“A film is made three times: first on the page, then on set, and finally in the edit.”
It’s an old film school adage we’ve all heard many times, one originally attributed to French filmmaker Robert Bresson. In a way it’s obvious: of course all films must go through those phases of production, and of course each one brings with it a different element to the film. But what do these phases mean when it comes to the very core nature of storytelling?
Phase One: The Screenplay
This is the stage we all find ourselves in the most often, and for the longest. Years can go by and we can still find ourselves wrangling that story from our mind’s eye to the page. How do we turn those many pages to one cohesive, readable script?
One could argue this is the purest phase. All that exists is an imaginary story in the mind of the writer or writers behind the keyboard. But it’s not that simple: anyone from the director to the actors (or, god forbid, the financiers) could be involved in this stage. Still, there are many who find joy in writing and feel most comfortable in its relative solitude and simplicity.
If you are a writer-director, chances are you just want to get it over with so it can become a film. Speaking to the Blacklist, Damien Chazelle reveals it’s his least favorite part of the process.
“Actually putting stuff onto paper is almost always a really, really tough one. There are moments of exhilaration when you’re shooting on set, and while editing. Editing is maybe my favorite part of the entire process. Writing is the worst. I do that in order to be able to get on set.”Damien Chazelle
Although he makes a good point about remembering the value of a well-written script:
“I think truly great writers — whether they’re screenwriters or novelists or poets, it doesn’t matter — are able to make something that stands alone. You can read a William Goldman script and have as full an experience as you would watching the movie that results.”Damien Chazelle
Phase Two: On Set
If cinema is the art of what’s in the frame and what’s not, then production is the most important phase of a film’s creation. Save for expensive re-shoots, what you get on the day is what will become immortal on screen. It is, for this reason, the most chaotic and least manageable phase as well. The director, actors, and crew become the authors of the story during this stage.
Normally, the script is adapted faithfully and the entire production revolves around getting it just as it was written. However, many directors will eschew this in favor of capturing something authentic and unpredictable on set. There are many famous cases of this. Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life) considers the script merely an excuse to get to the “reality” of production. The present moment is all that matters. Improvisational directors like Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) and Mark Duplass (Togetherness) also prioritize spur-of-the-moment remarks and behavior over whatever was written the day before.
This is critical to remember while writing. Ultimately, what happens on the day will end up as much a part of the story as is the perfectly selected wording in your draft.
Phase Three: The Edit
The editing process can be the most vague and unknowable part of making a film. It’s also what truly makes it cinema rather than a play or a novel. The editing team and director (sometimes working with the writer) are now making the decision of how the film flows. What information is revealed to a viewer and when? What deserves their attention in any given scene?
A scene that may have been written from an objective viewpoint may be refashioned in a way to make it highly subjective. The very structure of a script can (and perhaps should) be completely changed and refashioned in the timeline of the edit. Sometimes this can lead to vast improvements on the source material, like with Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, a stunningly original neo-noir that would have been flat and lifeless without Sarah Flack’s ruthless restructuring of the narrative.
Making a film can be a chaotic process. While some scripts completely transform, this is many times not the case. You will notice some production drafts are very similar to the finished product. Remember that as the screenwriter, you are the film’s first editor. Think long and hard about your script’s structure and why certain scenes follow one another. This is the first chance someone has at imagining a film from start to finish, and like many things in life, the first impression is the most important.