then that’s no guarantee).
I’ll start where all stories start: with an idea. My plan is to come up with 2 or 3 ideas. Pitch them to Lara and see which one – if any of them – she goes for. If she likes one, then we’ll start developing it. If she doesn’t like any. I’ll come up with some more.
Idea #1… Lara plays a woman whose boyfriend (let’s call him Chris) is coming over. We first meet Lara on the phone to a friend of hers and she tells the friend that she plans on breaking up with Chris when he comes over. The relationship’s not working out. We cut to Chris approaching Lara’s apartment. He’s also on the phone to a friend and says he’s going to ask Lara to marry him. So then we have a story where two people are both trying to pluck up the courage to do two very different things and we the audience are in a position of omniscience.
Why this one… Drama comes from conflict. Put two people in a scene and have them want the exact opposite and fun is there to be had. I think the friends they’re talking to at the start should both give them the same piece of advice: don’t hesitate – don’t wait for the right moment – just do it. So both of them are eager to take charge of the conversation.
From a writer’s point of view… This could be lots of fun to write. It’s a good set up for a scene and it feels like it should have a sort of His Girl Friday rhythm to the dialogue. Before I get to that I would need to know who these two people are, what they want, and why they have such opposite views of the state of their relationship. Out of the three it’s probably the hardest one to write well.
Idea #2… A psychiatrist and a patient (Lara). The patient suffers from multiple personality disorder (the movie version of this, not the real version). The psychiatrist thinks he’s breaking down the patient’s defences but he’s not. The patient is in charge all the time. The psychiatrist’s arrogance makes him oblivious to the fact the patient is manipulating him. The patient has an agenda that only becomes apparent as the story unfolds. There’s a twist in the tail. Or is it tale? Twist in the tale? Hhmm, I don’t know. Anyone else?
Why this one… Lara speaks four languages and excels with accents. This idea wouldn’t be easy but if done well it could let Lara play three or four discrete characters, which would be a great showcase for her talents.
From a writer’s point of view… This could end up being flashy and superficial if the different personalities are all played too large. It needs to be more subtle than that and to do it justice will be hard. It will mean establishing and fleshing out several different characters in a very limited running time. One of my big rules is that every word counts and this exemplifies that better than most. Out of the three ideas this, to my mind, does the best job of showcasing Lara’s talents.
Idea #3… We meet a man called Greg as he rigs up hidden cameras all around his apartment. He’s talking to three other men who are on his speakerphone. We discover that Greg’s got a date coming over and he’s going to murder her while his three “buddies” watch. This group of psychopaths take it in turns to do this sort of thing and then they post the ensuing snuff movies online for all the world to see (with their faces blurred out of course). It’s how they get their kicks. They discuss the type of roofie he plans on using.
His date (Lara) arrives and we the audience are scared for her because we know what’s in store. We see Greg spike her wine and wait for her to drink it but something keeps stopping her. She spots a piece of art on the wall that she admires or talks about the books on his shelves. Greg is getting quite impatient. He wants her to drink the spiked wine. Finally, he proposes a toast and they drink. Now we wait for Lara to get drowsy as the roofie kicks in but she doesn’t. Greg does. All her prevarication was diversionary so that she could switch the drinks. With Greg sleepy and suggestible, Lara reveals that she knows about their depraved little club because they did the same thing to a friend of hers. She gets Greg to offer up the names and addresses of the other members of the club and she looks down the lens of one of the hidden cameras and tells them that as soon as she kills Greg then she’s coming for the rest of them. Cut to black.
Why this one… Like the first idea, this puts the audience in a position of superiority. They know something that the character in the story does not, or at least that’s how it appears to begin with. Film is a manipulation of the audience and this is very manipulative.
There’s a famous explanation about the difference between suspense and surprise from Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about both of those devices. It is as follows:
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
From a writer’s point of view… This one is probably the easiest of the three to write. Putting the audience in that position means they’re doing some of the work for you. Still not easy to do well though and that’s the whole point.