Vania Smrkovski on First SAFTA Films Project (Part 2 of 6)

The central premise of any time-limited film competition is that, in the interest of leveling the playing field, nothing about the script should be written until the kick-off. The temptation to prepare as much in advance as possible is terrific. A film of any type requires at least some notion of where you’re going to shoot, and what actors you will need on hand. But how the hell are you supposed to do that when you don’t even know what the movie is going to be about?

So…how does one reconcile the need to plan with the stricture that everything should be done within the time frame of the competition?


The typical shootout team will begin the competition with at least some rough sense of the possible stories they might want to shoot. In our case, we knew from past experience that the 7 Day Shootout would most likely require the use of elements such as the following:

  • Genre – We might be required to use a specific genre. Will be be a science fiction story? A drama? Comedy? Obviously this could make a big difference to us if we had some comedies or sci-fi movies in store but ended up getting “western musical” as our genre!
  • Prop/Location – We might be required to use a specific prop or location. If we plan stories that take place in the living room, how easy is it to include an element next to a body of water?
  • Dialog – This one is pretty common. And one that comes not without some grumbling from the teams. I mean, if you sit through 10, 15, 20 films, and every one of them has “I remember when I went to prison”, you stop laughing after the third time you hear it. After that it becomes a distraction.

Each element is designed to make the process fun, inspire some creativity, but most of all to ensure that every team is forced to work at least somewhat within the time frame of the shootout. Having a team prepare a complicated shoot in advance would ensure that their film might have a visual impact that outclasses anyone who only prepared their shoot starting the day of the kick-off.

In actual practice, most teams will strike a balance. The fun is in rising to the challenge, so most teams will try to avoid doing too much in advance and let the process unfold as it will.

In my preparation for my first-ever time as team lead, I spent a fair bit of time reaching out to friends who had been on teams over the years. I knew most of them had at least some scripting done. Nearly everyone at least had a cadre of actors and crew selected well in advance. And I knew it was pretty much the norm to have locations, costumes and props ready, and plenty of them, because once you got your elements, many of them may prove to be absolutely useless.


I was surprised to hear from some of my filmmaker friends that they had come to conclude that planning actually could work against you. And not just in the sense of having to throw away a lot of work. No, in fact I heard from more than a few filmmakers that they truly felt their movies were better when they were spontaneous — that the few times they tried to plan a lot in advance, the movies ended up lackluster, forced.

Conclusion: Allow the kickoff elements to guide you to your story, and you never have to compromise.

Hell no. This is my first time leading a team. I’m not about to trust this to the fates.

So I went for the middle road. Since SAFTA is, at its core, a writer-centric organization, I rounded up a cadre of our regulars and encouraged everyone to pitch in stories until we had about seven basic ideas we could work with. Nothing too detailed, you understand. Just enough to give us a sense of what kinds of cast we might have and what locations we might be needing. Having a large group of writers on a shootout team is very unusual. It creates a bit of a “too many cooks” atmosphere, but I had a plan (or so I told myself).


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