Part 2: Pre-Production - The Screenplay

Pre-Production - Screenplay

There are three basic parts of filmmaking:

  • Pre-Production
  • Production
  • Post-Production

Pre-production involves getting the storyline together and creating a screenplay.

A screenplay is about 120 pages long and involves scenes and dialogue. However, this page length varies by genre. For comedy scripts (i.e. romantic comedies), you can get away with 90-100 pages. A lot of horror scripts, especially contained horror scripts, can be 80-90 pages.

Most drama, action and thrillers often exceed a 100 pages and are closer to the traditional rule of 120 pages.

Some writers like Aaron Sorkin are quite verbose. "Social Network" is at 163 pages!

As an indie filmmaker, we often prefer to work with screenplays around the 90 pages. Every page counts as a minute of film footage. This in turn helps you estimate the cost of producing that screenplay. Keep this rule (1 minute = 1 page) in mind as a film producer. For screenwriters, this is a good rule of thumb when estimating screen time for your spec scripts.

A screenplay is really just a draft of the film. The director will take charge as to which angle to shoot scenes. The actors will make their parts come alive. Some actors will want more control over their characters. The director will also fight for control.

Even if you are doing this on the fly and are hiring your best friends to do this job and make your own movie, expect a battle of control. Whenever you work with creative people, understand that they have egos.

Your movie should have a point and tell a story. Just like a book or any other written entertainment, you have to have the following in order for your story to work:


You can read all the books and listen to all the screenwriting gurus in the world. You can forget everything, but always remember this one simple rule of creating conflict. 

Here is a clip from Wall-E's typical day at work. In a little over a minute. It's jam-packed with conflict. Without knowing about Wall-E, you learn that his job is to clean up the mess in a city.

The conflict in this short clip is both internal and external. The external conflict is the fact that Wall-E has to clean up this huge city and it's just him.

The internal conflict is Wall-E's search for meaning and self-actualization. This is hinted at as he rummages through the garbage in search of interesting mementos to take back to his home.

Pixar scripts are great starting places to learn script writing. In this short clip, you can get a feel for Wall-E, his world and the challenges of his current situation. And the amazing part? The clip used no dialogue! It's purely visual, yet so powerful.

Your main goal as a film producer or as a script writer is to entertain. I wish we all had access to Pixar scripts. Regardless, your main role as a filmmaker is to find a compelling script that will keep an audience's attention.

This means creating conflict and tension in every bit of dialogue, every mise-en-scène, and every cut.

There are some people that refuse to understand this basic concept of fiction and even non fiction writing.

You introduce your characters, you present a problem that they have, you work towards solving the problem, you have a climax to the film in which the problem is addressed and an ending in which everything is resolved. It doesn't have to be resolved "happily ever after" but it has to be resolved.

You cannot leave the audience thinking that they didn't get a conclusion to the problem. Even if it is one they don't like.

When you write a screenplay, it doesn't usually pop out of your head the way the final product reads. This is true whenever you write a book or even an article. There are usually rewrites required.

You may have to rewrite your screenplay several times before you get it right. Then, if you are fortunate enough to sell the idea to a producer, they will rewrite the entire thing.

The screenplay should introduce all of the characters through dialogue and also introduce the setting of the movie. Writing a screenplay is no different than writing a play. It is just different because of the technical aspect of filming on the screen.

Instead of directions like "stage left" you will most likely put "fade to black" in your screenplay, but for now, when you are starting out, the main objective is to get your idea down on paper.

Try to make your screenplay original and something that hasn't been done before. You can work on the screenplay with a trusted friend, aka Ben Affleck and Matt Damon on "Good Will Hunting." You may even, like Affleck and Damon, who wrote this Academy Award winning film out of college, become famous and get to start dating people like Jennifer Lopez.

There are three basic ways you can write a screenplay:

  • Linear: Story moves from beginning to end
  • Non-Linear: Movie jumps around in sequence
  • Documentary: Interviews and anecdotes break up narrative sequences (or mockumentary):

There is an old saying that when you are writing a book or a screenplay, start in the middle. You are better off to pack a punch in the beginning of your screenplay and get the audience interested in the characters right away rather than start from the beginning to the end.

Screenplay Summary of Citizen Kane

While most films are made in the linear fashion, the more effective films are made in non-linear mode. One of the greatest films of all time is considered to be "Citizen Kane."

Take a look at the film and see how the screenplay flows. It begins with the death of Kane and then takes us back to his childhood. We then skip around to the people who knew Kane and their recollection of this man. Most of the story takes place in flashback sequences.

The meaning to the elusive "rosebud," the dying words of Kane, brilliantly played by Orson Wells, is not discovered until the end of the film and in a very poignant matter. And it alludes to something that is seen early in the film but not given any significance. When you see the ending of this movie, it packs quite a punch and you certainly understand the life of Charles Foster Kane.

Citizen Kane combines documentary, linear and non-linear style. It presents a conflict early in the story and solves the conflict at the end. In the meantime, it tells the story of a remarkable man, reputed to be modeled after William Randolph Hearst.

Other Great Examples of Compelling Scripts

Using flashbacks are a good way to tell a story and are used in today's films as well as classic films. "Casablanca" tells the story in a linear fashion but also relies on flashbacks to France when the star crossed lovers, played by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, were together.

Flashbacks can give the audience bits of the story that are left out if it is told in linear fashion.

"Pulp Fiction" is a good example of how a story is told in non-linear fashion, but in which all of the sequences of the film come together brilliantly at the end and tie into one another.

Pulp Fiction, a film by Quentin Tarrantino, appears to be several vignettes of separate story lines that all relate to one another. It is a clever and entertaining way to tell as story.

Pulp Fiction Movie

When you create the storyline, you want the audience to be delighted at the end or shocked. But you want them satisfied. Think of the film "Shawshank Redemption."

This is probably one of the best films made recently and based on a short story by Stephen King. It is told in linear fashion, but then takes you through a series of flashbacks at the end.

The purpose of this book is not to give away the ending of this film which is definitely worth watching if you are interested in screenwriting and producing your own film.

The one thing that you do not want to do is to not resolve the conflict. Yes, we can cite the ending of pictures like "The Blob" where a question mark is placed after "The End" but there is still a resolution to the conflict.

The blob is captured and sent to the North Pole. There is a happy ending for the major characters of the story line who were trapped in a diner by the blob. Had the story ended with the blob killing everyone in the diner and then just continuing to grow, it would not have been a successful "B" movie and would not have launched the career of Steve McQueen.

You have to have resolution of the conflict that you created by the end of the film. It is also good to make some sort of point with your film. You should think of your screenplay as telling a story with film instead of writing it as a book.

The purpose of telling a story should be to get an idea across. Just like the purpose of this book is to hopefully teach you something about making your own movie, you should have a reason why you are making your movie.

Your point can be subtle or it can be a hit you over the head with a hammer point like Michael Moore, who has been very successful in making documentaries that are entertaining as well as revealing. While some may argue with Moore's politics, no one can argue with his film making abilities. His films will capture your attention from the beginning to the end and all make a point.

Once you have your story, you can write it in the form of a screenplay. The screenplay is mostly dialogue that tells the story from the viewpoint of the characters or, in the case of a documentary, from the narrator.

You can also use narration as a way to fill in bits of the story line not discussed by the characters or revealed in the film. This is often known as voiceover and is used very successfully in the film "Goodfellas."

You want to narrate less in screenwriting and use dialogue more. The old "show me and don't tell me" applies to screenwriting more than any other type of writing.

Your characters should be demonstrating the flaws and strengths of their personalities through their dialogue and how the film moves along. This is the same as if you are writing a book or a short story. It is more effective if you show that Mary is selfish by some of her actions rather than just saying "Mary is selfish."

Once you have the screenplay the way you like it, you are ready to start implementing pre-production and getting the cast and crew together for your movie.