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Write every day: How to write your first screenplay

It’s done! I wrote a full first draft of my first feature-length screenplay in preparation for the ScreenCraft April summit in Chicago. It feels amazing to have done this. Now it goes away for a few weeks before editing begins.

Here are some thing I learned about screenwriting during this process:

1.) The months of research, reading, storyboarding, visualization, and treatment writing were incredibly helpful. More so than any other kind of writing, the planning and organization of a screenplay is critical. It makes the actual writing easier, clearer, cleaner, and faster.

2.) I wrote the first draft of my screenplay in two days, and not because the story poured out of me. It absolutely didn’t! It was the months of pre-work, that was actual work, that made all the difference.

3.) Dialogue is the main vehicle in live-action screenwriting. The look and feel of the live-action film is the director’s domain. The story and dialogue, not the visual rendering, is the domain of the writer, and the screenplay respects and reflects that.

4.) I watched Aaron Sorkin’s excellent Masterclass on screenwriting. He said that most of screenwriting is not writing at all, and that jumping in to writing too soon can complicate a screenplay in problematic ways. I had to fight the urge to jump into writing. I had to force myself to do all the upfront work before I put down a single word. I’m grateful for his advice, and though it was difficult to follow it was absolutely worth it. You can free write for a novel, short story, or journalism piece. Screenplays need a plan.

Have you written a screenplay? What did you learn in that writing process? 

Write every day: The single best tool if you’re writing a screenplay

One of the most informative actions I’ve taken as a beginning screenwriter is to watch movies with their screenplays in my lap. I read a scene, watch that scene, and read it again to see how it translates from the page to the screen. Here’s what I’ve learned in this process:

  • The final screenplay and the final movie often look very different. Scenes are reshuffled or cut altogether. I watched one of my favorite movies and saw that an entire storyline had been cut from the final movie. Lines and words are different, too. Unlike a book or short story, the final screenplay is nowhere near final.
  • Screenplays are short compared to most books. A two-hour movie is ~120 pages (~25,000 words). That’s half the words of even the shortest novel.
  • Every single word in a screenplay counts. There is no room, or interest in, excess description. No inner thoughts. If it can’t be said or shown on screen, then it doesn’t belong in a screenplay. Writing has very few hard and fast rules, but in screenwriting brevity is one of them. Eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary can speak and be seen.
  • Scenes are Lego blocks. One thinks to the other in sequential order. In novels, you have rest scenes. In screenplays, you don’t. The question “And then what happened?” is crucial to ask at the end of every single scene. The answer to that question is the start of your next scene.

If you’re writing a screenplay, reading screenplays and then watching their corresponding movies is the single greatest tool you can utilize. Are you writing a screenplay? Which screenplays do you recommend reading and watching?

Joy today: The beauty of telling small stories

Small stories told incredibly well can be every bit as powerful as the sweeping, complicated tales of history. To be honest, I’m naturally drawn to the latter but telling those epic tales as a writer is not a place to begin. It’s a goal.

This spring, I’m attending my first screenwriting pitch event. I had a long conversation with my writing mentor and dear friend, John Bucher. I was considering writing an against-all-odds story rooted in the untold story of New York City’s most notorious and unlikely gangster.

Because it’s a period piece, I was worried that this would cause producers to count me out before I even finished my log line. In this kind of pitch situation, I’ve got to stack the odds in my favor in every way—a great story, strong writing, short shooting period, and a small budget without any complicated production or editing tactics needed. Period films by their nature are expensive and expansive because you have to recreate that world that the characters inhabit. Is a bold period piece for this pitch competition really the risk to take? Though I love the story, I doubted whether this was the time and place to take that shot. To check this hunch, I turned to John.

John said something to me that was an absolute lightbulb moment that I’ll be retelling for years to come: producers often look for a way to say no. Your job as a writer is to make that “no” very difficult for them to deliver. As The Godfather has taught me well, “Make them an offer they can’t refuse.” A killer small story that fits squarely into a genre that sells shows that as a writer you know the market. You understand it in your bones, and that shows that not only can you write but you also know how to make something. And that last bit, the ability to make something beyond words on a page is the secret sauce. If a film can be made on a sliver of a budget, that lets a producer take a risk on a new voice. If it costs them next to nothing to make, it gives them the chance to take a chance. And as a new voice, I’m a chance that I want them to take.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for me on this project but you know what? I feel great about it. I feel lighter. I feel like I’m starting with a blank page that can be anything my imagination can conjure. I don’t know what my genre or subject will be, but I do know the story will be small, relatable, set in the present day, and center around a strong female lead who’s underestimated. She’ll likely be in New York because it’s the city where I live, and the one that I know and love. And the rest? It’s all TBD. Stay tuned…

Joy today: The Imagine Science Film Festival starts this Friday

Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 12.45.38 PM

Image taken from Science for Nanos: Taking Flight

Joy today: The camera doesn’t make the film

Today’s filmmaking lesson: the quality of the camera only gets you so far. What matters more is the filmmaker’s taste and ability to tell a story. A film with a lower grade camera and an A+ filmmaker will create a far better film than a high-end camera and a mediocre filmmaker. A class can teach you about techniques and the technology. It cannot give you taste. It cannot give you the story. That is up to you. Yes, a camera will give you the settings you need, the resolution, etc. But what matters most is what you put in the frame and how that frame drives the audience to keep asking, “And then what happened?” Without that emotional need-to-know, the greatest camera in the world will do nothing for a filmmaker.

Joy today: How making a movie teaches life lessons

Yesterday I had my first meeting to be considered as a director of photography on a small film. Still many more meetings to have and it’s by no means a done deal, but just the fact that this meeting happened at all so early on in my Double or Nothing Media venture is thrilling!

In my camera class we talked about the concepts of critical focus and framing each shot with the subject of greatest significance. Parallels between filmmaking and life aren’t lost on me. I’m grateful for the reminder and encouragement as I make massive changes in my life and career right now. It takes a village to start and run a business.

Joy today: Manhattan Neighborhood Network—a resource for filmmakers

Aspiring Manhattan filmmakers, do you know about Manhattan Neighborhood Network – MNN, an award-winning public access TV offering Manhattan residents low-cost production training and shows in 40+ languages? Take classes, use their state-of-the-art equipment and studios, tell stories that matter, and discover filming opportunities. I’m going to their orientation on Tuesday evening, and I’m excited to learn more about this treasure trove of resources, support, and community for film producers and directors.

Joy today: Traveling to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the first time

Next week I’ll be on the most unique trip I’ve ever taken—to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. I’ll be there for work on a film, and will be visiting Jeddah (on the coast of the Red Sea) via Amman in Jordan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest continuous sand desert. I’m excited to show you these countries through my lens and stories, and can’t wait to share what I find. Follow along here, and on Instagram (christarosenyc) and Twitter (@christanyc).

Joy today: My camera arrived

20190529_221842Let the filming begin! I’m so excited that my camera kit arrived and I can start getting a feel for filmmaking with my hands, heart, and mind. Let’s tell some stories that matter, shall we? Take one…

Joy today: Masterclass with writer Neil Gaiman and many more inspiring classes

As a gift to myself to spur inspiration, I signed up for Masterclass’s All-Access Pass. I’m obsessed. Masterclass is basically Netflix for online learning. Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, teaches a class on storytelling class and it’s wonderful. I’m about half-way through and I’ve already learned so much that is immediately helping me as a writer and author.

Given my new job for a film production company, I’m so excited to take the film and TV classes with:

  • Jodie Foster
  • Mira Nair
  • Ken Burns
  • Spike Lee
  • Judd Apatow
  • Werner Herzog
  • Ron Howard
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Shonda Rhimes
  • Aaron Sorkin
  • Samuel L. Jackson
  • Helen Mirren
  • Natalie Portman
  • David Lynch

Other classes on my “I need to take this” list:

  • Comedy with Steve Martin
  • Writing classes with Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown
  • Cooking with Alice Waters and Thomas Keller
  • Adventure photography with Jimmy Chin
  • Conservation with Jane Goodall
  • Space exploration with Chris Hadfield
  • Tennis with Serena Williams (I don’t even play tennis, but if Serena’s going to teach it, I’m going to take it!)
  • Jazz with Herbie Hancock
  • Fashion with Diane Von Furstenberg

What I can’t believe is that for just $180, I get all of these incredible classes and more for a year. Each class also comes with a downloadable PDF workbook and there is a mini-forum and office hours where you can post your comments and ask questions. Plus there’s a 30-day money-back guarantee so there’s no risk to try it out.

And I’ve got some good news for you! When I bought my 1-year All-Access Pass, they offered me a link to share with others to give you $30 off an All-Access Pass. So you can get all of this for $150 for a year. Just follow this link, and check it out for yourself: https://share.masterclass.com/x/5d9sN3

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