The following is the first in a series of articles about filmmaking from the story to the release stage. Keep visiting the blog for more.
What was the last big budget blockbuster you saw that you absolutely hated? Now try to think of the reason you hated a movie that cost around $200 million bucks to make. Chances are it wasn’t because one scene didn’t have the right special effects or you didn’t like the costumes. Even after being polished and big by all standards, the most likely reason you hated that movie because it had a weak screenplay. And a weak screenplay is directly the result of a weak story.
You Vs. Hollywood
As independent filmmakers, the one thing that we know we don’t have is a lot of funds. It would be foolish to try to compete with Hollywood at a production level, considering that the budget of some of their biggest movies exceed the entire GDP of a small country. They have a crew of hundreds, the best equipment and wizards in the world and a lot of money to throw at their projects. But there’s one thing that they have that you can absolutely compete with. In fact, you can defeat them at it – the story. Hollywood is running out of ideas since quite a few years now, and have been relying on remakes and sequels to run their slate. They are constantly on a hunt for fresh and unique stories that they can make into a film. But whether it’s a short film, a comedy, a horror movie or a mindless action movie – story is key.
But even after their best efforts, most of the time Hollywood movies suffer in the story department because they cost so much. The more a movie costs, the more people’s money is at stake which means there are more people constantly looking over the project and each of them has a say in it. This usually ends up with each and every one of them giving their own notes on the script and the film ending up losing its most original ideas and ending up becoming a generic mess made by committee. And as a result, even after the movie has lots of production values, the audience looks through it and realizes that the screenplay was sub-par. Watching ‘Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides’ this weekend might give you lots of production value and a sense of adventure, but you will also be able to detect that the story was lacking and it played it way too safe. But you don’t have to face that problem. Being an independent filmmaker, there’s no one there to stop you from making the exact film that you want to make. This is the real charm of an independent film and why they sometimes break out and earn even more at the box-office than the big-budget films – they are built on a strong story.
See, the gist of it is this – always have a story to tell. You would be surprised how many people forget that one simple line when they set out to make a short or feature film. Don’t just pick up the camera and shoot something just for the sake of it, because it will suffer. Always remember that film is a medium to tell a story and that’s what you are supposed to do with it. Before you even start working on anything else, ask yourself – what is my film about? You’d be surprised that many times, filmmakers cannot answer this simple question. They mumble for words or go into a long winded description of the movie scene by scene. But that’s not the story of the movie – what is it about? Can you sum up the movie in a line or two? Go pick your favorite movie and you’ll see that you can always describe it in one line or so. Two lovers of different social classes meet on a ship doomed to tragedy. A young FBI agent must work with a cannibalistic serial killer in order to hunt down another. A young man goes back in time and accidentally causes his parents to not meet each other, and now has to get them back together in order to secure his own existence in the future. All of these are stories that are clearly visual and descriptive of a film. Each and every one of us has a story to tell, we just need to find it. But make sure you do before you go ahead and shoot your film, and it will be the shining element of your film.
Write What You Would Watch
But what sort of story should you write? That’s an important question and the entire tone and style of your film depends on that answer. Should it be a comedy, a drama, a thriller, a romance, a western, an action movie or a blend of more than one? Which one is the most popular to make a short film or feature right now? What’s the current trend? If you seem to be asking yourself that, you’re doing it wrong.
I’ll give you one of the greatest pieces of advice that I ever read on a website, and it literally changed the way I think of a story on the most basic level. It’s something that once you learn and apply to your own films you will have a much better response. Here it goes – write the sort of movie that you would pay and watch if someone else would have made it. You hate romantic comedies and hardly pay to see them but they’re the hot trend right now? Don’t write a romantic comedy. The fact that it’s not your genre will show in your writing and in the eventual film. But if you’re a fan of action thrillers and those are the kind of movies you regularly watch in cinemas, that’s the best genre for you to write in. Don’t give in to trends – your passion should show in each film that you make and the audience will love you for it. Writing a good script is hard enough, and writing about a genre or topic you don’t care about will only make it a nightmare.
But just because you have a story doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Most movies can be described in one or two sentences but the story is lackluster and lacks any sort of value. How do you know if a story is a good one? What elements go into making a great story that audiences will love?
In the next article, I will discuss the exact elements that you need to make sure your story as and why you need them. Stay tuned for more!