I’ve finally finished this Pain In The Arse film treatment, the one I’ve been fiddling with for … well, ages. I’m loathe to actually look at the date I started it since I have this nagging feeling it was before Alice was born and she’s 14 weeks old now.
14 weeks! That’s a fucking long time for one treatment. True, I’ve worked on other things in that time and I’ve had quite a bit of time off too, but still … over three months for one treatment?
It’s just wrong.
Part of the problem is to do with the length; because of the nature of the story, the set up is quite involved – or rather, it takes a lot of short scenes to introduce all the characters and get them to where they need to be. It’s a kind of ‘getting the band back together’ sequence which introduces six characters and how they currently live their lives.
The problem is a short scene in a script might be a page, in a treatment it still takes half a page to describe. I like to keep the pages of the treatment roughly representational of the script as a whole. If a 10 page treatment describes a 100 page script, then each page of treatment should describe roughly 10 pages of script. So the first act would be roughly two and a half pages, the second act roughly five pages and the third act somewhere around another two and a half. I find if I stick to that ratio then there are fewer surprises when I come to writing the script and realise I’ve summed up the entire second act in one sentence like “the gang go on the run” or “hi jinks ensue”; and it makes for a better read for the producer/director since they can get a feel for the eventual pacing of the script.
Unfortunately, by the time I’d finished describing everyone’s introduction and finished the rest of act one I’d filled five pages. If I stuck to the requested ten pages I’d end up describing the second act in such vague terms it’d be almost useless and I couldn’t really reduce the number of pages in the set up without saying something fairly pointless like:
“One by one the hero rings his old friends and gets them to join the scheme.”
Which does accurately describe the sequence but doesn’t tell you anything about the characters or what they’ve been doing in the meantime. On top of that it’s not funny (which it’s meant to be, seeing as this is partly a comedy) and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t help the reader identify the six characters and how they’re different to each other; which would make the whole treatment confusing and unreadable.
I figured my best option was to extend the length of the treatment to fit the scale of the first act … and that’s how a ten page treatment suddenly needs to be twenty pages; which presents a load of new problems. Now I have to describe every other scene properly. A chase scene needs to fill half a page instead of one line, a fight needs to be at least a paragraph instead of a few words. In short, I have to think about every scene almost as if I’m writing the script without skipping any details which I can fill in later.
Which is a lot more work.
The second main problem is to do with the nature of the story. It’s one of those dual-genre things where everything changes halfway through. It starts off as one film and becomes a different film in the middle. The problem with this sort of film is you have to think about what you’re going to tell the audience before they come in. How are you going to sell this film to people? I’m lucky, this is a producer’s idea so I don’t have to sell it to him, but we both want people to come into the cinema to watch it (or maybe just buy the DVD in a more realistic world). If you don’t mention the second genre then people get thrown out of the story when it changes and feel alienated. If you do tell them where it’s going then they get bored waiting for it to happen.
I worked in a cinema when ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ came out and regardless of how well it did on DVD afterwards it pretty much tanked in its short release. Or at least, it did where I worked. I’ve no idea how it was advertised on TV, but half the people came to see a Tarantino film and the other half came to see a vampire film. The Tarantino fans were confused and angry about the sudden change in genre; whilst the vampire fans spent half the movie bored, waiting for the vampires to turn up. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, some people were delighted at the sudden surprise vampire attack and had presumably seen the film without watching a trailer, reading a synopsis or even looking at the poster.
The trailer sets up the expectations for the film and if you sell the film as one thing and half of it’s completely different then you’re heading for a world of trouble. I watched ‘Hancock‘ recently and that’s two totally separate films joined together. Two very good films, admittedly; but at exactly the halfway mark it had achieved everything set up in the trailer. The film was over, but instead of the credits rolling, it went straight into the sequel. I enjoyed both halves, but I’d much rather have seen more exploration of each idea – as it stands it’s kind of two short(ish) films in one package. Almost as if they had two excellent ideas but couldn’t decide which one to do.
With my project, the second genre is part of the pitch. It’s impossible to describe the first half of the film without referencing the second half, so in the treatment it would be pointless keeping the genre change a secret until it happens.
With that in mind I felt I had two choices:
- Make the first ‘half’ of the film much, much shorter. If the first genre is only the first act then it’s just the set-up and no one has to wait too long for the film they’ve come to see to get going.
- Integrate the two genres so there isn’t a sudden, jarring change. Allow the audience, who already know the change is coming to SEE the change is coming. Let them in on the secret they already know and make the question ‘When will the characters find out?’ a matter of suspense.
I’m still not sure I made the right decision, but I opted for number two. It seemed to me the second genre in my story wouldn’t sustain a full film. In a similar way to ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ where there’s only so many ways to kill vampires before it gets boring. Could they have made the bar bit longer? Probably not.
I wanted to make sure my two genres were integrated, that there wouldn’t be this sudden, jarring change. This meant interspersing scenes about the second half all the way through the first half. So the first scene sets up the second genre and every ten minutes or so we’re reminded that any minute now it’s all going to kick off and become something completely different. Hopefully this will work and give a feeling of everything leading up to the trailer moments people have come to see without boring them first.
But all this took more time, partly to make my mind up; but mostly because it’s difficult to balance how much information you give out without boring the audience. I also had to consider why the characters didn’t know this was coming, how do they manage to not see the things going on around them in the fairly confined space and all sorts of complicated things needed to make it seem at least vaguely feasible.
And I’ve finally done it, or at least I’ve finished it. Fuck knows if I’ve actually achieved what I set out to do; but I’m sure I’ll get a phone call in the next few days telling me how it’s gone down.
Meanwhile, it’s on to the next project – a re-write I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. Hopefully it’ll be a slightly faster process.
Hope the treatment goes down well. 😉
Sounds like the better of the two options, so good luck with that! 🙂
I hate treatments. Not my personal ones where I can blag it but ones that other people see. I never paced it like you did which sounds like a good idea, but I have noticed that I do a lot more writing for the first act than for the rest. In fact it declines rapidly in every act.
What ever works for you, there are so many ways to do treatments that most are never right or wrong. Currently my process is: idea -> character profiles -> index cards -> treatment -> scene outline -> script. I’ll see if it works.
I think that declining detail is to do with not really thinking it through, I tend to do that more on a one pager where the first act will be well described, the second act will be a bit woolly with phrases like ‘stalked through the grounds’ or ‘desperately searching for’ without really saying how any of that stuff happens and the third act will just say ‘he beats the villain, wins the girl or saves the day’ – which loosely translates as ” I have no fucking idea how he gets out of that one”.
You can get away with that in a one pager because it makes people go ‘ooh, tell me more!’; but in a ten page (or more) treatment you kind of have to be more specific – assuming this is a document you have to show to someone – otherwise they start asking awkward questions like “What ACTUALLY happens at the end?”
“Um … he beats the villain, wins the girl …”
I use more or less the same process as you, but I substitute a scene outline for more detailed index cards. The first lot of cards has fairly general things on them – this allows me to be a bit free-flowing with the treatment. The second lot of index cards is really specific with lots of detail and different colours for each character/strand which lets me see instantly if too many of the same story elements are bunched together.
Oh, and I do a one-page synopsis before I do the character profiles; but that’s mainly because that’s what the producer wants to see first. Sometimes that one-pager ends up on the publicity pack for the film.
I am merely writing to say I was one of the chosen ones who somehow managed to totally miss any trailers for Dusk Til Dawn, and was completely surprised by the vampires. It was brilliant.
I wasn’t so lucky with The Crying Game however. Effing Hot Shots Part Deux credits…
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