Sunday, 13 October 2013

Yr2 Week 1 (Mon 7 Oct - Screenwriting the Short Film)

Today marked the first day back at Middlesex University after a rather generous holiday of about four months(!)

From 9-11am, we had our first lecture with the two Davids (Cottis and Heinemann), who went over the basics of the module and what to expect in the coming months:learning to write a screenplay for a short film, that we would produce later in the course, and all the stages of making a script as good and professional possible (idea generation, development, pacing, dialogue, rewrites etc.).

After a quick rundown, we began with the meat of the session, discussing structure. We began by going over the most common one, the Three Act structure, using Macbeth as a template to refresh ourselves:

  1. Status Quo (The world as it is, unchanged) - War in scotland, Macbeth fighting for Duncan
  2. Inciting Incident (The tilt/change to status quo) - Witches' hail Macbeth by three titles, predicting what he will become i.e. ultimately, King of Scotland.
  3. First Act Climax (One way door/no turning back) - Macbeth kills Duncan
  4. Act 2 (Longest part/complication of events/protagonist continues pursuit of goals) - Macbeth's reign, Banquo is murdered
  5. Act 2 Climax ('here We go'/For happy ending-lowest point of protagonist and vice-versa) - Macbeth revisits the witches, is told three things (beware Macduff cannot be killed by man of woman born, burnam wood comes to Dunsinane), has Macduff's family slaughtered
  6. Act 3 (Confrontation/Final battle) - Macbeth's battle, killed by Macduff
  7. Scene A'ffaire (obligatory scene)
  8. Denouement (Wrap up/ending)
We also briefly discussed the fact that not all stories follow this structure, some going for more or less (in our case, most short films tend to be one or two acts, given the limited time available). To further drive this point home, and to go onto the next discussion, we watched the 1989 short film 'The Lunch Date', where a middle class woman misses a train ends up going to the station diner and ordering a salad. However, she erroneously assumes that a homeless black man is eating it (turns out it was on a similar looking table in a little bit visual trickery, the difference being her bags on the seat), and tries to intercede, though he merely carries on. Irritated, she starts helping herself to the salad along with him, and after, he buys them both coffee.

Once finished, we began discussing what the film's ideas were, both in terms of script and in terms of the execution. Some of the points thrown out by my peers included, but not limited to:
  • The people she engages with during the course of the short are all black (the man who slams into her, causing her to lose her train, the homeless man at the cafe and then another homeless who is begging, but she ignores), implying some type of racial and social commentary (they are all poor/working class, while her furs, accent and bags mark her as someone higher up).
  • The black and white film both creates a 30s/40s aesthetic and also highlights the aforementioned idea.
  • The irony that a poorer man was willing to share his food, even spend his money, for a stranger, yet she was not willing, in the end, to spare a cent for the other homeless. Pissbly also poking fun at the conventional 'Hollywood' ending, where everyone learns their lesson and becomes instantly better. In reality, people take much longer, or don't learn at all.

Then in the afternoon, from 3-5, we had our first seminar with David, and began to discuss at greater length what we had seen earlier, though this time, in terms of its construction; there a number of elements foudn that makes a script, regardless of length, and certain criteria and really help make the difference between quality and mediocrity. Some of the guidelines and tricks involved include:
  • Being pithy: Minimal description. Let the directors and the rest of team/cast have a say and allow room for interpretation and experiment.
  • The script is a blueprint, a production document from which everything else springboards off of, and can build.
  • Be to the point and avoid overworking or indulgence without a reason or rhyme.
  • Always write in present tense, since the film is running & shooting continuously (as it happens). This applies even to flashbacks.
  • Scripts use a very systematic layout i.e. Margins, Caps for first uses of character names, spacing, 1 page of script usually equates to about a minute of screen time, always start with 'Fade In' at the top (regardless of what ends up being the start in the final product).
  • NEVER put in camera directions, since this the job of others, and not the writer.
  • Keep dialogue simple and to the point. Avoid or writing or constant speeches/rambles.
  • NO scene numbers. This for later when the script is locked down, adn schedules have been arranged.
Moving along, we then drew up a quite spider diagram and began noting what we thought made for a good short film, and how to avoid certain cliches or traps:
  • Structure- be efficient and clear if you choose to have one. Usually, structures take two forms: Journey (self-explanatory) or 'ritual occasion' (where something happens to the protagonist ala Scorsese's After Hours (1986))
  • Pacing- cut 'fat (unneeded material) and keep things steadily rolling along.
  • Have your protagonist be well defined, usually through little visuals things, as the Lunch Date managed to pull off, for example.
  • Everything is important: dialogue and plot must be concise and have weight/significance, otherwise it's just padding.

As our last exercise, we were then asked to each, using a simple idea generating exercise, create a character from various traits, as announced by David H. (i.e. name, colour, age, background, wants, job etc.)
I came up with the following:
  •  Male, 23, Latin-American, Name is Juan.
  • Works at a rental store, lower class, lives in an apartment in a city, has certain 'tics'/eccentric behaviours.
  • Dreams of film making, has relationship/socialisation difficulties due to behaviour
  • seeks relatability and understanding from others.
Our assignment for the week was to go away, and type up a 300 word story outline based on what we had created. To summarise the first day back, it went rather well and smooth, and never felt overwhelming, as if cramming in too much information. The project sets up a lot of interesting possibility, and having done writing many a time in my free time, this gives me an opportunity to really refine and hone my skills, not to mention really write proper, professional scripts which, given my set of talents, may be the better route into the industry for me. I really look forward to working with the Davids, and I'm excited for the future.

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