Monday, 10 January 2011

Lessons from Production

Ten months ago, my screenplay Chalet Girl started shooting in Austria and Germany.  In just over a month, it will be released across Europe.  Here are some lessons that I learned from going through that extraordinary production process.  First, some general thoughts.

The road is long
From first outline to release, Chalet Girl has taken over six years.  I thought the first draft (completed in December 2007) was pretty strong – not perfect, but getting there.  But it took two years of fairly constant work - maybe twenty drafts in total - to get the script into pre-production.  Maybe that says more about me as a writer than anything else, but I don’t think this is uncommon.  So lesson one: stamina is required.  If you’re not in it for the long haul, reconsider whether you want to embark on the journey at all.

The director is the creative voice
Controversial, I know, but it’s something I had to get used to very quickly.  Different rules apply for different projects, and if this was an autobiographical tale about my teenage crack addiction then I would have felt more ownership of the material, and more inclined to dictate on creative decisions.  But it wasn’t.  It was a reasonably budgeted, commercial, snowboarding romantic comedy, and the producers had employed a very experienced director to bring it to life.  And so if Phil wasn’t happy with a line, or a character, or – early on in development – significant elements of plot or structure or motivation, then it would have to be looked at.  No questions.  Phil is the one who will have to explain every line, beat and nuance to every member of the cast and crew, when they ask him what is going on here.  He will ultimately live with it longer, and be closer to it, than you.  So lesson two: give the director a script they can work with.

This shit just got real
As the director is the creative voice, so the producers and financiers are the business voice.  And just as the writer needs to learn creative pragmatism in dealing with the director’s opinions on the script, so he or she must have an awareness of the financial side of the game, an ability to talk that language and an understanding that not everyone is doing this out of romantic notions of artistic endeavour.  Various groups of people collectively put in over £6 million to make Chalet Girl.  As David Hare said, back in Cheltenham in 2007 (‘Input and where to put it’), if you’re going to play the game you need to buy a seat at the table.  Well these people had bought a very big chair, so I owed it to them to give their comments – most of which were a lot smarter than you might imagine – due and thorough consideration.  So lesson three: at a certain point the script isn’t just a flight of fancy knocking around in your head.  If you’re lucky, it will become real, and when that happens it is no longer just your baby.  Be grown up and roll with it.

All of which leads to some specific lessons about production-inspired pragmatism.

Write concise
The scheduling of these film shoots is an art and a thing of beauty in itself.  To see your sprawling, hundred page script broken down into thirty-odd shoot days, with each scene summarised (not always to your liking) and cut up into eighth-of-a-page sections, and then these scenes grouped into non-linear production chunks according to where they are set, all ordered according to day and night and various actors’ availabilities, is to get a sense of the massive endeavour that is a film shoot.  It is hard, hard work, with literally hundreds of people involved.  I believe they estimate (for the bonding company) on shooting between 2-3 pages a day.  And every time you move location, or introduce a new actor, that costs time, which costs money.  The perfect day for a film shoot is one location, a few actors, a four page scene.  They can block it and rehearse it and shoot it any way they like and will probably still knock off early.  The worst day is four locations, three moves, lots of cast and costume and make-up changes.  Then it becomes a scramble: get it in the can.  So lesson four is, as far as you can, to be concise in what you write.  Can these two scenes become one?  Can these two characters become one?  Can this scene, at the ice rink, actually take place back at the house, where the crew will already have shot for three days, thereby saving half a day of travel and set-up?  Can it go altogether?  This will all involve compromise, and some rethinking of your script.  But you’re creative, you can figure it out.  (This journey of figuring out exactly what is important about any given scene – and considering whether the truly important bit can be delivered in another, maybe better, way – is a vital process in the honing of your script.)

Write precise
Another unsettling outcome of pre-production kicking in is that every word in your script is analysed by various people in various departments.  Three years ago you might have written ‘Jenny walks into the room in a thick brown overcoat’, because you were in a brown mood that day.  The wardrobe department will then source fifteen brown overcoats for the director to choose between.  The director will then ask you ‘why does the overcoat have to be brown?’, to which you might reply, sheepishly, ‘um, no reason’.  But how were they to know?  Ditto a throwaway line like ‘hundreds of people line the streets...’.  Before the 3rd AD starts recruiting the required two to three hundred extras, have a think and see whether all those hundreds are required or whether, perhaps, the sound of hundreds of people might actually do it, while our hero lurks in a side-alley.  Lesson five: be precise about what is important to you, and omit everything else.

Kill your babies
That old chestnut.  But there were a few moments during the filming of Chalet Girl – and many more in post-production – when some of my most treasured lines or scenes or sequences had to be cut, for any number of reasons.  Many of these had been in there since the first draft, like the loyal secretary who joins the struggling start-up at the beginning but then is ruthlessly made redundant the day before the multinational behemoth goes public.  Sorry, love, we just don’t need you any more.  Here is another example of a time where you need to be pragmatic, and professional.  Argue your case, by all means, but if something is not possible, it is not possible.  Chances are that you will be the only one who will feel its loss – and maybe not even you, over time.  So lesson six is a short but harsh ‘deal with it’.

The first day is not the last day
The famed ‘first day of principal photography’ – when the writer gets paid and they can finally put their feet up – is a myth for two reasons, in my experience.  Firstly, I got paid somewhere close to the last day of principal photography.  Cash flow in independent productions is an insane headache for the producers.  At the end of the day, if they have to pay the crew, who are out there at the coal face and can down tools any time they please, or the writer, who is back at home wondering how it’s all going, then it probably makes sense to pay the crew first and ask the writer to be patient.  (Lesson seven part one: be patient.)  Secondly, I probably did as much work, in terms of man hours, after the film started shooting as I did in the run-up.  On-set rewrites, cast and crew suggestions, cast changes, schedule changes, location changes, snowing when it should be sunny, sunny when it should be snowy: everything means that you need to keep writing, keep improvising, keep coming up with creative solutions to the problems of the day.  And, again, that’s if you’re lucky: the production team can make these changes with you or without you.  It kind of makes a mockery of the whole ‘draft, polish, rewrite’ concept, since you’re rewriting every day, and you’re probably not getting paid any more for it.  But do you want to be on the inside, or the outside?  Lesson seven: it ain’t over till it’s over.

Post is a miracle
All of which leads us onto post-production.  The shoot itself is like sex: frantic, sweaty, enjoyable, exhausting, and you just hope you get it roughly in the right area.  When it’s all over you collapse back onto the bed and have a nap.  Then the real work begins.  Nine months or so (about average) of taking those precious raw ingredients and seeing them grow and develop and take shape.  The metaphor doesn’t stretch too far (or it becomes unpleasant if it does) but this is nonetheless a special time.  You are relatively protected and insulated and can try out new things.  And you will see a totally different film emerge to the one that was in your head.  Actors gave different readings of your lines.  Locations and sets were different to how you imagined they would be.  Lines – or entire scenes – will be cut, and other changes made which initially make no sense to you but apparently make perfect sense to somebody watching the film for the first time.  You will continue to work, and to write – the dark art of ADR is one I had little experience of before now, but now I’m a geekish ADR-spotter in other films and TV shows (clue: watch for the extended back-of-head shot).  And then sound and music come in and you realise that your words are only a very small part of the overall effect.  And then the baby is born, and you can do no more.  Lesson eight: enjoy the miracle, embrace the unexpected, encourage the surprises.  They will blow your mind.

On which meditative note, here are two final thoughts with which to close.

The script is not important, the film is
Again, heresy, but like all good heresy it’s true.  I’ve written and directed a few shorts, so I have already realised that you can fit a lot more into a script than you can into a film.  If fifty percent of what you have written on the page is on the screen, then that is a good outcome.  Because the chances are that the other fifty percent of your script was unnecessary wallpaper, and that the new fifty percent that the film-making process has miraculously thrown up will be quite brilliant and quite unexpected.  The writer is one cog is a very clever clock.  The clock can’t work without you, of course, but there are lots of other pieces on which it relies, too.  Lesson nine.  Don’t obsess about your script.  Obsess about the film it is going to become.

Write the best script you can
I’ll end with a cautionary tale.  I’m proud of the Chalet Girl script, and of the film it became.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste but it does what it says on its tin and people tend to come out smiling.  But there are, perhaps naturally, a handful of moments I’m not thrilled with.  Some of these I can duck responsiblity for: some changes were made on set that maybe weren’t great, some line readings might have missed the mark by a few degrees, some locations didn’t fit the content of the scene and so on.  Minor problems and, again, probably only I will notice them.  But there are some moments that are totally my fault.  Some lines that really don’t work, or which I really could have done a better job on.  I visited the set a couple of times and I have to say that, while the experience was generally exhilarating, there is no worse feeling for a writer than hearing a not-very-good line being delivered over and over again by an actor.  Wide shot.  Close up.  Over the shoulder.  Over the other shoulder.  Let’s just do it one more time.  On and on, and my stupid line that I really should have done better on is being indelibly chiselled into the final movie.  And I’m thinking, why didn’t I work harder?  Why didn’t I have a better idea?  Why didn’t I write a better script?  A movie has a million moving parts, and you are never going to get a million pieces of perfection.  But a writer has the time, and the peace and the calm that exists long before the production process kicks in, to deliver a script that is as close to perfection as they can.  And, during the changes inevitably imposed by production, to keep that sense of perfection intact (which, by the way, is not the same as keeping the script intact).  If you drop below that level – and you will know that you have done, you really will – then you will have no-one to blame but yourself.  If you are lucky enough to have your movie made, if this is the only film you ever get made, and if you see the time and effort and energy and money that goes into bringing your work to life, then at the very least you must be able to say that this is the best work you can do.  Of all I have learned, and of everything I am taking forwards with me, this is the one lesson which I am most grateful to have understood.  Lesson ten: write a good script.

7 comments:

  1. I am about to attempt writing a script and this is really interesting. I especially like the point about being precise. Your attitude is great.

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  2. Thanks Joanna and good luck - it's hard but it should also be fun and can be very rewarding.

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  3. Really insightful blog. I found the advice in "the road is long" particularly reassuring.

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  4. Great article - I've just posted about it in my blog and intend link to your blog if that's OK with you.

    And good luck with the release.

    Charles Harris
    www.screen-lab.co.uk

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  5. Thanks Liz and Charles - feel free to retweet / blog / link to your hearts' content! And go and see Chalet Girl! Tom

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  6. Hi Tom, came here through Charles' tweet and it's an interesting blog. The trailer for Chalet Girl looks great - good luck with it. I'll try to take my niece to see it.
    Sophia

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  7. LOOve the trailer, i'm sure it's an awesome movie, can't wait to see it! thank you for this post it was really enlightening! oh, happy premiere by the way! i hope you post something about the actual premiere, about seeing your work finally on the big screen and what comes after the movie has premiered!!
    Best of luck to you

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