Tuesday, February 24, 2009  

Writing Hot Scripts You Can Shoot Indie Style

By Sid Kali

When I first got into screenwriting I was told to read Aristotle's Poetics, Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434, and host of other books by brilliant people that I devoured religiously. I was a regular at screenwriting workshops, took classes, and felt very much the screenwriter despite not having wrote any part of a script. It's like a fighter that always trains, but never gets in the ring to go to war. In theory I knew what to do. In practice I was unproven. It's like you really never know if you can take a punch until you've been clipped on the chin.
My mind was clogged thinking about three act structures, plot points, paradigms, story arch, and writing detailed biographies for characters. Writing a script was much more involved than just sitting at your computer typing fade in, then fade out. But I was fired up to a write a script that was high concept, smart, and followed all the advice I had taken in.

I scanned the trades trying to predict the next big trend in Hollywood, I read newspapers looking for great story ideas, and watched movies in the hopes of coming up with the next "insert popular movie" meets "insert popular movie" or something like "it's just like Titanic, but it happens in space aboard a shuttle". Then it happened, I found my story idea. There was an article years back in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter that buddy movies were hot. The formula made money hand over fist. Look at Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour franchise. There it was, I would write a high concept buddy flick with action, smart one liners, and punchy dialogue.

I pored over all the notes I had ever taken on writing a script to get ready to write a buddy movie. It took me a long year to finally finish the script for my dash to buddy movie cash. Turns out I had spent way too much time going back to look at my notes on how to write a script instead of just writing one. I was holding on way too tight to the rules and not letting it flow. Then it came together two fold.

First, I was originally inspired to write and direct by watching film noir classics like Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Angels With Dirty Faces. Then I got hooked on up to date urban crime dramas like Menace II Society, The Departed, Hustle & Flow, King Of New York, Reservoir Dogs, City of Industry, Sexy Beast, State Property, Rosario Tijeras, Training Day, Goodfellas, and Man On Fire. And here I was forcing myself to write a buddy flick coming out of the gate . When at this point in my creative life I really wanted to write and direct hard-hitting urban crime films that featured corrupt and cynical characters in plots with strong subject matters. That's where my heart was at.

Second, I realized I was using all the things I had learned as a crutch. Syd Field and Lew Hunter are amazing masters of screenwriting, but they're not going to write my script for me. What's hot today in Hollywood isn't hot tomorrow. You can't waste time chasing trends. When all this hit me I decided I was going to write the script that told the story I really wanted to share with audiences. It wasn't about seeking fame or fortune anymore. It was about writing because you have a story you feel you need to tell.

The next logical step I saw was to write a script I could direct and shoot on an independent film budget. I wrote the script for Consignment which would become my directorial debut. The spirit of independent film making came together. The cool thing for me was being able to give a Latino and Black perspective of the events that were going to unfold in the film. This worked because I am Southern California based and Co-Producer/Editor Tim Beachum brought elements from the East Coast having lived in Ohio, Detroit, and finally Virginia Beach. Consignment a Sid Kali film deals with the drug trade that thrives at the street level. This fast-paced urban movie erupts into 14 on screen murders. The script was written for viewers that want realistic stories, talent, and action that expands the overall style of the urban genre.

Consignment a Sid Kali film is being released by Maverick Entertainment Group, Inc. under their Urban Label on November 13, 2007. This hard-hitting urban drama is very different from the buddy movie that started the journey, but that earlier experience made this possible.

Consignment has been followed up with the stylish gangster film In With Thieves a Sid Kali film. It's the intense story of a Cuban cartel that practices their own version of Santeria, an African based crime group that deals in blood diamonds, ruthless Albanian gangsters, and a tough American burglary crew that all collide violently after a 5 million dollar diamond rip-off. We've recently completed post-production for In With Thieves. The script idea was researched to make sure all the elements included were authentic and played realistic.

Right now the focus is to continue shooting urban movies and to work with a diverse cross section of actors that are not afraid to take on roles that deal with strong subject matters. I've completed two more scripts in this genre titled Stash Spot and Meth City.

The current writing focus could change. It all depends on which way the creative wind takes you. Look at how diverse a film maker Robert Rodriguez is. He broke out writing a script he planned to shoot himself on an independent budget. That script was El Mariachi. Now he is able to keep doing edgy films like Grindhouse and family franchise films like Spy Kids. Amazing. Do what moves you.

Just My Two Cents For What It's Worth And It Might Not Be Worth Anything

I'm just wanted to share some things I've experienced writing scripts geared towards being shot as independent projects. This won't help you if you want to write a script to pitch to major Hollywood Producers, Studios, or Agents. It's targeted to those who have to write a script based on the resources they have to get through an entire film shoot. This is not an easy task because most movie viewers are used to splashy Hollywood movies with great visual effects, intense car chase scenes, explosions, and wild shoot outs. Take the killer movie Heat with Al Pacino and Val Kilmer. In my opinion the bank shoot out was one of the most amazing scenes ever captured on film. There is no way many of us indie film makers could have written that scene into one of our scripts.

Not because we couldn't have come up with the idea or wouldn't love to include an action packed scene like that in a movie, but the harsh reality is we could not afford to shut down a major street, have access to a bank, afford a ton of extras and cast running around, the expense of having squibs go off when people were shot and list too long to cover. Consignment did not have the kind of budget that would allow me to write in a scene like that.

Michael Mann who wrote and directed Heat is a great film maker that truly maximized the resources he had at his disposal. That scene was a masterpiece. You have to do the same with your script just on a smaller level. If you don't have access to a helicopter for a daring rescue attempt why write it into your script? If you can't get a picturesque mansion as a location don't set your story in a mansion. If you want to make a biker movie and don't know any bikers you're going to run into problems.

Common sense dictates what elements you put into your script. When you write it helps to keep in mind the resources you know you have access to.

Disclaimer To Only Writing What You Can Shoot On An Independent Budget

I am addicted to screenwriting. I am self-confessed junkie to the craft of storytelling. It feels pretty good to have stopped training to fight and gotten my nose bloody making two independent films. Will I ever write scripts with no budget in mind and pitch them to Hollywood players? You bet my friend. I'm writing a psychological thriller in the spirit of Fatal Attraction, but with a darker slant on infidelity that I plan on pitching solely as a literary property with zero intention of seeing it done as an indie or direct to video title.

Thanks for taking the time to let me use this article as a forum to share with you. I hope everyone out there grinding it out to write and direct films finds success on some level. At the very least the satisfaction that you know you're in the mix giving it your all. Good luck and fight the good fight