Monday, February 5, 2018

What I've learned about screenwriting (particularly the low-budget kind)

By Chuck Hustmyre

First, let me say that I'm posting my opinion based on what I've learned so far from writing and selling three scripts and optioning several more for cash from OUTSIDE L.A. I am not a "Hollywood" writer. I'm not posting this to open a debate. I'm simply trying to pass on some hard-won knowledge. If your experience is different or you disagree, that's fine with me. There are many ways to skin a cat.

The following are in no particular order.

Querying stars is a total waste of time. Producers hire directors and a director is what attracts a star. Your time is much better spent querying low-budget producers and pitching your script in a short query letter that opens with the logline. In the subject put just the title. DO NOT put the word "query."

Don't spend much time on detailed descriptions of action and setting. The director and the actors are going to do what they want. I don't mean write just "They fight." You need to keep the page count honest, but don't describe each action and reaction.

You're not writing a shooting script. You're writing a story that is going to be READ, not seen. You have to sell the script way before it ever gets filmed, and that means it will be read by a dozen or more people, any one of whom probably has the power to kill the project. And if your script ever does actually get made, the script that gets shot will be vastly different from the one you wrote. All that Dave Trottier advice you read in THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE about NEVER put anything in a script that can't be filmed is BULLSHIT. Don't overdo it, but layer in little clues about the characters to better help the READER understand them.

The concept is more important than the execution of it, meaning the concept is more important than the script itself. Even if another writer isn't hired to rewrite your script, the director and actors are going to rewrite the shit out of it.

This was a tough one for me to accept, but after having it pounded into my head by a very experienced producer, I agree. CHARACTER is much more important than PLOT. Either Aristotle was full of shit, or he was badly misquoted. As that same producer said, "Do you remember the plot of Beverly Hills Cop? No. And neither does anyone else. It had something to do with an art heist. What made that a hit movie was Eddie Murphy playing Axel Foley."

And I agree - now, and reluctantly. Stars read dialogue. They are attracted by dialogue … and by who is directing the movie (SEE ABOVE). Action is important in how it reveals character, but the big actions and the plot are secondary to character.

Producers really do give you about 10 pages to hook them. Some say just five pages. If you haven't got them by then, they delete the script. Don't ease into your story. Your script isn't a Stephen King novel. Get the damned thing started with something really good up front, or no one will ever read the brilliance that comes later.

Another waste of time at my level (low-budget), is querying LA agents. They aren't going to take you on. I have two produced movies, another sold script, and have optioned several more for money, not the freebie options that new writers like to brag about. I can't get an LA agent to answer an email. If you have no credits, you have zero chance of landing a real agent, and by "real" I mean one with the connections to sell your script.

Ditto for querying big-time producers or A-list stars. Stars have an army of people who keep them away from writers like us. Real movie stars get scripts from their agents who get them from producers who tell them how many millions they've ALREADY spent revising the script and what A-list director they ALREADY have attached to the project. They are not looking for your "diamond in the rough" script to fall in love with.

I'll add more as it comes to me. This is all I can think of now.

And as I said, I'm not trying to open a debate. This is my interpretation and experience. Yours may be totally different and just as valid. And, of course, there are exceptions to everything I've said. I post this simply to try to save newer writers some time, energy, and lots of frustration. However, if you insist on arguing, please have personal experiences to back it up. Don't try to invalidate my advice by quoting a book you read, McKee, Trottier, Snyder, et. al. Reading a book on building bridges does not make you a bridge builder.


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