I write a lot on this site about cameras, writing techniques, gear reviews, and other filmmaking tips – but up until now I haven’t shared a lot of insight into my own specific film and commercial projects, which are continuously ongoing. That is very much going to change though, as one of the most frequent requests I get from readers is for more insight into my own creative process on my film productions. Many of you are eager to learn about the writing process, production techniques, or post-production workflows associated with my films, and as such I am going to use an upcoming feature film project of mine as a vehicle to share my process with you from beginning to end. And for the first article today, I’ll be starting right at the beginning – choosing and developing the idea.
Throughout this article I’m going to outline my system for literally creating an idea from scratch, and then refining it until it is ready to be fleshed out into an outline and first draft. But first I want to briefly touch on my intentions for this project as a whole to put everything in context.
As some of you know, I’ve shot quite a few short films over the years as well as a micro-budget feature a couple years back titled ‘Footsteps’. Outside of my personal work though, I also work on many other commercial and film projects in various capacities – most often as a director, DP, or colorist. This year I have been fortunate enough to have had some really exciting projects arise that I will be involved with (including two other feature films), but it is also very important at this point in my career that I work on a passion project of mine – even if it’s a challenge given the amount of other work on my plate at the moment. I realized early on this year that the only way I can really make this feature film work while also committing to the other projects on the table, is by keeping things simplistic and minimal. And by minimal I mean everything – A micro budget, small crew, 2 – 3 person cast, quick editing process, and simple festival strategy for starters. I’m pointing out the nature of this project to help put things in perspective as I continue to write these articles. If this was a film that I was going to be seeking financing for, or that would require additional producer involvement (outside of my current circle of colleagues and friends), my approach would be very different. The story would develop differently, as would the production/post schedule, and certainly the distribution strategy would be different as well. But for this article and all of the others to come, I will be focusing on a topic that many of you can relate to – creating a film on a truly independent level with a minimal budget.
Here are a couple of trailers of mine from recent films:
I’m going to start off this documentation of my feature film progression from step one – picking an idea and running with it.
Starting From Scratch
I usually have a few running ideas for a feature floating around in my head or in my notes at any given time. These may be thoughts I had in passing, or fully fleshed out scripts, but when I assess a new project I really try to forget all of these ideas and start from scratch. My mentality is that if any of my previous ideas were that fantastic, or if I was that passionate about them, I would have already made them. And if I use some other techniques to uncover the story that I really want to tell, maybe I will come back to one of those ideas in the end if it is truly one that I want to work with. So when embarking on this feature film journey, my first step was simply to clear my mind of every other idea I’ve ever had. I just wanted to start from scratch, dig down, and find the story that I was most creatively excited about. In order to find a story that I connect with most as a filmmaker, I used a couple of simple techniques to spark ideas such as the following:
The Deductive Process
This very simple technique has become the heart of my story development process, and ultimately serves the purpose of getting as many ideas on paper as possible so that I can then reduce them down to the best possible starting point. It is the very first thing that I do when I am developing a new concept and in my opinion an excellent way to get the creative wheels spinning. The idea is to come up with five options for each of the following categories, and then match them together to create rudimentary constructs that can later be fleshed out into more developed ideas:
The benefit of listing at least five options for each of these categories is that it forces critical thinking and helps to avoid cliche. For instance, even though I am often drawn to rural settings in my films, in the ‘World’ category, I might have: Rural farm town, downtown Los Angeles, the desert, wintery mountain village, and beach town, all listed under the ‘World’ heading. By forcing myself to think of five options I am helping myself to avoid cliche (which most often is a result of going with your first idea and not challenging it with something more rich). In this case, rather than choose a familiar setting (the farm town) I picked two of the other settings (beach and desert) and decided to marry them together to create a dynamic physical/geographical location that will play into the story (more on that later).
I find that by not overthinking this process and by simply just writing down thoughts instinctually, the best ideas come out. The first 1 or 2 ideas on the list are always going to be somewhat familiar or basic, but by number 4 or 5 I am usually able to surprise myself with some ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise come up with if I didn’t challenge myself using this basic exercise.
Once I have my five options for each of the above categories, I then move on to combine them into three very rudimentary constructs. The formula I use is as follows: A [GENRE] film, set in a [WORLD] that follows a [PROTAGONIST] struggling to overcome [XYZ] obstacles as a result of [ANTAGONIST].
Again – very, very simple. This formula can effectively be used to describe any story, but the point is just to start almost randomly throwing a mix of ideas into the pot and seeing which ingredients combine to create the best dish. With five options in four different categories, there are loads of different combinations of genres, worlds, protagonists, and antagonists, that can be put together and then looked at on a ‘big picture’ level to decide which would work best as a starting point. In my case, I wound up with three options that I really liked. My favorite of the three was a road film set on a journey between the Pacific Ocean and the Mojave Desert in Southern California, focusing on a young couple with a dark past.
When It’s Okay To Go Back To Older Ideas
Earlier in this article I wrote about the benefits of throwing out old ideas (especially early on in the concept development phase), in order to start off with a clean slate. There are however, certain times and places where I like to revisit old ideas for inspiration – one of which can be after developing a rudimentary outline, such as the one described above.
For instance, after my new story idea started to take shape I couldn’t help but notice that it shared certain themes and ideas with other films of mine or scripts that I’ve written… Particularly the road film genre, as well as the theme of a character attempting to solve an emotional problem by changing their geographical location. I knew that the fact that I was coming back to some of these constructs meant that I was on the right path, as these are all elements that are true to my style as a filmmaker. While I never want to repeat any of my previous work, I do like to be in touch with my own voice as a filmmaker and part of that means recognizing the traits that define my body of work so that I can continually hone them. In this case, I mulled over some old story notes and scripts I had written with similar themes and characters and let them loosely inspire aspects of the small bud of an idea that had started forming.
Moving Quickly To Character
I believe that all great films are character driven, even if they don’t feel that way on the surface. I like human films and in order for a film to have a soul, the plot really needs to be driven by decisions that are made by realistic and dynamic characters, not simply plot devices. Part of making sure that my films feel realistic and human means focusing on character development very early on in the writing process.
In this case I took my protagonist and antagonist and wrote out (by hand, for some reason I find it much more stimulating) 10 + pages on each using free association. It’s amazing how much you can get out of a free association exercise like this… By the end of it I had some incredibly rich backstories for each character, scene ideas, and possible flashbacks that could be incorporated into the screenplay. Even if all of it gets thrown out though, it won’t matter. The point is just to understand the characters better so they can guide me through the writing process rather than the other way around.
After completing these character exercises, I went back to the rudimentary outline that I had developed, and turned it into more of a log line format by injecting some texture and detail into it, which helped it start to come alive.
It’s also worth noting that the exercises above don’t necessarily need to be done in this order. Sometimes I have a character idea and will spend time fleshing out that character before this is any story at all. In this case however, I was inspired by other elements (such as the genre and world) and then found a dynamic set of characters to fit into those parameters.
Ideas Don’t Happen Magically
A few words of advice for any of you stepping into creative development on a project like this one…
Sometimes using the kinds of exercises or techniques outlined above can make the writing process feel a bit clinical and uninspiring – even if loads of progress is actually being made. Many filmmakers (even some that are very experienced) forget from time to time that all films and screenplays start out more or less the same way (unless they are adapted from someone else’s work). Any of your favorite feature films have undoubtably at one point or another been in really rough shape during the writing process. They were just buds of ideas, and then they were bad (or possibly mediocre) first drafts. And over time they got more and more refined until they became masterpieces… The writers of these films didn’t start out with the perfect idea, they worked long and hard through trial and error to find the right idea that is not only strong creatively, but also truthful to the writer. Our projects are no different. They will not be easy to create, and while they may be hugely rewarding and fun at times, at others they may be exceptionally challenging and frustrating. It’s important to remember though that every project goes through this and ultimately any story can great. I truly believe that just about any concept has the potential to be an academy award winning film – it all just comes down to the execution. So the next time you are doubting your idea, remember that it might be yourself that you’re really doubting, not the project, and try to work through those moments.
My next few steps in this process will involve fleshing out a beat sheet and some scenes based on my rudimentary construct and log line, and then eventually jumping into the screenplay itself. But before I do any of this, I am going to take some time away from the notes and ideas that I have developed so far, and come back to them in a few days with fresh eyes. Assuming I still feel as strongly about them as I do now, I will be ready to move on.
Be sure to check back soon as I will continue to detail the films progression all the way until the end.
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