“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”
— Occam’s Razor
YOU HAVE A STORY you’re compelled to tell and you want to tell it through film. You have the story written down in a treatment or outline or about to write it out in a screenplay or you’ve already have a screenplay and now you’re developing it into a film; independently if you’ve got to.
Wherever you’re at in developing your story, before you move on to the next step, review your story treatment or your screenplay and see if it has the stuff of what makes a good film: a tight plot, well-developed characters and viability.
If you’re not sure, then it’s best to review the elements of an independent film, Sinebuano istayl.
1. MINIMAL CAST. Check if your story idea or screenplay has at most, ten (10) active characters and no more unless it’s necessary. If the story needs a huge cast, you got to have a good, indomitable reason to back that up and hope to high heaven that you or your producer/s have the means and abilities to make that huge cast appear in the film.
If you don’t have that good, indomitable reason or it’s unlikely your producers can make that huge cast happen, then make some cast changes. Doing so can make your story better as well as make it more viable to produce.
A small cast would be achievable and manageable for the screenwriter, director, producer and ultimately, the audience to deal with.
A small cast of characters would give more chances for development; make them more real and relatable. Your audience can focus and follow these characters without confusion. On the production side, it’s easy to commit and take care of the needs of a few actors.
Over-population is a problem in the world due to lack of resources. Do not make it a problem for your film production.
Remember the miracle of Jesus multiplying the five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish to feed a multitude of five thousand people with twelve baskets of left-over? The lesson of this miracle shows that anyone can make so much more with less. The same miracle can happen in your screenplay or film with a small, select cast of characters to satisfy your audience’s need for entertainment.
2. CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY. Now you’ve got a small cast of select characters you know can carry the story, you can spend a little more time developing them.
CHARACTER can be a subject, ideal, dilemma or object. It can be an alien or an artificial intelligence, but it must have a dynamic human presence or trait or id an audience can cling to.
CHARACTER comes from the Greek “kharakt?r,” from kharassein, to inscribe, to engrave from kharax, kharak-, a pointed stick.
The characters are the pointed sticks that would inscribe the inspirations and engrave the emotions from your story to them. They are the ENGINES that drive your story. These are the anchor or bridge that holds you, as story-teller or as filmmaker, to your audience together.
3. DYNAMIC PLOT. PLOT is a series of events that your characters experience. Consequences caused by their actions or their reactions.
When the Characters are the engine that drives your story, the Plot is the ROAD your story is rolling on, reaching the destination called Conclusion or Resolution.
What makes a Plot DYNAMIC? It’s usually when your characters DO something: a task, an assignment or a mission, in short an action.
Yes, character is action. A series of your characters’ actions brought about in sequence or consequence is the plot.
Let’s take a look at one of world film history’s iconic franchise: the STAR WARS trilogy (the first one that made George Lucas’ career).
We’ve got the main character, the hero LUKE SKYWALKER who has this great destiny to free the known galaxy from the rule of the Empire, defeat the Emperor and Darth Vader and bring balance to the force. That’s Luke’s goal and the ultimate resolution at the end of the trilogy but in order to achieve that, the hero had to undergo a series of tasks.
First our ordinary farm boy had to fix R2D2, receive Princess Leia’s message for help, find Obiwan Kenobi, charter a spaceship, learn about the ways of the Force, free the princess from her captors, pilot an X-wing and be a part of an all-out rebel attack to destroy the Empire’s new and most powerful weapon, the planet-destroying Death Star satellite.
That’s the entire plot of STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE, relayed dramatically and dynamically in a series of tasks.
Make your characters act on their wants and their needs. One can’t spell the word “character” without “act”.
So what if you have a main character who’s inactive or inanimate, a character who’s in a coma or who’s a corpse? It doesn’t matter because you have other characters who are acting in response to or around that inactive/ inanimate character. A character doing nothing is still doing something as long as its inaction elicits a response or an action.
Character is action: let your character do something, a task, to achieve a need, a want or a goal. And that’s your plot.
4. REAL DIALOGUE. If you’re going to have real characters; what they’re going to say and not going to say, matters a lot.
Dialogue, as in real life, has a purpose, or several purposes. It can be used to relay information, serve as a distraction, and be the basis of a connection between characters or a character with the audience.
Knowing how relevant a dialogue is, make sure you keep it true for a character and also to how the character uses his/her lines of dialogue in a plot.
It is said that a country’s language is its soul. The same can be applied to an individual’s language. It is an expression of soul. The most simple way to get to know a person is to have a conversation with that person and listen.
For a character’s manner of speech, the choice of words can indicate information regarding about a character. If a character’s well-spoken and gentle-mannered, it can imply that the character had a good education or a good upbringing. So take care in tailoring your characters’ dialogue to best suit your characters and their roles in the plot.
For Sinebuano features, DIALOGUE is in 90% Bisaya, Filipino (Waray, Hiligay-non, Chavacano, Tagalog)
5. MINIMAL SETTING. If your story can be centralized in one or two locations, its filming can be viable. For a story, what’s important is WHAT’S happening, WHO’S making it happen or experiencing what’s happening. Where it is happening comes a distant third. There are exceptions but there a lot of good films that enjoy successful receptions, whose sets are limited to one or two locales.
Take a look at SCREAM, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, HOME ALONE, HOUSE-SITTER, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, UNDER SIEGE, and DIE HARD.
A lot of TV shows are also following a similar use of limited settings, such as popular romantic Koreanovelas, American sitcoms (like Friends) and dramas (Prison Break, House M.D.)
6. SUITABLE LENGTH. For a major film production for a mainstream audience in North America, the average show time averages between 90 to 120 minutes.
The movie length is a factor to be considered in writing out your screenplay. Unless you’re a person with some impressive credentials to your name or a producer with some means, you would be having a hard time to have someone to back up your 300-page epic script.
Limit your story to 90 to 120 pages in your screenplay (for the Philippines and Europe, 80 to 150 pages is acceptable), based on the general rule that one page amounts to one minute of screen time.
You can do this through your rewrites where the REAL WRITING occurs. Apply Occam’s razor to cut out, to prune those scenes or scene parts that are unnecessary. Squeeze your scenes; concentrate your script only to the essentials that’ll be the foundation of your story.
For Sinebuano features, length between 10 to 30 minutes would be ideal.
*Prepared by DM Judilla. This article is a part of an ongoing series of discussion regarding independent filmmaking, its education and experiences.