Saturday, 15 September 2007

Working with a Composer on a Film Score

You don't have the money for the London Philharmonic and you can't afford the rights to Air's Walkie Talkie - but you do have a small budget (or grant, or sponsor) and you've decided you want someone to score music specifically for your film.

There are several ways to go about this.

Approach a professional composer

Composers who do really good work are often good because they are very particular about their compositions. They may be used to working in isolation and, in effect, are already directing music in the same way as a director is directing a film - or a novel writer their book. It's possible that a musician will frown upon the idea of sitting in the same room with Herr Direcktor whilst seeking audience with their muse.

So how do two brilliant and yet temperamental animals work together? Well - the director has two choices; Show them the finished film or don't show the film.

The first choice can often result in the musician re-writing the director's work in musical form. This might be okay if that's what you want. But hearing the same story that is being told can sometimes come over as tautological. This doesn't always happen. Some musicians understand that music has to assist or even ultimately take back seat to story - illuminating some aspect of character or even running counterpoint to your protagonist's emotional journey.

What you don't want is the tautological retelling of the emotional story in sound. It's a horrible thing to watch.

The second method is to just sit with the composer and describe the scene in detail. There's no pressure for the composer to perform and the environment is familiar. Scoring to nothing (essentially) can result in a more natural, less pointed and unencumbered piece of music.

I recently rocked up to a composer's studio without a cut of the film (in fact - there was only a rough draft) and the composer was able to - freely - create a piece of music. I knew I wanted a 1 minute uninterrupted piece and several 10-15 second transitions. The composer enjoyed working this way and was able to score for a variety of moments in the film just by picking up on body language and brief verbal character sketches.

Admittedly, this was a series of short films and so the rigors of constructing a (non-derivative) melody for an entire feature film or TV series are quite different - but at least the filmmaker can get a taste of what is possible.

It's also important to have some boundaries when you sit in with the composer (such as segment length, rough story shape) as the session can end up, basically, becoming a jam session which can go endlessly on into the night or day.

But, as life is short, that may not actually be such a bad thing.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Script development on a budget

Most people abhor criticism and nobody likes to open their wallet. If you are either, don’t - whatever you do - write a feature film screenplay. I almost guarantee that nobody will read it without being paid.

More importantly never go into production on a script that hasn’t been very heavily criticised, rewritten, analysed, rewritten gain, ripped apart, gutted and finally ... rewritten. I'm sure you can name a thousand movies with huge plot holes or character problems. Problems which could have easily been patched up with just a few bucks investment.

Criticism is not the same as rejection.

While Mum will happily read your screenplay, getting constructive feedback from industry professionals costs money. Constructive criticism is the key to morphing an ailing screenplay into a great feature film. Nothing else will do this. Unfortunately, getting anyone who’s not your mother to read your screenplay (or read beyond your synopsis and director's notes) costs money. Even if you don't get feedback!

In Australia, state and federal government film bodies may give you money to develop your screenplay if they like the idea and you have a producer attached. Development money usually consists of a script editor’s (or script doctor) fee, some travel money, a producer's fee and a small pittance for the actual writer/s.

The traditional Aussie way

Here’s a run-down of how much development can cost (in Australia). I live in the West and this is roughly how an $18,000 script development budget might run:

  1. Script editor $6,000 (pretty standard in Oz).
  2. 3 x return airfares $2,000
  3. Per diems $2,000
  4. Producer fee $2,000 (coast to coast 2-3 times)
  5. Writer’s fee $5,000 (split two ways)
  6. Other expenses $1,000
This took us from a rough 2nd draft on one script to a 3rd draft, but I felt it needed another, so we paid David Caesar from ScriptCentral to give it another going over.

Keep in mind that in Australia - more than 60% of a film's budget is usually government financed and getting your hands on the few million that Australia has to invest in film is extraordinarily competitive (although not nearly as competitive as in the USA). About 1 in 100 , fully-developed screenplays will get a guernsey here in Oz - and you'd better have a good director or name actor on-board . . . OR . . . most preferably . . . a great script.

The American alternative

If you have no luck competing for Aussie state or federal development money, you can get good bang for your buck feedback by entering American Screenplay competitions. Don't even think about winning one of these comps - they have up to 3,000 entrants each year. And even though a script report can take many months to hit your inbox, the feedback is top notch.

Four of the more high profile competitions are:
  1. Bluecat Screenplay Competition
  2. Nicholls Fellowship (the Oscars)
  3. Austin Screenplay Competition
  4. Slamdance
Several comps do script coverage
  1. Slamdance sample script coverage
  2. Bluecat sample analysis
Australian film authorities no longer give written assessments because readers are expensive. The government bureaucracy can take 6 months to send through a pro-forma rejection letter!

In that light - the US comps are a great way to get feedback and develop your screenplay further. And for a little extra ( maybe as little as AUS$50) some will send additional notes from one of their many professional readers.

Entry fees are up to around AUS$100 - but the notes you get are absolutely excellent value for the money when compared to the Aussie way.

I usually go both ways and like the US take on writing. It's refreshingly different to ours.

What should one do with all this feedback?

It's taken 5-6 months and you've finally received feedback on a draft that was binned early in the year. How does one make sense of all these belated notes, feedbacks and analyses?

Once you have your script reports, you can carefully abide by these rules;

  1. Read it through once.
  2. If you are a beginner writer (not used to criticism) - wait 2 days before reading it again. You’ll be amazed by what you think they wrote.
  3. If one person tells you something about your script - take it on board, but treat it as subjective criticism and look for the constructive bits - things that you are willing to do / change.
  4. If two (non-colluding) professional writers/directors identify a problem - give it some serious consideration. You don’t have to kill your main character or change genre - she is probably just undeveloped.
  5. If three or more independent, professional analysts tell you that something particular is wrong with your script - believe it! . . . Something is wrong.
  6. Ignore words like “genius”, “well done” and “masterfully crafted” (unless you didn’t pay for the feedback). These people are going for repeat business.

You could go into production on your movie right now. But unless you work with constructive feedback and tightly hone your script - you are probably - like most filmmakers - wasting your time on a poorly written story.

Feedback will fine-tune your screenplay and eventually turn into a film with a big audience and a long shelf-life. Heck - you may even get to do it all over again.