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Episode 18: We’re gonna need a bigger script

by | Jun 16, 2021

This week it’s all about the script. What kind of script? What’s the story? What’s the process?

You can listen to it here:

Or you can read the script for this episode:

Hi, this is Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where I tell the story of how I’m making an independent feature film while I’m making it.

Now in a sense, every movie is a business.  Sure there’s art involved, but there’s also a whole lot of raising money and project management and marketing and sales.  And that’s the part of filmmaking that this podcast is about.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the artistic aspects of the movie that I’m making, and I’m going to be giving a lot more thought on those things in the future.  But I also want to make this film a successful business.  Because if this film succeeds financially, I’ll be able to make another film.  And another and another and another.  And that’s what I want to do.

There’s a lot of resources out there about the art of filmmaking.  This one is going to be about the business.  I hope you decide to come along for the ride.

First, this week’s status update.  Short answer: I’m in development.  That means I’m still planning exactly what I’m doing, what I’m making, and figuring out how to get the resources to make it happen.  In a little more detail: the script is where I want it to be, though I’m sure it will get more polishing as time goes on.  I’ve done an initial breakdown of the script, I’ve started to put together a shooting schedule and budget, I have a draft pitch deck to pitch for investors, and I’m in talks with someone to join the team – more details later! And the big decision: I’ll be shooting in the spring of 2022 with plans to release the film by Halloween of that year. And, of course, I’ve started this podcast.

And if any of those things sound confusing, just keep listening to this podcast.  I won’t cover them all today, but I’ll cover them all in future episodes.

Okay, that out of the way.  Today’s episode is all about how I found a story and wrote a script.  A script that is going to become the movie.  So strap in and I’ll tell you this piece of the story.

This chapter starts about a year ago.  That’s when I decided to commit to making my own independent film.  And when I realized that the first thing I needed was a script.

Or actually, the first thing I needed was to decide on the requirements for the script.  So I sat down and wrote down a list of requirements that any movie I’d make would have to satisfy.

Now a little aside here.  One thing that will keep coming back in this story is my background.  I’ve got over three decades working as a software engineer.  I even have a PhD in computer science.  With that background, as you can imagine, I’ve developed a lot of habits on how to do a project.  Habits that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a software development organization.

As I’m doing this project, I’ve set about making my movie much like I’d set about building a major new software system.  And one of the first steps in that process is to write down the requirements for the project.

I did that for my film.  I wrote out my list of requirements that any story I’d produce would have to satisfy.  And those requirements were:

First, it would have to be possible to make the movie on the cheap.  I want to be a filmmaker.  I don’t want to be a fundraiser.  Oh, raising funds is part of being a filmmaker, that’s unavoidable.  But it’s not how I want to spend most of my time, and if I don’t want to spend a lot of time raising money, I’d better write a script that can be made with a low budget.

In this context, what does cheap mean?  Well, the Screen Actor’s Guild has categories of film based on budget.  And their ultra-low budget category is anything under $300,000.  So that’s certainly one threshold: my film will almost certainly have a budget under $300,000.

It may go much lower.  There’s a lot of good films that cost well under that to make.  Even under $100,000, or $50,000.  It’s even possible to make it much cheaper, under $10,000.  But at that cost, you’re probably talking getting volunteer labor to make the movie, and that’s not what I want to do.

As of this recording, I’m not sure exactly where my budget will end up.  But when I talk here about a cheap budget, figure that I mean somewhere between $50,000 and $300,000 to make the film.

In practical terms, what does that mean?  Well, cheap means a relatively small cast.  No giant crowd shots with large numbers of extras.

And cheap means few settings.  A lot of settings means a lot of preparation, which means a lot of money.  And it means a lot of traveling from set to set, which means a lot of time in transit.  And time is money, which is as true in a movie production as it is anywhere else.

Cheap means relatively low amounts of special effects, especially CGI.

And cheap probably means it’s not a period piece.  Oh, I’ve seen some low budget period pieces, but it’s awfully hard to pull off.  Period generally means costly – you can’t just stop by the nearest Walmart and pick up a Regency costume.

So first requirement: write something that can be cheap to make.  Few sets, contemporary setting, small cast, not primarily effects driven.

Second requirement: a low budget version of the movie has to be marketable.

Why is this important?  It’s like I said, if I make a movie that makes money, then I’ll get to make another movie.  So marketability is critical.

And that immediately limits the genre of the film.

Some types of film need stars to make money.  My first two feature scripts were romcoms.  But it’s hard to market a romcom if audiences don’t know the actors.  And it’s hard to hire actors that audiences know on an ultra-low budget.

But audiences will go to some kinds of film without stars.  For example, you can make a low-budget family film or a low-budget faith-based film and it can do well.  But neither of those are a match with my tastes and preferences, so I’m ruling them out.

But audiences will also watch genre films without stars or super-high production values.  And as it happens, I love genre films.  Horror, sci-fi, thriller: these are among my most-watched movies.

In particular, I like what has come to be called elevated genre: genre films that also have something to say.  “Get Out,” for example.  Or “Ex Machina.”  Both of those are higher budget than I’m targeting – “Get Out” cost around $4.5 million, “Ex Machina” closer to $15 million.  But  both were relatively low budget for the level of attention they got.  And you could imagine much cheaper versions of both.

That leads to another digression.  A given script could be the blueprint for films of different budgets.  Add a few stars and some fancier special effects and your budget balloons.  But you could make versions of many films for super-cheap, under a million dollars, and they’d still work as stories.  Maybe not a superhero SFX extravaganza, but certainly many kinds of genre movies.

I once met one of the screenwriters of the film “A Quiet Place.”  He said that they wrote the script so that it could be filmed on an ultra-low budget at his uncle’s farm in Minnesota with no-name actors and rudimentary effects.  Instead the script attracted the attention of a pair of stars and it ended up getting made for several million dollars.  But the script would have worked the other way.

The final budget for “A Quiet Place” was 17 million.  That’s a lot more money than I’m targeting, but by the standards of a major Hollywood film with two known stars, it’s not much.  That is no doubt in part because it had few settings and few characters.  All the things that make for a cheap production.

So second requirement: elevated genre.  And specifically, I decided to make a horror film.  Horror films are particularly marketable at low budget levels – there’s an audience out there for that kind of film.  And if you think of some horror movies, you can see why: something like “Blair Witch Project”  with a budget of $300,000 or “It Follows” at $1.2 million can still get huge audiences.

Third requirement: if you listened to any of last year’s Storylanes podcasts, you heard me develop some strong opinions on story structure.  In particular, you can listen to the episode about Alien to hear my discovery of the power of a strong midpoint.

While I admit it’s putting the cart before the horse, I decided I wanted my film to follow what I’ve come to think of as four-act structure.  A starting sequence that begins with a jolt of energy.  An opening act that introduces the characters and the situation.  A second act where things start to get challenging for the protagonist.  A bang-up midpoint that greatly escalates the challenges and where the movie may turn in an entirely new and unexpected direction.  A third act with escalating conflicts and stakes, where things are truly life-or death.  And finally, a fourth act where the hero makes the choice to confront the enemy and where the final showdown takes place.

Yeah yeah, I know.  Three act purists will call that three-acts-plus-a-midpoint.  I call it four acts, splitting act two into two separate acts.  The labeling isn’t important, what’s important is the structure.  Call it whatever you want: that’s the structure that I decided to follow.

Now one most important aside: I’m not saying that this is the only structure that works.  I do not believe in one-size-fits-all approaches to something as complex as storytelling.  There’s a whole lot of great films out there with entirely different structures, and that’s okay.  This just happens to be a structure that I know can work – there’s lots of great movies that follow this outline, and it works particularly well in horror.  See some of last season’s episodes of this podcast to hear about some examples.  So this is the structure I decided to follow.

And of course, when I was coming up with these requirements, I was busy making that first Storylanes season.  So these structural considerations were much on my mind. 

Okay, so, we have requirements in hand.  The film has to be cheap, marketable, and follow four-act structure.  Now all I needed was a story.

One thing I should note: I’m fairly good at coming up with story ideas.  I have a file full of dozens of ideas that would make a good movie or TV show.  And when I’ve had to come up with an idea quickly, I’ve never found it that difficult.  Perhaps I’ll do an episode sometime about my process for coming up with ideas.

In this case, I decided to come up with a methodical process to decide on a story.  Come up with a bunch of ideas, winnow them down, study them in more detail, winnow some more, and finally settle on one.  Break this down into distinct steps, taking a week or two for each step.  And out of each step, produce some written artifact about each story I considered in that step.

First step: come up with a dozen ideas for movie scripts and do a little high-level thinking about each idea.  And for each, write a logline, a short summary of the story idea, the underlying theme of the story, and a key scene.  And each should satisfy my three requirements.

A couple things to note on that: 

First, for those of you who aren’t immersed in the filmmaking world: a logline is a one line description of the movie.  There’s some fairly rigid conventions on what it should sound like, but the key point is that it gives you a top-level view of what you’ll be watching.

For example, you might recognize this logline: A spirited farm boy joins a rebellion to save a princess from a sinister imperial enforcer and the galaxy from a planet-destroying weapon.

I needed such a logline for each of my film ideas.

Second, while a theme wasn’t one of my strict requirements, I wanted my movie to say something.  So a theme was required.

And also, the key scene: I believe that it’s important for a movie to have at least one and hopefully more memorable scenes.  Because that’s what audiences are going to take out of the movie with them.  It could be Darth Vader, force-choking an imperial officer.  Or three guys in a boat taking a break from hunting a shark, showing each other their scars.  Or a guy waking up in bed next to a horse head.  I think great scenes are important components to great movies.  So I wanted to make sure that any idea I came up with would have at least one great scene.

After two weeks of generating and documenting ideas, I had a document listing my 12 candidate stories. Here’s an example of one of my ideas.  Idea number 10, in fact.

Working title: OXYGEN

  1. Logline: In a society where oxygen is strictly rationed, a poor woman must struggle to keep her family breathing.
    1. Setup: Oxygen is treated like health care: you have to pay for it. Some people have Oxygen insurance that provides all they want, some people die for the lack of it.
    1. Key scene: A child can’t play a vigorous game for fear of using too much oxygen.  A gofundme campaign tries to raise money to help pay for oxygen for someone with a health condition that makes them need extra air.
    1. Theme: It’s a metaphor for our healthcare system.

So now I had twelve movie ideas.  And it was time to toss out six and move onto step two.  And no, Oxygen didn’t make the cut.

For each of the surviving stories, I did a detailed write-up that ended up being around a page and a half each.  That included a logline, a one-paragraph summary that says what the story is without getting into plot, a sentence on theme, one-line descriptions of the key characters, a one-paragraph synopsis, a list of the key plot points, a list of the key scenes of the film, a list of locations, and a list of pluses and minuses of the idea.

What do I mean by plot points?  We’ve already met one: that key midpoint.  But there’s others.  For my purposes, I settled on five: a teaser, that starts the film with a bang.  The inciting incident that kicks off the story.  Plot point one, that shifts us from setup to the action of the film and marks the shift from act one to act two.  The midpoint, which is also the shift from act two to act three.  And plot point two, the key event that catapults us into the final act.  For more details on all of this, see some of the earlier Storylanes episodes that focused on story structure.

So now, at the end of this second week, I had six page-and-a-half writeups of these films.  And in the course of creating these write-ups, I had discovered more about these stories.  I fleshed out strengths and weaknesses in ways that often made it obvious what ideas would be most appropriate.

I learned a lot about these films in this step.  And some of them took surprising turns.  

One idea started out as a horror film about a smart phone trying to kill its owner, but in this phase I discovered that the story was more of a comedy.  (It’s hard to make an evil phone scary.  It’s a lot easier to make it comic.)  And since I didn’t want to make a comedy – they generally require known actors to be marketable – that idea didn’t advance to the next step.

I came out of this step with three ideas.  My finalists.  And now it was time to dive deeper into each of them.

For each of these, it was time to go deeper.  I wrote up a formal pitch document for each.  That contains a title, a logline, and a set of comps.  (Comps are the “Star Wars meets The Blues Brothers” that you often hear parodied.)  Most important, each write-up contains a long synopsis, a detailed outline of the entire film written out as a 1-3 page synopsis.

So I spent a week writing up detailed outlines of three different story ideas.

At the end of that, I picked an idea to write.  And, I should note, this wasn’t the idea I was expecting to choose.  I had one idea coming into this process about a kind of elderly vampire sucking the life out of young people, something that I thought could be an interesting metaphor for how millennials are struggling to have the same levels of wealth and quality of life of their parents.  That one was one of my finalists, but after diving deeper into each idea, a different story emerged.  I now started writing the script.

But then things took a twist.  A week or so later, when I had written about fifteen pages or so of my first draft, I had a consultation with an industry exec through Roadmap Writers.  (I’ll talk more about Roadmap Writers in a later episode.  The key point now is that I spent a few months in early 2020 working through Roadmap Writers to try to break into the industry.  It didn’t work out for me, but I did get a lot of great consultations and advice.)

In the course of that consultation, I talked a little about my goal to make a film and described one of the finalist ideas.  Not the one that I chose, but another.  The guy was quite enthusiastic about that idea, said he thought it was really marketable.  So I decided to switch to that one, make that film instead.

I put aside the fifteen pages or so that I had written and instead started writing the other script.  It came to be called “The Jekyll Effect” and was a modern take on Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a story I find fascinating.  And I really liked the script and got a lot of positive feedback on it.  And by the end of December, 2020, with the script fairly polished, I had settled into the idea of making it as my first feature.

But then things took another twist.  In a quiet moment, I dug out the pages I had written on that first script.  And I re-read them.

And the protagonist jumped off the page and insisted that I write her story.

This was actually a new experience for me, and an exciting one.  There was something in those pages that seized hold of me.  I had to write this story.

I finished the first draft of that script in only about a week or two.  It went incredibly quickly.  The story just flowed out of me.

And after showing it to a few people, it became clear that would be the story I would make.  The script needed more of a polish, but its first draft got more positive feedback than any other first draft I’ve gotten.  And that protagonist, she’s something special.

So I decided that this was my script.

And I suppose this is a fun little part of the story.  Because I came up with this detailed process to decide on the perfect story, and at the very end one character jumped off the page and derailed my entire process.  Art overcame calculation.  The show won out over the business.

Now, I had a draft of the script.  But I wasn’t done.  Because one lesson you’ll hear everywhere: there’s nothing you can do to improve your movie that’s cheaper than improving the script.  Before making a film, you want the script to be as good as it can possibly be.  And you can do that before hiring the cast and bringing in the equipment.  I want this film to be as good as I can possibly make it.  So now that I had a first draft, it was time to make it better.

Now I don’t know about other screenwriters, but I’m not always the best judge of the quality of my writing.  So I’m a strong believer in getting as much feedback from as many sources as I can get.  And I certainly did that with this one.

I ordered coverage from a screenplay coverage service, CoverageInk.  I submitted it to the Black List site which provides paid evaluations of screenplays.  I’m a part of two different writing groups and I put it through both of them.  I entered some contests that provided written feedback.  And finally, I did another round of consultation with Roadmap execs, something that I’ve found is one of the cheapest ways of getting a good script consultation.

I very strongly advise anyone who wants to make a movie to get independent feedback.  And not just from your friends: you want feedback from people who will hold you to a professional standard and who will not spare your feelings.  

That’s certainly what I wanted: it’s more important to me to make a good movie than to feel good about my writing abilities.  I’d rather know the script is bad before I make it, because it’s going to be a lot easier to fix it when it’s only words on paper.

So, here I am.  I’m sure there will be more tweaks to the script before all is done, but for now, I’m happy with where it is.

And what is this story?

It’s called SMART HOUSE.  Here’s the logline:

When a cantankerous feminist podcaster’s smart house is hacked, she has to defeat the hacker before the house kills her.

Essentially, it’s a haunted house movie where the haunting is provided by hacked smart house technology.  It contains a lot of haunted-house tropes, but there’s real-world explanations for all of them.

It’s as if your worst enemy in the world seized control of your Alexa.

Jax, that podcaster, is foul-mouthed, aggressive, a walking source of conflict, and a huge amount of fun.  And, not incidentally, loosely based on my mother.  

The house itself is filled with killer appliances, a shower that almost scalds Jax to death, and run by robots and drones that go berserk.  There’s twists and turns, escalating threats, and fun little podcast scenes in which Jax says some seriously snarky things about the house’s tech.

I expect it to be at times scary and funny and a whole lot of fun.  It’s going to be interesting to make.

And just by listening to this podcast, you get to be along for the ride!  So go ahead and subscribe to the Storylanes Podcast.

Next week, I’m going to discuss the next big decision that I have to make.  What is the business model for this movie?  I’ll talk about just what that means and some business models that I’m considering.  SMART HOUSE could end up being several different kinds of movie with different ways of making money.  Come by next week to hear me discuss some of the things I’m considering.

Meanwhile, check us out at Storylanes.com, where you’ll find the script to this episode along with any links that I find worth sharing.

Until then, this is Joe Dzikiewicz of the Storylanes Podcast.  Talk at you later!

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The Storylanes Podcast gives a screenwriter’s point of view of the structure of the screenplay of movies and TV shows.  Each episode does a deep-dive analysis of one movie or show, examining how the story is structured and how al the elements come together to create the story.

Each episode also includes a chart of the scenes and other key elements of the script.  You’ll find those charts here, along with the scripts of the episodes themselves.