THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE

No matter what you do, it is impossible to please everybody.  There will always be a percentage of people who hate what you create, no matter what it is.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  However, once you realize this is a true statement, you can best position your work to exist in an environment where the majority of the people will like it.

My first film PEP SQUAD is a satirical comedy about school violence.  It’s in the same vein as John Waters’ SERIAL MOM or that movie HEATHERS from the 80s.  When Hollywood Video wanted to release the movie, they decided to market it as a horror film.  I thought this was a terrible idea, because there’s nothing about the movie that remotely resembles a horror film.  And, I knew that if an unsuspecting viewer, who was out to find a horror film, rented or purchased PEP SQUAD, he or she would be totally disappointed because it didn’t meet their expectations.  That kind of marketing is the most stupid because, I would think, the whole point is to make as much money as possible from the release of a movie.  Instead, by marketing it to the wrong audience, they shot themselves in the foot.

Same thing happened with my film FIRECRACKER.  The distributors wanted to put artwork on the cover featuring a Ferris Wheel and carnival with blood dripping off the letters.  I was like, “Really?! Are you serious?”  After a lengthy email educating the distributors about good design and bad design, they agreed to use the artwork I’d originally created for the film.  There were elements in FIRECRACKER that were horrific, but it was a sort of Gothic Horror, or a classic Shakespearean Tragedy.  Again, it wasn’t a horror film.  I wondered what the obsession is with every distribution company trying to market their movies as horror films.  Yes, horror films sell really well.  So buy a horror film.  Don’t try to pretend the film is horror even if it isn’t.

A similar thing nearly happened to my film CASSEROLE CLUB.  It’s a film about the disintegration of married life.  Although there are sex scenes, and situations, there is nothing “sexy” about it.  Yet the distributors wanted to change the title to SWING PARTY ’69 because they were certain it would show up sooner on the Video On Demand channels.  I put my foot down, as did some of the actors in the film, and just wouldn’t let them change the title.  Any viewer expecting a sexy romp wouldn’t like it a bit once it turned serious and emotionally heavy.  The only people who dislike that film are precisely the ones who put it on thinking they’re about to watch some kind of soft-core porn.  Like the distributors obsessed with marketing every movie as a horror film, if you market every movie as a sexy soft-core number, you’ll alienate people and you won’t live up to meeting the expectations of your viewers.

This article isn’t intended to be about marketing, but I illustrate those two examples as a means to explain the following.  Your project—whatever it may be—is what it is.  No matter what you do, 75% of the people will like it, and 25% won’t.  If you try and disguise the project to please everyone, and gain the respect of the people who don’t like it, you will alienate some of the people who would’ve liked it.  Always leaving you with a percentage of people who hate what you’re doing.

Instead of paying any attention to the people who dislike what you’re doing, my advice is to focus on the 75% who do.  Market to that group and embrace those people.  Ignore the rest.  There will always be a negative review, a group of people who hate it.  There’s nothing you can do about them.  They’re stuck that way forever.  Instead, focus your attention on meeting the expectations of the people who do like what you’re doing.  If your latest movie is loved by kids 14-19 year olds, who cares what the 35 year old thinks.  Market the movie to kids!  That is one of the recipes for success.

EVERY FILM IS REALLY THREE

Did you know that every movie is actually made up of three different movies?  By the time you’ve seen it, the film you’re watching has gone through metamorphosis at least three times.  I’m not talking about different endings, re-shoots, and the like.  I’m talking about how the film changes its form between conception to screening.

At first there is the film you write, then the film you shoot, and next the film you edit.  Each of those is a different film.  Sometimes the differences between each step can be drastic.  Sometimes, the transitions are subtler.  But it is a fact that no movie remains the same as it first appeared paper by the time you reach completion of the image.

First-time filmmakers usually struggle with this.  Panicking about how to capture every line exactly as it’s written (and if they wrote the script, they’re even worse).  Yelling at actors until they get it perfect.  Making them do twenty takes because they keep forgetting that word.  Fighting with an editor because he shifted some lines, rearranged some scenes, or got rid of them entirely.

I know I struggled with this when I started, but no one bothered to tell me this until after I’d made a few movies.  But then one day, I heard, “There is the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you edit.”  It was like a new world of possibility and freedom opened up.  Learning how to adapt into this way of thinking has helped strengthen each step of the process.  My screenplays have benefited, my on-the-set shooting time is more productive, and the post-production and editing process comes together seamlessly.

There will always be a word in the screenplay that an actor changes, forgets, or the editor removes.  There will always be sequences that flow differently when acted out than when they were imagined on paper.

Opening yourself up to the metamorphosis in the process will present opportunity when you least expect it.  On a recent film project, there was a scene that included the prop of an actress blowing bubbles.  You know, those small kids toys of soapy water that, when you stick the wand in and blow through, creates bubbles that float around the room.  Well, I found the perfect bubbles set on eBay for $4.  So I ordered them.

When they arrived, I was shocked to find a plastic gun that shoots bubbles and glows with plastic LED lights.  Instead of sending it back, I thought, well, this was supposed to happen.  I was meant to use this in the movie.  And, you know what, the scene worked out so much better with the bubble gun then I’d have ever imagined.

Had I been the kind of hard-nosed director who wanted to stick to the written word, I’d have sent the gun back and demanded the bubbles I’d originally ordered.  And, had I done that, sure, the scene would’ve played out as it was written on paper, but, it would not have been as exciting as how it ended up with the bubble gun.

The other thing I like to do when shooting is keep the writer from ever visiting the set.  For me personally, I like the freedom to focus my perception on the translation of the material without having someone’s eyes over my shoulder the entire time.

Frankie Krainz is a brilliant screenwriter I’ve worked with multiple times.  And I respect him as a person on top of that.  He always insisted he’d keep to himself, quietly in the corner, but could be please visit the set.  I explained to him that even if he did keep quiet, I would be aware of his presence, and that a voice in my left ear would constantly be second-guessing everything I was doing.  What would Frankie think about that?  How is Frankie feeling about this?  So to prevent that distraction and any loss of my own confidence, I decided to make it a rule to never have the writer of the project appear on set while filming.

My advice is to keep oneself open to any possibilities of change along the way.  From writing, to filming something differently than it was written, to editing a scene in a totally new way.  Once, I re-wrote a scene in the editing room to spectacular results.  Putting the first line third, and the second line first, and so on.  It’s fascinating what can happen if you’re open to the possibilities.

STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

WORDS AND IMAGES

Roberto Rossellini, the director, and Isabella’s father, once said, “Do you know how many words it takes to adequately explain an image that will register, in your mind, the total meaning in a split second?”

Let’s think about that for a moment.

I don’t know the answer to his question, but my first thought is that it would take an enormous amount of words.  There are endless ways to describe something.  Those of us who have studied scene analysis from already completed movies know that a simple five-minute scene might take an entire day to film.  Stepping back another level, we examine the script for that scene and discover it’s only a couple pages long.  And when we examine the script used during the filming, we discover how little of what we see on screen had been previously written.

Films are made up of pictures, which spawn emotions and tug at our full understanding of feelings and perspective.  Even when the viewer is looking at the same scene, each person will be watching it from a different history.  People come from different backgrounds, different upbringings, and each have different viewpoints.

There are only a couple reasons I can see for a screenplay.  One is to communicate to the actors what they will say and (to some degree) where they should stand, move or sit.  Although the director, or each actor, may change that to suit the actual location of filming, or rhythm of the scene when its played out.  Another purpose for a screenplay is to keep track of the skeleton of the story.  If the skeleton is solid, and the foundation secure, the scenes themselves might end up in any number of possible outcomes.

It is totally possible to shoot a movie without using a traditional screenplay.  If you intend to do this, my advice is to work with really great actors.  Especially if they have any kind of writing background or improv coaching.  Actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined their director Richard Linklater with Best Screenplay Oscar nominations for the BEFORE SUNSET and BEFORE MIDNIGHT movies because they made those movies in this fashion.

I’ve recently started working on a similar project and am extremely excited to experience what it’s like to work in a world like that.  There is something ultimately freeing about it, and that excites me.

STRUCTURE is the best word I can use to describe prepping for something like this.  Each scene has a purpose.  Every scene in a movie starts at 1 and ends at 3.  There will always be a 2 in between.  Of course you can just decide whatever is the most obvious way to get from 1 to 3 and use that, but you might find there are several ways to move through 2 that will still lead you to 3.  So why not film the alternative 2’s and decide in the editing room which one works the best?

Sometimes there is no time or budget for this kind of filmmaking, and I understand that on certain days during your shoot you might not have that kind of ultimate freedom.  But my suggestion is to find that freedom whenever you can.  And remember that freedom is what makes a truly independent filmmaker.

So you want to be a screenwriter?

You’ve decided to write a script and make it big.  You’ve found a great story that, for some reason, you think other people want to read (or see for that matter).  You’ve written it and are now ready to shop your script to producers and directors.  Shopping your script is the first mistake, which I shall address on another day, but if you are determined to have someone else make your movie – there is something you should know.

Not only has The Industry become lazy and formulaic when it comes to storytelling (and you’ll have to comply as well), it is now imperative that every screenplay must look and feel identical.  Coming up with a good idea to write about is one thing.  Coming up with a good idea people are willing to pay for is another.  But the most important thing – the thing they never tell you – is that you MUST BIND YOUR SCRIPT LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!

Never mind the story.  Never mind the content.  It’s come down to this: If your script does not have those common, unsightly and second-rate brass “brads” attached to the top hole and bottom hole – your project is worthless.  They will tell you that only amateurs go to Kinko’s.  Because “everyone” knows you MUST OBEY THE RULE OF THE BRASS “BRAD”!

Never make the horrible mistake of placing it in a three-ring binder.  And never, ever, put “brads” in all three holes!  Because “everyone” knows you’re supposed to only use the top hole and bottom hole.  A writer I once knew told me his script was returned unread because he’d placed a “brad” in the center hole.  As ludicrous as this might seem, this is no joke.  It’s really happening to people.

Most of Hollywood can’t understand how to read something unless it has these brass fasteners.  But let that be a lesson.  Do I really want to work with people who are obsessed with the binding and not interested in my cast, financing, marketing plan or that seemingly, from their point of view, irrelevant part known as cinematography?  Come to think of it: No… I don’t.  I want to work with people who can understand pictures and sentences, too.

On my street, I bind scripts professionally.  I love the look and feel of it.  The appearance says: QUALITY.  DISTINCTIVE.  IMAGINATIVE.  And those emotions happen before reading the first sentence!  Going one step further, I like to include photographs and sketches that assist in setting moods and atmospheres – the kinds of things that separate a motion picture from a novel.

Still, it doesn’t do any good.  Several years ago, a woman named Elizabeth called me from Miramax and said she was excited to read my script.  I made the horrible mistake of sending it to her.  Several days later, she telephoned and told me, “It’s perfect for Dimension, so I sent it to them.”  I was livid because she was passing it around without my approval.  I asked for her to return it at once.

I received the script the following day.  When it arrived, I found it had been completely dismantled.  The crucial photographs were removed from the script, and the binding was replaced by those stupid second-rate brass fasteners!

Now, it’s not like I only had a few pictures.  I’d actually placed one on every other page. So it was clear to me that someone had wasted an entire afternoon going through the script page by page and removing 125 pictures.  Isn’t that silly?  They had to make it look like all the other scripts in order to understand it!  Also, I looked up on staples.com and those stupid “brads” are called “standard punch brass fasteners.”  So next time you hear a dimwitted industry executive say “brads” you will know the extent of his or her mental capacity.

There is something to be said about going against the norm.  Doing things in an unorthodox manner separates you and your material from the millions of people and scripts milling about the basin.  But for some reason – fear of not fitting in, perhaps – most people will continue to worship the “brass brad mentality” and end up looking like everyone else.  Sure, they’ll fit in.  But no one will see them because seven million other people have done exactly the same.

My advice?  If you feel the need to write something clever – simply eat something spicy and the feeling will pass.  You’ll be much happier in the end.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine in 2004.)

LET IT BREATHE

Great screenplays write themselves.  Great films shoot themselves.  Your job as a creator should be to never question a signal, or inspiration – just go with it.  And use your eyes, ears, and then, if you’ve appreciated and respected your creation, it’ll all be there.  The skill is to not interfere with it.  Give it some room to breathe.

A sentence like, “Listen to signs from the universe” might sound hokey but I’d still advise it.  If you’ve written a scene to take place inside a garage and no matter what you try, no one will let you film in their garage, simply change it.  If you fight it, the fight will wear down the natural flow and keep you from seeing what is truly supposed to be there.

When you’re writing a script and you hit a stumbling block, move on – go to another scene.  If you’ve outlined your story and developed a clear structure, you can simply skip around.  If you’ve foolishly started writing without a clear structure in place, stop whatever you’re doing and develop the structure before going any further.

If you’re a songwriter, and the lyrics just aren’t coming to you, put in some working sounds that may or may not even be actual words.  Maybe they’re just noises and sounds, vowels, that you can place words upon later.

Realists have a more difficult time than the rest of us, because they get bogged down with the laws they were raised with.  Or laws that have been pounded into them by society at large.  Water is wet.  The sky is blue.  Neither may be actually true, but we are taught they are.

Letting go of the trappings in the world around you and allowing yourself to FEEL what you feel is a really hard thing to do for most people.  But, I assure you, that once you get the hang of it, it’ll be easier and easier.

In my own work, I can see the differences between projects where I’ve opened myself up to the universe and let all the pieces fall into place, or on the projects where I’ve forced it to much.  It’s taken me a decade to finally tap into something I can’t understand, and which is hard to communicate.  But it’s there.

They say, “Write what you know.”  And likewise: film what you know, sing what you know, dance what you know and paint what you know.  Of course that’s wonderful and always enjoyable but it’s also fun to push yourself a bit into an area you don’t know.

People ask me what inspires me to make a film.  The answer truly lands in what I’m interested in learning next.  I’ve never made a proper horror film.  Or a western.  Learning how to do that is exciting to me.  I’ve never made an erotic film.  Having to learn about what makes eroticism work is a challenge.  Especially if it’s a kind of sexuality I know nothing about.

I consider myself as a mad scientist in a way.  Wanting to combine different genres, or starting a movie off in one tone and then ending in another.  Like CASSEROLE CLUB, where we began with tongues planted in cheeks, then half-way through twisted the tone and moved into something serious, heavy and utterly devastating.  I also love movies that stick in the same tone throughout, like FIRECRACKER, or OCCUPYING ED.

But regardless what story you’re telling, my advice is to be open to letting the creation have its own life force.  Give it some room to morph, grow, and breathe.  You might just find that it grows into its own amazing being.

Works of art are like children.  And as a parent, it’s most responsible to let your children develop into who THEY are.  It’s irresponsible for you to make them who you want them to be.  Take a step back, and open yourself up to the possibility that they just might have their own voices and their own energies.  And if you can learn to respect them, you might be surprised at what they become.

PRIORITIZE YOUR TIME

I’m aware that our modern world isn’t easy to negotiate through.  I know people have jobs, bills to pay, the need to put food on the table, shuttle kids to and from school or band practice or play practice or that sports game.  I get it.  But, if you’re really good at time management, you can do all this and write scripts, make movies, and so forth.

I know it’s possible to write a screenplay in less than a week and get paid $15,000 for it.  I know because that happened to me.  But, I also know that I’m incredibly diligent in time management when it comes to something like that.  If my goal is to write a script in a week or so, and I’m getting paid 15 grand for it, I know that there is no time to waste at the gym, or on the phone chatting with friends, or texting and tweeting the lastest news.

I don’t think twice about just shutting the phone off, or telling friends and family that I’m going back in the “writing cave” or the “editing cave” or whatever.  Most people appreciate it and respect that, and understand the situation.

Other people don’t understand it, and that’s when it can become problematic.  Everybody has a needy friend who has a personality that if you don’t return his or her call or text immediately, they take it personally and think you’re mad at them.  Then, by the time you’ve re-emerged from the cave, your friend hates you and you don’t understand why.

Well, I’m here to say, screw ‘em.  Needy people are trouble.  Ask yourself which is more important?  Do you want to finish your script, your edit, your work or your art—or do you want to make sure you’re holding on to social obligations that have nothing to do with supporting your goals?  True friends, and people who support you and your goals, will always be there for you, regardless.  So I say “screw ‘em” to the rest because they’ll eventually just start sucking out your life force like leeches.

Now, I understand it’s easy for me to go into a creative cave of any sort because I don’t have pets, I don’t’ have children, and I’m not keen on frivolous social obligations with people I barely know.  But, I’ve made the decision that right now it’s the part of my life where I need to focus on myself.  So I don’t have pets on purpose.

Scheduling is also an important part of managing one’s time.  I can totally juggle the responsibilities of earning a living, putting food on the table, and also creating my art.  But I might not be able to do them all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s possible to block out two hours a day for writing, or six hours a day for earning a paycheck, or one hour a week to write a blog article.  But, unless I write it down in my planner, and keep to the schedule, it becomes impossible to manage everything.

I know some of you might be gifted when it comes to time management and scheduling yourself.  And I know that some of you might really struggle with it.  My only advice is to make it a habit.  I think it only takes something like two weeks to make something a habit.  Start small, by getting a daily planner or learning how to operate the calendar on your smart phone.  Set alerts for yourself.

Most importantly, ask yourself if there are any things in your current lifestyle that impede your ability to work on your art, or reach your goals.  Are some of those things necessary?  Can you do without them?  Or, if you must have them (say you aren’t ready to send Fido to your neighbor’s house to live), can you think of ways to keep those things and also achieve your goals?

There’s no excuse to avoid achieving your goals.  There is simply time management and figuring out HOW you can achieve them no matter what.

SHUT UP & WRITE

The first draft of a screenplay isn’t the draft that gets filmed.  It also isn’t the version shown to the actors.  It’s the beginning of a long line of drafts and versions, so there’s no reason why it should take you very long to do it.

I commissioned a screenwriter once for a film I wanted to make.  She really struggled to complete the first draft.  Weeks went by and she still wasn’t finished.  She said she really wanted it to be PERFECT before showing me.  Yet, I knew the moment she turned it in, I would have a laundry list of notes and changes.  But she kept insisting “just another week.”

After I received the first draft, and started to work on my own version 2.0, she started to realize what I meant earlier.  No one (but us) sees the first draft.  And nobody needs to.  It won’t be published, lined with gold or shown in a museum.  It’s just Step One.  Think of it as an instruction manual.  When you’re assembling a desk from IKEA, do you usually fret about Step Four until you get there?  No, of course not.  So treat screenwriting the same way.  One step at a time.

If you’ve created a good solid floor plan, writing the first draft should be effortless.  When you reach a scene that doesn’t seem to be working, simply skip ahead to the next.  You can always go back to that tricky scene in future drafts.

Skipping ahead is the one trick to avoid writer’s block.  If you begin to feel stumped, move on to the next scene or sequence on your outline.  If you haven’t made a solid outline “floor plan” yet, you should stop everything you’re doing and do that first (read my earlier article on the subject).

When I’m writing a script, my mission for Step One is: just get it off the outline and into screenwriting format (I use Final Draft, which is industry standard).  For the first draft, nothing matters yet.  I sit down with my outline and just use that as my guide and “next to do” on the list.  Sometimes I start in the middle of the outline, or jump around from scene to scene.  Maybe there’s a scene in particular where the dialogue is crystal clear in my mind—I’ll start there.  And, sure, I’ve hit a wall and have had to jump past it, but I don’t let it get to me.  I just wait until I’ve expanded upon the outline.

Then, once I’ve taken all the information that’s on the outline and incorporated it into my screenwriting file, even if it’s patchy in places, I call that a complete first draft.  Then, I “save as” and create v2.0, where I go back into the screenplay and begin to flesh out each scene more and more.  When I’m confident with a nice v2.0, I’ll share it with another writer or some friends for feedback.  They’ll either re-write some things on their own, or send me notes.  Then I’ll “save as” and create v3.0 and repeat the process until I’m satisfied with a solid draft that will be shared with select cast, crew, another director, or producer.

And, naturally, each of them will want to chime in with their “two cents.”  Sometimes their notes are silly, but sometimes they could have a brilliant idea that can help you.  When that happens, swallow your pride and take it.  This isn’t about you; it’s about the greater good for the project.

Once you get to that point, and you find yourself working on version 12, you’ll kick yourself for wasting so much time on version 1.  Remember this lesson next time you complete your outline, and are ready to begin writing the scenes and dialogue.  If you can get into a rhythm where you don’t think too much about writing, and just write, you’ll find that it’s possible to complete the first draft of a screenplay in no time at all.

Remember: no one sees the first draft.  There is no reason to give yourself any kind of pressure when you’re conceiving it.  Give that formation time to grow and what might seem messy at the beginning will begin to make sense.  Each story takes on its own life force and if you’re open to the inspiration around you, and live with a “create now, edit later” mindset, your screenplay will be complete in no time.