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The Screenwriter's Vision

I'm going to let you in on a secret. Some years ago I found a simple technique that turned me into a better writer, producer and director. I stumbled across this technique by accident, due to an unusual illness. The good news for you is that you don't have to get sick to use this technique.

I've read hundreds and hundreds of screenplays, and almost every one of them could have been improved if the writer had used this technique. The problem is that no matter how impressive your idea or how good your writing, you need a strong understanding of the filmmaking process itself to write a brilliant screenplay. You need to know how directors work. I can show you how directors work, without sending you to film school.

As a producer, I get to read countless scripts, and even the very best ones leave me wondering how I'm going to raise millions of dollars and find thousands of hours to get them made. I need to be inspired by a script that absolutely begs to be made. It needs a brilliant story, amazing characters and true drama. That almost goes without saying. But if the writer really wants to stand out from the crowd, I need to see an understanding of how those story ideas and scenes are actually going to end up on the screen. If the writer understands how a director works, and how a story is translated to the screen, that writer stands a very good chance of catching my attention.

When I first thought about becoming a screenwriter (long before I ever thought about directing films), I found myself saying, "I'm a really visual person, so I think I'm born to write movies." An experienced screenwriter turned around to me and said, "Screenplays are about the sound of the film, not how it looks." I was a bit stunned by that, but after a while I could see his point. He added, "It's the director's job to make it visual. It's your job to tell the story." What he said was true in many ways, but I wish I hadn't taken it too literally, because knowing how directors work, and keeping in mind the visual tools they use, can make you a better writer.

What my screenwriter friend didn't say, is that it's your job to inspire everybody who reads your script - the producer, the actors and the director. And the more you know about how directors work, the more chance you have of creating a screenplay that reads well. If it reads well, it stands a chance of being produced.

In many screenplays, you will see two characters talking across a table, when it would be much better to have them walking as they talked. Conversely, there are many screenplays that try to pack in lots of movement in a scene, when all you really need is to see the characters sitting down and talking. The film Sideways is a great example of getting this judgment right. A lot of the time, the characters sit and talk. Sometimes they walk and talk. Does it make a difference to how each scene works? Absolutely.

Now, I don't know whether the writer or the director made those decisions, but I do know that a good writer should have an understanding of how screencraft works, to be able to write a screenplay. When you get your screenplay on a producer's desk, you want it to read beautifully, but it should also make the reader feel like they're watching a movie. When you know how directors think up their shots, you can put this magic into your work.

A small warning. You probably know this already, but it's worth repeating. Never put camera directions in your script. Ever. If you start a scene by saying, "The camera is up high, and tilts down as we dolly across the street" everybody will hate you. Your job is to make the story so visually striking, that the director will want to set up a crane and a dolly to create the camera move you've imagined.

Thankfully, I discovered a secret which makes it much easier to understand how directors work. I would never have discovered this secret if I hadn't been extremely sick. Being sick is boring. It's rarely an interesting experience. The best you can hope for is to lie in front of the TV and watch some old movies. That's what I usually do. But a few years ago I suffered from a sickness that left me temporarily deaf. I could hear muffled sounds, but nothing more than that. I still wanted to watch movies. I could, after all, turn on the subtitles and get by that way. I'd miss out on the actors' performance and the music, but it was better than nothing.

Except that, for some reason, my DVD player didn't play the subtitles when I asked it to do so. To this day I don't know if it was my mistake, or the machine's, but whatever the truth, there were no subtitles. The movie started playing, and although I could see that people were speaking, I couldn't tell what they were saying.

Eventually, I turned off the sound with the remote because silence was better than the muffled fug I was suffering through. But, being too sick to do anything else, I kept watching. And because there was no sound to distract me, it was much easier to see how the film had been put together. I started to see the techniques that the director was using.

Normally, when you get absorbed in a film, you don't notice the choice of lens, the camera moves, or how the scene is blocked out. You just get dragged into the story and watch the events unfold. When you can't hear what's going on, and have no subtitles, all you can look at are the camera moves. All of a sudden, you see exactly what tricks, techniques and moves the director has used.

Even when my hearing returned, I continued watching movies with the sound turned down. This is my personal version of do-it-yourself film school. If I want to work out the best way to direct a chase scene, or a fight scene, or a love scene, I'll find a suitable scene and watch it with the sound off. I'll try to come up with my own version of these shots, of course, but step one is seeing how everybody else managed to shoot these scenes in the past.

If I watch with the sound up, I can never spot what the director is doing, because I always get dragged into the story, the feeling, the moment. But with the sound off, I can dismantle the technique and see how it all works.

I've studied hundreds of films in this way, and this was the source of my book, Master Shots: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie. My book shows the raw techniques that directors use to create an effect. I could never have worked all this out by watching movies with the volume turned up. So, you can either start watching movies with the sound turned down, or you can read my book.

Master Shots was written for directors, but it's been a pleasant surprise to find that it's really appealing to actors, producers and writers. When you know the techniques that a director uses to create particular effects, it makes writing much easier. For a start, you get a better idea of when the characters should be moving, and when they should settle down to talk. You get a better idea of pacing, and how little dialogue is required for a good scene to work. The more you know about a director's vision, the more impressive your screenwriting will become.

But there is another technique, which can make you an even better writer. I discovered this one by turning the first technique on its head.

In the film industry, people are hungry for story. It doesn't matter how many explosions, fights or dramatic kisses you put into your screenplay, people want a good story. Even if you're writing an alternative screenplay (that breaks the usual rules) people want a sense of story. Evan if you're writing an atmosphere piece, or something experimental, the audience will be hoping for a slither of story.

So, what's the best way to study story? A lot of people will tell you to read screenplays, and it's good advice. But my advice is to put on your favorite DVD, sit in a dark room, and turn the TV off. Listen to the movie. There is no better way to understand the progress and development of story than by listening.

I don't suggest you do this with a movie you've never seen. So pick an old favorite, and listen to the whole thing. The truth is, you'll know what all the shots are as you sit there in the dark, and you will picture them. But the simple act of turning the TV off, and listening rather than watching, gives you an insight into story like no other.

When you come to write your next screenplay, remember to inspire the director. This gives you more creative input, helps the director, and best of all, it gives you a better chance of selling your script.