Welcome to our archive of the "Ask a Filmmaker," a column that was devoted to your questions and concerns about the filmmaking process. Our guest columnists were screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie's Angels), director Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World) and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News).

July 7, 2000

Ask a Screenwriter Ask a Director
by John August by Peter M. Cohen
That feeling where you sink low in the stomach and begin to doubt the really great thirty pages that leaked out of your head ­ which eventually leads to utter disappointment in yourself, your talent, your words. That's good right?
  I know the old "Don't give up" or "Give it time" advice. But tell me from your personal experience how you get through those famine times in writing.

--Carey O. Malloy

At a workshop last week, one writer said her trick to getting through these bleak times started before she even began working on a project. She would write a half-page letter to herself about why she was excited about the project. Then she'd take this letter and seal it away. Hopefully, she'd never need to look at it again. But if she hit hopeless despair, she could rip that envelope open and be re-inspired.

It's a smart idea. Unfortunately, it does nothing for you, Carey, right-here-right-now, with no hope, no confidence, and no damn letter to inspire you.

Self-doubt is essentially an argument with yourself, and it's impossible to win a battle when you're fighting both sides. So concede defeat and move on to the real questions: Do your thirty pages really suck? What changed that led you away from thinking they were great? Do you really know what the movie is that you're trying to write?

This last question is usually the killer. I've gotten lost in scripts many times, and had to throw out material I really loved but that simply wasn't part of the movie I was trying to make. It was too slapstick, too showy, too Ivory-Merchant or too Bruckheimer for the project. But I realized something amazing: Nothing ever really goes away. You'll re-use or re-invent things, sometimes without being aware of it.

The short film script that begat Go was in turn begat (begotten?) by an aborted modernization of "Alice in Wonderland." I didn't even realize it at the time, but I was using a lot of my ideas for Alice in it. Later, I wrote a damn cool split-screen action sequence for Charlie's Angels that didn't survive, but as God is my witness, one day it shall be filmed.

I guess my best advice for grappling with self-doubt is to reassure you that every script has its crisis point in the birthing process, before a certain critical mass is achieved and it comes out wet and shiny and crying. If a certain scene is troubling you, skip over it and tackle something further ahead. If the story is getting confused, take a break and outline the scenes. Ask hard questions of the script and the characters, but lighten up on yourself. You're only human, and they're only paper.


When you sit to write a script, at what level of detail do you write? Also, do you sit down and draft the entire idea before writing, or do you begin writing and make up the story body as it goes along?

I plot and outline fiendishly, more than many writers I know. Part of this comes from having had to pitch movies to studio execs, who invariably pick apart the details of a story in order to prove they are paying attention. Part of my outlining jones also comes from bad experience. The only scripts I've completely messed up were ones where I didn't have a clear plan going in. One script ­ one I wrote for myself, fortunately ­ required me to throw out 70 pages once I realized I was off-track.

How much detail I go into with these outlines varies project by project. My earlier scripts tended towards treatments ­ 12 or so pages that had a paragraph for every scene or sequence, complete with snippets of dialogue where appropriate. James Cameron takes this approach, and is known for his "scriptments" which can top 70 pages. Reading the scriptment for Aliens is very much like reading the screenplay.

Recently, I've been less detailed in my outlines, but I always have a listing of the sequences, which characters are in them, and what important action and/or story points are happening. The process for creating this outline varies. Often it's just a few sheets of notebook paper, with arrows and brackets to show where stuff is going. For Fantasy Island, which I'm working on now, I had to break out the index cards ­ a different color for each character ­ and figure out how I was going to structure a movie that involves four protagonists with interlocking storylines and a very big ticking clock.

For Big Fish, an adaptation of Daniel Wallace's Southern novel, the process started with looking at each sequence in the book and figuring out (a) how crucial it was to the movie's storyline, and (b) what would need to change for it to work on-screen. Most people would assume that adapting a novel is easier than writing a script from scratch, but in many ways it's more challenging. A reader can imagine the characters and moments in a book any way he wants, but a screenwriter must make hard decisions: the hero is 45 years old; he says this, not that; he gets on the plane now, not later. The difference between novels and screenplays is the difference between art and architecture, and it's a bitch to adapt a Picasso into a building.

One last word about pre-planning. A lot of writers don't do it, and usually they say it's because they don't want to get locked in should inspiration carry them someplace great. In my experience, an outline actually makes it easier to follow your whims, because if inspiration strikes you can re-evalutate your plan and see if this new idea can work. Without having a plan, that great idea may get struck down as terrifying and unworkable, because the writer isn't sure it will fit.


Shooting "indie style" in NYC:

When considering on which coast to shoot Whipped, I created two production budgets: An LA version and a New York City version. In the end, the decision came down to which of the two cities offered higher production value (aesthetically speaking), where I could find talented crews and actors that would work for little to nothing (on deferment), and where I could get the most donations and discounts. For my purposes, New York City offered all of this and more.

In NYC, depending on your camera shot and lens, you can capture thousands of extras and cabs passing through your frame at no extra cost (if they’re out of focus of course). In Whipped, my DP (director of photography), 1st AC (assistant camera), and I would set up the camera in Times Square for "beauty shots" of NYC. After about ten minutes, we’d have some of the biggest shots in the film for little to no cost.

Additionally, location permits in NYC are free (although you must first clear them with the Mayor’s office at least two to three days in advance). This made shooting exteriors in NYC much easier and more accessible than if I were shooting in almost any other major city. There were a few areas that were off limits (parts of Soho and the East Village), but for the most part, the city was wide open for shooting. The only criticism I had with the NY permit office was that on days when they were extremely busy, they would sometimes double permit the same location. Once, we arrived at our location to start shooting, only to be shut down by Kevin Costner’s crew for For Love of the Game. We both had permits for the same location, but being the little guy, we were politely asked to leave.

The shoot for Whipped was split up into three, six-day weeks. Each week was scheduled to maximize a particular location and to minimize "company moves" (the entire crew traveling from one location to the next). When I wrote Whipped, I was very conscious of the number of locations and "moves," knowing that by maximizing the number of repeat locations, I’d be minimizing the costs. In this way, Whipped was written for a budget.

Week One consisted of three different locations, all within the same vicinity, so we could set up at one location while shooting the other. For example, we would shoot in Madison Park, while setting up for the next day’s shoot in a nearby bar across the street. While prepping the bar, we would also be using the location as our make-up/wardrobe trailer.

There were five different bedroom locations, three bathrooms and one kitchen in Whipped. So, for Week Two, we rented a loft in Soho ($3,500) where we built all of our bedroom/bathroom/kitchen sets. In many of the scenes, if you look close enough, you will see that furniture is reused from room to room -- just dressed differently. The walls were also reused, and continuously repainted to represent all of the various rooms.

Week three was all shot in a diner in Brooklyn. The diner had been out of business for fifteen years until we came in and reopened it. With a few props and a little cleaning, no one would have ever guessed that it was closed.

One of our biggest feats in producing Whipped was getting Panavision NY to donate a 35MM camera package. I worked on this one for about a year and a half. I first started communicating with someone from Panavision LA who said that if I put together a proposal, budget, and shooting schedule, he would set up a meeting for me with the NY office. I finally had my meeting, and was told that the only way I’d get a camera donation, would be if I could land a director of photography who shot regularly with Panavision cameras. I’ve learned that camera shops (some of the best people in the business) are great with helping their loyal camera operators and DPs move up the ladder.

I contacted my friend, who at the time was the camera operator for a "Panavision TV show" and asked him if he’d be interested in shooting Whipped. He read the script and signed on. Even with my completed proposal and a Panavision DP, I continued to call Panavision NY once a week, for a year, to guarantee the donation. I knew how important and potentially costly this piece of the puzzle was, and I would not let it slip away. Panavision was a savior and I will always remember what they did to help me -- and this was precisely why they donated the camera. They help you now, when you have limited funds and resources, and then on the next project (when you actually have a budget), you return the favor by remaining loyal and using their equipment.

John August wrote and co-produced the 1999 feature Go for Columbia Pictures. His current projects include the upcoming Charlie's Angels and Fantasy Island movies, and the fable drama Big Fish, from the producers of American Beauty. His earlier work includes adaptations of the children's classics A Wrinkle in Time and How to Eat Fried Worms, both of which are inching towards production.

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, John earned a degree in journalism from Drake University in Iowa, and an MFA in film production from the Peter Stark program at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.

Got a question about screenwriting? Send it to Ask a Writer.

With Whipped, a feature film that he wrote, produced and directed, Peter M. Cohen is quickly establishing himself as a part of Hollywood's next generation. Cohen received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University, where he majored in both psychology and film. In 1995, Cohen graduated from USC's Peter Stark Program with a Masters of Fine Arts in Motion Picture Producing. He began his film career as an assistant to feature comedy director Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards).

Cohen began raising finances for Whipped in January 1998, and commenced principal photography in New York City on April 13th of that same year. The film was shot over 15 days with 3 additional days of 2nd unit photography. On July 20th, 1999, Destination Films acquired the North American distribution rights to Whipped. One week later, Intermedia Films acquired the foreign rights. Whipped is Cohen’s feature film directorial debut and is to be released on September 1st, 2000. He is currently attached to re-write and direct a film for Imagemovers, Robert Zemeckis’ production company at Dream Works Films.

Got a question about directing? Send it to Ask a Director.