Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 4/6 “On The Perils of the Seven Day Movie”)

After a long evening of brainstorming, I gave final instructions for the night.

Go home.

Write up your version of the story or script.

Come back tomorrow.

And it worked beautifully. The second night, the scripts, which ranged from brief story outlines to complete scripts, were read and critiqued. Two scripts quickly became our primary candidates, and we patched together a rough version that had the best elements of the lot of them.

We were all very tired. My brain sure had nothing left to offer, so I sent everyone home and fell asleep with a sense of confidence.

And we had some good material to work with.

The only problem was – it was too long. A stage or screenplay script generally follows the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of show. It’s a loose rule by any measure. In a stage play, for instance, pacing is utterly critical. Too many dramatic pauses in your performance will leave your audience clamoring to leave. You need an intimacy, an intrusion into your personal space to have performances with long, languid gaps between lines to play well with an audience. An actor can take a minute to deliver a short line. But by god and all that is holy, if she doesn’t immediately jump into the gap created by her cast member’s end of delivery, the audience will feel as though they’d been shoved down a slide and then been slammed into a wall.

Film, though, runs by a different set of rules. The lens of the camera puts you into an intimate space that isn’t available with stage performance. You can almost convince yourself that you can smell the spoiled milk on the actor’s breath. On stage, you can’t see the nuances of an actor’s eyes, you can’t see him blush, the twitch of an eyebrow. You have to be large, and yet still convincing. Watch a play and film version of the same story, and the difference is manifest plainly.

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But still the one-minute-per-page rule is a useful guideline for how long a screenplay will play when filmed.

And ours was pushing 12 pages. For a film competition that had a 7 minute limit.

Not. Gonna. Work.

And here, having successfully managed a too-many-writers dilemma of working a film project with a writer-centric organization, I now faced my second challenge. When a writer publishes a poem, a short story or a book, there is generally a great deal of involvement in the process of getting that piece of writing to a public forum. An editor or someone with a similar role takes charge, but there is a lot of arbitration, give and take, between the writer and whoever is working to get the piece into its final form.

Movies are famously not so supportive of the role of the writer.

One of the most famous examples of this is that of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrik’s adaptation of his novel The Shining. King was famously very displeased with the version of the movie that was ultimately shown that, many years later, after he had begun to establish himself firmly in the world of film-making as a producer as well as a writer, he decided to remake The Shining in a way that suited him better.

Many writers have faced the same frustration, and some have even ultimately disavowed their involvement entirely, even refusing to allow any reference to be made as “Based on a book by” in the film credits.

So how much of this is due to the low esteem placed on the writer of a work of fiction? There is a real problem with the way the movie industry handles its writer. Of that there can be little debate. Writers do not get a lot of respect for their work, and it is not at all uncommon for an initial submission to go through many drafts and many writers, most of whom will be less concerned with tweaking the previous draft than they will with taking some element in the story and applying an entirely new structure, character or vision. The original screenwriter might still be listed as a writer, and yet have nothing of her original script in the final product.

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Here, though, I was facing a more local, community-centered project. I didn’t have the structure or the pressure of a global industry. Hell, this being my first time leading a team on my own, I didn’t even have the inertia of “this is just how I’ve always done it” to go by.

And yet, I had a deadline, a lot of collaborators who had day jobs and weren’t within shouting distance while I did my work, and I had actors and crew queued up, ready to start their first shoot.

As opposed to the editor-publisher-writer relationship where there is constant give-ad-take, the role of a director is typically much more one of decision-by-fiat, and I was beginning to have an appreciation for exactly why that was true. And surprisingly, ego is not necessarily the biggest part of the reason. Here I am, trying to take a collaborative project and make something we can all be proud of, and I want everyone to feel like they contributed something, and I’m discovering that I have a fundamental bit of algebra that is superseding everything. I think I’m good enough to lead this, I think I’m good enough to direct it. I think I’m good enough to make sure it’s a good first-ever SAFTA production.

But I don’t think I’m good enough to do all of this and still have everyone involved in most of the stages and decisions that I will end up having to make.

I came to realize that the most important thing I had to do was to make sure I knew everything that was going on, and part of that was choosing which decisions I was going to open up to general discussion, and which ones I was going to just have to make and put away out of my mind so I could keep the inertia of this project going.

It turned out that the choices I made might have been made better, and that communication could have been done better. But it also turns out that the decisions that caused some strife among my beloved SAFTA collaborators were also the very kinds of decisions that led us to begin discussions on process, communication, structure and goals-setting for all of our future projects. And I came to realize later that this, more than any  one, five or fifteen other events in the whole shootout project, were the most golden opportunity for all of us.

Now…. time to make a movie!

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