How to Shoot a Feature Film for Under $10,000: And Not Go to Jail
by Bret Stern – Performing Arts – 2002 – 320 pages
Great book, while the technical information on film stock, etc has largely become obsolete, the character creation and plot development section makes this a must have book for any aspiring writer. The plot and character portion of this book is the bible for Dan Brown and Joss Whedon, almost every one of their characters and plots is pulled straight from this section.
I bought this book at the college bookstore, and I’ll have to look for it in my boxes of crap when I move shortly. This text below is totally copyrighted, but is 100% useful for aspiring writers to create their own characters and write an interesting (if not slightly campy) story. I searched for “how to create interesting characters” and “how to write good characters”, and the google results are hoplessly boring. This is not only good information, but a good read, too.
I transcribed this by hand from Google Books, and there are pages missing, so I apologize. There’s a bit on “opening scenes” which is fantastic, but I can’t find it on the web anywhere. I’ll try and paraphrase.
The opening scene should be highly interesting and engaging to the viewer, to grab them right off the bat. This should occur within the first five minutes of the movie. You have several choices. Lesbians, a Sex Scene, a murder, or a fight. Or possibly a lesbian sex scene that leads to a fight ending in a murder. The movie “Romeo Must Die“. This movie features just such an intro scene: lesbians kissing on the dance floor, followed by a fight that progresses into a gunfight/multiple murder. Check out this plot summary, “An avenging cop seeks out his brother’s killer and falls for the daughter of a businessman who is involved in a money-deal with his father.”. This is #3 on “the indie five” (rehash of Romeo and Juliet) and features a whole slew of characters described below.
This is a GREAT primer for any author, and you can pick out basic plot devices from shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and pretty much any camp (but successful!) TV show in the last 15 years or so. It was written with a focus on screen writers for independent movie writers/makers, but most of it applies to novelists and short story writers as well.
THE INDIE FIVE
1. Slackers talking in quick-witted Woody Allenesque dialogue updated for the twenty-first century.
2. The multiple-noun-titled movies. Examples include Gas Food Lodging and Eat Drink Man Woman. These movies often have nothing to do with their titles but for some reason they have something to do with a couple of lost soules being visited by a stranger who shows them a whole new outlook on life.
3. The updated or blatantly ripped-off film from past film noir movie you rehash into something entirely new.
4. The gay indie film. It’s like any other film, except a bunch of people are gay.
5. The “I shot this film on digital video and didn’t use any lights or a tripod to keep it real” movie.
Now it’s your turn to boil your story down into two or three sentences that will encapsulate your idea. This is your plot, and you should write it down because every scene you write and every word your characters breathe should in some way be connected to your plot. These three sentences are also very useful when somebody asks, “What is your film about?”
Once you have the spine of your story, you need a road map as to how the script will unfold. This road map is made up of plot points. A plot point is an action or event that spins your story off into a new direction. For example, say you pick basic story structure nubmer two from the “Bankable Four” section. In this story, when the lead character jumps in his car and starts his three-thousand-mile drive to Mexico to get laid, that’s a plot point. Say your lead character stops to buy gas in a small southern town. As he pumps his gas, he is accidentally mistaken for a mass murderer and thrown into the town lockup; that’s another plot point. Here is the standard Hollywood formula: Your first plot point should occur around page 30, the second on page 90. That’s it – two plot poins per story. But we are going to have a plot point every ten to fifteen pages (what we lack in money we will make up in plot points). Remember, more is better.
Now that you know your story, we need to talk about the characters. your script is going to be character driven. no matter what type of film you choose to maike, in one form or another, it will have the following cast of characters: the strong male or female lead, one sex interest, and three to five miscellaneous supporting characters. Hey, if you can make an interesting film with just one character, then go ahead. but you are going to have one hell of a time with the sex scenes and gunfights. your characters must be instantly recognizable for what they are. the bad guys wear black. they have scarred faces and bad table manners. the good guys wear white and have perfect teeth, charming personalities, and the ability to break into song at any moment.
Here is a pool of stereotypical characters that should help you populate your script. Feel free to mix-and-match character traints to form a character that is pleasing to you.
Java. The down-on-his-luck cop given one last chance to redeem himself. Often times, he is a trigger-happy alcoholic.
Scott. The slacker who has decided to try and find a job while not realizing that he is really in love with his best friend.
Angel. The hooker with a heart of gold, or the bad girl who wants to be good, or the good girl who want to be bad. Her only rule is that she never kisses anyone on the lips… unless she’s in love.
Mr. Scaggs. The hit man who talks about the intricacies of fast food and all it has to offer society.
Moroflex. The scientist who can save the world and explain the more convoluted plot points in your script as elementary science to the viewing audience. This character is essential for revealing exposition that you cannot afford to shoot visually.
Franz. The nerdy, nervous guy who hands out with the lead character to make the lead character look that much better. Franz usually has top-secret computer clearance.
Loopie. The crazy girl whom the hero lusts after because she is so full of life and vitality, but she is just a sham to teach our lead about the true meaning of love.
Charley. The strong female lead. She knows what she wants and usually gets it.
Thumper. The large, stupid man; sometimes he is mentally impaired, but he is always overweight. This character usually makes it to the end of the film, and then he is killed off at the last minute because the audience has grown sentimental toward this harmless, good-natured man. Use a name that is more befitting of a pet than a human. It’s a nice touch.
Biff. The Izod-wearing, crew-cut jerk who assumes that date rape is a girl’s idea of a good time. This character must always drive a convertible sports car. Also note that no high school or college movie can be made without this guy.
Mr. Smith. The bumbling authority figure, oftentimes supplying us with comic relief.
Russo. Our hero’s sidekick. He has a tendency to talk in one-liners, providing the audience with comic relief. This funny guy will be tortured and then killed by the bad guys, giving our hero even more motivation to kick butt.
Remember that audiences like people they can recognize, and even the blind should be able to pick up on these oversimplified characters. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can make up your own characters. Here is a quick-and-easy way to invent characters that may help you work out some of your pent-up hostilities at the same time. Invent characters based on /real/ people. Say you need to invent a villain. First, make a list of all the jerks you know. Next, choose the jerk that has the characteristics that match up to those you wish your villian to have. Now, think of an overexaggerated, grotesque caricature of this jerk. This is your character description, so write it down. Now, every time you have to write about this villain, just think about the person he is based on and what actions he would take under such circumstances. The best part comes when you have to kill him off. You should be able to save yourself thousands of dollars and years of psychological therapy with this writing technique. One important note: Remember not to use the person’s actual name.
By the same token, you may be tempted to model somebody in your script after yourself – perhaps the hero who saves the world from certain destruction, or maybe the world’s greatest lover. While this is certainly tempting, it can also be very dangerous. The first people who will view your film will be friends, family members, and significant others. Once they recognize which character is you, they might learn a little too much about the true you and begin to draw conclusions. If the character loves to needlepoint, don’t be suprised if at Christmastime you receive a set of needles and miles of colored yarn. The other danger is you and your swelling head. Your ego could spin dangerously out of control. You might begin to beleive that the superperfect person in the movie really is you. But what happens when you try to stop that jumbo jet with your pinky? OUCH! Reality will come crashing back in, albeit too late. And for that fleeting instant before you pass into the netherworld, you will realize that you had become an uncontrollable egomaniac.
The Action Movie
You have decided to make an exploitation B movie. Now, many people would turn up their noses and say you are wasting your time. I say bull. Movies are about escape, and nothing says escape better then a movie about a secret island inhabited by busty blonds and randy dinosaurs.(google cuts off here, p.22 and 23 are missing)
OK, you’re cruising along. You’ve got about forty pages down and-bang!-you’ve run into a brick wall. Your mind has gone blank. You feel like you have been degaussed, a film term for erasing videotape. Hey, don’t worry about it. Now is the perfect time for your character to pull out a gun. And since it’s out, why not have him kill somebody? This should spin your story off into a new direction, and the ideas should come flowing back.
For example, you can now introduce the wife of the dead man. Have your lead character take her to bed. Oh, but her jealous sister enters while they are in the act. Is this easy or what? Reluctantly, she joins them (potential lesbian scene). They decide to work together, but the sister is really working for the bad guys.
The possibilities are endless. Just don’t be afraid to involve your characters in murder or unsafe sex, and your movie will be a winner.
THE LAST SCENE OF A B MOVIE
You have the opening of your movie. Now you need the ending. What happens at the climax of your film? Again, there are very few options to you. First off, somebody has to win. Americans love a winner. A film that does not have a clear-cut winner with force it’s audience to actually think, and that’s the last thing they want to do. Many foreign films go the ambiguous-ending route. Believe me, you don’t want to go that way. So remember, either the good guy or the bad guy wins.
In your movie, you must have good guys and bad guys. You have neither the time nor the money to examine the frailties of a character who is caught in the middle and cannot make the proper joice between good and bad, light and dark, Coke and Pepsi. In short, no “OK guys” will populate your screenplay. If one tries to slip in, just kill him off. Save yourself a headache and give the audience a cheap thrill at the same time.
The second thing that you have to decide is who gets the girl.
HINT: The person who wins can usually lay claim to the buxom blond; for example, slay the dragon, then lay the bimbo.
Now, some of you female readers might take offense at that hint. But it serves a double purpose. You see, by offending you, I might get some free publicity for this book. When you arrive at your local bookstore draped in sandwhich boards plastered with clever rhyming slogans, people are going to want to know what the stink is about. They will buy this book to find out. So relax; in your screenplay, the strong-willed femaled can destroy the forces of evil