If you read Part 1 of Breaking in with 'Break Even' by C Walley, then you took the first step of our next series post that follows a Stage 32 Screenwriter's Journey. We're following CJ Walley, an optioned screenwriter who is working with a production crew on his first feature script, 'Break Even,' which was written on assignment.
Over the next month or so, we'll be taking you along on CJ's journey, starting with his flight from England to Los Angeles, to his experience on set, all the way through to his return of what he calls a humbling, exciting, and prideful experience.
In my previous post, I wrote about my experience writing my first feature script assignment. What a wonderful experience that had been, despite all the scaremongering I’d experienced trying to break in, and my forthcoming trip to Los Angeles. I’m there now, by the way. (Well, I should be by the time you read this.) Technically, right now, I’m in the top of an Airbus A380 somewhere over Greenland trying not to disturb anybody sleeping with the tapping of these keys. Know that dozens of travellers suffered so you could read these words.
This time round, I want to talk about my experience with pre-production, something I’ve been fortunate enough to be very close to on the forth-coming action feature Break Even. I want to talk about the lessons I learned along this part of the journey so you know what to expect and prepare for.
As someone who writes female characters mainly as leads, I knew I was always going to be up against things when it came to finding work as a writer. But nothing prepared me for how challenging it would be to find female talent with value that wasn’t, well, cheesecake.
Gritty female roles need gritty female actors. But the lack of roles mean a lack of opportunities for those creating a vicious downward spiral. Naturally, when you’re talking top billing in a mainstream feature film, using unknowns isn’t a viable option. Thankfully, after a couple of dead ends and a ton of research, we got very lucky on this project. So forewarned is forearmed; if you write strong females roles that are gritty and want to target the indie scene, keep scanning the horizon for up and coming stars so you have a wish list to hand over to your producer.
Some people are going to love your script but may want to take their involvement beyond performing a role and into development. While embracing the creative input of others is a great part of the melting pot that is producing a movie, there’s a line between appreciating a script for what it is and seeing it as something to paint over. Only you are going to know where that line is and where you are comfortable. Securing high profile talent is often going to be tempting, but it should never come at the cost of surrendering your baby.
You are the writer, they are the actor. It’s your role to protect the story, the project, and any investment made in it.
Bad representation kills deals and it can be both terrifying and hilarious to watch unfold. Be prepared for a roller coaster when it comes to negotiating attachment. Worse still, reps can think a script sucks only to find out their client will drop everything to be part of it - just hope your producer’s putting an offer on the table so the rep has to pass it on.
Writing cameos for your childhood hero's will really push your ability to stick by your artistic voice rather than compromising and aiming to please. But then, you think the idea of having a full cast of talent getting up in the morning and acting out your words is terrifying wait until it’s an idol from your formative years.
I known some hard workers in my life but I’ve yet to see anyone work a role that requires so many plates to be kept spinning and how many of those plates have the weight balance akin to that of the recently curbed wheel of a 1992 Toyota Corolla owned by a seventeen year old pizza delivery driver. Holy smokes! John August once listed the different types of producers he’s come to know from those who can talk an upset actor out of their trailer to those who’ll bulldoze a telephone box to clear the shot. But with an indie producer they have to wear every one of those hats.
In my case, producer/director Shane Stanley has a book out explaining what’s really needed to produce indie films which I was able to read before working with him. The book alone blew me away but to watch a seasoned veteran like Shane dedicate his time to turning your words into reality still shocked me in terms of how much there is to do and how much knowledge is required.
Look, here’s a harsh truth; the vast majority of those calling themselves producers and reaching out to writers trying to break in most likely don’t have what it really takes to deliver. Stop being so flattered and start asking the tough questions to those who have little or no credits, especially if they are expecting spec work. If they can’t get a film made then make sure they’re partnered with someone who’s proven they can. If they are paying you anyway then fair enough, but surely you want to write movies that make it to the silver screen.
When you start working with a producer there’s a lot of new practices you have to get up to speed with. You need to be able to Skype, preferably not from a loud coffee shop where your producer can hear the smoothie maker louder than you can. WhatsApp is something else that may come into play for less formal conversations. It's going to be time to be able to comb through the small print of paperwork such as contracts and chains of title or at least know someone who can decipher it for you. It’s time to have your finances set up ready to get paid, potentially from overseas and potentially in large lump sums. Oh, and there’s always the fun of taxes.
On top of all this, you need to be ready to be highly involved in a multitude of areas that are very new to you, but a privilege to be part of. Ultimately, the more influence we have, the tougher decisions get. Going through audition reels is charming but emotional, as you’re going to have to learn say no this time round while knowing that someone else's dream may hang in the balance. You’ve always been looking for that big break, well now you are responsible for potentially giving big breaks to others.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, you don’t need to run out and buy Final Draft until you’re getting paid. Don’t worry about it. Stop worrying about it. Especially with the abundance of lower cost or even free screenwriting alternatives we’re currently blessed with. Hell, you may even find that once you’re working with a producer, they have a spare license for you to use. It takes less than a minute to switch your script over too, since all good screenwriting software will export in the fdx format. You'll need to embrace Final Draft at some point though. It’s inevitable. Industry standard or not, I don’t find it brings out the best in my writing and still don’t draft in it.
Those who have had short films made from their scripts will be very familiar with the rather jolting shift from what your mind’s eye imagined when you were writing - to what gets produced. It can be quite hard to go through and it’s common for filmmakers to completely miss or under deliver the original vision. The good news is, provided your involved with pre-production, you get far more time to adjust to reality.
Plus, knowing what you have to play with before you write is a powerful and great way to keep the budget down by using available networks to secure resources such as locations, contacts, vehicles, and more for reduced or even zero cost. We have to appreciate our words can have huge logistical consequences. If your financier owns a fast food restaurant, then maybe changing your key location from a bank in the daytime to a diner at nighttime is going to slash costs while having no impact on story. A key area to keep an eye on is stunt and vfx work as even the most modest requests can come with huge logistical demands.
I’ll leave you with this; the most important lesson I’ve learned and the answer to my biggest fear: The remedy to development soup, by far the most common reason bad movies are made, is simplification. Logistical issues and creative demands are an inevitable part of the process and it’s very easy to make a story too convoluted as a result. Firstly, not everything has to be addressed and cutting problems out completely can be more effective than slapping a band-aid on them. Secondly, a simple fix tends to work better than an elaborate one and just requires a little more creative thinking. Triage notes, come up with your own solutions and know it’s your duty as the writer to take the reigns and calm the horse before it bolts.
Next time round, I’ll be reflecting on my experiences and lessons learned on set as Break Even literally sets sail.
CJ Walley: I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, the b-movies, those features that are here to be good old fashioned entertainment and pack a punch that’s a lot harder than their budgets would suggest.
I love pulp and exploitation, I like car chases and gunplay, but I also love depth and themes that resound with viewers at the core of their being. I like dialogue that crackles and has weight behind the words. I love scenes that twist and turn as characters vie for power or fall for each other.
2012 was the year I started writing and it’s been a hell of a ride. Following one of my first scripts being featured by Amazon Studios, I’ve been cutting my teeth writing shoestring budget short scripts and giving them away to up-and-coming filmmakers. Now I’m here for the independents and timing couldn’t be better. We need a goddamn uprising and I'm helping drive it with a recent feature script option in Vancouver and another feature in pre-production in Los Angeles.
I write what I call nextploitation; hard-hitting, in your face content with a nod to the past and one eye on the future. I’m talking progressive values mixed with nostalgic hedonism. My twist? I write female characters, often as leads, that don’t suck. I do this because I care deeply about my characters being the real deal.
I’m all about the craft and all about the love. It doesn't matter to me if it's Tarantino or Twilight, I always look for the good in everything. I’m not here to take centre stage. I’m here to knuckle down and prove myself in the hope the teams I join go on to grow with our audience.
I’m all about helping change the industry too, in any way I can and for the better. In 2016, I started the script hosting website Script Revolution, offering the same benefits of sites such as the Blacklist and Inktip but with none of the costs.
That sound cool? If so, let’s talk.
(Learn More about CJ at: https://cjwalley.com/)
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