To me, writing is all about asking questions. When you’re writing a script it’s things like:
- What does the character want?
- Why does he want it?
- What’s stopping him getting it?
- Do I really need another cuppa or am I just avoiding doing any work?
- Ooh, what’s on YouTube today?
Then you move on to dealing with notes and to questions like:
- Are you out of your fucking mind?
- You want to turn the main character into a what?
- Why the fuck would she take her clothes off in the middle of a court case?
But even when watching films I ask myself questions. If it’s a good film, I ask things about the plot:
- Who’s the murderer?
- Why did he make that phone call?
- I wonder if she’s going to take her clothes off?
Of course, if it’s a great film I forget to ask questions and get swept along by the whole thing; but afterwards the question I like to ask most is:
- What questions did the film makers ask themselves to arrive at those answers?
This to me is the most invaluable question I can ever ask. How did the writer or director or producer or whoever arrive at that decision? What questions could I ask which would produce those answers?
For a genre film I might ask myself what are the essential elements I need in this film; or perhaps what the clichés I need to avoid? If it’s a spoof I might ask: what’s funny about the film/genre I’m spoofing? I might write lists down in answer to these questions and then eliminate or incorporate them all into the script.
Sometimes the question defines the concept of the film; for example, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ have the same question:
- What happens if you relocate a typically American genre to England?
America is a land of extremes, England is a land of mediocrity. We don’t have crashing storms, deluges and deserts; it’s just mostly a bit damp. This shift in attitude creates both of those films; if you’d thought of that question, you’d have written the films. By working out what question was asked to create them, you can apply it to other genres. Sometimes the question can be reversed:
- What happens if you relocate a typically English genre to America?
Which sparks off, well … nothing. But it could have done, and that’s the point.
Every film I admire I look at the bits which impress me, whether it’s the story or a particular character or even just a particular joke and I ask myself the question:
- What questions did they ask themselves to come up with that?
Maybe they didn’t ask themselves any questions, maybe it was a flash of inspiration; but the task here is to reverse-engineer the film. By taking it back down to a question or series of questions, hopefully you can apply the same answers to your own project and maybe even recapture some of the same magic. Because after all, the one question you don’t want anyone asking about your work is:
- Why the fuck am I watching this?