Cyber Film School asked me to write a piece about "making a digital movie".  Turned into a 4-Part series, and one of their most popular articles (so they tell me), which they featured on their homepage throughout the first six months of this year.

    The Screenwriting Site "American Dreamer" also "picked up the pieces", and featured them on the their Digital Movies page.

      Part 1 recounts writing the script.  Part 2 -- the Shooting.  Part 3 -- Editing.  And Part 4 -- Markets and "film look".

 

Shooting a DV Feature:  Part 1

"I'm Going To Make My Movie Now"

Article by Steve Saylor

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 |

 

Yeah, I really mean it this time.  And you can't stop me.  Where will I get the money?  Well, you see... I Don't Need... No... Stinking... Money!

Sure, they're laughing now.  Maestro?  A little backstory?

You write a script, try to get it read, spend a year trying to get it made.  No go.  So you write another, give it the big push, and... splatt!

The fourth one clicks.  Of course, you had to throw in a little old-fashioned murder, layer that with some darkly-humored whodunnit, add a robust topping of lust and greed.  But it sells.

Some affordable "stars" agree to act.  Deal contingent upon Financing.  Oops, I said the F-word.

Finally gets made for $1 million.  Compromises abound.  Turns out okay.  2 a.m. showings on HBO.  Disappears.

But now you can get your scripts read by the studios.  Or by their "readers".  The underlings have to read 'em.  It's their job.  It's also their job to say no.  I once knew a reader who was fired because, just a couple times, she said... maybe.

The Big Cheezies don't want to hear about spec scripts.  They especially don't want to read them.  They can only say "yes" to a handful of projects and those will come from major directors and stars.  The Execs PRAY TO GOD these pitches contain the words "remake" or "sequel", or at least "loosely-based upon a fairly true-story".

 

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Damn the torpedoes.  You write 10 more scripts, hoping for the chance to direct one of them somewhere down the line.  Half of 'em get optioned.  Again, the F-word.

Who can afford to lose a few million on a movie?  Sure, you're convinced (or blinded) that your gem is Box Office Gold.  Try to ignore the fact that MOST movies lose money.  Almost ALL of the "smaller ones" do.

Stubborn?  Stupid?  You keep writing.  To hell with what anybody else thinks.  If you're not writing for yourself at this point, you're probably not writing.

One of your scripts, written with a certain actress/comedienne in mind, makes its way up the food-chain at her production company.  She likes it.  They're going to pitch it to the studios.

It's an exciting time.  Savor it.  Fantasize the future.  Reality rears its smartass when you realize the "big stars" are pitching 5 or 10 projects at any given time.

And they've probably got a few "remakes and sequels" up their sleeve.  They're not stupid.  They know the studios would rather wager an "update" of Green Acres than ante-up an original screenplay.  That's what happened in my case.

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Enough backstory already. And let me apologize to any aspiring screenwriters who may already be reconsidering their relocation to LA-LA.  Shucks, I wuz just tellin' ya the truth.  Hey, if you want to write, you'll write!  My advice is "back that-a-ways" a few paragraphs -- Write for yourself.

Now, about that movie...

There used to be two games in town:  The Majors (20 million - 200 million budget), and the Minors (a couple million, maybe less).

Now there's a Third:  The Triple-A League, The Farm System, whatever you want to call it.  ANYBODY'S BALLGAME!

If you're reading this at Cyber Film School, you've already seen the Headlines.  "Professional Editing On Desktop Computers!" "Mini-DV Camcorders Deliver!"  Don't worry about losing quality when you transfer and copy.  It's digital.  You can even approximate the look of film with these software programs.

I heard those Headlines two years ago and, like a screenwriter, began plotting.  I didn't have money for the equipment, but I knew a guy at our local cable station, a station that had just purchased a couple Sony VX1000 Mini-DV Camcorders.  And the computer was soon to come...

 

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Let's get down to some Story Elements.  Roll Act One...

I can borrow the CAMERA when it's not in use.  I have some FRIENDS who perform at a local "cabaret".  Talented ACTORS.  They'll donate some TIME.  What else do I need?  I can write the SCRIPT, find some LOCATIONS, operate the CAMERA, and DIRECT, then EDIT...

"Hear Ye!", I proclaimed from the highest hill.  "I can make a two-hour 'feature film' for under a thousand dollars!"

Nobody was listening, except my wife and two kids.  And they seemed skeptical, and not all that excited.  But I was on a mission.  Let's get moving!  Before the guy at the studio quits his job.

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STEP 1 -- ACTORS.  Availability.  They were busy in the summer and winter.  It was now May.  I'd have all summer to write the script, and we'd shoot in September.

How much time could I ask of them?  Not that much.  They had lives, kids.  And they weren't amateurs.  They were used to getting paid for their work.

Ten, maybe twelve days for the leads.  Three days for the supporting roles.  No, not full days.  Half days.  Four or five hours, that's all.  Whadaya say?!  Of course I can pull this off.

*  *  *  *

 

STEP 2 -- SCRIPT.  I had a drawer full.  Perhaps one of them... No, forget it.  The script would have to be tailor-made to fit these... rather restrictive extenuating circumstances.

This is what I call "working backwards".  The story doesn't come first.  It begins to creep in there, somewhere down the line.

What about the genre?  Thriller, Action-Adventure, Sci-Fi, Period Piece?  Of course not!  I've got a week to shoot, and no budget!

How about Horror?  Get some sex in there.  The movie might actually make money!  Yeah, we could get some teenagers, a deserted house out in the country, and after they "git nekkid and do it", they die!

Naw.  No cheesy exploitation, sex-and-violence.  Been there.  Not what I want to do.  The cast wouldn't either.

We're down to the staple of the independent food groups:  The small, character-driven, relationship piece.  Could be a Comedy?  But when you fall on your face attempting comedy, it really hurts.

Alright, it's a Drama.  But a drama with some humor.  Quirky, dark humor.  My favorite kind.

*  *  *  *

STEP 3 -- LOCATIONS.  We live in a SMALL TOWN in the mountains, which means (duh)... the story will be set in a small, mountain town.

We can use the TV STUDIO, work that in somehow.  Need a couple HOUSES for interiors.

Ever ask somebody if you can use their house to shoot a movie?  See their eyes glaze over, notice that distant gaze that sweeps their countenance?

But they don't know about DV, so you explain.  It's just me and this little camera, a tripod, a microphone.  No lighting equipment.  And just a couple actors.  We'll take off our shoes, won't touch anything.  We'll be in-and-out of your house while you're running errands.  And that's pretty much the truth.

I know someone who works at the HOSPITAL.  We could use a room.  Great!  A life-and-death struggle sweetens the pot.  A story derives its weight from the what's at stake.  Life and death is the ultimate.  Alright!  We can kill somebody!  At least, seriously maim them.

*  *  *  *

Let's work on the story.  There are two actresses who I think are just exceptional.  Build it around them.  Make it a family drama.  Gotta be really dysfunctional.  Everyone can relate.

There's a little age difference, not enough for mother/daughter.  Enough for step-mother/daughter.

We'll get the step-mother in the TV studio.  She has her own cable-access show in this little town.  She loves to see herself on TV, hear herself sing, do a little preaching.  Tammy Fay Bakker meets Pat Stevens (from SNL).

The father has money.  It's what attracted her.  She's hopelessly obsessed with her social standing.  Appearance is everything.

*  *  *  *

What's the conflict with the daughter?  An event in the past.  Has to be really horrible.  Remember, this is drama!

Okay... The daughter got pregnant toward the end of high school.  Step-mom can't bear the shame, the dirt on the family name.  She covers it up, takes the girl away for a few months, fakes an illness.

The baby comes early.  They weren't ready -- a small clinic was the only facility within reach -- and the baby dies.  The daughter almost dies.  She's left in a condition where she can never have kids for the rest of her life.

On top of this, Mom covers it all up.  No one back home will ever know.  It will remain their little secret forever, a secret which will quickly be forgiven and forgotten...

Yes!  This is getting awfully tragic, which, in drama, is simply fabulous!

*  *  *  *

The daughter takes off immediately after high school, won't ever come back.  She gets along fine with her father, but he will have to visit her.  Years go by and...

Well, we've got to get the daughter back home again, don't we?  Let's see, we've got that hospital room...so...

The daughter gets a phone call from a doctor as the movie opens.  Her father's been in an accident.  He's in a coma.  She'd better make travel arrangements, pronto.

There now, that was easy.  She's home again, and relations with mom are predictably strained.  How long can we work this?  Need another character or two in the mix.

*  *  *  *

I have friends with an 11-year-old daughter who's a great little actress, not unlike Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon".  She becomes the step-sister.  She was 5 when big-sis took off, never to return.  She hasn't forgiven her.  We can get some mileage there...

Need a love interest!  Gotta have it!  But what's this guy do in this little town?  Writers are always looking for interesting occupations for their characters.  They're not that easy to find.  How about... Worm Farmer?!

I've written my last few scripts with a friend, and he contributed a good deal to this one.  He'd seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel about some guy who raises worms for a living.

Worm Farmer?  I like it.  But let's make him a little more complex than a Country Bumpkin Slime Peddler.  He's from a well-to-do family back east, went to law school at their insistance.  Quits.  Big fight with dad.  So he moves out to Idaho to raise worms for a living... just to piss 'em off!

Worms can metaphorically work their way in-and-out of the story.  Eventually, she must decide whether or not to pull the plug on her father, return him to the earth, ashes to ashes.  We all have to "lie down with the worms" sooner or later.

*  *  *  *

The daughter (Carrie) knows the fella who runs the TV station.  He's always liked her.  She happens to be there when the "worm guy" (Hutch) makes his appearance.

Hutch has his hands in this box full of worms, the slimy critters squirming around his fingers.  He convinces her to join in, caresses her hands along with the worms...

CARRIE
So, umm... how long have you... been into worms?

HUTCH
Hey... are you married?

*  *  *  *

The actress playing Carrie can ride a horse, and a motorcycle.  Okay, her character can do that, too.

Hutch calls her the next day, wants to take her for a ride on his Hog.  She wants to know if he likes horses.  He doesn't. CUT TO:

WHOOPS and HOLLARS as she comes galloping up the driveway at the worm farm.  Once or twice around the house.  SKIDS to a stop at the front door where HUTCH has appeared.  After a pause...

HUTCH
Now, does the horse enjoy that?

CARRIE
He loves it.  Wouldn't you?

Hutch reaches out to scratch its head.

HUTCH
Can I pet him?  Ughh.. he's kinda sweaty.

CARRIE
(to Hutch)
Yeah, I'm afraid I got him all worked up. Easy there, boy...

He wants to show her around, but she walks toward the motorcycle, climbs aboard, wants to take it for a ride.  Just out to the road.  He objects, to no avail, watches helplessly as she rides away.  And keeps riding.  She's not coming back.

There's a tag to this scene:  It's the next day.  He's out in the field, riding the horse.  We hear the motorcycle.  Here she comes, flying down the highway on the hog.  He waves.  She waves back... and keeps going.  The motorcycle spooks the horse.  He gets thrown...

*  *  *  *

The weeks roll by.  Their relationship grows, gets serious.  He talks about having a family.  She avoids it.  He doesn't know her secret.  Neither do we, by the way.

Daddy won't wake up.  Step-mom's getting weird, taking pills.  People are tuning in to her show for a goof.

She decides to lead the town in prayer in hopes of "bringing him back".  It's embarrassing.  And it doesn't work.

I have a karaoke player.  How 'bout this?  Get some shots of her, bed-side at the hospital, gushing into the mic, "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You..."  Or maybe, "It's Now Or Never..."  (I don't know about you, but this tweaks my funny-bone)

Their doctor is a handsome fellow.  We start to see some chemistry there.  Or just raging hormones.  Let's have them embrace, even kiss, while daddy "looks on".

 

*  *  *  *

On a couple occasions, we cut to Carrie relating the prior events to a gentleman in an office.  Is he a psychiatrist?  An officer of the law?

As a writer, you want to lead an audience along.  Don't spill it all up front.  Ration out those plot points.  Keep them on the edge of, "What's going on here?"  But don't lead them along for too long, or they'll just get pissed off.

Anyway, we begin to see that there's a custody-case in the works.  He's employed by the State.  Social services.  He's advising her in regards to gaining custody of her step-sister.

We also realize that the story has been told in flashback.  And the "past" is catching up with the present right here as we head toward the finish line.

The sister wants to live with Carrie and Hutch.  The mother's not much of a parent these days, whacked out half the time.

The man tries to talk some sense into Carrie.  The mother has made it clear that Carrie's not taking that girl away from her.  She'll pull her act together when they go before the judge, he tells Carrie.  She's the girl's real mother!  Carrie doesn't stand a chance.

If they drag this through court, trashing each other in public, it'll be the worst thing that could happen to the girl.  The man convinces her that... she'll have to find another way.

Time to wrap this up.

*  *  *  *

The nice thing about being writer/director/producer:  You don't have to answer to anybody.  You can have your characters say or do anything you want!  You can comment on politics or religion (touchy subjects if someone else is footing the bill).

Carrie doesn't believe in God.  Or in anything, really.  Throughout the course of the movie, she's been looking for something to believe in... anything!  At this point, maybe it's time to try... Forgiveness?

It'll be for the best if she leaves for awhile.  She tries to explain this to her step-sister (Devon) as they say good-bye...

CARRIE
I'm tired of fighting with her, Devon.  It's a losing battle.
Maybe your mom's right.  Maybe God has a plan.  Maybe
there's a reason for all this -- though I can't imagine what
the hell it could be.  But if we simply... believe... and turn
everything over to... Him, then maybe He'll take care of...

DEVON
You don't really believe that, do you?

CARRIE
No, not really.  But I think I'm ready to believe in...
something.  In being able to forgive.  It's the only way
that anything good can come out of this...

DEVON
So you're going to leave again?

CARRIE
Not for long this time. I'll be back...

DEVON
When?

CARRIE
I don't know... Christmas?

DEVON
Yeah, you and Santa Claus.  Maybe you can catch a ride
with him.

Carrie takes a long breath.  It's time to go.

CARRIE
Can I have a hug?

DEVON
No.

She tries to catch Devon's eye.  The girl won't look at her.

CARRIE
You're going to make this hard?

DEVON
Yeah.
(a pause)
Good-bye.

*  *  *  *

Carrie has a farewell scene with Hutch.  He can't understand it, either.  She never levels with him.

On her way out of town, she drops by the TV studio, wants a word with her step-mother before mom goes "on the air".

Carrie tries to apologize, to say "I'm sorry".  But the mother (who's supposedly the "righteous" one) can't find it in herself to do the same.

She begins laying into her step-daughter with the verbal jabs.  Carrie fights back.

*  *  *  *

Remember the guy who runs the station?  He's been spurned by Carrie, and he's sick of dealing with the mom.  Well, as he watches from the shadows, he gets an idea...

He secretly turns on the cameras, sends their argument out "live" to the whole town.  Cut to shots of various characters staring in disbelief at their TV's.

All the dirty secrets are exposed as Carrie relives that "secret" from their past.  Hutch is watching, too.

The sexual escapades of the mother get some "air time".  There's a TV in the hospital room.  The father stares at it with... vacant eyes.  Or are they?

*  *  *  *

When the ladies are suddenly aware of the guy in the shadows, his camera focused on them...

It's one of those moments where "time stops".  Deer-in-headlight expressions, wide-eyed fear.  We fade into the epilogue.

That night.  Delores takes a handful of pills.  Now that everyone knows the truth, well... it's just too much for her to endure.  Why go on?

Oh what fun!  Committing suicide... out of self-pity.  It just doesn't get any better than this for an actor.  And she had a ball with it.

*  *  *  *

We could end it right there.  Naturally, our "little family" gets to stay together.  Gotta have a happy ending.  The little girl will be the child that Carrie never had.

I've got an idea... a priceless shot.  How about, they get mom to the hospital before she dies.  And there she is, in the next bed, in adjoining comas with her husband.

The final voice-over...


CARRIE (V.O.)
She always said they'd be back together soon.
Turns out... it didn't take that long...

The voice-over will continue, right up to the final credits...

*  *  *  *

Wait just a minute!  Not so fast!  What are we going to do with our comatose couple?!  The Dueling Comas?  We can't leave 'em hanging...

Aw, gee.  Playing God can get so... tedious.  All these little decisions we have to make.  Who gets to live, who bites it.

Should we wake up one of them?  Both?  Yank the plug on one?  Both?

Your first instinct says: He wakes up when she dies.  But that's too cliche.  Can't go with it.

Better come up with something though.  Pretty quick.  Because we start shooting next week.

 

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