Q&A: Communicating your vision in a screenplay

I'm concerned about being able to communicate my vision as a writer/director to potential producers and investors. Should I really spell it out in the script and include camera directions, notes for actors and crew, and other specific details, or should I let the writing speak for itself? It seems like screenplay rules say that you shouldn't include direction, but I'm not sure if I'm including enough information in my screenplay.

Or put more simply: How much direction is too much direction in my first script?

I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself.

Finding a producer and making a film is very hard even if you have some level of professional experience. The question you should be asking is this: How do I write a great story that a producer (and cinematographer, actors, etc) wants to help me make? How do I write a story that people want to give me money to make?

That's where your original question is misguided. Every day great scripts break one or two "rules." Your job as a writer (and director) is to tell the best story. Communicating your vision coherently is exactly what a writer does, and it's one of the reasons it's so hard to do well. But including a ton of camera directions or other unnecessary details will distract from that. I'll explain more in a minute. But first, a side note.

Producers aren't going to tell you to change a shot or a line of dialogue. They may give you notes and advice, especially if they're experienced, but at the level you'll be making films for the next ten years (or more) when you're just starting out, even that basic level of involvement will probably be more limited.

Here's why you don't want to include unnecessary direction or make it read like an instruction manual:

First, it may distract from the reading experience. If you send the script to a rich dentist in hopes of getting financing, she doesn't care about a dolly shot this or move the camera on that. She wants to know if she likes the story and likes you. To some degree, the same goes for actors, set designers, costume designers, and everyone else.

Second, what makes the filmmaking process great is that you get an amazing group of people together to do things they're really good at and work as a team. You may be an incredible writer and director, but I doubt you're also a world class cinematographer or production designer. Predetermining too much stuff in your script (and being too stubborn to change it if someone else suggests otherwise) takes away the job these people are paid to do. If you need to include a shot direction to communicate something effectively, then do it. But don't use it as a crutch because you can't find interesting and diverse ways to state a line of action.

It's easy to fall in love with things in your script. It's even harder than you think to cut them when you don't have people telling you no. Go ahead and fall in love with that witty line of dialogue you wrote. But is it really worth it to fall in love with the idea that a shot is a medium shot instead of a wide shot?

The Amazon thing

On Saturday, The New York Times published a piece by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld titled, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” Maybe the most critical line of the whole story comes near the end:

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

To say there’s been a big reaction to the article would be an understatement.

One of the primary criticisms seems to be that the piece isn’t balanced and that it’s overly negative. I don’t wholly disagree with that reaction. It does feel like the reporters had their conclusion very early on and used their reporting to write the piece they wanted. Is it wrong to take that decisionaway from the reader?

Whatever your stance, it shouldn’t be very surprising that a company whose mission is to figure out how to deliver orders in under an hour would have harsh working conditions. Let’s hear more stories from the warehouse workers.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if the piece was overly negative, or even a little unfair. A number of people were interviewed by the Times, and I simply won’t discount their experiences or their truth. This story matters not just in the context of Amazon, but also in the context of addressing technology’s diversity issues.

With that in mind, David of 37Signals has the best take I’ve read on this situation, the report, and Amazon’s response:

How you respond to a red flag is what matters. You can deny its very existence. You can argue that it’s not really red, but more of an orange pink. You can argue that the people holding the flag aren’t true Amazonians. You can argue that the people who caused the red flags to fly were rogue actors, going against the intentions of the company. Or you can simply just claim that since you hadn’t personally seen any of the incidents, the flags are illegitimate on their face.
But the bottom line is that culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. There’s no way to discredit, deflect, or diffuse that basic truth.

We wonder why technology isn’t diverse, and yet when people speak up, even anonymously, the first reaction of many is to discredit the source.

I don’t care if each experience reported in the Times story was an isolated incident. It’s still important. These pieces add up. They build a narrative of unfair treatment and bias. The initial reaction shouldn’t be to say these stories aren’t true, or that they’re unfair. The initial reaction should be to press Amazon, a 20-year-old company and one of the most successful in the world, to do better.

Q&A: A client wants to give me more money

In the middle of a project that's gone way beyond my estimated timeline, the client said they want to pay me more. I don't feel comfortable taking more money since I underestimated the timeline. What do I do?

Sometimes people with more money than time value high quality work and want to pay what it's worth.

If a project goes beyond its initial scope, I wouldn't continue without discussing that directly with the client. Without you speaking up, once they noticed the additional work, they probably felt bad about it and maybe even a little frustrated that you didn't speak up. This illustrates the importance of open communication, even when things are going relatively well.

It's ultimately up to you whether you feel comfortable taking the extra pay. Maybe it depends on how badly you underestimated and if you can afford to take the hit. Or you could use it as a learning experience, show good faith to the client, and say, "You can get me on the next one." 

Whatever you do, discuss things like this with your client early and often. That's the only way to a happy resolution.

Why you won't see ads in my work

Marco Arment writes

Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.
That’s why the implied-contract theory is invalid: people aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.

Q&A: Working on short films for free

Will people work on short films without getting paid?

Yes. People will work for free if they believe in you and the project. It's just as important for them to get the experience and have material for their demo reel. And it's fun.

If you have the means to pay them, then pay them. If you aren't getting paid and it's just a passion project, then be honest. If they turn you down, say thanks and move on.

Remember this: Respect their time. Take care of them.

That's generally good advice even when you're paying someone, by the way.