Why Indie Filmmakers Should Be The Next Great Screenwriters, And Why They Are Not





This week, I attached an exciting new producer to my screenplay Smoke and I also had a couple of interesting conversations about a new TV project. Which is all very good and very exciting news for me, but I only mention it here, because in the course of a three hour phone conversation with the wonderful new producer, we had quite a long chat about the difference between what I do and what a screenwriter does.

This may sound like an odd topic of conversation, because I am a writer and I do write for the screen. However, when I am forced to look at what I do, it isn’t an odd conversation at all. I really don’t approach the job of writing a script, the way most screenwriters work… and, I believe the differences are worth discussing. I think they reveal some interesting points about both the future of screenwriting as a profession, and about why the independent film-maker community is failing to make micro-budget, a massive and game changing revolution.

One of the primary differences between the way I work and the work of most screenwriters, is that a large part of my creative process is designing the production. Designing the production is different from traditional screenwriting, because it is about the writer making creative decisions about how a production team could create the finished product. This isn’t what screenwriters are expected to do. Screenwriters are supposed to worry about plots, action and characters. Everything else is delegated to the production team. In the past, the reason the process worked this way, is because writers were not part of the production process. Writers were supposed to sit at home and exercise their imaginations, in order to create compelling drama. Writers are not supposed to understand how to operate a camera; what a post-production workflow is; the difference between progressive and interlaced video; the reasons why good glass is more important than the number of pixels in your sensor; the way creative location management relates to budget; or, how to break down a script into a production schedule.

The interesting thing is, independent film-makers, because of their insistence on writing, shooting and editing movies by themselves, often do acquire exactly that kind of knowledge. Independent movie makers learn how to design and adapt their next project around the available resources.  Designing a production around your resources is the opposite process from that of a traditional screenwriter, who creates a fantasy movie in their head, without any knowledge or consideration of how it might be achieved by the production team.

The ability to understand and consciously design a production on the page, if done well, can take screenwriting to another level. Imagine writing a scene where you understood exactly what can and can’t be achieved in production, and writing it in such a way that the reader can clearly visualize how it needs to be both shot and edited… all without writing a shooting script. In my experience, that is a very powerful way to write a script.

However, there are two reasons why this way of working is less common than it should be. Screenwriters are still being taught to write as if the production was none of their business, and independent movie makers are hopeless at script development.

In my opinion, in ten years time from now, a screenwriter who doesn’t understand the production process is going to be almost unemployable, unless their writing is truly exceptional. I believe we are approaching that day, simply because there is just so much competition out there. Production companies who develop scripts, which aren’t written by production savvy writers, are going to struggle to remain competitive.

What this should mean, is that indie film-makers ought to be a strong position in the industry as writer/producers. After all, they are learning production “intelligence” and at the same time, because they actually produce their scripts and see the end results, they should be constantly discovering what works and what doesn’t, in the transition from page to production. They ought to be golden. So, how come they aren’t?

In my opinion, indie film-makers aren’t benefiting from the digital revolution, simply because they don’t take the writing and script development process seriously. The primary advantage of micro-budget movie production, which is: the removal of any barrier to self-expression, has become its biggest weakness. For the DIY movie maker, there isn’t anyone to say no, regardless of how misconceived, idiotic or badly executed the script is. This means that because most writers are both vulnerable and defensive about their writing, they choose to avoid the painful experience of  professional script development… a process that is largely about nice people telling you all the mistakes that you’ve made in the process of writing, after which you go away and try to do it a little better. Nobody likes that process, but without it writers don’t ever develop the craft needed to do the job properly.

I am part of two communities: the screenwriting community and the film-making community. Over the last ten years I have seen both communities continue to make exactly the same mistakes:

Despite the opportunities presented by almost free production, the screenwriters don’t make the effort to develop any understanding of production, because they spend all their time looking for answers in the past, rather than by forwards to how to the industry is evolving; they also expect to develop as writers without getting any physical feedback on their writing, acquired by seeing their scripts produced. This is the equivalent of trying to learn to juggle without ever picking any balls up… and instead of actual practice, they read endless books and articles by failed jugglers, about how it should be done, in theory.

The indie-filmmakers continue to believe that new technology, new distribution and new marketing methods are the only thing that stands between them and a career… they will question absolutely anything, except their own ability to write. This is the equivalent of learning to juggle by throwing a dozen chainsaws up into the air and expecting that your natural juggling talent will get you through the next, highly interesting and educational, two and a half seconds.

All of which takes me back to this week’s phone conversation with the producer. As she pointed out, I don’t write or think like a screenwriter. I also don’t write or think like an independent film-maker. I appear to have developed a style that is a hybrid of both ways of approaching writing for the screen. I hope and believe that I have taken the best of each way of working. Only time will tell whether I am right about that or not. All that I do know, is that my way of writing is starting to build a fan base amongst production professionals in the UK and in the US. As one director said to me last year, “I don’t think of you as a writer, Clive… I actually like you.”

The truth of the matter is, there has always been a schism in the film industry, between the arty-farty writers and the down-to-Earth production team. Personally, looking at the way the industry is changing, I think it’s time for that schism to end.

viva la revolution

Originally posted on January 16, 2011 from Clive’s Filmutopia blog with permission from Clive Davies-Frayne.

Clive Davies-Frayne is an award winning writer/director, ex stand-up comedian, former award winning radio copywriter, and founder of Filmutopia, a European company specializing in story development.  He has spent the last twenty years working in the media industry, sometimes making a living as a writer, but mainly spent as a full time media-hobo and professional irritant. He has written and directed half a dozen shorts, radio drama for the BBC and two features (one of which actually got completed). He’s best known for his iconoclastic rants about movie making and the movie business. He has an unhealthy allergy to the word “film” and likes his cat.