Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Run Run Show: How to Write Movies in Malaysia

Since word got out that I wrote a movie (seven movies, actually), some people have been asking me for advice or a door into the Malaysian filmmaking business. Business, heh, if you can call it that.

Well, it's very simple.

Malaysia is always short on good, reliable scriptwriters. Why? Many reasons. Good, or possibly great scriptwriters die out from starvation.

There is a lot of shit out there. People not getting paid(kajillions! In the kajillions! Unpaid scripts can amount to the GDP of a small country), creative differences, diva attitudes (that means YOU!), laziness, or getting a job with the Government or semi-Government outfits.

Those who survive do a lot more than just write scripts. Some, play politics. Others, sell burgers. Some act, direct, produce or whatever.

A friend just messaged me about writing scripts. So I thought I might as well reveal the secrets of writing scripts here, in the sense of how to get your scripts turned into movies without getting cheated. This rough guide won't tell you how to write good scripts, just some tips on the harsh lessons in the business.

1. Always ask for an advance

Never write a single word until you get at least 30 per cent of the promised fee. How much? I don't know. Movie scripts get paid from RM6,000 to RM100,000, depending on status, quality, hardship and politics.

If you think the amount is pittance and not worth your time, don't write. You'll regret it later cause even though writing scripts is not as hard as a newbie would think, it is not as simple, either.

Some producers just waste your time. Fuck 'em. Go for the ones who pay. The ones who don't, well, RUN! RUN!

2. Never finish a script and hand it over until you get at least 50 per cent of the payment.

Out of 10 scripts, only three will be made. So if your contract stipulates first payment only after the movie has hit the cinemas, forget it. Run! Run! You got off lucky.

I got lucky. I wrote seven scripts. Three have been shot. Perhaps the other three will be done as well. They're in limbo. The other one is still in development hell.

3. Starting out

So you want to write a movie script. Never done it before? Never went through some fancy scriptwriting class? Never fear.

There is a site called imsdb.com. The Internet Movie Script Database. They collect movie scripts. You can find Amelie there, as well as Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, etc. A Beautiful Mind won the Academy Award. That's the kind of script you need to strive for.

Follow their format. Don't argue.

4. Tools for fools

The best software to write a movie script on is Final Draft. It's intuitive and cuts writing time by half. Half! Buy it. It's a good investment.

If you're poor as hell, as I was, you can use some freeware. Open source, baby! There is a software called Celtx that does the same thing as Final Draft, and more. It even has a Gantt chart feature as well as costing spreadsheets for any film need.

Wait! It also has different formats for film, theatre, audio-visual, audio-play, storyboarding and comic books!

Wow! I love Celtx! If you get a bonus from your movie, donate to Celtx.

However, Celtx can be a bit tedious to use. Cause it's free. It will only cut your writing time by 30 per cent at most.

Also, get this, you need a keyboard. HP has the best keyboards. When I was writing scripts mainly for a living, I go through one every month. As a journalist, for reference, I go through one every two months. That's how much writing you need to do.

Also, you need to start smoking. Writing scripts means a lot of staying up at night and you need the nicotine, tar as well as the 2000 other chemicals.

5. The prequel

Before you start writing anything, though, go for pre-production meetings. Find out EXACTLY what the producers and perhaps directors want.

If they say, "I just want a good script." RUN! RUN! Quit now while you have the chance! Indecisive people will make your life a nightmare.

You can write a screenplay, for fun, or to be put in a slush-pile. My advice? Don't. If you have a movie you've always wanted to do, write a two to 10 page treatment or synopsis, and pitch that to people instead of a script. Saves you time, energy and heartbreak. Took James Cameron 15 years to do Avatar, and for the first 10 years, it only existed as a 10-page 'scriptment'.

Anyway, if people buy your ideas and want to do a movie, they really don't. They all want to have some input in. Even the accounts people want to have a say in it. If you can't handle that, quit and be an investment banker or a financial speculator. Pays better.

6. The drama

Sometimes, producers and/or directors will want you to do things you REALLY don't want to do to the story.

Know - REALISE - that at the end of the day, directors and producers have the final say in things. Best you could hope for is a compromise. If you can afford it, diva-storm off the meetings. Or produce your own movie. If you can't, find a way to make it work.

Film is a team effort. One guy fucks up, and the whole movie is fucked up. Never be the fuck up guy. Allow others to be idiots. Scriptwriters must never be the idiots.

7. Rewrites

So you finished your script. It will be rewritten. Why? Because by this time, the director might have full control. His vision might be different than the producer's.

If the rewrites come and you struggle back and forth from one guy wanting the main character gay and the other one stamping his foot on making the lead a lesbian, wait out and see who wins the war.

Follow the winner. Because if there are creative disagreements between different people(hopefully not you), and it affects the script, you need to know which direction to take before you start rewriting them.

State your case clearly.

In my experience, the really professional creative people will sort things out within a week. If you're working with unprofessional people, RUN!! RUN! In fact, you should have run weeks ago.

8. Valhalla

After the script has been approved, it is now in the hands of the director. You no longer have any say in it. It's like sending your daughter off to marry a Viking. If the Viking fucks your daughter in the ass, you don't have a say. If your daughter gets a chateau in France, you don't have a stake in it.

Move on and write the next script. Hopefully, a better one.