Did you know that for as loved a genre the western is, there is an inordinate amount of hesitation to actually producing one?
It’s true. Shocking, isn’t it?
I can’t blame them. Westerns are an expensive undertaking. Locations, set design, wardrobe, horses. All that moolah really adds up. And fast.
And if the film bombs? Well, that bankroll is now gone with the tumbleweeds, along with an increased level of reluctance to look at other works in that genre.
I knew all of this all too well while I was working on mine (along with a steady barrage of reminders of that nature from those with nothing but good intentions), but it was a story I really liked and was excited about, so I wrote it anyway. Still very glad I did.
Now the script’s done and I’m working on the next one, but I’m also devoting some time to seeing what I can do with it. Contests, queries, the usual rigamarole.
As fantastic as it would be to see this story up on the big screen, the odds of that happening are not exactly in my favor, which is okay. I’m quite content to use it as my go-to calling card script. The ideal scenario: people read it, love the writing, and think I’d be perfect for another project.
A lot of writers write something with the intention of selling it, which 99.9 percent of the time ain’t gonna happen; it’s more important to write something to show, or maybe prove is a better word, that you’ve got talent and skills. Somebody reads your work and can tell this writer is somebody who know what they’re doing.
Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “I want to get this made!”? Of course.
Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “There’s no way I could get this made, but I really like the way you write. Would you be interested in this writing assignment?”
An associate of mine is in the early stages of developing a low-budget film. Call it pre-pre-pre-production. The script is part of that (as in “about to be written”), and I was asked to take a look at the outline and offer up my two cents on it.
It wasn’t bad. The structure was a little wobbly, but not too far gone, and a few other minor issues, but overall, I’d call it a fairly solid attempt.
I totally got what kind of story they’re trying to tell, but reading this outline definitely raised some important questions.
Two, to be specific.
First: why is this happening?
I don’t mean this is in a negative way, like “why are you even bothering?” Quite the opposite.
More of a “does what happens in this scene adequately follow what’s come before it, and does it do an equally good job leading into what comes next?” sort of thing.
As it reads now, it felt more like a lot was happening because the story required it to, rather than letting it all unfold smoothly and organically. There wasn’t enough setting things up in order to pay them off later. Almost like each scene is saying “This MUST happen HERE, logic be damned!”
A should lead to B, which leads to C, and so on, but then you also find out that not only did A lead to B, but it also resulted in H.
Second: why is this happening now?
This applies more to the primary storyline. Things are taking place, but I never really got a sense of how or why it all started. A lot happens after whatever event triggered it all, but there’s no indication of exactly what that trigger was. When I asked the writer about it, even they admitted they didn’t know and were having trouble trying to come up with something.
A writer needs to know every part of their story; what things were like before it started, how it started, what happens, and how it ends. Sometimes you can even throw in what happens next. No matter what approach you take, all of these elements play a key role in the telling of that story. If one of those elements isn’t there, it just gums up the whole works and you’re left with an incomplete story.
The writer was very appreciative of my comments and was looking forward to finishing the latest draft in order to provide answers to the questions I’d raised. It’s probably safe to say we’re both quite interested to see how it all turns out (although I suspect I come in a close second).
Originally, this post was going to be about the multiple changing of protagonists in PSYCHO (which is another great potential future topic), but the more I read about the film and thought about the impact it’s had since being released way back in 1960, it triggered a totally different train of thought.
Every once in a while, when a classic film is brought up in some context or another, the phrase “That could never get made today” will get thrown in. After the recent death of Gene Wilder, his talent was lauded via the mention of several of his most well-known roles. Willy Wonka. The Waco Kid. Victor Frankenstein (“That’s Fronken-steen.”). His performances were vital parts of each film, which no doubt contributed to making them “classics”.
But, as always, it starts with the script. (Incidentally, I don’t think Wilder gets enough credit for co-writing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.)
Examining the stories being told, each one has something truly unique about it, and then some. The writer (and subsequently the filmmaker) wasn’t afraid to take a chance and try something completely new and different. Sadly, the studios today aren’t as open to it. Better to play it safe then take too big a chance, which is why we’re seeing so many remakes and re-imaginings. Of course, that doesn’t always work out either (e.g. 2015’s PAN, the recent BEN-HUR remake).
While there are always original and innovative scripts floating around, it’s a lot of time, effort and money to make a film. The only recent original film I can think of is SWISS ARMY MAN, which I admit I haven’t seen yet.
Who hasn’t read a “truly original” script or about one getting a lot of attention, but a lot of the time the writer will go on to work on other projects while the script that started the whole thing gathers dust?
The best exception to this that I know of is Travis Beacham’s spec A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, which drew a lot of heat when it sold in 2005, then continued to garner praise while it languished in development for years before ultimately becoming an upcoming series on Amazon – at last check, anyway.
Budgets are getting higher, and the gap continues to grow between microbudget features and mega-budget tentpoles. It’s getting harder for original material to get noticed, let alone something that screams out “NEW!” It also doesn’t help that the chances decrease if the script isn’t based on pre-existing material. This could be why today you’re more likely to see an original film that’s a low-budget independent, probably written by the filmmaker themselves.
Before that, your best bet of seeing something groundbreaking would have been at the hands of established filmmakers, only because they had that kind of leverage (and the budget) to get their projects made. An unknown writer doesn’t have that kind of luxury. All we can hope for is to connect with somebody who likes the script (and our writing) so much that they’re actually excited to help us take things beyond the “Sure, I’ll read it” stage.
That’s our objective as writers: to write something that’s not only compelling and involving, but so eye-openingly original that the reader is compelled to the point that they need to see this as a movie. Doable, but definitely not easy.
Homework time! Part one – find a script you really consider a game-changer for the same genre as yours and give it a read. Can you identify what made it so unique? What really stands out for you? Plot? Story? Characters? A little of everything? Another option is if that script has been produced, then watch the film and follow along with the script. Are they the same? Totally different? Do you think the changes add or take away from the script?
Part two – without blatantly copying the style of that script, work on applying a similar originality to yours. Did reading that script inspire ways for you to make yours really stand out?
Don’t be afraid to take chances. Strive to offer up something we’ve never seen before. The results might surprise you, too.
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-Writing coach and author EJ Runyon runs the online writing service Bridge to Story. She’s launched the Little by Little crowdfunding project to help her build a vehicle that with your help will bring her services to those without internet access “anywhere in the lower 48”. You don’t “donate” to her Kickstarter; you book a coaching or story editing session and your funds go to the build!
-Writer-director Josh Mitchell runs Wicked Pissa Publicity, but has also worked on a lot of short films and is now running a crowdfunding campaign for his feature-length family film project HARRY HEAD, an original story about loyalty, family, unity and differences. Donate if you can!
-Screenwriters Chris and Jay Thornton have been busy the past couple of years with some script sales and developing a TV show with The Weinstein Company, but they’re now working on their debut feature CACTUS JACK, “an ultra-contained, thematically supercharged and extremely relevant gonzo micro-budget film.” A crowdfunding project is up, and you can view the NSFW proof-of-concept trailer here. Donate if you can! And as an added bonus, an interview with the Thorntons will post in the very near future.
Have a project of your own for which you’d like a little help getting the word out? Our email inbox is always open.
Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.
This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.
But trust me. It was bad.
What made it so bad, you may ask?
Oh, where to begin.
My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.
Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?
Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.
I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.
So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?
-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.
-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?
-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?
-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.
One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.