Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Write What You Want

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.


Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I've got this world war 2 thing planned out in my head that is fictional, but built on a true little known fact about Nazi experiments.

I guess it's my Saving Private Ryan size idea. I can't imagine it would be made on anything less than a mega budget, and the research needed to make it accurately portray the war would take ages. Because of that I haven't put it on paper as I would embarrass the story.

If I ever find the amount of free time needed to write this one I may attempt it, but until then it remains the one I'll do when I'm Spielberg's buddy.

Suki Singh said...

If I was to write what I know Danny, I would be arrested but then again, what I know is pretty boring, that's why I make stuff up. I agree, write what you want. You know me Danny, I'm a sucker for a great concept. God bless you and yours.

Anonymous said...

Hah, agree with Suki. Us girlies are scarier than you lot think...

But you must ALWAYS write what you want. Sure, no one wants to make my specs (yet) cos the zeitgeist or whatever the hell it is, is wrong, but people do remember them and that's an important first step. My one attempt at trying to tune into the market went horribly awry...I even got some coverage back saying, "What's gone wrong Lucy??" That was enough to convince me you should stick with what you want - and NEED - to write. Anything else is plastic rubbish.

Paul said...

Chris, I'm intrigued by your script idea... maybe research a couple of hours a week, its surprising how knowledge snowballs.

Hidden facts about nazi experiments - it needs to be told!

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I wouldn't say it's a hidden fact, it just isn't very well known.

Oh BTW, I'm now in paranoid screenwriter mode and I'm not giving it up ;) But you know how it goes. Next week a film will open with the same story.

Anonymous said...

Good one Danny. I've been writing what some people have called "small well observed character movies." Producers have liked them, but have shied away financing them because they don't have an obvious commercial appeal/market whatever. But I like writing 'em, and they keep getting me noticed. Whereas my one attempt at forcing myself to write something blatantly commercial ended in disaster. Write what you want and like is what I say. It's all about remaining true to your own voice isn't it?

Tim Clague said...

Remember what Marty Scorsese says - one for you, one for the studio. Danny's challenge to us is the same. Your slate should be the same. One for producers (low budget) and one where you let rip and show off.

Both, obviously, should be yours and should be great (naturally)