Make a film: a brief writing course

Feature Dan Freeman 13 Dec 2012 - 07:52

Have you ever wanted to make a film? The Minister of Chance's Dan Freeman explains how the process may be easier than you think...

Guest contributor Dan Freeman, the creator of The Minister Of Chance, has a bit of advice...

It's very hard to break into film and TV nowadays: it should be. Millions of dollars and hours are sometimes spent on garbage even when the makers are excellent. If you aren't prepared to slave to make your art, why should anyone else give you the money? At the same time, if you have any vital spark of imagination about you, make that film. The audience will decide whether it's good or bad – don't leave that job up to your self-confidence.

If you have a lot of self-doubt about making a colossal multi-million dollar thingy, that means you're human. Start as soon as you've finished reading this. There is always too much going on at work or at home. You do not need quiet time. Quiet time is when you have no job and you spend your time worrying about money. Get a pocket notebook and write on the bus home, in bed, on the toilet. Everyone who gets anything made has to push hard, so you push hard, otherwise the pushy but crap ones will get to the top. You will be responsible for the rise of mediocrity!

First – what do you want to say? If the answer is “I'm not sure”, then make sure you're sure before you make the film. If I say “Listen to me, I have something to say,” you might listen. If I say “Listen to me, I just want to talk for 90 minutes,” your answer might rightly end in “off.” 

Art is in the intention – a pile of bricks is a pile of bricks until the artist means something by it. Withnail & I  is saying something: that at some point, everyone has to grow up. This message is summarised by Danny: “If you're hanging on to a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision — let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”

You can't keep a grip on the rope forever: that's the theme. It's iterated personally in the actions of Marwood, who lets go of the balloon of their desolute lifestyle and gets a job, and in Withnail, who does not, and is left weeping his lonely talent into the rain.

Groundhog Day has a message, expressed by the barfly: “You know, some guys would look at this glass and they would say, 'That glass is half empty'. Other guys would say, 'That glass is half ful'l. I peg you as a 'glass is half empty' kind of guy. Am I right?”

Bill Murray plays a cynical, moaning weatherman who complains about the cold, then learns to see the positive in it. The message is: the route to happiness is to enjoy what you've got: make the weather. Structure the film around that theme. Build the characters as expressions of that theme. In Groundhog Day, Andie MacDowell's character is a (rather insipid) expression of one side of the theme – relentlessly seeing the good in everything.

The structure of a standard film is enunciated in lots of books, my favourite being Save The Cat. because it's brief and to the point. Some people avoid film books like the plague. My answer to that is – how can you avoid the formula if you don't know it? If I tell you to drive to London, avoiding St Albans, how can you do that unless you know where St Albans is? Picasso learned to copy and draw normally before he went pointy. The Beatles copied Simon and Garfunkel's songs and then changed them. Learn the formula: then don't avoid it, surpass it.

Now you have your script. You have no millions and no studio backing. You can't get any because you have no track record and you have no agent or access to a producer. The answer is to make it yourself.

Before you drop your mouse and run away screaming, check out my own production – The Minister Of Chance. It's completely free to download, and it was made as a sonic movie. In essence, it was made with film technique but without a camera. That makes it orders of magnitude cheaper to make, gives the story much more scope, and entails no loss in quality of the experience. You'll also wonder how we paid for such an A-list cast. Well, we didn't, certainly not what you'd expect. Most actors aren't in it for the money, if you show them a decent script they'll jump on it. We are now getting amazing people asking us to be in it. 

Of course you don't have to make a sonic movie: most video is watched on a computer screen now, YouTube even, so you don't have to have a broadcast-quality camera. A crap camera can still be used to make a good film, the picture will just be smaller. Don't zoom in and out, keep the thing on a tripod. Watch the best film you can find in the genre you want to make, turn the volume down so you can study it without getting drawn into the story, and mimic the shots. Learn where St. Albans is, then you can go past it.

Finally, okay, I admit you will actually then need some money. Crowdfunding is the answer: you offer perks (signed scripts, certificates, T-shirts, bit parts) in return for funding. The amazing thing about this system is that it works. If you have a quality project and you throw yourself on people's generosity, they'll come up kind. It's a fantastic way to work. Have a look at Kickstarter, Indiegogo and others.

Here endeth the lesson. Download The Minister Of Chance, and while it's loading, write.

Dan Freeman is the writer, producer and director of the groundbreaking sonic movie series The Minister Of Chance starring Julian Wadham, Jenny Agutter, Lauren Crace, Paul Darrow, Tamsin Greig, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann. 

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