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).

October 6, 2000

Ask a Screenwriter Ask a Director
by John August by Nancy Savoca
How does someone go about adapting a written (short or long) story to (short or long) film format? Thanks.
--Sam Ruin

Probably half the movies made are adaptations of one sort or another. The original source material might have been a novel, a short story, an article or even a 1970's TV show (such as Charlie's Angels, coming to a theater near you November 3).

Sorry for the blatant plug. Back to the question.

The first issue you face with any adaptation is rights. The author of the original material generally holds the copyright, which means he or she has say over whether or not a movie can be made based on the material, and for what price. So if you're serious about adapting the work, you'll want to check with the original author's publisher (in the "sub-rights" department) and get contact information so you can start the process of buying or optioning these rights. ("Optioning" is something like "leasing-to-buy," where you pay a fraction of the money up front, with a promise to pay more later if the movie gets made.)

It's important to note that copyright expires, so if you're looking at adapting something originally written in the 1800's, there's a good chance the work is considered to be "in the public domain," which means you won't have to secure any rights at all.

Of course, there's a big difference between having the rights to a story and actually having a movie to make. Adapting a story into movie form is a lot harder than it might seem at first. The basic problem is that movies work so differently than most fiction or other prose.

* In novels or short stories, the prose is the final product. Screenplays, on the other hand, are blueprints. They're a plan for making a movie, but not the movie itself. While the author of a novel has the final say about everything that happens in a story, the screenwriter is by default only one of many hands in making the movie, and everyone who becomes involved with the project will change it in one way or another. Thus the screenplay has to communicate the overall vision for the movie, above and beyond all the details of character, plot and theme. In short, a book is just a book, but a screenplay has to be a story, a plan, a sales tool and a mission statement all in one.

* Fiction can ramble. Screenplays have to be ruthlessly efficient.

* In fiction, the author can say what a character is thinking. In movies, a screenwriter doesn't have that option, without resorting to some device like a voice-over or flashback.

* The reader of a book can put a book down and think about it, or flip back a few pages if something was confusing. Sitting in the theater, the audience doesn't have that opportunity. The movie keeps going, 32 frames per second, no matter what. Therefore, the screenwriter has to be extra attentive to make certain the audience will be able to follow the story at every moment.

* Finally, movies are fundamentally a visual medium, so the screenwriter has to be able to tell the story with images. Yes, there's sound and dialogue, but the picture is king. In a book, the author can say what a character tastes or smells or feels. In a movie, all the audience can experience is sight and sound, so the screenwriter needs to communicate everything through only these two senses.

Given these challenges, it becomes clear why adapting a book into a movie isn't a matter of feeding the pages into a projector. It also explains why so many bad movies are made from good books.

So how do you begin an adaptation? The most important thing is to approach the project as a movie, with all the strengths and limitations of the medium, rather than as a novel or short story. Focus on the primary characters, their goals and obstacles. Rather than trying to winnow down the source material to fit into 120 pages, try to invite in only the elements you really need; that is, build up rather than strip down.

And most importantly, remember that adaptation isn't any easier than writing a screenplay from scratch. So don't beat yourself when certain aspect worked in the novel but not in your script. They're different beasts.

I am a female striving to pursue directing. What qualities should I lean on to strike it in this male-dominated biz? At this point in time, would you feel a woman will have more success (an advantage?) Honestly tell me the brutal truth - WHAT does it take?

Let me answer your question backwards.

The Brutal Truth, Part I
No. At this point in time, a woman does not have an advantage over a man for being a director. Why? Because sexism--like racism, classism and all the other isms that exist in the world--also exists in our business. How this manifests itself in our industry has something to do with the fact that we are a fantasy-driven business. If your movie ideas coincide with the fantasies of the straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class men who have the power to green-light movies, you can begin to maybe have a chance. If not... if not... well... read Part II.

The Brutal Truth- Part II
The qualities needed to make movies??? I could list a few things, I guess, but there's really only one--everything else stems from this: if you wake up thinking about movies, go to sleep thinking about movies, if you almost crash your car because you're thinking about movies, space out with your family/friends/lovers because you're thinking about movies--if you really need to make movies, you're going to make them. I'm not saying they'll be brilliant or horrendous. That's another discussion altogether. I'm just saying, if you're the obsessive type, you're gonna do it! Good luck!


How did you make the crucial transition into directing your first feature film? I graduated from film school a couple of years ago and am working on scripts, low budget shorts, funding applications etc. but I could easily spend the next ten years like this. Realistically, how do you advise going after that all-important break? I know there's no magic solution but I also know you need to be optimistic... Would you recommend getting an attachment to work with an established director or do you think it's a matter of writing and writing and trying to get someone to take an interest in one of my scripts?

To make you feel better, Briony, I worked for six years as a production assistant, assistant editor, assistant auditor, storyboard artist, production coordinator, office temp worker and department store cashier before I made True Love.

What's interesting, in looking back at all of my jobs, is that even the ones I thought were a waste were not. Every experience helped prepare me for making films. So take heart that you're not really wasting time. You're probably meeting people right now who will work with you in the future. You're also gaining 'life experience' and meeting people with character traits that you'll steal and give to a character in a movie.

But you're smart to think of your next move. I think it's good to seek out an established director but, in my experience, you don't want to get stuck being somebody's assistant--you won't learn about filmmaking if you're taking their clothes to the cleaners! What ultimately did it for me was that, after several years of chasing down $$$, my husband and I decided to shoot several scenes from our script in 16mm and show that as a sample reel. That really got the ball rolling with the financing of True Love. It never did get financed by the more established means (everyone who had rejected our script also rejected our 10 minute sample reel!), but we did gain some initial financial support from other filmmakers (see the Thank Yous at the end of True Love) and were able to get addtional private investors due to our 'celebrity investors'.

Nowadays, I feel new filmmakers have the great advantage of video. It's cheap and fast and easy to use and all you want to do--damnit--is show off your abilities. So take advantage of this new medium. Make a digital movie--but don't get sloppy over it. Just because it's easy to get your hands on a camera and some tape doesn't mean you should shoot whatever. Plan it out like you were shooting film--and for god's sake, have something to say! Good luck to you too!

John August wrote and co-produced the 1999 feature Go (1999) for Columbia Pictures. His current projects include the upcoming Charlie's Angels (2000) and Fantasy Island movies, and the fable drama Big Fish, from the producers of American Beauty (1999). 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.

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

Nancy Savoca's first feature, True Love (1989/I), won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and was hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year. Since then, Savoca has gone on to direct several acclaimed and award-winning films (including Dogfight (1991), Household Saints (1993), and The 24 Hour Woman (1999)) as well as the HBO production If These Walls Could Talk (1996).

The daughter of Sicilian and Argentine immigrants, Savoca graduated from New York University's Film School. While there she received the Haig P. Manoogian Award for overall excellence in filmmaking for her short film work. Her partner Richard Guay, who helped raised private funds to make True Love (1989/I), is a frequent collaborator.

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