If verite filmmakers can dispense with a script, perhaps filmmakers in other genres can as well. Think of the savings in hours, coffee, cigarettes, and frayed nerves if we could just make do with a few rough notes. What a beautiful dream!
So why a script? Because using a script is usually the most logical and helpful way to make a film. I think of the script as something akin to the architect's plan. Buildings can be erected without master designs and working drawings, and in the same way, all sorts of films can be made without scripts, but there are a myriad reasons in both cases for writing down and formalizing the creative ideas. To put it very simply, a decent script makes the task of filmmaking a hundred times easier.
Why is that? How does the script help us, and what are its prime functions?
1. The script is an organizing and structural tool, a reference and a guide that helps everyone involved in the production.
2. The script communicates the idea of the film to everyone concerned with the production, and it tries to do this clearly, simply, and imaginatively. The script helps everyone understand what the film is about and where it is going. The script is particularly vital to the sponsor, or TV commissioning editor, as it relates in detail what the film is about and whether what has been loosely discussed in conference has been translated into acceptable film ideas.
3. The script is also essential to both the cameraperson and the director. It should convey to the cameraperson a great deal about the mood, action, and problems of the camera work. It should also help the director define the approach and the progress of the film, its inherent logic and its continuity.
4. The script is also an essential item for the rest of the production team because, apart from conveying the story, it also helps the crew answer a series of questions:
• What is the appropriate budget for the film?
• How many locations and how many days of shooting are needed?
• What lighting will be required?
• Will there be any special effects?
• Will archive material be needed?
• Are special cameras or lenses called for because of a particular scene?
5. The script also guides the editor, showing the proposed structure of the film and the way the sequences will fit together. In practice, the editor may read the original script but will eventually work from a slightly different document, that is, the editing script. (For reasons discussed later, the editing script may differ radically from the original script.)
Implicit in the above comments is the idea that the script is a working document and not a literary document. It is the basis from which plans can be made and action carried out. It might incidentally be a superb piece of prose (unusual!), but that is not the prime requisite. The first object of the script is to show what the film is about and suggest how its main idea can be carried out in the best possible way.
I have suggested the analogy of an architect's plan, but the comparison works only to a certain point. A script is a guide or first battle plan, the best device for getting the film under way on the basis of the information known at the time of writing. However, in reality it is only a best-guess guide to uncharted territory. It states where you want to go and suggests what seems, initially, the best route.
But the actual experience of the filming may cause you to change many ideas. For example, planned sequences may just not work out. The marvelous person who seemed so alive and forthcoming during the research interview may turn out to be fiat and useless on camera. The vaunted pageant, which sounded so good when described to you and which you thought would provide the climax to the film, may turn out to be abysmally dull. Or new possibilities may be discovered while shooting. Strange characters may turn up, and marvelous, unexpected events may happen even in the best-planned film. In each case, you may need to drastically revise your thinking about both the film and the script. You may find yourself re-evaluating sequences, throwing some away, adding others, and even reordering some of the main acts.
Another frequent problem is that theory does not always match reality. The script that looked so appealing on paper may not work when the material is assembled. You may find, for example, that the whole rhythm of the film is wrong or that it is overloaded with information. At that point, the script must be adjusted, and again, sequences may have to be dropped, cut, or reordered. In most cases, this can be done relatively easily, and the script can be altered to accommodate the changes without damaging the essential structure and message of the film.
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