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.

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.

EDIT WHILE YOU WORK

An effective way to save time and money during your production is to be aware of editing during each process.

The first time I’m aware of editing comes at the beginning, when I’m doing a shot list, or storyboards for the film.  I can see in my mind how the scene will be cut together, and how the rhythm of the shots will affect the pace of the movie.  Of course some of these ideas will change during the actual filming process.  But, overall, I get a really clear sense about what the viewer will experience at this early stage.

If I get the sense that the scene will end on this shot, or that shot, or in a certain moment, I will make a note in the screenplay.  Sometimes this means crossing out entire sequences.  The screenwriters I’ve worked with in my career are usually fine with this, but I can understand how sometimes screenwriters might react in a negative way.  My advice: just don’t tell them.  Or, have an agreement in place to begin with that you have creative control.

If I know I’m not going to use a particular shot in the final movie, why bother wasting the time or money on the set by filming it?

Perhaps not every person who considers himself or herself a director can see this, or know this ahead of time.  I’d suggest that if you can’t foresee what the viewer will be going through, you aren’t equipped to be a director.  Cause I really believe that’s the whole point.  In that case, perhaps you should turn your attention to working in another aspect of filmmaking, or perhaps take up film criticism professionally.

Being involved in the editing process is the easiest way to get the hang of rhythm, timing and pacing.  Every director should be his or her own film editor at least during one phase of the editing process.  It’s okay to have help on technical matters, and to bring in additional editors for multiple points of view, but the director should know when to stop the scene, where to make the cut.  Having that knowledge will help shape the way you write and film your movies.

Back to the set.  There was a scene in my film OCCUPYING ED where Holly Hinton and Christopher Sams are lying on the floor playing chess.  There’s a great subtle dolly move inching closer and closer to them throughout the scene.  When the dolly stops, she calls out checkmate, and that’s where the scene ends.

However, in the screenplay the scene continued.  There was another page of dialogue and a couple of jokes.  I didn’t think the jokes were funny, even though everyone else on set disagreed with me.  I thought about filming the rest of the scene in order to test this later (had each test viewer thought the jokes were funny, maybe I’d keep them in even if I didn’t).  But, I decided to not film them, and to just end the scene at checkmate.  It just felt right.  I knew that even had we filmed the rest of the scene as it was written, I’d be cutting it out in the editing room.  It made no sense to waste the next 45 minutes shooting the rest of the scene when I knew it wouldn’t make it into the film.  I decided it was best to just go on to the next shot, the next scene.

If you’ve only made a couple of movies, and aren’t confident yet you can do this, my advice is to go ahead and shoot the scene as it’s written, and decide later.  After you’ve made more than a dozen or two movies it’ll become second nature, and you’ll feel great about saving the time and money on set.

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.

DENNIS HOPPER’S HOUSE

Pulling up to his compound on a side-street in Venice Beach, California, not far from the beach, I was struck by the surreal corrugated metal façade.  If I hadn’t known he lived there, it would make sense that someone offbeat did.  And the white picket fence out front, planted firmly with tongue in cheek, was the perfect touch.

My dad, Clark, was with me.  We were ushered in the front door and navigated a seemingly endless row of classic cars, luxury cars and more cars.  At the end of the parking area we climbed a flight of stairs that was open to the second floor, with an enormous ceiling probably 20 feet high.  As we climbed it became brighter and brighter, and I took notice of the original Warhols, Basquiats, and other incredible pieces of modern art.  (Later I would learn that his collection was vast, valued at $10 million.)

My favorite lesson was finding out Dennis shot two bullet holes through an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong.  And, instead of Warhol freaking out about it, he called Hopper “a collaborator.”

At the top of the staircase I was surprised at how plain his house was.  Just one big space with dining area on one side and sitting area on the next, kitchen beyond, and a doorway to the bedrooms.  Hopper’s then wife Victoria was in the kitchen and greeted us as Hopper came in from the back wearing sweats and a hoodie.

I’d brought him a gift.  A coffee table book of photographs called BACKYARD VISIONARIES.  Dennis grew up in Kansas, down the street from my grandmother’s home in Dodge City.  He loved the book.

The first thing he told us was that he thought FIRECRACKER was one of the best scripts he’d ever read.  I presented him with my storyboards of every shot of the entire film.  He carefully read it, commenting how amazing this film would be.

He proposed coming to Kansas for five days to play the character FRANK, and then we settled back and spoke about life and other interests.  Dennis had been in negotiations with Lehman Brothers (the former global financial services firm) to produce 10 feature films for $10 million each.  Lehman would bankroll the venture for $100 million and Hopper would be in charge of the slate.  Hopper asked if we could use FIRECRACKER as the first of these projects.  I was over the moon.  “Of course we could,” I said.  And we shook hands.

(Eventually the Lehman deal fell through.  Lehman changed their offer to Hopper and said they only wanted to put up $50 million, telling Hopper he had to come up with the other $50 million.  He told them to forget it.)

At some point during the discussion Victoria turned on the television and we watched in horror as reports came in that the Concorde had crashed on take off in France.  My sister and I had flown the Concorde back from the Cannes Film festival when my film PEP SQUAD had premiered.  We talked about how incredibly small it was inside and how anyone over six feet tall couldn’t stand up straight walking down the aisle.

Dennis Hopper was a fascinating man and a super nice guy.  He was complimentary of my work and gave me some damn good advice.  It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to work together before he became ill.  When I learned of his passing, I took a moment to remember the Backyard Visionary he was when he started out making art and movies, and I smiled.

Dennis Hopper's house

Dennis Hopper’s house

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.

HOW TO READ A SCREENPLAY

I never read other people’s screenplays when I don’t understand how to read them.  It’s a waste of time otherwise.  A lot of people read screenplays left and right, but have they ever stopped to think about from what perspective they are reading it?  When was the last time you read a screenplay you didn’t write?  How did you read it?  No, not “at bedtime,” or “with the lights on,” I mean… from what perspective did you read it?

Recently, a filmmaker sent me the first 10 pages of a script and asked, “Can you tell me if you think this has potential?”  I thought, well, it’s impossible to measure the value of a screenplay in the first ten pages.  I might be able to get a sense of the writer’s style, their use of vocabulary, whether their dialogue is lyrical or stilted, or even an example of the tone and atmosphere of the story, but feature screenplays are usually around 90-100 pages.  Judging a screenplay in the first 10 pages is a bit like licking the outside of an apple to determine the taste without biting into it.  And people who have tried both Granny Smith and Gala apples can tell you that neither tastes like a Fuji.  So, licking it just won’t cut it.

I answered the filmmaker: “Before I read it, tell me what is the perspective I’m reading it from…  A director’s perspective?  A writer’s point of view?  Or, a consultant’s?”  The filmmaker replied, “Great question.  Read it first as a director.”

To clarify further, I asked another question: “As if I were directing (which would mean I would only see if the story was something that spoke to me personally as an artist, and judge the story based on that alone)?  Or, do you want me to read it from the perspective of you directing (which means that I would not read it from my perspective, but rather, project an outward, external view and imagine this filmmaker’s personality—how he sees the world—and does this story seem to align with his sensibilities)?  Or, am I supposed to read it from the standpoint of Ron Howard directing (which means I’d be thinking about it from a totally different place—would Ron Howard’s sensibilities help this story appeal to a broad audience, and would studios find this story appealing financially)?”

The filmmaker answered in a tongue in cheek manner, which ended the discussion, but I was totally serious.  I decided to not read the 10 pages he sent to me.  Even if he had sent me the completed screenplay, I wouldn’t have read it without understanding from which perspective to read it.  If everyone did this it would change the industry.

It’s impossible to adequately judge a movie’s potential by the screenplay alone.  Screenplays aren’t novels, and what’s on paper doesn’t always translate visually.  Film is the director’s medium.  To judge a movie one must always take into consideration the visual elements: costumes, hair styles, make-up, art direction, production design, props, camera work, colors, rhythm, performers and their acting abilities and especially music and score.

Take this for an example: WIZARD OF OZ, which was gloriously colored and staged, and 1985’s RETURN TO OZ, which was dreadful looking (never mind the bleak storyline, I’m talking the lack of good design and sleek direction).  I imagine people reading RETURN TO OZ had in their minds the kind of thing that made the first one so cherished, but were devastated upon viewing the end result.  But, there exist brilliantly visualized shows like WICKED, and the latest film installment, OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, which looks incredible.  It’s all about aesthetic understanding and good taste.

Part of the director’s job is to translate the written word into visual storytelling.  Next time I speak at a film school, this will be my assignment:  Everyone gets the same script, and we’ll see what happens when they turn in their projects.  One director will take the same story and deliver something totally opposite what another director will do.  Yet both films will originate in the same words.

Instead of reading screenplays, I ask for either a complete plot or synopsis (not one meant to lure me into buying the movie, but rather the entire detailed story in just a couple of pages, including spoilers and climax, ending, etc.).  Usually if the structure is there, and the story is solid, it’s possible to make the screenplay great (even if, at that stage, it isn’t).  But if the structure is not solid, the movie won’t work.  No matter how scenes are re-written, or how dialogue is changed here and there, until that structure is defined and made solid, it just won’t work.

Eight times out of 10, this is the case with most screenplays.  This is why I ask for writers to share with me the structure first.  Why should anybody have to waste time reading an entire screenplay only to discover three hours later that there is no structure?  It’s a lot easier and less time consuming to just read a few paragraphs first.  Then, if there is a solid structure, dive into the screenplay and enjoy it.  But remember to ask yourselves: from which perspective am I reading this?  Am I going to read this as a viewer?  A filmmaker?  A distribution executive?  A marketing executive?  An actor?  Or simply for entertainment?

GIVE THEM A NAME

When you’re writing a screenplay, it’s a good idea to name each character who has a line of dialogue.  Even if it’s just the “Workman” or the “Church Lady.”  I think every role deserves a personality even if their characters names aren’t ever spoken.  It’s a good habit to build.  Why?

Actors like to have names.  It’s much more fun to be in a movie when you’re playing “Cheryl” instead of “Woman #3.”  Furthermore, it looks better on the actor’s resume if they played a person who is named, instead of playing a mere number.  Think about it from the standpoint of a director or producer.  When you’re trying to find the best actor to play the “Bartender,” do you pay more attention to actors who have played “Man 2” or those who have a part called “Carl” on their resume?

Which resume below suggests a better actor?

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Jackie
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Rose
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Kathy

Versus:

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Woman in Alley
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Flower Shop Employee #2
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Travel Agent

Unless the actor is playing “Man 2” in the latest Spiderman movie, chances are the movie titles on people’s resumes won’t mean much.  For a big budget studio action movie, they probably see thousands of men for “Man 2,” so if this guy got picked, he must be great!  Whereas, say the actor played “Man 2” in a no-budget indie that you’ve never heard of… what message does that send?  Did they use him because they couldn’t get anyone else, or is he a decent actor?  Now, if he’d played “Roger” in that same indie movie, I’d be more apt to consider him.

When I’m casting a new movie, budget or no-budget, I always make sure to go through the script and give every character a name whenever possible.  I understand when there’s a scene, say, involving a drug bust, it would become problematic to name every single policeman in the scene.  So in that case, it’s okay to refer to the group as “Policemen.”  But, if there are a couple cops that have a line or two, why not give them names?  Officer Thad, or Officer Dave looks a lot better during your end credits, and also on their resumes, than Officer 1 and Officer 2.

Can’t think of a name?  No need.  Sometimes, I’m fresh out of names in my imagination database, too.  When that happens, I grab the nearest phone book, look up at the ceiling, flip through pages and stick my finger in.  I’ll rest it firmly on a page, then open the page and see what name I pointed to.  Usually, I’ll use whatever name I’ve picked.  I’ll try it now.

Let’s say I need a name for a waitress.  Okay, I’m opening the phone book, and… POINT.

Ronda.  What a great waitress name.  I think I’ll just use that.

I also need a name for the short order cook in the back.  Okay, I’ll open the phone book, and…  POINT.

Thomas.  Okay, that’s fine.  I could use “Thomas,” but I was hoping for a name with a little more feeling.  I’ll try again… and… POINT.

Delbert.  TOTALLY sounds like the cook in the back of the diner.

See, not hard at all?  It helps when you use a phone book from a big city so there will be many cultural names.  Telephone books are nearly extinct now, so anytime I’m in a big city hotel room and see a phone book, I make sure I accidentally drop it into my suitcase before checking out.