As a film director, we may be very technically adept, have a great visual style or be skilled at soliciting a strong performance from our actors; we should aim to be all three. However, no matter where our key strengths lie, we need one thing first to be able to shine in those areas. We need to know our story inside and out.
A great screenplay functions on many levels and is far more than just a ‘blueprint’ for the film. The more we work with it and its creator, the more we will be able to know we are not only getting what we want but what an audience needs. Engagement.
In addition, our preparation time is not just about making decisions, its also about exploring possibilities. We will be working with other collaborators who will also have ideas of how to approach the different elements if the screenplay. It is in our best interest to be prepared for change and be able to communicate our ideas based on a through back to front insight into the story of the film.
1. Read For Pleasure – First Impressions
When you either are given a script to read or sit back to read through your own opus, there is one vitally important question to answer. ‘Does this excite me?’. Everything else will hang on your response to that.
In addition, our passion for the story often dictates how much others are prepared to do to help you bring the vision to the screen.
Our first read through should be like we are reading a novel, or short story, poem or comic book. There is a tendency to begin the analysis like we might have when we were asked to analyse a book or poem in high school or university or worse treat it like a manual or instruction book.
The harder it is for you to enjoy reading the script the harder it will be for your cast and crew to help you and ultimately for your audience to enjoy the results.
So have fun, the feeling you have by the end of that first read will often be the feeling you are left with when you watch the movie made from it.
2. More Detective Less Engineer.
To direct a screenplay well we have to really know the screenplay. Although we can view the script as a ‘blueprint’, my experience has shown me that there are many more layers and hidden treasures beneath the surface. The screenplay is not a precise plan for the film but a map showing the journey of the story and, as such, can offer optional routes to take on that journey.
As we progress through our early reads of the script, it helps to put on a deerstalker hat and look at it the way the great fictional detectives might as a puzzle and loaded with clues for its solution.
Our initial intuitions and images that pop into our head are valuable and should be recorded for later reference but we can dig much deeper. We should be looking first for possibilities of approach to the visual storytelling, performances, production design and use of sound etc.
Having a list of possibilities allows us to test them, then narrow it down to the best options. If we start with one choice only then we have, at best, made an assumption and not really made a decision at all. That to me seems a lot like gambling on a horse because it is a nice colour or you like it’s name.
3. Question Everything!
Also like a detective we should come away from each read not just with possible solutions but also with questions.
These questions we will use on our chief suspect. The writer. Often much is left off the page, by necessity or mistake and by questioning the source of the story we gain greater insight into the film it can become.
These questions also bring to light any weaknesses, glossed over motivations and overly repeated ideas that may exist, and allow a more focused development process to take place if needed. And it’s usually always needed.
As a writer/director this list of questions becomes invaluable when preparing to share our baby with others. We will have so much foreknowledge and acceptance of the world of the story and the motivations of out characters that we take it for granted is obvious on the script and to others understanding.
Be prepared to give clarity on any potential confusion by questioning the script as if someone else has written it.
As we progress, using questions with our other collaborators, especially actors, is often the easiest and most dynamic way to bring them around to our understanding of the story of the film.
4. Insight over Knowledge
A vital by product of both the passion to tell this story and the amount of digging deeper we do is that we move from a basic template knowledge of the ‘type’ of genre and style we are dealing with and get to see the unique qualities of the specific story we are telling. We start to experience the story. The world of the story becomes familiar and the characters move from being ‘plot vessels’ into dynamic layered individuals with their own codes of behavior.
By testing the possibilities and asking questions we gain something far more valuable, a deep grounded understanding of how the story should unfold, why the characters behave the way they do and how we might be able to engage our audience.
To ‘entertain’ is to hold our audience inside the world of the story, the more we can apply insight the better chance we have of preventing them from popping out for popcorn or checking their Facebook page and updating it with how bored they are whilst our film is running.
5. Listen to others.
As our other collaborators come on board, they will also have read the screenplay and have both ideas and questions for us as the director. I find it best to wherever possible let them speak first and share those ideas. I actively promote that by asking them to tell me the story, rather than start with how they might go about their roles in the process.
Listening with full attention and an open mind sets you in good stead to be both fully aware of the challenges you might face and also allows others to see that you value the contributions. We will need to do this from the beginning right through to the last moment in post- production in our edit, grade and mix.
Always allow yourself time to evaluate the options that arise. Put them to the test. The best way to handle a strong choice made by a fellow collaborator that seems to fly against your vision is to say “show me”. You then have the ability to see why and it will or will not work and direct accordingly.
These are just some of the key areas we will explore and expand upon in the upcoming Script Analysis For Directors on May 18th and 19th, the aim of which will be to give a practical and dynamic set of tools for getting the most from the screenplay, your other collaborators and yourself as the director.
It will also be of great benefit to writers and producers too.