Writing and making a short film?

Writing and making a short film? Less is more (unless it’s too much less)
By Screenwriter Jurgen Wolff

I’ve seen a lot of short films over the years. Frequently I’ve been impressed by the visuals, the level of the acting, sometimes the innovative use of a mix of media. Can you guess what most often is the weakest link?

It’s the script. Or sometimes the lack of one.

In one case, the filmmaker has decided that a short film can’t really tell a story, it can only create a mood. Then we suffer through long, long shots of the sun going down, the blinds casting interesting shadows on the wooden floor, and the smoke spiraling into the air as the protagonist smokes his French cigarette.

Don’t make us suffer. We want a story. Even when we watch a 30-second commercial, we want a story. If the moody shots serve the story, then use them (in moderation), but they’re not a substitute for a plot.

At the other end of the spectrum are short films that try to be feature films, 90 minutes of story struggling to fit into ten or twenty minutes. The result is that we, the audience, are confused or things go by so fast that we don’t have a chance to engage emotionally with the characters and what’s happening to them.

Feature films and novels often are about the transformation of the protagonist in some way, for instance from selfish to caring about other people, or from fearful to bold. Those are big changes and a challenge to make credible even with 90 to 120 minutes at your disposal. You can’t cover them adequately in ten.

It’s useful to think of a short film as being like a short story. It can capture a moment in time, a phase of a transformation. It can hint at what went before or what goes after, but not reveal those at length.

For instance, let’s say that in a feature film we were doing the story of a man who is totally absorbed in work and neglects his family but assumes they’re fine and happy.

He loses his job and can’t find another one.

Now that he’s spending so much time at home, he realizes two things–his kids don’t actually like him very much and things are really screwed up–his wife is sleeping with the neighbor, his daughter is cutting herself, and his son is selling drugs.

Maybe at first he lashes out at them, blaming everything on them, but then something happens that wakes him up to the fact that he’s responsible for a lot of this (I don’t know what wakes him up, but let’s assume we’ll come up with something brilliant).

He starts working hard on changing, winning his kids over, learning how to be humble…

Then he gets an amazing job offer–one he’s always wanted–but it would mean going back to his rat-race lifestyle.

If it’s an American film he takes the job but on his first day, as he puts a picture of his family on his desk, he realizes he’s made a mistake. He tells the powerful head of the company that he can’t take the job because he’s got more important things to do. He races to his daughter’s school and arrives just in time for her ballet performance.

If it’s a European film (and especially if it’s a European film about Americans) he takes the job, convincing himself that he can handle both.  When he comes home from his first day at his new job the house is empty. Maybe they burned it down before they left.

In a short film you could show one part, but imply a lot of the other things. Here are three ways you could treat the same story:

  • You could start with his workaholic lifestyle, then show him getting fired and, at the end, show his horrible growing realization that his family doesn’t love him.
  • You could start the story where he’s trying hard to change (his former self is implied), but then the amazing job offer comes. Maybe you give a hint as to what he’ll do but you don’t show it or the consequences.
  • You could start at the end–the smoking ruin of the house. As he sifts through the ashes there are flashbacks to moments that, when you put them together, let you understand what happened.

A really good short film makes the audience do a bit of work to put everything together and leaves them with something to think about.

If you’re a writer, instead of trying to make a short film something that it’s not, embrace its qualities and make them work for you instead of against you.

Here’s an opportunity if you want to write a short film: on Sunday, April 15, I’m hosting an online Massive Action Day (I call them MADs). Why not use the MAD to write your short film? If you have questions along the way, I’ll be online to help. Want to check how a title goes over or test a few lines of dialogue? Put it in our chat window and our friendly group will give you instant feedback. It’s fun, supportive, and I give away prizes every hour.

I’ve given Jason 10 free passes to give to his Filmmaking Stuff fans.  If you don’t manage to wangle one of those, you can still join us for the very reasonable fee of $23.25—or a lot less if you buy a subscription of ten. All the information is here: http://massiveactionday.com/new-annual-mad-sign-up-page/

 

Short Film Ideas

Unlock Your Screenplay Characters

screenwriting

Writing Image via Wikipedia

When writing a screenplay, there are lots of questions you can ask about your characters to get to know them better.

Here are three questions I find useful:

1: What’s the one moment in their lives they would change if they could? If you ask this of real people you get some surprising answers. Yes, sometimes they’re the big events (“I never would have married my first wife”) but often they’re moments that seem unimportant to an outsider. One of mine is when I was 12 and I cheated a friend out of a few dollars. Many years later I still have a sense of shame about it, even though it’s not the biggest mistake I’ve made.

2: How is that moment reflected in their current life? This is interesting to know whether or not it has any effect on your plot, but it’s quite possible it will. In my case, I think that one little incident has made me try to be as loyal and good a friend as I can—not that I always succeed, of course. Sometimes maybe that’s taken me too far in that direction. In a story I’m working on, the father of the protagonist once declared bankruptcy and the fear of that happening again leads him to making some highly questionable moral choices in order to make sure his current business keeps going.

3: In your understanding of the character, what’s one moment they should change if they could? In other words, objectively looking at this person’s life, what moment would have taken their life in a better direction? This may well be a moment the person doesn’t even recognize as being influential—we’re much better at spotting these things in the life of other people than in our own (unless we’ve been through therapy…).

If there’s a character you’d like to get to know better, try these questions. They could also be interesting to ask your friends—or yourself, if you dare.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com

How To Use Foreshadowing In Your Screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay Image via Wikipedia

A screenwriter sent me an email saying she understands the need for foreshadowing but wasn’t sure how to do it. Of course the specific content depends on the story but here are some general ways you can adapt:

1. A visual clue. A very obvious one is letting us glimpse a gun in a drawer when your protagonist is looking for a pair of scissors. We know that gun will be used at some point.

2. An innocent verbal clue. This could be something that we don’t even notice standing out in any way, but later it pays off. For instance, someone might mention that he used to enjoy hunting, and that makes sense later when we see that he’s a great shot.

3. A verbal cue that stands out. By this I mean something that is out of the ordinary and you do notice it. For instance, if somebody is asked casually which school they went to and they answer, “I don’t see why that’s important,” it signals that at some point in the story we’ll find out a reason why they’re touchy about that subject.

4. A musical cue. This often is the province of the director and the person who composes the sound track. In a thriller, for example, a particular piece of music may tip us off that something awful is about to happen.

To avoid having any one element of foreshadowing be too obvious, often the writer will throw in some red herrings–some things that could be foreshadowing but in fact don’t pay off or pay off in a different way than we expect.

The person who has the gun in the drawer may become an immediate suspect in our minds, but later maybe we see him use it to light his cigarette and we realize it’s not a real gun (of course he may have a real one somewhere else….). That kind of misdirection keeps the audience guessing.

The goal is to make your foreshadowing subtle enough that it’s only in hindsight that the visual or verbal cue takes on significance.

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Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site,www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”

 

How to give your screenplay emotional intelligence

“Chasing the Monster Idea” is a book by Stefan Mumaw in which he identifies seven questions that will help you determine whether you have a “monster” idea rather than just a good one (or a bad one).

These questions also can help you figure out whether your movie idea is a monster.

The first one: Does it evoke an emotional response?

People go to movies not just to see something, but to feel something. Horror fans want to feel fear, thriller fans want to feel suspense, comedy fans want to feel amusement, and so on. It’s obvious, but not every movie or every script makes that happen. There are three main reasons some fail:

1) We don’t identify with the protagonist. Especially in horror, thriller and drama we experience the feelings vicariously via the protagonist. She’s scared and we’re scared. The more your script has done to help us understand and identify with her, the stronger our feelings.

2) We don’t believe the situation.Sometimes we feel these things because we know more than the protagonist–we know the killer is hiding in the closet, she doesn’t. In comedies we are just as likely to be laughing at the protagonist as with him. But if the situation you have set up obviously is fake, then we may not buy into it and we don’t feel what you want us to feel.

3) We feel used up. If there’s not enough emotional variation–for instance, in a horror film if the horror is unrelenting–we may feel emotional fatigue and stop responding. That’s why the films of Hitchcock, for instance, are so good: he gives us moment of suspense interspersed with moments of comic relief, high drama mixed with low drama (a guy named Shakespeare understood this, too).

If your screenplay allows for these factors, it will have the emotional intelligence to give viewers the experience they crave.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com

Writing a screenplay-hold that template!

Today’s Filmmaking Stuff guest article comes from veteran screenwriter Jurgen Wolff. I find Jurgen’s approach to movie script writing to be very useful. In the following article, he expresses his thoughts on The Hero’s Journey and other screenwriting templates.

Writing a screenplay-hold that template!

I had an email from someone asking whether I’m really against the use of templates and formulas for writing a screenplay and, if so, how can I explain the fact that most screenplay stories do fall into a three-act structure?

Just to be clear, my belief is that templates and structures are better tools of analysis than of creation. During the rewriting phase, we often realize that what we’ve written is kind of chaotic, that we have things happening later in the story that we need to set up earlier, that a secondary character takes up too much space in the story or would add more to the story if we have her more space, and so on.

That’s a good time to use some of the traditional structures for clues as to where we could change things to make them work better. For instance, the hero’s journey includes the appearance of a mentor. If I realize that my protagonist would be clearer to the reader or viewer if he had somebody to talk to, a mentor kind of figure is one option. (This is more important in films than in novels, since generally in a movie you don’t get to hear the character’s thoughts.)

Or it may be that in the middle of my script things drag along too slowly–a common problem of first drafts. In that case, reminding myself that the traditional story model calls for escalating conflict can lead to better consideration of how I can add incidents that ramp up the tension and drama.

You can already do this assessment and repair work during the outline stage. That will save a lot of revision later. Some people like to write brief outlines, some write outlines so extensive that turning them into a novel or script is not a huge step. You have to experiment to see what works best for you.

What I’m against is relying on these formulas too soon–before you’ve decided what story you really want to tell.

Jurgen Wolff is a screenwriterFor instance, let’s say I’m fascinated by a character who could have saved his father from dying in a fire, but was too scared to run into the burning house. My interest is in how a person lives with that kind of guilt or “if only” thought.

If I immediately go to a standard story formula, I would ask myself what he wants. Hmm, redemption!

Maybe I opt for the hero’s journey template. What sets him off on his journey? Maybe a memorial service for the father a year after his death–my guy has buried his guilt, but now it comes out.

What’s his quest? To prove to himself that he’s not a coward. A friend accepts a job with a private security company that works in Iraq and invites my protagonist to sign up as well. He does.

During the training for this job, he begins to doubt his commitment (resist the call to action).

But a mentor appears–an old-time security guard who has been on half a dozen tours of duty over there and takes him under his wing.

And so on.

It could lead to a viable story, but I’m letting the template lead me rather than letting the character lead me.

I think it works better to live with your character for a while. No writing yet, just thinking about him and taking notes on whatever occurs to you about his life. What are his fears? His hopes? What impact does that have on his life? Maybe his marriage broke up because he was afraid that the incident with his father showed that he couldn’t protect someone he loves. Does he have kids? What does he fear they think? What do they really think? What caused the fire? Does he find out it was arson and set out to investigate?

My point is that the story could go in a hundred different directions. When you try to nail it down too quickly, the odds are that you’ll take it in a more conventional direction than you need to. It’s like any kind of brainstorming–the first ideas generally are derivative. I believe that trying to force the story into a formula or template has the same effect. Let your story be king. Let templates and formulas be the story’s servant–if needed.

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Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of TV, several TV movies, the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz” starring Kelsey Grammer, and has been a script doctor on films starring Eddie Murphy, Kim Catrall, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau and others. His plays have been produced in New York, London, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He is the author of 9 books including “Your Writing Coach” and “Creativity Now.” If you would like to find out more about “The Seven Things That Are Stopping You From Writing And How To Overcome Them,” check out Jurgen’s screenwriting website: www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com

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