If you could make a film tomorrow - fully budgeted, top cast, guaranteed distribution - what would it be? There’s a catch. This is the only film you’ll make, as writer or writer/director. This is your cinematic legacy that you leave behind, long after you’ve departed from this mortal coil.
This is a question I sometimes ask of fellow scriptwriters. The answers are always interesting, and often revealing, because here’s the kicker: when someone responds that they’d make a comedy, or a thriller, or a sci-fi adventure, you then ask them what they’re writing now or what’s in their portfolio. And, surprise, there isn’t a comedy, or a thriller, or a sci-fi adventure amongst them.
So, what’s your ideal film? Is it one of your existing scripts? Or is it the project in your brain that you are gearing up for, the one you’re developing your craft for; honing your skill for the “big story” that will wow people’s socks off and guarantee you all the career, fame and moolah that you’ve ever dreamed of?
What films do you most enjoy watching? And do these correspond with your existing screenplay efforts? Or are you surprised to find that what you write is completely different in tone and genre than what you watch at the cinema?
If yes, why is this? Should you be writing what you enjoy at the flicks or should you be writing “what you know” in an attempt to impress people with your original voice?
It’s tricky. New writers are always told to write original pieces because producers are looking for fresh voices but the market is looking for genre-fare, and this is what new writers favour because that’s what excites them about cinema in the first place.
Where do you go? What do you do? Where do you start?
Maybe the advice of “write what you know” should be “write what you want”. This means that instead of misinterpreting “write what you know” as encouragement to scribble a semi-autobiography of your dull existence, you should “write what you want” and tell the story that burns in your brain, the one that’s itching to be told regardless of taste, decency, tone, genre, audience expectation, whatever.
“Write what you want” means finding the passion and energy with the ideas that excite you, and the characters that you think are worth exploring. If it ends up a script that is too hot to handle, that’s fine, because ironically it will serve as a fiercely original and compelling “writing sample” that will open doors for commissioned work from TV and/or film.
This isn’t meant to encourage controversial topics just for the sake of it. What we’re after is original, interesting, lively, entertaining, comedic and compelling stories, no matter what their guise, no matter what their genre. And this can only come from you, rather than any ‘how to’ book or ’48 steps to the perfect genre script’. Write what you want, but write it well, with passion and conviction, and everything else will follow.