A friend asked recently if I’d written a screenplay to submit to the Anchorage International Film Festival. And did I know the deadline was a week away? “No,” I said, “It’s a month away.” “Uh-uh,” she said, “One week.” After I screamed no-o-o-o-o-o, I thought long and hard. Do I want to wait yet another year to submit? No, a voice in my head thundered back. I’ll never do it. I’ll never write it.
Do it now. Just, DO IT.
Ever since I saw The Wizard of Oz as a five-year-old, I’ve wanted to write a movie, but figured it was too complicated. After worming my way into being an extra in several movies filmed in Alaska, I learned much behind the scenes about the do’s and don’ts of writing a script. Mostly the don’ts.
With only a week to go before submission, I dusted off a play I’d written for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. After the staged reading, one of the evaluators made the comment, “This would make a good movie.”
That comment is what kept the fire lit in my belly: rewrite it as a movie.
I dusted off my play and expanded a scene list for a movie. I was amazed at how free and creative I could be, taking my scenes anyplace I wanted, not just limited to certain stage settings. I used aerial birds-eye views, ground level views, I panned rooms, landscapes. I brought in new characters, expanded my theme—the thing grew into a multi-faceted story with a few subplots.
In addition to the usual story construction of beginning, middle, and end and all that goes with basic storytelling, I discovered movies have a specific required format and structure. Certain things must happen by page 10. If the audience doesn’t get the movie by page 30, better start over.
Once I figured out whether a scene is INT., EXT., or inside-and-outside, it smoothed out. Probably because I’ve seen, oh, I don’t know—a gazillion movies in my life. I knew the basic storyline, then wrote by the seat of my pants without a net, like a wild woman. I was ecstatic just to finish the thing!
I studied The Screenwriters Bible, Syd Field’s Foundations for Screenwriting, and my all-time fave, Screenwriting for Dummies. I crammed like it was finals week. I took my 30-minute play and turned it into a full-bodied, multi-faceted, somewhat action-packed, drama feature.
In one week. I don’t recommend this. Mostly because I slept all of 25 hours the entire week, and didn’t leave myself time for revision before submitting.
Live and learn. I learned.
I had to think like a movie. Once I got the hang of it and planted myself in the zone, I couldn’t stop. The first draft, I fought the format in Word. I don’t recommend this either. It wasn’t worth the time and hassle of fixing the spacing each time I revised. I bought Final Draft, and haven’t looked back. The program does all spacing and formatting, converts it to the industry standard format of pdf and even has a feature to register for a Writer’s Guild of America number if one chooses. I did, because I’m a neophyte, and have heard horror stories of films being made from pirated scripts.
I finished the script and submitted it to the Anchorage Film Festival. It’s too bad I didn’t start a month or so earlier. I could have submitted a more polished script. I’ve revised the thing 38 times now. After I submitted to AIFF, via the Film Freeway site, up popped the opportunity to submit to the L.A. Independent Film Festival.
What do I have to lose? My itchy trigger finger submitted my 21st or 22nd revision, I’d lost count. Wow, the Big Kahunas down in L.A.! Imagine my surprise when they emailed me a CONGRATULATIONS, EVACUATION IS IN THE SEMI-FINALS!
After I picked myself off the floor, I panicked. My script still needed work. I hunkered down to study all things screenwriting for a month—reading everything I could get my hands on, watching podcast after podcast, taking webinars. The beauty of this process is, I can revise this script forever if I want to. Or not.
I’ve stumbled upon something new I love to write. Turns out I have a passion for it. My family isn’t too happy. Instead of watching movies for entertainment now, I annoy them by analyzing whether Captain Brody and Quint really needed a bigger boat, and why Peter Dinklage was truly an angry elf.
Now I troll for stories to write into screenplays. It’s so fun!
Yoda was right. Do or do not. There is no try.
Lois Paige Simenson lives in Eagle River and writes for newspapers, magazines, and blogs at loispaigesimenson.com. She is working on two novels, The Butte Girls Club and Otter Rock.