“Writing Movies and Documentaries, 101”

The Sand Creek Massacre Movie Poster

Writing of any form requires
study and research. The strength
of any type of writing resides in
the application of what one learns
and research, and then, applies it
by writing, writing, and more writing.
Each time one writes something, they
become a better writer.

It is rare a writer is hired to write a
documentary film. Many documentary films
do not have a script. Those that do, are
usually written by the director/producer
of the film. If a documentary script is written,
then you must write a double column script.

In a double column script you write the
visuals/images in the left column and the
audio/sound in the right column. While
the double-column script can help nail
down the exact shots blended with the
sound, the downside is that it places the
filmmaker in a corner. This corner is
a place that can limit the filmmaker’s
creativity, and virtually eliminate a cinema
verite approach to making documentaries.

As for feature films, short films, etc., one
can learn how to write screenplays through a
variety of ways. No approach to learning how
to write screenplays is inscribed in marble. It
is dependent upon the individual writer. Some take
screenwriting classes. Others study screenwriting
books. Some work with a script consultant until
they have their screenplay market ready. And others
wing it. And still others, utilize a combination of all
of the above.

You can determine what works best for you by knowing
who you are, how you best learn, why you want to write
documentaries, features, etc., and what audience you
want to attract with your work, and why. Answering
these questions will give you insight into what to
write and the approach to take in order how to learn
to write. That is the Zen of Writing.

The fine point of it is if you want to write movies
and/or documentaries, be sure you utilize more
than your passion for the subject matter unless
you are writing, simply, for the joy of writing.
Study and research Hollywood box hits. Study
and research successful documentary films.
Make certain you know, before you begin
writing, what you need to do in order to
write a successful script. Otherwise, you
will enter the world of writer who jumps
in with both feet without being aware of
what the reality of the business. In turn, this
can cause you to go on a journey into
insanity.

Donald L. Vasicek
Writer/Filmmaker/Consultant
Olympus Films+, LLC
http://www.donvasicek.com
dvasicek@earthlink.net

“The Anatomy of Theme in the Screenplay and Movie”

by
Donald L. Vasicek

What is theme? What does it mean? How does it apply to the screenplay? According to Merriam Webster dictionary, theme is: “A subject or topic of discourse or artistic representation.” In the screenplay, the theme must be introduced as early as possible. It should be introduced, as a visual, if at all possible, by page 3 of the screenplay or minute 3 of the film.

Since film is a visual medium, the screenwriter must strive to visually write. So, showing should take the place of telling in screenwriting. This is vital if you want to sell and get your screenplay produced.

How does one do that? Well, in “Born to Win”, one of my produced and award-winning screenplays, Justin, the main character in the film, has shown on Page 1, through a metaphor, that trust is the theme in the movie. This was visually accomplished in minute 1 of the movie by showing a butterfly fluttering away from Justin’s mother’s headstone. Justin won’t let go of his deceased mother, a problem he exhibits throughout the movie. The butterfly shows, “letting go”, by flying away, as a means for having trust.

On page 3, the theme for the movie is exhibited:

“Callie smiles. She tends the graves. Justin lingers. He notices Charlie’s shadow lengthen over him.

Charlie places his hand on Justin’s shoulder. He guides him towards the car. Justin slips his arm around Charlie’s waist.”

Can you identify the theme of trust in this scene? What visual shows that?

“Justin lingers”? It would work to show trust, with the exception that Justin lingers. It shows that Justin is giving Callie some consideration as someone he can trust. The key to utilizing “Justin lingers” as the theme is identified in the verb, “lingers.” “Lingers” exhibits the possibility of trust, but it does not exhibit trust. So, “Justin lingers”, is not the theme in the movie.

How about “Charlie places his hand on Justin’s shoulder.” There is an indication of trust here. Remember Justin is the main character, so everything should be written and seen from his point-of-view. Here, Justin allows Charlie to place his hand on his shoulder. So, this visual allows the first peek into the theme for the movie, trust, but it is not the theme.

Utilizing the visual approach to screenwriting and movie-making empowers the characters and it empowers the story. Without, the screenplay and/or the movie, falls flat and theaters will not want to exhibit it, let alone distributors picking it to put in theaters.

So, the more visuals the screenwriter can write and the filmmaker can film, the more powerful the screenplay and the movie will be. This, in turn, will create revenue. This, in turn, will create more work for the screenwriter and the filmmaker. That’s the way it works in the movie business.

So, instead of giving examples of screenplays and movies that back up what I am writing here, I will leave that up to you. Look at movies. Study them for the theme, particularly early on in the movie.

And, instead of telling you what visual in my example, “Born to Win”, depicts the theme of the movie, “trust”, you tell me. My email is dvasicek@earthlink.net. I’d love to hear from you.

Your choices are: “He guides him towards the car.” Again another element of trust, or is this the visual that identifies the theme, “trust.”

Or, is it: “Justin slips his arm around Charlie’s waist.”

You tell me. And remember, the theme, once exhibited in the screenplay and movie, must be visually shown in every scene from page 3 of the screenplay and minute 3 of the movie through to the end. If the screenwriter fails to execute the theme this way, then, the screenplay and the movie will fall flat.

And the screenwriter and filmmaker can show opposing views of the theme. For example, in “Born to Win”, Justin learns that the bad guy in the movie is one he should not trust, while the bad guy shows that he doesn’t trust law enforcement, and even his cohort.

Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC
The Zen of Writing/Filmmaking/Consulting
http://www.donvasicek.com
dvasicek@earthlink.net

John Wayne's birthplace.  Winterset, Iowa

John Wayne's birthplace. Award-Winning Writer/FIlmmaker Donald L. Vasicek/Winterset, Iowa

“How to Establish the Dramatic Premise of Your Screenplay and Beyond”

by
Donald L. Vasicek

“How To Establish the Dramatic Premise of your Screenplay and Beyond”
by Donald L. Vasicek

So, you began your screenplay with a visual metaphor. You’ve introduced your main character, the setting, the time, the theme, and you’re introducing other major and periphery characters. You’re getting to like your story pretty well, when all of sudden you hit a block. What is your story about? This question is asked many times over each day in the film business. So, you’d better be prepared for it.

Your story is about a character who reacts to something that causes him (I’m using the male gender because I honestly haven’t had time to learn how to express both genders when writing articles) to begin acting instead of reacting to what is going on around him. The first step in your main character’s transformation (you’d better have one if you want to sell and get your screenplays produced)is when he reacts to the introduction of the dramatic premise. Until this time in your screenplay, you should have established your main character who should be in a setting and time interacting with other characters who should all be showing (I emphasize “showing” instead of “telling” since all great writing “shows” instead of “tells”) different aspects of your theme. You should have established all of these elements by about page 10 of your screenplay.

On or about page 10 in your screenplay, you show something that occurs that is out of context of what you have set up so far. This turning point in your screenplay is when you have your main character react to something that establishes the dramatic premise of your screenplay. This dramatic premise will be the plot of your screenplay. Something happens to your main character that begins his transformation arc because he is forced to react to something he has been avoiding, but he must react to it until he overcomes it, or his life will never change for the better.

In the $56 million MGM screenplay I was a writer/consultant for, “Warriors of Virtue”, Ryan, the main character is shown in school, with his friends, with his family and how he reacts to these people and this setting. Problem is, Ryan wears a leg brace, a defect in his leg he inherited with birth. Kids push him around. He can’t play on the football team. He argues with his parents. His dog barks at him.

He has a lot of problems until he’s challenged to leap over this rushing water to show other kids that he’s not a wimp. Then, his real problems begin. He leaps and falls into the water. He is swept into an alternate universe where he has to change or he’ll never be able to return to his home. The evil Komodo and his army, a village of “people” and five Kung Fu Kangaroos who need his help stand in his way. This is where his transformation arc begins. This is where the dramatic premise for the movie is established. From this point on, Ryan begins to change, and to never be the same again.

This alternate universe (no different than what your main character should be experiencing at this point in your screenplay)”attacks” Ryan. He survives the plunge, but now he’s being threatened by the evil Komodo’s soldiers in a forest. When some Kung Fu kangaroos rescue him, he begins to see that someone cares about him, and he doesn’t even know why. And miraculously, he discovers that his leg is healed.

Fearful of the village, which is made up of a loving community of people, at about page 45, Ryan foreshadows he is going to be at the end of the movie. He meets a girl, Princess Anne and he isn’t afraid of her. At midpoint, the village is attacked by Komodo and his soldiers. Though fighting valiantly, the Kung Fu Kangaroos are outnumbered. They manage to drive the invaders away, but, they know, that unless they come up with some kind of miraculous idea, Komodo is going to take over the village and kill everyone. And now, Ryan has a stake in the outcome. Where before, he cared little about himself, now, he not only cares about himself, but he cares about Princess Anne as well. But, Komodo has kidnapped her to hold her for ransom in order to force the village leaders to give in to his demands and give up the village (Komodo desires the village because of its love and its peace because this kind of behavior terrorizes him).

At about page 75, Ryan tells the village leaders and the Kangaroos that he believes he can talk Komodo in releasing Princess Anne. Interested, he tells them how.

At about page 90, Ryan, under the protection of the hidden Kangaroos, Ryan confronts Komodo about releasing Princess Anne. Komodo, struck by Ryan’s audacity, challenges him to a duel with swords. Only Komodo knows his soldiers are near to back him up, but unaware of the hidden Kung Fu Kangaroos.

Komodo, by far the superior warrior to Ryan, is about to take off Ryan’s head with his sword, when some of the soldiers show their faces. At that point, the Kangaroos show themselves. An all out battle ensues.

Ryan races to rescue Princess Anne. The battle is so fierce, the out-numbered Kangaroos, are exhausted and about ready to admit defeat, when Ryan, grabs a sword and disarms Komodo. The Kangaroos take over and defeat Komodo’s soldiers. Ryan rescues Princess Anne and saves the village.

In the closing scene, the village priest creates a mystical and spiritual avenue for Ryan to travel so that he can return to his parents and other life. After a tearful goodbye to everyone, Ryan leaves.

Upon his return to the town where he lives, his parents, friends, and the kids in school, see that his leg is healed, and so is Ryan. Even his dog accepts him.

So, you need to take your character on a journey, by establishing the dramatic premise, then roughly timing turning points in the story and in your main character. Page 1, a visual metaphor that defines the theme of the story. Page 3, a line of dialogue, or an action that directly pinpoints the theme of your story. About Page 10, establish the dramatic premise. At about Page 30, something extraordinary should happen that spins your character and story around 360 degrees and sends it off in another direction. At about page 45, foreshadow how your main character is going to be at the end of your story. Just a small action, something your character does to reveal this, like when Ryan meets Princess Anne and he is unafraid of her.

From this point forward, you must have your main character creating all of the action. In other words, he/she must be pro-active in all events. At about Page 60, midpoint, you must show that about all is lost for your main character regardless of the new strength he/she is showing. By about Page 75, have your main character change the way he/she is trying to accomplish his/her goal. At about Page 90 of your screenplay, your main character should have a direct confrontation with the villain (villain represents evil in fiction) or antagonist (doesn’t necessarily represent evil so much as representing the opposing force to your main character’s goal).

This confrontation results in your main character winning and sets up how the story is going to end. For the next several pages, your story should build to a climax where your main character goes nose-to-nose with the villain or antagonist. Here, your main character should have an epiphany. For Ryan, it was his discovery that he must overcome Komodo in order return home to his family and friends. It is here where your main character’s fatal flaw (the flaw that has caused your main character to pursue a solution to it because it is more overpowering than any other flaw)comes to the surface and must be overcome by your main character. With Ryan, it was his fear, and he overcomes it.

After the climax, wrap up all loose ends and end the screenplay as soon as possible.

And there you have it. Nine easy steps to establish your dramatic premise and beyond.

Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC
“Commitment to Professionalism”
http://www.donvasicek.com
dvasicek@earthlink.net

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