How to shoot a short film

I received a question which is also a request:

Dear Mr. Alex Hernandez:

Good morning. I know we haven’t met, but I’ve seen one of your short films and was fascinated by it. Currently I have a project in my head and I’d like to know whether you could help me produce a short film. I’m simply a writer and poet. Thanks in advance for your attention. Sometimes one must cross oceans to realize the impossible o what your own countrymen can’t see.

My dear friend,

I’m glad you liked my work. I don’t make short films anymore – it’s been years since the last one.

You say you have a project in your head… I’m afraid that film professionals aren’t lacking in ideas. Budget might be lacking, technical or human means, time maybe or many other things, but ideas are free and we all have dozens of them. And, the most important point for our purposes: each of us is in love with their own ideas.
To make a short film, one needs more than a project in the head. One needs a written, rewritten, finished script, polished to the max, because this max is the minimum required for others to fall in love with our project. Without a script it’s all words, ideas and vagueness that could grow into something or not… A good script will allow other to get a mental picture that -with luck- will move them to get involved. With much luck. Even professionals have a tough time to see their projects realized, and seeing on screen one in ten of your finished scripts is already an achievement.
The alternative is to do as I did: take the plunge, grab a camera, push buttons to see what happens, read about the topic, enroll some friends and shoot one’s own film. It won’t be perfect, but if it’s good enough it might be a good hook to invite potential collaborators to our next project.
All the best!

There’s life out there

Some people say writing is their passion, their life, their this and that, their everything. You hear it from well-known authors and amateur scribblers.

For others, however, making a living by putting words together becomes an unbearable burden, but these are rarely seen. It was the case of Frederica Sagor Maas,who died a few weeks ago at the amazing age of 111. Hollywood scripwriter since before the dawn of sound, her texts helped launch the career of several contemporary stars. Her memories, however, focus on the chauvinism, misoginy and discrimination that, as a woman, she had to suffer in that industry in the 20s.

Her filmography in IMDB lists many of her works as “uncredited”:

I would work so hard on some of the scripts and the minute I’d turn it in, someone else would take credit for it. You’d be ticketed as a troublemaker. Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut.

She finally did quit the business and took a job as a policy typist with an insurance agency in 1950, quickly working her way up to insurance broker. she never regretted her decision and in one of her last interviews she claimed that if she had the chance again, she would still quit writing and would rather clean floors.

Not sure if that’s some consolation for those of us who don’t make a living with our writing. Or as they say in Disney films, be careful what you wish.

Catching up with tips, day 5: Scenes

With this last day of Screenwriting Tips we introduce a topic which I expect to discuss in depth soon: the construction of SCENES.

874: Instead of just throwing characters into arguments, try thinking about their goals for the scene. Who’s trying to achieve their goal, who’s blocking someone else’s goal, and whose goal changes halfway through?

865: When writing action lines, stop trying to make the reader see exactly what’s in your head. Instead give them clear, sparse description and let their head do all the work.

833: Scenes feeling flabby and slow? Create a subconscious ticking clock counting down to the end of the scene. By setting scenes at a bus stop or in a waiting room, elevator, moving car, etc., you suggest a natural end-point before the dialogue even begins.

824: Don’t let your scenes sputter out like candles in a poorly ventilated room. If a scene feels too long, or ends too softly, here’s what you do: work backwards from the end, find the most dramatic line/funniest joke, and end it there.

804: The primary objective of every scene — before being funny or clever, before advancing the plot or developing the protagonist’s arc — is to make the audience want to know what happens next.

773: The first joke you think of (“Teens text a lot”, “Men always want sex”, etc.) is always going to be a cliche. That’s why you thought of it first. Same goes for action scenes — we’ve all seen the same car chases and firefights. Think past the obvious answer.

With this we complete our week devoted to the advice from Screenwriting Tips. Did you like it?

Catching up with tips, day 4: Horror

Horror is not only a genre. It’s easy to forget that it’s also an emotion, and a very powerful one, that we can use in all kinds of stories at some point or other. Here are a few recent Screenwriting Tips on HORROR.

861: Horror is when the audience has no idea what’s going to happen next, coupled with the awful suspicion that maybe they don’t want to find out.

825: The longer you draw out a mystery, the better the payoff has to be.

797: It’s easy to make us empathize with horror movie characters. It’s a lot harder to make us empathize with the monster (also a lot more fun, and potentially more disturbing).

796: Horror has to be transgressive — a violation of the normally-polite pact between storyteller and audience. If you’re not crossing some kind of line, you’re doing it wrong.

772: Fear of the unknown only works up to a point. Horror that never explains itself or establishes any sort of rules eventually becomes frustrating, then laughable.

Worth thinking about it, right?

Catching up with tips, day 3: Plot

Our Screenwriting Tips selection today deals with PLOT.

866: The most powerful method for refining motivation and stakes in your script is to ask, “So what?”. So what if the protagonist loves a man her parents disapprove of? So what if the villain learns all about the hero’s plan? So what if the main character doesn’t get that big promotion she wanted? And so on.

863: The point of plot is to break through your protagonist’s outer persona and reveal the true character within. To use an unsavory metaphor: you’re the interrogator, your protag is the prisoner, and your script is the rack.

850: Every skill, trait or item your protagonist uses to get out of a tight spot should be set up earlier in the script. A hitherto unmentioned ability to speak Latin is just as jarring as a hitherto unmentioned gun.

848: Don’t think of the end of Act Three as being about answering questions and tying off threads. Think of it as getting the protagonist to the point where there’s no more story to tell.

828: Your job is to upset the scales. Force characters who love each other into conflict and competition. Force characters who hate each other to work together.

811: Your protagonist’s past is not the key to their character arc. Their present is. The most important events in their emotional journey need to take place in your script’s timeline, not before it.

781: If you find yourself writing a scene in which one character walks in and describes what just happened off-screen… stop. You’re writing a play. This is supposed to be a screenplay — “show, don’t tell”, remember?

733: In reality, people don’t always have perfect back-and-forth conversations. They’re often just waiting for the right moment to say something they really want to say. Use this fact to create turning points that flip your scenes around.

722: When you come up with a ‘big idea’ (e.g. a world where nobody can lie, a future where vampires rule over humans), don’t go with the first protagonist or plot that springs to mind. Think around the big idea — consider every angle and version until you find the right one for you.

Don’t forget to leave your comments!

Catching up with tips, day 2: The craft

We continue our review of the best Screenwriting Tips of the past few months. Today, some advice on THE CRAFT of writing.

872: Become a collector. Collect ideas, bits of dialogue, kinds of people, things that move you, social trends. You never know when you might need them.

871: If you’ve got a zealous, all-encompassing worldview to sell, your screenplay is not the place for it. Readers/audiences can smell preaching from a mile away.

862: At some point in the planning phase, backstory goes from ‘useful information which will inform the script’ to ‘useless distraction from real work’. That’s when you stop planning and start writing.

851: The only way to understand story is to think about story all the time. You should be mentally dismantling the structure of the movies and shows you watch; your time of being a passive audience member is over.

849: When someone sends you negative script notes, read them once, twice, three times… then again the next day. You’ll react with progressively less emotion, and the notes will seem more and more reasonable.

812: When deciding what to cut in the rewrite, your job isn’t to look for what’s bad. The most beautiful dialogue in the world could be a total pacing killer. Your job is to cut the bits that slow down the story, whether they’re brilliantly written or not.

762: Chances are, you’ve been in a relationship with another human being. So write about what being in a relationship feels like for you, not what you think a movie relationship should be.

741: Change your working environment once in a while. New surroundings can give you a new perspective on plot problems.

740: A good pitch gives a sense of the genre and tone. If people have to ask, “So is it funny, or…?” at the end of your pitch, you haven’t done your job.

738: Which films do you wish you’d written? No, scratch that — which films are you actively, obsessively jealous of? That’s your brand. Write in that genre and style and you’ll always be passionate about your work.

735: Meet and work with interesting people who you suspect are much smarter than you. It’s one of the quickest ways to improve your work.

731: Ask yourself “logic questions” — after all, they’re one of the first things pitchees and potential buyers ask. Logic questions are about internal consistency and world cohesion, e.g. “Why is the monster attacking this specific town?”, or “Why does she agree to marry him when she’s shown to be terrified of commitment?”, etc.

730: Writers are vultures. And there’s no shame in that. In fact, taking several old ideas and combining them into one new idea is something to be proud of.

729: It’s hard to spontaneously generate witty phrases and neologisms; great lines arise from the clash of conversation. So when you hear someone say something clever or interesting, write it down. You might get to use it in a script some day.

Hope you liked those!




Catching up with tips, day 1: Characters

It’s been a while since our last compilation of Screenwriting Tips, and pay attention because they’ve moved to a new address! This week we’re going to catch up. As there are so many good tips, we’ll divide them by topic. Today: CHARACTERS.

873: What does the love interest offer the protagonist? What does he or she provide which is currently missing from the protagonist’s life? If your answer is “a relationship”, it’s time to dig deeper and find the real answer.

868: Your protagonist should probably not be an idealized version of yourself. And if they are, at least give them your flaws as well.

836: Consider making the ‘funny best friend’ character into the protagonist. You clearly prefer writing in her voice, because she’s in every scene and she seems to have more lines than the lead.

813: Characters can’t just be pushed around by plot. Early in your script, prove to us that your protagonist has agency of her own by letting her make an unexpected decision.

789: When writing conversations between old friends, cut dialogue to the bone. They have their own in-jokes; they know what the other is going to say. When they fight, remember it’s not the first time they’ve ever fought.

788: Suicidal characters aren’t automatically sympathetic. In fact, it takes a lot of work to elevate them above annoying. Wanting to die just isn’t a narrative-friendly goal.

780: Try to give every character — even villains and sidekicks — a chance for the audience to love them. Just one line or one moment for them to be exactly who they are, without apology.

749: When you introduce a new character, have them moving, acting, striving towards a goal in their very first scene. Show us that character in high gear. If you start them off in neutral, it’s much harder to get a sense of who they are.

739: “He’s got nothing left to lose” is pretty meaningless as a description of character. Doubly so when you misspell it as “loose”.

So what do you think?