The horror of a half-baked screenplay

As the programmer of Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival, a freelance film writer and a judge for various other festivals, I’ve watched many indie shorts and features in recent years.

image from The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964)
image from The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964)

They’ve come from all over the world, although predominately from Australia and North America. They’ve been made by filmmakers from all levels of experience, from absolute beginners with iPhones to award-winning “auteurs”. Most have been horror, but also lots of intense dramas, dark fantasies, sci-fi, thrillers and black comedies. Which is great, because I love all of these types of films. I love seeing filmmakers unleash their darkest, weirdest impulses into an unsuspecting world.

What’s not so great is watching the many films that are competently executed – often with very high production values, in fact – but that lack a compelling or even coherent story.

I’d go so far as to say that most of the films I’m asked to consider as a programmer or festival judge do not have a clearly articulated storyline.

Okay, now you may be thinking that a lot of big Hollywood blockbusters suffer from the same problem. And you’d be right. And wrong. For one thing, the problems I’m talking about are more fundamental than a crazily convoluted or bizarre plot (see Jupiter Ascending, for example). I’m talking about stuff like: we don’t know who the main character is. We don’t know what’s happening at all, beyond lots of improvised arguments and characters walking in and out of rooms. We don’t understand the flashbacks because they have no point of view…. You get the idea.

Secondly, the Hollywood studio system is flawed, obviously. The reason big movies can end up with upward of six screenwriters and a lousy script is interference. There have been contractual disputes, ego clashes, “too many cooks”, you name it. None of this needs to happen on an indie film, where virtually no money or power is involved. Usually it’s just one or two people writing a script, and they can write whatever the heck they want. So what goes wrong?

It comes down to simply not devoting enough time or thought to the script. And whatever time is spent is about focusing on the wrong things. Set pieces, clever references. The glitter, not the substance.

At least the outfits were pretty.
But the outfits were very pretty indeed.

It’s understandable. Filmmaking is hard. And storytelling is the hardest part of it. Yet indie filmmakers will talk ad infinitum about CGI versus practical effects or what camera is right for their project… and rarely about whether or not their story works, whether it’s an interesting story to begin with, and what it is they’re actually trying to say via filmmaking. (And no, I’m not talking about a “message”, it’s nothing as straightforward or boring as that).

The problem is exacerbated with the horror genre. One, filmmakers get into horror because they think standards are not as high as for say, an arthouse drama. This is not quite correct. While a certain leeway may be given – overlooking dodgy effects and acting is practically a requirement of serious horror fandom – no one will forgive being bored or confused. Nor should they.

Two, filmmakers get into horror because they want to work with cool imagery, atmospherics, gore, animatronics, or any number of exciting craft components. Which is fair enough. Great. But what’s more depressing than marvellous effects and production design in the service of a nothing story?

Making actors look gross will never not be fun!
Making actors look gross will never not be fun!

Even the filmmakers who really do care about story are discouraged from talking about it very much because the people around them are worried about how all the other elements are to be achieved.

Or these filmmakers feel that because they’re sticking closely to conventions, they can’t go too far off track. Wrong. Yes, there’s a whole tradition and many and varied audiences expectations that you’re tapping into when you write a genre screenplay. But don’t let any of that distract you from the essentials…

Whose story is it? What are you trying to say? Why should we care?

If you can’t answer those questions, keep digging into your script until you find them. Or ditch it and work on the story you actually want to write.

Contact me (Briony Kidd) if you’d like to talk about a project you’re working on or considering. For notes or assessments, have a look here.

2 Replies to “The horror of a half-baked screenplay”

  1. Really good post. I agree that some of this problem also stems from wanting to intentionally buck the conventions established by Hollywood. So instead of sticking to what could be deemed a, “conventional,” set-up, new film makers are trying to play with expectations but do it clumsily. Coming at this from a literature perspective, you see the same thing with writers. They want to be different and daring so they eschew things that work like exposition and clear descriptions of what is going on. Half the time it seems like we don’t know why anything is happening other than that it’s all quite moody yet it still has no substance.

    1. Thanks, Joseph. Absolutely, trying to be “too clever” is a big part of it. I guess everyone wants to stand out, but being competent will help in that regard. Just telling a straightforward story in a clear way is really clever, if you ask me!

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