October 22, 2017 Andrew Walker

Making A Film With No Script

When you talk about HYPEREAL film to people, the “film with no script” part tends to cause a lot of resistance. It’s hard to accept. How can you make a film without a script? It doesn’t compute. Which is, of course, all the more reason to do it… because the problem with a lot of mainstream cinema is it feels like a computer wrote it.

It’s easy to dismiss this sort of sentiment as just some hipster gripe about Hollywood. But there’s a rationale behind it. A great deal of modern cinema starts out as a pitch using the classic “three act synopsis” model. You’ll recognise it. Title, logline (or elevator pitch, as it’s also called), then a three act plot synopsis. It’s a practical, workable formula. But the problems with formulas in the arts is they have a tendency to make the art formulaic.

Consider it like this. When your personal life becomes formulaic, we generally think it’s a bad thing. We call it the ‘same old same old’. The ‘daily grind’. Being ‘stuck in a rut’. We use adjectives like monotonous. We refer to it as ‘routine’. Does anyone ever say “Hey I saw a great movie last night, it was the same old same old”? Nope. That’s not to say formulaic movies can’t be great, but they’re never great because they’re formulaic.

A lot of screenwriting practice tends to favour formulaic approaches. Pick a genre, build the synopsis, think in terms of three acts and so on. At film school, many screenwriting lecture notes will cite Aristotle as the first playwright to nail down the clear ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure for constructing theatrical Tragedy (it was originally attached to that genre). That was some time between 330-320 B.C. As in thousands of years ago. The influence of this approach, whilst undeniably important in the evolution of cinema, seems a bit irrelevant today. When you consider the evolution of moving images and the role they play in our lives, does a viral Youtube video conform to three acts? Do you think in three acts when you upload a clip to Facebook? Is that what moving images mean to us in the modern age?

It’s a fascinating history (there’s a great essay on the role of the three act structure in history by Jennine Lanouette here). Maybe it’s the influence of Aristotle and the subsequent millennia of theatrical writing, plus a century of cinema, that makes many of us find it hard to construct an alternative approach to creating cinematic pieces. But HYPEREAL does it.

Changing the way we think about a script is hard. Almost everything we’ve learned about writing successfully for the screen precludes a radical change in the writing process. Unless you don’t write at all.

There’s an interesting history to the unwritten on the big screen. Some of the most memorable lines in modern (well, modern-ish) cinema were improvised. There’s a listing here by Raindance.org intern James Benton, well worth a read. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Here’s looking at you, kid” two legendary examples of improv at work.

Improvisation has a long history in both screen and theatrical writing. In fact, Keith Johnstone (one of the fathers of improvised theatre and comedy) developed his Maestro Improv methodology as a result of suffering from writer’s block. Yes, improv is a playwright’s response to working without a script. And it works. In fact, it’s hugely successful. Improvisation lends filmmakers a powerful tool to capture compelling dialogue. It’s not a huge leap to allow the improvisation process to also construct the narrative.

There is also a huge body of work that explains how critically important the editor is in building the finished three act structure and giving films pace and emotional depth. Creative editing can deliver the pace, emotion and dialogue that defines genre classics on the screen. Again, combined with improv, it’s not too much of a leap to focus on that unwritten element of the filmmaking process… and cut out the writing altogether.

The result might be a three act structure and killer dialogue, and appear tightly scripted, but formulaic it is not. Take a look at the Starvecrow trailer and see for yourself. There’s a compelling narrative, a clear structure without a word written down before it was made, during or after. Ditching the script isn’t ditching the filmmaking craft. It’s more like a different filmmaking discipline. Like turning fruit salad into a smoothie. Same ingredients, still sweet, but served in a plastic beaker and consumed without cutlery.

HYPEREAL is an improvised, editorially driven “You talking to me? Well I’m the only one here” kind of smoothie.