The Working Experience: 10 Tips for Writing a Short Film
Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and check out our website, theworkingexperience.com, for videos, merchandise and podcast episodes. You can also find us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
There is no movie without a script.
A friend of mine said to me, “Hey, I have a great idea for a film. A guy wakes up in a motel room with a briefcase cuffed to his wrist and a dead woman in the bed next to him.”
“Yeah, that sounds interesting. What’s the story about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s all I got.”
Okay, so great idea but what do you do with it? Well, if you ever want to see it on a big screen, you need to write a script. That might sound daunting but here are some ways to break it down into easy to manage pieces.
- Keep it short.
I would suggest 15 pages or less (in terms of length of the film, think 1 minute per page). I would imagine that you want to submit the film to festivals. They want films that are easily programmable into hour long blocks. Anything over 20 minutes is dead in the water, especially if you are an unknown filmmaker. It takes up too much space.
It is so much better to create an 8 minute movie that packs a punch and leaves them wanting more than a 25 minute movie that bores them to tears.
2. Sit down and start writing out notes.
The portrait artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us show up and get to work.”
Write scraps of dialogue, describe locations and scenes: who is there, what are they doing, what are they wearing…whatever comes to mind. If you are artistically inclined draw pictures of the scenes and the characters; these will be useful later on.
Have fun with it. Quentin Tarantino has a ritual where he uses different colored pens for the different characters.
The bottom line is you have to get to work.
3. Get a screenwriting program.
There are free ones such as Celtx that are available online or you can buy Final Draft for about $120. You can learn a lot about the filmmaking process by seeing the terms that are used in a script: SCENE HEADING, TRANSITION, SHOT, CHARACTER etc. and how they are laid out. You can see how use of headings: INT (interior). HOUSE-DAY conveys important information to anyone reading it, such as a producer or a cinematographer.
If you are going to send the script to a producer or submit it to a contest (there are a lot of contests out there) they will expect to see it in the proper format.
Plus, it’s really gratifying to see your writing in a script form. It makes me feel like a real writer.
4. Keep writing.
Understand that you will go through multiple drafts of your script. My current short script is on its 9th draft. It has changed rather radically from the original idea.
Allow your ideas to evolve. As you keep writing you will make new discoveries that will take you in totally different directions. Be open to this. Listen to your characters, read their dialogue out loud, let them guide you.
It’s a long process and it can be frustrating but it is so rewarding.
5. Write a backstory for your characters.
I got this idea from a featurette for the movie Collateral, by Michael Mann. Tom Cruise plays a hitman named Vincent. Mann invented a whole story about Vincent’s father being an anti-war activist who was into jazz but he was also an abusive alcoholic. Mann went to Gary, Indiana and took pictures of a really rundown neighborhood where Vincent grew up. Cruise was able to draw on this information to develop the character, so while the backstory is not in the movie explicitly the audience is seeing it on the screen.
Where is your character from? What sports do they play? What is their favorite movie? What music do they listen to?
This is a really fun part of the process and actors love it.
Hint: You can ask actors these questions during the casting process to see if they understand the characters.
6. Have fun with the character’s names.
Make the names meaningful, even if you are the only one who gets the meaning. Paul Schrader, writer of the iconic ode to loneliness, Taxi Driver, named the main character Travis Bickel. He said that to him, the word “Travis” evoked the idea of “travel”, that Travis is a rootless person.
The name also speaks to the contradictions in the character. “Travis” sounds smooth and soft while “Bickel” has a harder, harsher sound. Travis is capable of kindness and he is also capable of great violence. He wants to reach out to others but he has a pathology that keeps him alone.
You don’t have to go overboard but give it some thought.
7. Get feedback.
Go online and find a young producer or small production company that has done some decent work (go to the website and see what they put there for potential clients to watch) and send it to them. Tell them you are interested in shooting a short film. See what they have to say about the script. You can send it to friends and family but someone with experience with shooting films will be able to give you reliable feedback.
Note: All big name, big budget scripts by established writers are read and “fixed” by script doctors.
8. Read screenplays.
Many are available online and there are a couple of interesting exercises you can do with them.
A. Get the script for one of your favorite movies, one that you have seen multiple times. Pick a favorite scene and study how it is written on the page. See how that compares to what you see on the screen.
B. Get the script for a movie you have never seen. Read it through, then read it again. The second time, make notes on how you would direct it. What do you see when you read the script? The watch the film and compare it to your notes and your vision.
9. Watch other short films.
The film “Green” won the short film category at Sundance in 2019. It is 12 minutes long. A seemingly simple and yet deeply affecting story.
10. Perfection is your enemy.
The final, final draft of your film is what appears on screen. Make as many decisions as you can on paper but realize that, even on big budget, multimillion dollar films, things change at the last minute.
Remember, the script is the most essential component; there can be no movie without the script.
I’ll be writing future segments on the filmmaking process as I make my own short film.