The Screenplay

TypewriterKeysA screenplay is the literary expression of the story, characters, actions, locations, and tone of your film written in a specialized dramatic script format.

Whether you write the script yourself or work with someone else's material, it's important to remember that the screenplay is not the final product. It is an intermediate step in the production of a film and serves many functions in all stages of the project's development. It is often said that the screenplay is the blueprint for the entire process of making a film, in the same way that an architect's rendering serves as the blueprint for the construction of a house.

In many ways this is true; however, unlike an architectural blueprint, a screenplay should remain a rather more flexible document throughout the process. It's important to keep in mind that screenplays evolve. They should be revised and rewritten, at every stage of a film's progression, as new ideas or circumstances emerge.

• STAGES OF SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT

There are a number of stages in the evolution of a screenplay, and each stage usually requires various drafts. Each stage has a specific purpose as you proceed, step by step, from a general outline of your story to a script that contains the full dimensions of your film, including locations, actions, dialogue, sounds, and movements. This process of working and reworking your film's story material, adding, cutting, or refining details along the way, is called script development.

Concept

The concept is a very brief outline of the basic elements involved in your story. It describes, in no more than a few sentences, the essential dramatic engine that will drive the movie:

Who is your main character? What is the central dramatic question around which all the action revolves? And how does it end? A good concept outlines the general shape of the narrative material. These are the elements that translate an idea for a film into something that is in fact a dramatized, filmable story.
 

Here's an example from one of my students, George Racz, who was making his second film, his first with synchronized sound. George has a four-year-old niece and he was enchanted by her vivid imagination. He had the idea to somehow capture in a movie her belief in wondrous and magical things. His intention was to charm an audience by allowing us to see the world for a moment through the eyes of this innocent, imaginative girl  and, as George told me, "Through Panna I want to invite the viewers to rediscover those small magical moments which they once believed in". George's intentions were clear, but it was not yet clear how he would accomplish this on film. What would he point the camera at? What would the little girl do? What would the audience actually see on screen that would charm them or make them see the world as Panna sees it? In short, what's the story? George quickly turned his general idea into a specific film concept.

"At a toy store, four-year-old Kate is enjoying all the toys when she sees a homeless woman digging through the trash outside the store. At that moment her parents lead her to a magic show in the store and she assists the magician with a trick. Kate believes she has learned how to perform real magic. Later she sees a panhandler on crutches unable to walk, and she decides to help the poor man with her new magical powers; and it works."

Ideas in their raw form do not constitute a film story. Once you have an idea, you need to translate it into
a film concept with basic, but specific, story elements. This is the beginning of your script development process. Once your concept is working, then you are ready to write a treatment where you'll develop more specific details.

Treatment

The treatment is a prose description of the plot, written in present tense, as the film will unfold for the audience, scene by scene. A treatment is a story draft where the writer can hammer out the basic actions and plot structure of the story before going into the complexities of realizing fully developed scenes with dialogue, precise actions, and setting descriptions.

11 The Miracle (2006), George Racz (writer/ The treatment is the equivalent of a painter's sketch that can be worked and reworked before committing to paint on canvas. It's much easier to cut, add, and rearrange scenes in this form than in a fully detailed screenplay. Generally, a treatment involves writing a few sentences for each major dramatic event, also called a narrative beat. A narrative beat is a dramatic event in which the action, decisions, or revelations of that moment move the plot forward either by intensifying it or by sending it in a new direction. In other words, a treatment sketches in the essential events. For a short film, a treatment might be one to three pages long. For very simple short films, you can simply write one sentence describing each narrative beat. This shorter version is called a step outline or a beat sheet.

Author's Draft

The author's draft is the first complete version of the narrative in proper screenplay format. The emphasis of the author's draft is on the story, the development of characters, and the conflict, actions, settings, and dialogue. The author's draft goes through a number of rewrites and revisions on its way to becoming a final draft, which is the last version of the author's draft before it is turned into a shooting script. The aim of an author's draft is to remain streamlined, flexible, and "readable." Therefore, technical information (such as detailed camera angles, performance cues, blocking, or detailed set description) is kept to an absolute minimum. It is important not to attempt to direct the entire film, shot for shot, in the author's draft. The detailed visualization and interpretation of the screenplay occurs during later preproduction and production stages.

Shooting Script

Once you have completed your rewrites and arrived at a final draft, you will be ready to take that script into production by transforming it into a shooting script. The shooting script is the version of the screenplay you take into production, meaning it is the script from which your creative team (cinematographer, production designer, etc.) will work and from which the film will be shot. A shooting script communicates, in specific terms, the director's visual approach to the film. All the scenes are numbered on a shooting script to facilitate breaking down the script and organizing the production of the film. This version also includes specific technical information about the visualization of the movie, like camera angles, shot sizes, and camera moves.


VandVMick Hurbis-Cherrier has been teaching all levels of film and video production at Hunter Colletge in New York City for more than a decade.  He works professionally in both film and video and has performed a wide range of duties on films, including producing, writing, directing, cinematography and editing.  His films and videos have been shown around the country and have garnered prizes in many festivals. His book Voice & Vision is available from Focal Press


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