Shooting Your Own Script? Watch For These Mistakes

Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.

Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.

As announced (via a fun video) in my previous post, I recently completed a rough cut of The Videoblogs. In editing the film over the course of the past several months, I have observed a few things about the relationship between the script and the footage that I want to share, in case any might help other writers or filmmakers (particularly Writer/Directors) who are planning to shoot their own script or considering this option.

It’s a path I recommend, though it’s not easy, and while The Videoblogs is my first feature I have come across some of these same lessons before, while producing shorts and a featurette (try to avoid ever making a featurette). Some or most of the below are potentially even unavoidable, but I think any way we can learn from even “normal mistakes” can help lessen the scope or impact they might have on the end products (the films) in the future.

Similarly, none of these observations are new, to experienced filmmakers especially but, really, anyone with a prolonged relationship with project work. I went into the edit aware that I was going to be creating a different version of the film that was shot, which was itself different from the version that was written, which was itself the best I could do to translate thoughts and feelings and pictures that were banging around in my head…onto the page. Still I think looking back and comparing what was written to what (so far) appears to be landing in the actual film is a useful exercise for growth.

Also, The Videoblogs is as much an experiment in sourcing out (or honing) a contemporary model for quality low-budget filmmaking, as it is a sincere effort at making art and getting it out there. So another reason for taking this time to share these observations is out of the hope that they may be helpful to anyone thinking of doing the same now or in the future.

It always helps to hone a script to the point that time and money can be saved, or better directed towards the right material that will ultimately make it into the film. But in the (very) low-budget sphere, these sort of savings arguably have a larger impact — they can be the difference between pulling the whole thing off at all. More than filmmakers with higher budgets, independents need to truly maximize every second and resources in order to arrive at the best possible version of the film.

Along these lines, I think the best way to report on my findings is to direct my “advice” to someone who has a “final” draft of their script and is on their way to production — though much of the below can be considered at any time after the first two or three drafts. A lot of what I’m about the dive into is about making the script better — which is an obvious priority but not always one we’re able to face up to, even when we’re rewriting with this sincere intention, and especially in cases when the director and writer are the same person.

As a sort of aside, while getting trusted feedback during rounds of rewriting should always be part a script’s journey — in my experience it’s extra important for Writer/Directors (or Writer/Producers) to arrive at as honest an estimation of a script’s strength and weaknesses as possible, separate from your own ego, via several rounds of peer review. I’ve even realized lately (more on this below) that I still need to get better at this personally. So please understand that I include myself  — especially my younger self — in the “judgments” contained within the following two paragraphs.

To be blunt: I long lost track of the amount of times I have started watching independent films in particular (even those with a healthy scattering of festival laurels) and stopped very early on in the running time. Almost always, it’s because of “bad” writing (more accurately, unfinished or polluted rewriting). Many times, I’m left feeling like the filmmaker either isn’t a writer (if they’re directing and writing), didn’t trust or adequately challenge the writer (if they’re just directing, and collaborating with a peer) and/or didn’t do his/her project justice by seeking out tough feedback, either by going through that difficult process personally or by seeking out the opinions of peers who will challenge them (I have found that employing both strategies is best for me).

Not all advice is good, and not all advice has to or should be taken. But definitely it should be sought. And in the very low-budget, self-propelled indie sphere, no one is going to force you to chop away at your script, especially as late as the month before production — at which point everything can often feel too much like a moving train, imbuing the risk of changes with a disproportionate charge of fear. Table reads and rehearsals are a good way to start doing so, however, because good actors often have a more direct feel for what’s working on a character and dialogue level than readers, (or even some writers who are too close to the material), but I’ll get to that in a moment,

Anyway. On to it.

Watch for under-confident writing

At several points while editing, I noticed our talent struggling (valiantly) through certain scenes or parts of scenes. Their performances weren’t bad in these instances — our cast is talented and stocked with hard-working pros — but in observing these shots or sequences against others that definitely worked, I found what I believed to be the difference. It was the writing.

Rehearsal smoked out some extraneous material.

Rehearsal smoked out some (but not all) extraneous material. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

I revisited the script, upon encountering many of these scenes, and what was not clear to me before production became immediately apparent now during editing — several scenes were buttoned (at the top and bottom) with under-confident writing. I meandered sometimes on the way in to what a scene was about, and/or lingered too long on the way out if it.

Now, partially, this was a byproduct of a purposeful decision (also related to budget) to write a more conversational, real-world script. This seemed a necessity in order for our story conceit (which jumps between videoblogging and real life at many points) to work in a convincing way. However, it doesn’t change the fact that my talent couldn’t find enough of a foothold in that reality at those certain points. And a few scenes (but not too many) didn’t work altogether.

As a student of filmmaking, I know that this happens. It didn’t happen, really, with my short films. It did happen with the featurette. I think the long-form production is just a different animal in this sense, in that the stakes are higher and the demands of storytelling are greater and more complex. Sometimes, it’s just safer to shoot with a bit of breathing room. Still, again, the hope is to create as little waste as possible from production to production. Under-confidence simply doesn’t belong anywhere within a professional product. I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should stop the feelings that inform under-confidence — we just have to guard against them at every stage, in my opinion, to protect the story and the film.

In looking at these longer-than-necessary scenes on paper, it became clearer to me, after the fact, that many could have been cut down. As compared with the majority of our timeline, the cuts were minor. But some material could have been excised on a script level. I could have squeezed a little more juice out of our budget and schedule by facing up to the under-confidence that was padding the narrative. A good editor is going to cut such bloat (I try to be a good editor, even when it hurts my other heads). And, again, a good actor can’t do their job in spots where there’s no soul in the words — though a kind one will try.

Thankfully, none of this was so bad that I was left very regretful about wasting time and money. Regret’s kind of a waste, in itself, anyway. I just want to do better next time.

Watch for over-confident writing

Conversely, I have also made similar cuts, moving from the script to the edited timeline, at points when the writer in me got too confident, and doubled-down on using only the words to express himself, when in fact, in a film, cameras and performances (and the edit) are going to tell the story. These scenes revealed themselves in a similar way as those weighed down by under-confident writing. They were clearly too intellectual for the talent to fully embody, because there was too much pomp in the words and not enough animus.

Lead actor Rebecca De ornelas "records a videoblog".

Some “vlog” entries remain “talky”. We continue to trim them in post. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

Arguably, this over-confidence could also be labelled as more under-confidence (dressed in nicer clothes). There are a few easy questions, that I already have learned to ask myself in drafting (but which could have asked again before shooting) that can help root out such scenes. What’s this scene about? How does it feel? Is it more about me (the writer) than the character? Should something else be here? Does this need to be here at all?

That third question is especially important. It’s hard. We can’t bring ourselves to the table, to write the thing in the first place, without putting ourselves into it. But the aim, in my opinion (and experience) needs to be directed towards the audience. That goes for trust, too. It’s important to remember viewers can (and must be) trusted. Very few people, if any, go into a narrative thinking about your (our) insecurities — but they will be taken out of the narrative if/when those insecurities manifest on screen.

A good story comes from a deeply personal place, but we’re not authentically tapping into that place at points when our words veer into what we think needs to be said. Thinking doesn’t enter the process, in this way, in my experience. Perhaps conscious thought helps with resolving issues of reason or or plot, for pondering major structural or tonal problems that are worth deliberating over, in between writing or rewriting sessions, but then things need to be turned back over (in my opinion) to the subconscious, the muse — the actual writer. The intellect can give directions, and even navigate, but shouldn’t drive the van, for the most part, when it comes to what goes on the page and stays there. I don’t know why the story is in a van. We’ll leave that to the imagination.

To be more specific on this point: I have historically had a tendency, in my writing, to speechify. Multiverse — which is very stingy on dialogue and intentionally broad and open to interpretation in story terms — and, conversely, a lot of shelved, overly-thinky previous scripts, helped a great deal in curing me of this affliction. But a few scenes (and parts of scenes) slipped into production for The Videoblogs that could have been cut. My writer’s ego thought he could sneak them past. The editor in me now scoffs — and they’re gone.

Cut jokes written for joking’s sake

While it was never a tough decision to make, it nonetheless stands that it was still a choice to move forward with a film centered at least in part around depression. We know this will continue to be challenge, heading into distribution.

The joking started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.

The jokes started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.

In recognition of (and respect for) this challenge however, I made it a point NOT to shy away from moments of humor in the film. The sad and the funny are closely related, and, further, making room for representations of the real humorousness with which difficult moments tend to break…felt like the right thing to do during scripting. In watching the rough cut once through since completion, this appears to have been the right move. The film’s funnier than even I expected. Much of the credit for that belongs to the cast.

Still, especially once the mood of the film begins to lighten — there were some moments when, in drafting the script, I failed to recognize (or accept) that I was disrupting flow by leaving something in “because it’s funny”. Maybe I subconsciously knew this, since, again, many of these instances appear at the bottom of scenes, or safely in between scenes that flow more seamlessly together with the joke removed, but it doesn’t change the fact that some, while funny, didn’t move the story forward or, as was the case more often, actively broke the story’s motion.

This didn’t happen very often at all, but it happened more than once, and, beyond that, jokes tend to be easy to shoot quickly (after getting adequate coverage) and they help keep things fresh on set. So I don’t think it’s essential to go to town with the red pen in this regard. Just something to watch out for.

Scrutinize (cut) expository shots and scenes

Technically, this is yet another form of under-confident writing, but it’s a little different than what I wrote above, since I made this “mistake” on a much larger story level, versus within a scene.

Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay.

Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

One of our longest and hardest days of shooting involved running around the city, on foot and via the subway, with a bare-bones crew of four, for New York City exteriors. We set aside almost an entire day to grab a bunch of quick shots of lead actor Rebecca De Ornelas going back and forth to work. These were meant to be woven into a video blogging sequence as cutaways, in order to break up a pattern of similar sequences that dominate the early parts of the film.

And there, in retrospect, is the first red flag — I wrote those scenes because I was worried about isolating or losing the audience during what’s definitely still a difficult first twenty minutes or so.

The Videoblogs was always just going to be that kind of film. I’m decently sure that a small percentage of people, if and when we distribute the film beyond our core audience, are going to abandon it completely before the first ten to twenty minutes are up (despite what I’m saying, we’re still taking a close look at condensing this material as much as possible). This isn’t because the writing or the performances or the story or the footage is bad, or that we made any major mistakes — it’s just that those minutes are hard to watch. Anxiety and frustration co-mingle into teary stuff. Things get uncomfortably direct. It’s just the way this story had to go.

The exteriors, I think, were written out of a fear of this knowledge, which I think is understandable. Again — I don’t regret shooting them. And I’m still using some of the footage towards different ends.

But the main reason they didn’t work for me, when I started editing, is because they interrupted Rebecca’s work in really bringing her character’s desperate isolation to life. Especially early on, The Videoblogs isn’t meant to be framed around the reasons why the main character, Margaret, feels isolated, or even to provide a context for her mental/emotional state as a whole. Instead, we’re meant to witness (and hopefully relate to) that isolation. Bringing the camera outside of a close observation of this behavior, at all, never mind bringing outside her apartment (which she barely leaves), too frequently — it just doesn’t work.

Finally, The Videoblogs is also a film set very firmly in the neighborhood (Flatbush/Ditmas Park) in which it was conceived, produced, and shot. While Margaret, as so many Brooklynites do, works in Manhattan — this just isn’t a film that takes all of New York City as its world. There’s obviously overlap between a characterization of the city at large, and Margaret’s neighborhood, but moving her too often away from that neighborhood — even in cutaways — proved too much for most sequences. It was overkill. It only could have belonged to a different story.

In Conclusion (Steps to Take Next Time)

To be clear, all of the above, in the context of a first feature, which despite its imperfections is still (in my opinion) coming together nicely — isn’t damning. It would have been great to realize all of it earlier, as I said, to save a very slight amount of time and money. Some of this probably just needed to be learned in execution before I really believed it. I make that point, specifically, because I think there’s an opposite danger in gripping the controls too tightly, as well, before shooting. It’s better to have extra footage, and feel a tinge of after-the-fact anxiety, than to end up with not enough material to craft your story — which is a recipe for far worse feelings.

"You're going to do it again?" Probably. Ugh.

“You’re going to do this whole thing again?” Probably. Ugh.

Still, l think I will take a few extra steps, the next time around, to minimize these sort of mistakes.

We never did a reading of The Videoblogs…

…which at a certain point wasn’t going to happen within our production time frame, but I think they’re always a good idea. It’s not hard to put a reading together and I think that listening in on one, and hearing feedback, would have helped me to see (and accept) some of this stuff beforehand. It’s a cheap way to help make the film better, sooner, trading low risk (except to your ego, which could use the douse, anyway) for potentially high-rewards.

Reach out to trusted next-level peers

On a related note, next time I will work to have a few trusted, last-pass readers available to offer feedback on my “final draft” (the draft that’s going into production). I always seek review several times throughout the life of a script, but I think I could have added one or two more experienced people to the mix this time, later in the game — if only out of respect for the newness of the endeavor. Specifically, I could have been more bold about seeking feedback from writers and filmmakers that are one step ahead of me in career experience (though we’re working to correct this now, with the rough cut). On that note, please feel free to get in touch with me in the future if you’re several months from production on an indie feature and have further questions that I may be able to help answer (after having done it once).

Finally — and this is a lesson that I’m reminded of after every film I’ve ever made — to accomplish all of the above (especially on a slim budget) I want to add it would have helped the film (and script) to have lengthened the production schedule by getting started even earlier than we did.

We started WAY early, because we had high ambitions for the project and literally zero resources other than time and stupid guts (we crowdfunded our entire $20K budget, some of which was spent up front on credit cards during “development”), but we could have streamlined the first feature experience by starting even earlier. Time only gets more costly, the closer you get to shooting. There’s something to be said for deadline, and for the momentum that just starting brings. I wouldn’t change much of what we did. I’d just pay more respect to the breadth and scope of the endeavor that, for almost all of us, not only was conducted on the cheap but in between and around day jobs.

So, I hope all that helps anyone planning to produce their own script soon. While I focused on The Videoblogs as an example, I think some of the mistakes I made would arguably cost a production double on a short — especially a higher-budget “all or nothing” short (as opposed to one which is more low-budget and experimental).

I’m happy to answer any broad questions anyone might have in the comments (or on Twitter), and other creatives should definitely feel free to include any additional lessons you may have learned by which the rest of us may also benefit. Thanks for reading and good luck.

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2 thoughts on “Shooting Your Own Script? Watch For These Mistakes

  1. jorgekafkazar

    Absolutely golden. An ounce of honesty is worth a pound of pontification. A lot of your post applies to early in the process, which is my focus as a writer. I, too, can’t write without humor. I revised a line in my 3-Act tragedy as too funny, but during the performance, the actor delivered the line as originally written, probably because it was so totally in character. The humor was a by-product, not something forced in.

    Reply

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