I guarantee you that if you ask a bunch of people what they each think the most important part of making a film is, each person will give you a different answer. In my personal opinion, I’d say it’s the script.
The script is the foundation. It’s the story, it’s the characters, it’s the dialogue, it’s the places and props, the mood and the message. All of the particulars can be changed and tweaked over the course of the film being made (and it usually is, sometimes to a degree that it’s a completely different movie), but the script is the starting key to understanding what the film actually needs to get made.
The Story and Characters
At its most fundamental, the script is the original keeper of the story and its characters. It contains the beginning, the middle and the end, and tells us everything that we need to know about the people throughout.
It’s true that you can make a great movie from a bad script, but that’s a rare occurrence. Really, you should strive to have the most solid script possible from a story and character perspective before investing any time and money into a film.
Conversely, the opposite is also true – if you don’t understand the mechanics of a script or completely lose the story, you could have the best script in the world and come out with a terrible film.
If you’ve ever actually looked a script, you’ll notice that it’s formatted in a very specific way. Each new scene is denoted by what’s called a scene header, which tells us right off the bat some pretty important location and timing information, like if it’s an interior or an exterior scene or what time of day it is. At first this information may seem irrelevant, but it’s important for two reasons.
Firstly (…always firstly), the story. Say for example, if a spy is following someone in broad daylight, he or she would likely approach the situation differently than in the dead of night. Secondly, it helps give us a bigger picture of time in that we can understand what kind of timespan the entire movie is taking place over – a day? A week? A year? This all matters to… you guessed it, the story.
Reading on, there’s usually a physical description of the scene – important objects to our understanding the character or the story are highlighted, and characters are described in enough detail for the reader to be able to paint a visual picture as it’s read.
Dialogue is separated to show who’s talking and is squeezed into a smaller column down the center of the page, allowing for easy identification. Once in a while you’ll see a performance direction in there too, but this is generally frowned upon in a written script.
General Good Practices
In fact, there are a lot of things that good scripts *don’t* do which a lot of novice scriptwriters end up doing. Writing things like specific performance or camera directions not only bloat the script and make it difficult to read, but presumptuously take the control out of the hands of all the key creatives who are actually making the film. A good writer will trust that the director will translate the script to a visual medium in the best way possible, and will focus on telling the story.
Another thing that a lot of novice scriptwriters will do is rely too much on dialogue to tell the story – remember, film is a visual medium. Show, don’t tell, the story. There’s nothing more boring to watch than people talking about doing stuff without actually doing anything. That goes for real life, too!
Once the script is in a happy place (or close to it, at least), it’s ready to be turned into a film! But there’s still a lot of prep to be done before it’s ready to actually be shot. Next time we’ll talk about how the script is broken down and translated into the practical terms of actually making it.