Play It Safe - Filmmaking Commandments: Four Simple Rules To Help You Write A Script

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This article was originally posted on the website for Play It Safe. Click here to view the original post.

In my last post, I talked about the main aim I had when I started this project. To put it simply, I didn't have a particular vision or idea I wanted to realise. I just wanted to make a feature film!

When Jack and I agreed to write the screenplay, we both knew that realising that (seemingly simple) goal was going to be very challenging. Neither of us had written a feature length script before, and we both enjoyed procrastinating as much as the next writer. To combat this, we decided to set up a bunch of commandments or rules to help us along the way. We decided upon four main commandments to keep us on the straight and narrow, and then gradually added a bunch of other guidelines to help us with specific areas.

This may seem like quite a simple (or even pointless) exercise, but I can assure you that it was absolutely invaluable. Without these commandments I don't know whether we would have managed to write the script for Play It Safe at all, and if we did then it probably wouldn't be as good as it is now.

If you're about to embark on a long-term project like this, I cannot recommend enough the benefits of having some guiding rules or principles to stick to and to keep you honest!

Without further ado, here are the commandments:

1) MAKE IT AWESOME

This one sounds totally stupid, but it's actually really essential. I got this from another director I used to work with. Apparently, whenever he would be brainstorming for a treatment, one of his housemates would come up and say: “I know exactly what you have to do, just make it awesome!” On the one hand, that is probably one of the most annoying things you could possibly say to a stressed out director. But, on the other hand, it's actually very good advice.

As filmmakers, we make work to be consumed by other people. They want to be entertained, or at least stimulated! They don't care if you run out of money during the production. They don't care if you had an idea since you were 5 years old and you can't bear to compromise it. They just want to see something awesome! They definitely don't want to see something that sucks, or something that's self-indulgent.

So, for every decision Jack and I made while writing the screenplay, we would have to ask ourselves: “Does this make the screenplay more awesome?”, or “Will this choice make a better film at the end of the day?” Anything else had to go, and this leads nicely onto the 2nd commandment.

2) NO IDEA IS SACRED

Or to put it simply, don’t be precious with your ideas. When you’re working on a long-term project like this, it’s easy to get attached to characters and scenes. But if those things aren’t making the film better, then they really have no place being in the film. That’s when a film starts to become self-indulgent. You’ve forgotten about the audience and the story as its own entity, you’re too caught up in yourself and what you want.

This commandment was very useful in freeing us of these things. From the start we really embraced this kind of approach, where we could throw out anything and everything if it wasn’t going to benefit the film.

You may have heard the expression: “Kill your darlings. Kill your babies.” Well, let me tell you that we killed a whole boatload of babies on this project! Before we started writing Play It Safe, Jack and I were actually working on another script concept. After three months of hard word, we decided to shelve the idea. This was a painful process, but ultimately it was the right decision, and I am very glad that we did it. It might hurt in the short term to kill your babies, but you will feel a whole lot better in the long run.

Now, why did we shelve that first concept? Well, that leads us to the 3rd commandment.

3) MAKE IT PRACTICAL

As I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve been really into embracing limitations for a long time now. For a feature film this is absolutely vital. So, with this in mind, Jack and I decided to only write what we could actually afford to shoot, and to take advantage of things we already had access to.

In my opinion, there’s no point trying to achieve the impossible. It will only end in tears! There’s no point writing a dragon into a script if you can’t afford to shoot one! (Not that dragons are real of course.)

This commandment was actually very difficult to stick to, and it was the reason why Jack and I trashed our first script idea. Even though we set out with the aim to only write what we could shoot, things still got away from us. It turned out that the first concept was just going to be impractical, if not impossible, for us to shoot with our limited resources. Maybe the film would get made, but would it be awesome??? Commandments 1 and 2 reigned, and we started over from scratch.

4) SMASH IT OUT

This one is simple. I had given myself a limited amount of time to get this feature off the ground, so the aim of this commandment was just to do everything as simply and quickly as possible. To work with a feverish energy, smashing out what we were doing.

As our good buddy Voltaire once said: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Personally, I have a real problem with perfectionism. With creative work, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of the Perfectionist Fallacy (which is something I teach my students about at uni). Basically, the fallacy suggests that a solution should be rejected unless it is completely perfect. Of course, as artists, we want our work to be as good as possible. But, sometimes, perfectionism can lead to procrastination. Sure, we could spend five years writing a single screenplay trying to get it perfectly right. But do I really want to spend all that time just working on the one thing? Directing - or any creative pursuit really - can and should be looked at in the long-term. Hopefully I'm going to have a long career and the chance to make many different films. A single project will only make up a very small part of that journey. Having Voltaire's quote on the wall next to us while we were writing definitely helped Jack and I keep all this in perspective and maintain the momentum we needed.

CONCLUSION

That sums up the four main commandments that were essential to the writing process of Play It Safe. They were absolutely invaluable and I would definitely recommend a similar approach if you're undertaking a long-term creative project of your own.

What kind of rules or commandments do you find useful? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Chris Pahlow

Chris Pahlow is an independent writer/director currently in post-production on his debut feature film PLAY IT SAFE. Chris has been fascinated with storytelling since he first earned his pen license and he’s spent the last ten years bringing stories to life through music videos, documentaries, and short films.