Archive for the ‘Screenwriting’ Category

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Life’s a Pitch

November 16, 2014
"...and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!"

“…and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!”

Writers and directors frequently talk about the importance of a good pitch. For writers, this is them in a meeting with a potential producer trying to get them to buy (figuratively or literally) their script/treatment/vague idea scribbled on a napkin in Starbucks. For directors, this is often the same audience but this time trying to get them to buy you and your take on this script you have/have been given to read. In both cases, it’s technically a job interview. As I mentioned before, auditions and interviews are prolonged and generally painful experiences for everyone involved, not just the dude in the spotlit chair, so it’s a good idea to get some practice in before you bank your career on your ability to hook an audience with your pitch.

But pitching as a skill also serves another useful purpose which I’ve only recently realised. If you’re writing a script and are having trouble sorting out story points (particularly character and event points- see previous blog), find a willing friend and pitch the story to them. This forces you to see the story from an audience’s point of view and tell it in a way that is easy to follow, compelling and full of narrative moments. And perhaps it’s because of this that the best pitching audience are film-watchers and not film-makers. The former will see the story in their heads as you tell it, filling in the gaps with their own images and actors and everything, whereas the latter are more likely to cast a practical eye on the story, thinking about cinematography or editing or budgetary concerns, knowing full-well you intend to film or write it.

Recently, I pitched a feature film idea I’ve been chewing on for a year or so to a couple of friends separately. Before these pitches, I really only had a basic premise, a couple of characters and some moments/set-pieces. I hadn’t started on a script- usually I like to get a rough structure in place before I fire up Celtx- and didn’t even have a brief treatment scribbled on the back of an envelope. What I had was in my head.

But when I was in the pub with my mate Chris (as accurately recreated above) and the conversation turned to what I was working on, the usual vagaries I might spin to someone else receded and I started to tell him about this feature film. And I did something I don’t normally do when pitching. I skipped over the “it’s like this film meets that film” back-of-the-DVD summary and started with the “we open on a dark side street…” The first scene description.

I told the story from the beginning.

I introduced characters as they appeared, described the look and feel of things, revealed plot points and backstory as you would find it in the story and let the events unfold naturally. And in the process, I was able to see plot holes (either for myself or because Chris asked about them) and dramatic through line. It got me back to the basics of storytelling and freed me from all the practical concerns that come with directing your own script and the marketing concerns that a producer might focus on. It allowed me to tell the story on its own merits- something I frequently forget to do in a professional pitching situation.

It also feels collaborative. My ideas weren’t set in stone, so when Chris made observations or suggestions and got immersed in the story, I was in a place where I could take note of these things and work them in depending on what he responded to. Chris actually contributed to several key plot points as a result of this, as well as reminding me of stories or franchises mine might be similar to (and thus might want to differentiate myself from).

When I got home from the pub I quickly took down all the new notes while they were fresh and it gave me new motivation to crack on with the script. A few weeks later, I pitched the new story to my mate Mike (also in a pub- it’s where all the best production meetings happen!) and his reactions also built on the film’s structure, characters and moments. The whole project also swelled into a trilogy, which I now have mapped out. God only knows if I’ll actually get to make it, but still…

So pitching is a great way to hammer your story into shape, but does it work the other way? Does simply telling your story work when pitching to other film professionals, like producers and executives?

For the most part, yes.

Remember, that’s what they’re hiring a director for- to tell that story. If they just needed someone to put things in front of the camera or focus on the audience demographics, they could have found someone with less imagination and communication skills to do that. Obviously, you need to understand something of their interests (demographics, budget, key markets etc) and communicate your understanding so they have confidence in you, but your pitch should again just focus on the story and your treatment of it.

While I’ve not yet pitched to producers for feature film gigs, I have pitched to producers for web series like “Persona” and pretty much every music video gig (and quite a few corporate shoots) essentially involves a pitch of some sort. And it’s always the same: Tell your story, engage their interest and move them emotionally, intellectually or viscerally. Once they’re hooked and on board, address the practical issues, but always with solutions where possible.

Sounds bloody obvious now, but this is actually the director’s best method of pitching. Treat your audience, no matter whether they be filmmaking co-conspirators on the project or secular acquaintances, as just that- an audience and everything else will fall into place.

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

I’ve been working on a bunch of scripts recently from the ground up and it’s meant focusing a lot on story and how it works. We often take story for granted, but there’s a system and structure to making it effective. There are various approaches to this, from the writings of Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell to the story process of Disney and Pixar…

… And, somewhat foolishly, I thought I’d put my opinions on the matter in the same box. So here goes…

As I see it, a story can basically be broken down into four elements- The Big Picture, Events, Characters and The World. Generally none of these are more important than the other (although your story and your budget might tweak your focus somewhat) but if you neglect one of them, the story is likely to fall flat.

The Big Picture

BigPicture

This is the overall arc of the story. It plots how things change, develop and grow, the fundamental themes and ultimately the story’s purpose (aka why bother to tell this story at all?). The Big Picture is the bit where you can distill the story into as simple an idea as you like, breaking it down into such tropes as “boy meets girl” or “naive youth goes on journey to save his world.” Essentially, The Big Picture is where you answer the question “what’s this story about?” in the broadest sense. It’s also where the story’s themes and subtext find root. For instance, Paul Verhoven’s Robocop is about consumerist America and the fascist power of big corporations (while the much-crappier remake is about drone warfare or something) and this thematic idea informs all manner of things in the movie.

The Big Picture isn’t about details, it’s about the general experience. It’s the message and feeling that the audience take away with them and it needs to be in the back of the director’s and writer’s mind the whole time because it’s what guides and shapes the film.

The Events

Events

This, confusingly, might also called “the plot.” It is essentially the series of obstacles, interactions, beats, moments and resolutions that make up the backbone of the story. These are normally the things beginners and non-storytellers focus on when trying to tell a story- but strangely, on their own, the events really don’t hold much of the audience’s attention (as anyone who’s listened to pub anecdotes can tell you). Much of this is because although they advance the story by providing constant changes in scenery and situation, they don’t emotionally engage audiences- that role falls to characters. The Events are a vehicle for everything else and without them, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

A certain amount of interest and drama can be created in the way and order the events are revealed- such as flashbacks or the ever-popular non-linear, out-of-order structure. But doing so in isolation just becomes a puzzle the audience has little interest in solving.

The Characters

Characters

The characters provide the connection between the audience and the rest of the story. They need to be appealing and/or interesting and, particularly for the protagonists, somewhat relatable. Primary characters need an arc and it’s this course of development and change that contributes to the core story. Secondary characters can get away with little to no development, but it’s still best to have some growth otherwise they lose some of their believability.

Audiences engage with characters, either because they relate to them in some way or because they have some appeal which keeps them interesting. Remember “appeal” doesn’t mean “like” it just means they are interesting to watch. Some of the most appealing movie characters in history are thoroughly unlikeable as people (bad guys are a great example of this), but engaging enough on screen to carry a film or their plot threads.

The World

World

The World is what surrounds the characters and provides the backdrop for the events. It’s obvious how important this is in a scifi or fantasy movie, where the world has to be created from scratch, but it’s equally important in more contemporary, realistic settings. For instance, both The Avengers and Cloverfield are action films set in contemporary, post-9/11 New York, but the worlds and their rules are completely different.

The World is where the rules are set and the other story elements are given context. By developing the world, you are adding depth and believability to the story, making the setting almost like another character in the film. And just like the characters, the audience needs to relate to it and or find it appealing. Is your world a worthwhile place to spend the next 90mins or so?

All events in the story should either come from the actions of the characters or the machinations of the world around them, so neglecting this aspect can seriously impact plot progression as well.

To see how all this comes together, let’s look at a film that most people have seen and are familiar with since it’s a cornerstone of our culture…

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

No, not really. That heap of self-aware cinematic dog shit is more the kidney stone of our culture. Let’s look at Star Wars. The first one, not the less-than-stellar prequels.

Nostalgia aside, Star Wars is hardly a well-directed piece of cinema. But it is a well-constructed story and much of that is down to the balance between the events, characters, world and the big picture.

Star Wars was intentionally designed as a classic hero’s journey, based on the works of Joseph Campbell and his “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This makes its Big Picture fairly easy to adhere to- naive youth gets pulled into a greater conflict by a wise old man, learns to be a warrior and ultimately defeats the great evil. The fundamental themes are good and evil, heroism and coming-of-age. If there is any subtext or parallels, it’s with classic stories of heroism, knights of the round table, samurai etc Essentially, it’s a fairy tale set in space.

The characters are also atypical of that source material. Luke is a naive farm boy who dreams of more and over the course of the story, he becomes a Jedi knight like his father (or at least starts to in the first film) and ultimately saves the day with his ability to fire proton torpedoes down thermal exhaust ports. As the protagonist, it’s him we follow and see grow the most. In the beginning, he’s uncertain and doesn’t want to disappoint his uncle. He also lacks self-belief, thinking that he’s not capable of doing anything to help the rebellion. By the end of the movie, he’s saved the princess, signed up to pilot an x-wing and even learnt to turn off the targeting computer and trust the force. It’s essentially a scifi reworking of the warrior’s journey.

Other characters also have arcs- Han Solo goes from being self-centred to helping the rebellion at the 59th minute and Leia learns to trust and respect lower-class heroes like Luke and Han. The other characters are somewhat static in their development, even if they do provide backstory reveals like Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Events are quite varied and fast moving. The first third of the movie follows the droids in their mission to deliver Leia’s message, the middle is Luke and Han’s attempt to rescue Leia and the final third is the assault on the Death Star. For the most part, each plot event is driven forward by the macguffin of the Death Star plans, who has them, who wants them and what they’ll be used for. Very few scenes are truly superfluous. Locations vary too, just to keep things interesting- from sterile space craft to desert planets, old ruins with hidden bases to the cobbled-together environs of the Millennium Falcon.

The World is where Star Wars really comes into its own. Aside from all the various planets and aliens seen or hinted at, there is all the implied history of the empire and the rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith. There are referred-to characters like Luke’s father, Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, alien languages (that frequently don’t get fully translated) and all manner of backstory (thanks to Lucas going a bit nuts on his yellow note paper). It helps that the effects were good enough to be able to put all this stuff on screen and make the world feel rich, believable and interesting.

So that’s my take on what makes a story work, the four story elements of character, event, world and the big picture. In my experience it seems to do the trick and at the very least gives me as a director something to work with throughout production.

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Drama isn’t a Genre. It’s a Necessary Ingredient.

May 27, 2013

As the three people who read this blog will know, I’ve been trying to put together another short film. It’s been way too long since I last directed drama that I’m starting to wonder if my directing hat will biodegrade through lack of use. One of the projects I’m trying to push is an action film, another a ghost story- both have their own obstacles to getting off the ground (not least of all that the scripts aren’t finished!). Part of the reason I’m pushing for these genre pieces is because it’s nice to be doing something with its own stylistic conventions and set-pieces rather than just straight drama.

But a recent conversation with a fellow director made me think about that definition. He was also doing a genre piece- a horror flick- and was glad to be “getting away from plain, boring drama.” Now obviously, he meant “drama” as a genre- domestic environments, people arguing/crying, contemporary setting, kitchen sink… In the days of video rental shops there were many genres- colour-coded stickers and cheaply printed signs in Impact proclaiming “Comedy” “Horror” and “Action & Adventure” (a catch-all title if ever there was one), usually with some terrible clipart next to it.

Shit like this

Shit like this

“Drama” was one of these genre pidgeon-holes.

But why is “drama” a genre? It seems that the films shoved unceremoniously into this category are the ones that didn’t fit anywhere else, like the misfit kids who sat in the corner of the classroom, unified only in their social apartheid. Polar opposites David Lynch and Jane Austen would sit next to each other on the shelves- except in our old video shop where the owner’s OCD meant shit was always alphabetical (this also meant that the Adult section was near the front of the shop, which wasn’t a popular decision either…).

Drama isn’t a genre. It’s an ingredient. And as it happens, it’s a necessary one for a film to work.

Every film needs drama. Drama is the conflict and subsequent resolution between characters that forms the backbone of a story’s plot. Without drama and conflict, the audience won’t care about Arnie’s struggle to take down Robert Patrick and save the ever-annoying Eddie Furlong. Without drama (and the inevitable tragedy that a film called “Titanic” hints not-so-subtly at), the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wouldn’t work. Without drama, audiences won’t care if Jamie Lee Curtis survives Michael Myers’ killing spree.

Drama.

Drama.

All these genre classics that filmmakers like to call “not-drama” are in fact… well… “drama.” With a coat of arse-kicky, boat-sinky, hacky-slashy genre paint but still… At their core, they’re drama.

Which is why I wonder why there’s so much opposition towards drama among filmmakers. Maybe it’s because drama is frequently forced upon you at film school in “History of Cinema” screenings. Maybe it’s because drama isn’t as “big-budget” feeling as action or horror. But a lot of the time, I think it’s because drama is hard.

Most new or untested directors will balk at that, but it’s true. Well, sort of. Good drama is hard, shite drama… not so much. With good drama you need to understand the actors and their processes, know about and plot the change in character objectives, super objectives and arc, understand and utilise pacing and timing and subtlety and inflection. With bad drama you just hand the actor a script and say “just do what it says on the page.” Aka the George Lucas style of directing. And like the aforementioned bearded wonder, the films you direct suffer as a result. You only have to look at the turgid excuse for a romance in “Attack of the Clones” to see where I’m going with that.

"No, it's because I'm so in love with you... myeh myeh myeh.." Fuck off.

“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you… myeh myeh myeh..” Fuck off.

“Oh, but it’s a genre film” I hear these directors cry. “It doesn’t matter here!” I call bullshit on that. Think about it- okay, we’re accepting of badly written and performed melodrama in a space opera or a slasher film but isn’t it better when the drama isn’t so ham-fistedly scrawled and portrayed? “Attack of the Clones” is fucking terrible dramatically, but just look at the series’ high point in comparison. “The Empire Strikes Back” is a space opera with special effects and battle scenes, larger than life characters and almost soapy melodrama- but in this case it works. It’s written (or should I say re-written, since Lawrence Kasdan kept throwing out Lucas’ original dialogue) and performed with an appropriate truth and honesty which, regardless of the genre you’re working in, is the sort of dramatic level to aim for.

Shitty drama and its bedfellows, poor writing and turgid acting, are not acceptable even in the straight to video, low-expectations-because-it-stars-Hayden-Christiansen, bargain bucket, 2 for £10 shelves in HMV. Strive for better in your work. You might not always be able to nail it due to budget or decisions outside your control but you owe it to yourself to try.

A director needs to embrace drama in every script and every film, no matter what the genre tropes or set pieces. If all you focus on is the action scenes or the blood-and-guts murders, the film won’t have the dramatic weight to engage your audience properly. So if you’re a director, aspiring or otherwise, don’t neglect the drama.

Unless your work does sit on the “Adult” shelf, in which case drama, the script and the acting are the least of your worries…

k-bigpic

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Shoddy Blueprints, Shoddy House.

February 25, 2013

In my last post I pointed out that I wasn’t much of a writer, so this post might come off as the words of a hypocrite… but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll voice my ill-informed opinions if I want to. Disclaimer over and here’s my issue…

Why are so many scripts shit?

I’m not talking about Hollywood movies- we all know that the industrial movie machine takes its toll on talent and creativity and effectively rapes scripts of them both- I’m talking about the sort of scripts kicking about at this end of the filmmaking world. Scripts that haven’t had a producer/studio/investor altering, diluting, genericising (is that even a word?) and adding more explosions/effects/celebrities/boobs to the film to make it more “commercial.” No, these are scripts by relatively new writers looking to get them made by equally new directors. Like me.

Over the last year I’ve been putting myself forwards for a lot of directing gigs- after all, it’s one thing to direct your own project and another to be hired by someone else. Most of these projects are unpaid but the networking and exposure possibilities are worth it. I’ve been offered a number of these jobs but, for me, they’ve always fallen flat at the first hurdle- once they’ve sent me the script.

Gaston

One of the first examples of this was a short film about an elderly guy who argues with his wife. The dialogue was stilted (but that’s not usually a deal-breaker since you and the actors will adjust that before you film anything anyway) and the film began with one of my pet peeves- the old “guy wakes up and we see his morning routine” bollocks. I hate that- unless routine is key to the story, theme or character, don’t open a story with it. It only goes to show you have little to no imagination as to how to show or infer character through interaction or design. It’s the film equivalent of a large, chunky paragraph on page one of a novel telling you everything you need to know about the main character. It’s shit. But shitty beginnings aside, the script’s big flaw came at the end. While witnessing their long-suffering domestic friction, we see the old boy assembling a noose and stool in the garage. You think he’s going to top himself, but at the end of the 4 page script the wife comes in, he gets her to stand on the stool to change the lightbulb and then kills her with the noose. As he steps outside, smiling, he gets a phone call from someone congratulating him on his retirement. That’s it. The end. I mean, what the fuck? I mean, okay the twist works, but what exactly was the point in all this? It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was attempting the perfect crime and we had several scenes setting up an alibi and him insinuating to third parties that she was suicidal- so that when he kills her he’s made it look like she did it herself. But we didn’t. We just got a bullshit twist with no real purpose behind it.

I had another script sent to me- again involving an elderly character and ironic, twisty murder (someone on twitter must’ve said that festivals were looking for that sort of shit and a bunch of writers listened and eagerly started typing…). Old lady is wary of strangers and is being plagued by random door-knockings at tea-time every day. She gets so paranoid that after no less than six of these repetitive occurrences (all of which the audience are needlessly subjected to seeing throughout the first five minutes of a seven minute film), she waits at the door with a shotgun and shoots the caller the next time. When she inspects the teenager’s body she finds a note from her daughter telling the teen to call on his grandma- which the twist implies is our little old dear. So in her fear (and probable senility) she murdered her grandson. Now again, aside from the structural banality of having to sit through essentially the same mundane knock-knock-noone’s-there action again and again for over half the film’s runtime and the unsound internal logic (why would you knock and run if you were visiting your gran?), you also have to deal with an ending that only exists to create a shock twist. It’s not satisfying or poignant or clever or important. It’s just there to prove that what the writer writeth he can taketh away… which is like a DoP using 28 lights in a simple interior scene because he fucking well can!

Cartman

I’m not going to list all the scripts that tumbled with ill-deserved optimism into my inbox, but there’re a few more worth mentioning. And they’re all comedies. Well, they would be… if they satisfied the single simple premise of comedy and were actually funny…

I know comedy is very subjective and what makes one person piss their pants with laughter will make another shit themselves out of unbridled boredom but I think that even if the brand of comedy isn’t your thing, you’re usually able to recognise that it is meant to be funny and that someone else will laugh at it. I struggled with these scripts- a sitcom set in a leisure centre where the writer’s favourite character had all the (supposedly) funny lines and everyone else was pure cardboard and a sketch show predicated around the idea that if you repeat an unfunny joke in several sketches it somehow magically becomes funny- and because the writers were the producers/employers and wouldn’t want to change the script, I had to decline the job.

I suppose that’s the bit that really bugs me. That I had to turn down a job because I didn’t think the script was good enough. No matter what I did, I was tied to the page in front of me and the end result would be, in my opinion at least, sub-par. And if I’m not being paid for it, why would I put out sub-par work? It’ll only make me look bad.

Am I being picky? Or am I expecting too much from writers who are at a similar stage in their career as I am in mine? I mean, I’m relatively inexperienced and don’t have any real professional broadcast or feature credits. I make mistakes all the time- it’s how I learn, how we all learn. Surely writers should be allowed to make mistakes at the same level? And, yes, they should. Yet still it bugs me because my mistakes as a director are frequently filtered through the rest of the cast and crew and its usually only the editor (which is often me anyway) who has to deal with them. A writer’s mistakes affect everything after that last full stop is typed. If the character is written badly, the actor will perform it badly and/or the director will direct it badly. If the structure is poor the whole film is unsteady and even the most talented of editors might struggle to fix such a thing. In all cases, the error will find its way to the audience and blame will often fall on the director and rightfully so because they are the ombudsman for the audience. While I don’t agree entirely with the analogy that the script is a blueprint, the basic premise holds- if the blueprint isn’t well-designed or thought out, the house will likely collapse.

"Don't worry, it's meant to look like that..."

“Don’t worry, it’s meant to look like that, honest…”

Additionally, some writers are precious about their scripts and hate it when directors change things. I can understand that- the script being their creation and them assumedly putting energy and hours of work into it. But the script is there to be made- it’s only the first iteration of the story and one an audience won’t see unless they scour the internet for it. Just as every parent must eventually come to terms with the idea that their children will grow up and you can’t keep them as kids indefinitely (unless they’re Michael Jackson), every serious screenwriter has to realise that a script will inevitably change when it goes through the puberty of a film adaptation.

All that aside, it just means that I’m currently turning down projects because the scripts are either not a good enough starting point or are impractical to work with. Shame I don’t have a prolific and flexible writer living nearby anymore, otherwise I’d probably have a lot more completed projects under my belt…

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There in Black and White

February 12, 2013

I’ve said before that I’m not much of a writer. Hence the lack of auteur-ed material in my back catalogue. But when you only know a handful of good writers and don’t want to exploit them unnecessarily, you have to write your own shit and hope for the best. Maybe get them in to rewrite things later, but that usually means writing the first draft yourself.

Hemingway

For a while now, I’ve had this little idea for a showreel-worthy short film fermenting in my noggin. Something that might be my calling card and the thing that kicks my career into touch. So I’m keen to get this on paper, on camera and then on screen. But it’s quite a genre/style blend and certain parts of it are quite esoteric- combining elements from Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, crime dramas and film noir. Not an easy thing to get a handle on and I don’t know any writers who’d get it right off the bat. So it looks like I need to do the legwork- write the treatment and in all likelihood, the first draft- so that when I do pass it over to a proper writer, they have something to go on.

So I’ve had to force myself to write a treatment.

I never used to like, or more accurately use, the whole treatment-then-script-then-rewrite process. I used to just dive into the script, start at the beginning then work my way to the end. Which I suppose explains why my IMDB listing doesn’t have any screenwriting credits. Well, proper pro credits- “The Last Serenade” doesn’t count… But I’ve now grown to realise the importance of the treatment- in particular getting the story working there before you start writing the script proper.

As a director, one of my… things… is internal story logic. Character actions and motivations have to make sense. You can’t just fudge things (big things at least) to create the dramatic moment or effect you want- everything has to come from a real place. If you fudge it, the actors will point it out to you on set, the editor will point it out to you in the edit suite and audiences will point it out to anyone who’ll listen five minutes after they’ve tuned out of the film. So it needs to work structurally and that’s what the treatment’s for. Ironing out those story wrinkles and plotholes and getting the important details right.

sonicscrewdriver

The other thing the treatment’s good for is pacing and delivery. Treatments are written in the present tense- as the film unfolds, exactly how an audience experiences it. If nothing else reinforces the director’s role as the audience’s ombudsman, the treatment is it.

So I’ve been writing mine and I’ve found that some things like the general structure (the opening scenes, the plot twist and the placement of the action sequences) were already set in place in my head but others (like the drip-feed like reveals of information and backstory and the logical causes for the moments I had later) were a mystery. This is where the treatment really comes into its own. Each scene is a paragraph- at least it is in my method, other more capable writers probably do things differently/better- so if you know a scene has to go here but have no idea what it is, just write any old shit to fill the space. You can and will change it later. I used to do the same thing when writing scripts- write the scenes I knew or was enthused about and put placeholders in for the ones I didn’t. I found that doing things this way meant I can see the story as a whole and judge how and when to reveal story points better.

And ultimately, fixing the story points is what this is all in aid of. On a related if tangential note, I’ve been seeing a lot of scripts recently that are poorly structured or badly written. I know that at the stage I’m at in my career and the sort of erratic circles I move in, I shouldn’t expect miracles, but these are from people serious enough about writing to call themselves writers. There have been sitcoms and sketch shows that just flat-out aren’t funny, character dramas that make absolutely no sense, genre pieces that have less homages and more full-on uninspired rip-offs and short films that kill the main character off at the end (supposedly for a shock twist, but actually just because the writer has a creation complex and doesn’t know how to finish the film otherwise). I don’t want this project to have those flaws. I want it to work for me as a filmmaker and for an audience.

But if I can nail the treatment, I can get someone talented in to do the rest of the script and I can concentrate on directing the shit out of it instead.