As a writer, there are so many different mediums to explore. Whether it be poetry, screenplays, novels, articles, or plays. There are definitely plenty of options to choose from.
So, the real question is: Why write a screenplay?
Unlike the aforementioned forms of writing, a screenplay isn’t the final piece of art itself, but rather an artful step along the way to reach the ultimate goal of creating a film. Using precise formatting with descriptions of setting, time of day, characters, actions, and dialogue, the screenplay is a tool in the filmmaking toolbox that creates a foundation for which the desired story can be told in an ultimately visual form.
Although the formatting has drastically changed since films were first invented, tracing back to the Lumiere Brothers screening of “La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon” in Paris 1895, screenwriting has existed since the beginning. What started as “scenarios” written for silent films to enhance clarity in the narratives, over time, with the immersion of talking pictures, scripts transformed to include more detailed descriptions and dialogue. From a vague blueprint to a standardized and precisely formatted piece of writing, the script has evolved to the point where screenwriting has become a specialized craft all on its own. But, as this industry is comprised of a plethora of creative minds and opinions, it is no wonder that the importance of the screenplay is a topic of debate.
To boil it down into one question, how much does the screenplay matter in the process of making a movie?
On one hand, you have writers/directors like Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. They write tightly scripted, meticulously edited screenplays that are meant to be said word for word, even down to “ohs” and “ums.” Their stance being that the dialogue sounds almost rhythmic and it is written like a piece of music, to be said in a precise manner so that it sounds just right. This style of filmmaking allows for a different kind of freedom for the actors, similar to in Theater. You don’t change the words that Shakespeare wrote to make them more impactful on the audience. Rather, you find the way to portray it through facial expressions, tone of voice, and physical embodiment of character and emotion. There is a sort of freedom of movement and expression that can be accessed when the language itself isn’t the focal point.
Then, taking a slightly different stance, you have someone like Quentin Tarantino. He holds the same opinion as Gerwig and Baumbach, that the screenplay should be a well-written story all on it’s own, not just a recipe or a blueprint to be interpreted, but a piece of work written with effort and with care. However, while Tarantino writes beautifully crafted scripts, he is not opposed to improvisation on set. For example, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, DiCaprio is said to have improvised almost all of his trailer meltdown scene.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, you have the filmmakers who use the script as merely an outline, and who rely more on improvisational impulse and or quickly written scenes to be molded and shaped by the actors on set and on camera. This would be filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, who has absolutely no written dialogue, only scenarios and a storyline for the actors to play with. This is all to say that at the end of the day there is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay. Whether tightly scripted or entirely improvised, the only person who can decide the best method for you… is you.
Now, you have a screenplay, either diligently composed or loosely drafted, now what? I’ll just wait to get an agent, who will send my script to a big production company to then make my movie into a hit feature film. There seems to be a mindset amongst aspiring filmmakers that the ability to BE a filmmaker lies in someone else’s hands. If I’m being honest, this is a mindset that exists amongst a large number of people across every and any industry. Maybe it’s an innate trait that people are born with, or something conditioned by society. That I do not know. What I do know is that people tend to shy away from holding responsibility for their lives. And I hate to say it, but the people that can’t get over this, will forever be hindered and unable to achieve their dreams.
It might be a tautology, but in order to be a filmmaker, you just have to make films. Sit down, grab a piece of paper and a pencil, or open up a writing document on your computer. Write a story from your heart, a story that you feel you NEED to tell. Grab some friends, make a community. Cobble together the tools that you need and then, just do it! Make your movie. Edit it on a free video editing software on your computer. Submit it to film festivals. Share it with your friends and family. Maybe even share it on YouTube.
Someone else is sitting on their couch, worrying that they aren’t good enough to be a filmmaker. They are letting that self-doubt tell them that their dream will only be met through the validation of another person, someone who holds the permission granting key to the locked doors of the “Hollywood filmmaking party”. Meanwhile, you just snuck around back. You may not be acknowledged or acclaimed by the other people at said party, but nonetheless, you are in. And even better, you are in because you believed in yourself enough, you did the hard work, and you brought your dream to fruition.
Growing up, whenever I had an ambition, much too big for a young child to achieve, my dad would tell me that it was impossible. So, I would do it anyways. And in the end, my dad would always be proud. It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized the lesson my dad was imparting. The lesson that when someone tells you it is impossible, that’s when it becomes your job to prove them wrong. I will leave you with this final message, a phrase you should tell yourself when you feel like your dreams are out of reach:
You say impossible, I say challenge accepted.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.