A few months ago I joined a project initiated on an expat forum – a call for film lovers to get together and “just do it”, it being a short film. The group turned out to be a mix of enthusiastic amateurs and professionals: a director, some actors and myself (all stuck here in Frankfurt having to earn their living with “real jobs” and eager for an opportunity to practice their craft) and a cameraman.
We agreed we’d aim for a short of 2-5 minutes, tossed about some story suggestions in a facebook group and when the vote was cast, I took the winning idea and started working on the script.
Lesson 1: How short is short?
I had not considered writing shorts before, so my first thought was: how short is a short script? I know that my short stories tend to be too long (15,000 words on average). I also know, of course, about the one page, one minute format but suspected that while this works out fine over 90 minutes it might not be the same with a three minute project. This suspicion was confirmed when I read the script of Oscar finalist The Door by Juanita Wilson – six pages, 17 minutes. But armed with lots of good advice, mostly through TwelvePoint (in particular Patrick Nash’s recent series of articles about shorts), I went to work quite cheerfully.
My first draft ended up at five pages with lots of location changes, very short scenes and about three lines of dialogue. Discussions with the group resulted in “let’s just shoot and see where it gets us” – a happy-go-lucky approach that really only worked because all the professionals involved worked for free, the cameraman has his own equipment (need I say this is a huge asset), and the director is also a real estate agent and talked one of his clients into letting us use his flat.
After draft three (six pages) I had to step back because I was organizing a major theatre festival (see also Lesson 3 below). The director took over, compiled a shot list and off they went to shoot. One day of filming, roughly two hours of material, a few serious editing sessions, and the final cut of Knock Knock now runs at 4:27 minutes.
Lesson 2: How story and script changed…
It started with a joke. Good punch line but nothing else, really. I sat gnawing my pen, wondering how to insert a story into this pun when I heard a song on the radio about a deaf girl who likes music really loud because then she can feel it in her stomach – and I had my story. I replaced one original joke character with this girl, built a relationship between her and a grumpy old man who lives in the flat underneath her, and used the joke for the ending – the punch line became the resolution.
At one point during Act II of our joint efforts this punch line actually disappeared entirely, and for a while the story threatened to go off track. Luckily the director and I were on the same page and I simply insisted on the essence of what it was all about: the relationship between our two protagonists. At this point I still fully enjoyed the advantages of this no-budget, small-scale project: I, the writer, was in control!
As mentioned above, I then had to leave the project during Act III (the actual filming). The story that ended up being shot is still very much the same, but it was interesting to see how my script ended up being really just a loose foundation for the end product. Here are the links to the script, the shot list (which also got changed some more in the whole process) and the film so you can see for yourself…
Lesson 3: Go all the way!
I had originally joined this project because I really wanted to participate in the actual shooting. Holding lights, untangling cables, making coffee, mopping sweat off the cameraman’s brow and especially be fly on the wall during the editing – I was going to do it all. As for the result, I did not expect it be any kind of Calling Card but really only went for the experience – and here is where I failed: I let go of that beautiful opportunity to control my script. I could excuse this failure with circumstances; discussions and preparations took longer than expected and so my theatre festival took priority. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.
This is not to say that I am unhappy with the result. Sure, I had imagined a slightly different film, but that’s okay. However, I missed a great chance to see how, precisely, what I had written turned into what was filmed and, even more so, to participate in the editing, since I am convinced that writers can learn a lot from the editing process. (Interesting comments about editing, by the way, by Academy Award winner Chris Dickens of Slumdog Millionaire, here; and as always, the TwelvePoint archive offers a wealth of articles about editing.)
But hey. Cameraman and director want to continue working together and working with me. So next time I will make sure to go all the way, come hell or high water!
PS My next post will be entitled “How to avoid over-use of parentheses”. ;^)