Why Writers Should Learn
About Production

By Alan Denman

So, a screenplay is not a work of literature, it is not complete unto itself, like a novel. Although written in words, it’s not about the words. It’s a blueprint, a set of guidelines or instructions. Imagine you’re an architect and you design a brand new building. You draw up the plans, interiors and exteriors, front, side and rear elevations, but there’s one problem. Despite your good intentions – and you may have some truly great ideas in your designs – you haven’t learned enough about what really goes into making that building real – i.e. actually constructing it.

The builder and his foreman take your plans and pretty soon you’re in a meeting with them - because there are some things in your designs that they find confusing, some things that could be better thought out and some things that just don’t work at all. If you’re wise, you won’t get angry and storm out of the room. You will listen and learn. After all, these are people who know practically how a building is constructed.

Do you want to write endless scripts that will never be produced? Of course not. So what would be very useful is to learn is the bigger picture. There are two main aspects to this: one, the physical aspect of actual film production, and two, the business end of finance, markets, audiences and distribution. In this article I’m only going to talk about what you can learn from understanding how films are produced.

You see, as a screenplay is just a blueprint by nature it exists within a larger context – production. Follow this logic and it is obvious you cannot become a good screenwriter unless you have a firm grasp of all the major aspects of production: photography, lighting, casting, set design, costume, special effects, music, sound design, editing and so on. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to understand how the jigsaw is put together. If you have the full picture, then you will understand much better what you are writing and your writing will automatically improve in leaps and bounds.

Of course, writing by nature is an insular activity and a lot of writers are introverted. That’s why they’re writers – they carry whole worlds in their heads – and their default behaviour is to sit at their computer and map out their imaginary world. It doesn’t come naturally to most writers to be a leader and organizer, marshal the troops (crew, heads of department, first assistant director and so on) and produce. But this is what you must do if you want to evolve as a writer and get success. Imagination is not enough in the film world: it must be married to a practical, working knowledge of how films are actually put together.

It is said that a film is written three times during its journey from page to final delivery: once on the page, then it gets changed and revised during shooting, and finally during editing, where shot sequences can be rearranged, the order of scenes changed, and fresh nuances created. So let’s look in particular at the directing and cinematography aspects. There are many useful things for a writer to learn here.

The first thing to be aware of – and it’s good to know this up front and be at peace with it – is that the director will almost certainly want to change your script. In fact, it’s no longer “your” script. It’s been optioned, the rights are with the producer or production company, and you will probably be a hundred miles or more from the set when they’re filming. So think about this: if you want authorial control, give up being a screenwriter and consider becoming a novelist.

So your script is not just a blueprint. It’s not even the final blueprint. And not only the director will want changes, there will be others too. Actors won’t like certain lines and will suggest revisions, adding subtle or not so subtle changes, which the director will have to approve. Actors may even want to change the staging of their character in a scene or add some new element to their role. Let’s say an actor finds his or her character too physically static in the scene you’ve written, they may suggest adding some action. They may feel their character should be more energized. Rather than being seated through the scene, they may suggest getting up and pacing around. Remember you’re writing a movie script – that means there’s movement on screen, people move around. Screen actors, you will also learn, like to play off a prop. Let them be cleaning their glasses or smoking a cigarette or even stirring a cup of English Breakfast tea!

Most of all you have to write roles that actors are going to die for. Do the characters in your script remain the same throughout or do they arc? If a character arcs, that means their emotional state shifts, and the bigger the arc the broader the emotional range that actor will have to play. This is what actors love - a juicy, challenging role they can sink their teeth into. And then for your protagonist – a promising, if not established actor who will front the film and help to sell it – you must have, somewhere around the climax preferably, that scenery-chewing moment. The protagonist enters subdued, refusing to speak they’re so clammed up inside, but they begin to talk, bitterness turns to sorrow, an anger builds and suddenly they explode in rage only into collapse into defeat and despair. This is the big moment on screen for your lead actor. Make sure this scene is in your script.

Then there’s the cinematography, lighting, production design, wardrobe and makeup. Each of these elements must be in accord with one another for each scene and the film to work. An understanding of how scenes are filmed and the language of cinematography is vital for writers. Traditionally, filming will begin with the Master Shot, followed by medium, close and extreme close ups. So a scene might go: “A man enters a room” (MASTER SHOT - where we get to see not only the man but a lot of the room) – “He looks around the room” (MEDIUM CLOSE UP) – “He sees a log fire crackling in the hearth” (CLOSE UP) – “Suddenly he hears something rustle” (EXTREME CLOSE UP on the man’s face) – “It’s a cat” (CLOSE UP). Now the cat is in here for a reason. It’s easy to miss a shot when filming but there’s a type of shot known as a “cutaway” that can be used a sticking plaster to cover that missing shot. If you write in that cutaway shot of the cat not only appearing but also lying down by the fire and cleaning itself, the director and editor may be extremely relieved.

This is of course a very basic example, but you can start to see that if you have a broader understanding of how films are produced, your writing will automatically improve. It will be sharper, laid out clearly for the director and cinematographer to work on in pre-production and production, and be an invitation to all the key personnel to contribute. You are as a screenwriter not simply writing for yourself: you’re writing for ten other people or more.

These are just a few examples of why you as a writer should learn about production – and we haven’t even looked at other aspects: production design, editing, music, sound design and so on. You don’t have to become a producer, although some writers do, but it might not be a bad idea to produce a short script, even if you only do so once. What you will learn will be enormous.

Film production is a complex process involving many skills. It is a collaborative process and you as the writer are but one member of the team, so you had better learn what the other team members are doing. Everyone brings their own unique skills and contributes to the overall mix. You may have begun as seeing yourself as the fulcrum of the whole process, the one creating the master plan, but there is also considerable pleasure in knowing you are part of a bigger team.

Films, even though they may stored in a digital format, are essentially very concrete, sensory creations. Although the blueprint – the script – is written in those cerebral things called words, it’s what we see, hear and feel is what’s important. Story at heart is about emotion and a great story is a carefully plotted sequence of emotions that lead us to a moving and even life-changing conclusion. Films are stories (character, plot, theme) told not just in pictures (cinematography, lighting, props, costume) but also sound (dialogue, music, sound design). In the midst of a set, immersed in production, you, the writer, will get this and your writing will grow in power and effectiveness.

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About Alan Denman

Alan Denman is an award-winning British writer, director and producer with his own production company, Stinging Bull Films. He is also an experienced film teacher and script consultant. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. More information about him and his courses can be found at:  www.script-to-screen.com

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Why Writers Should Learn About Production