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Before You Write The Screenplay, Write The Trailer
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Many years ago, the great detective fiction writer Mickey Spillane was interviewed by TV host Mike Douglas. Mike asked Mickey how he came up with his ingenious plots and Mickey said, "Mike, I go fishing." After some appreciative laughter, Mickey said, "I put my line in the water, I sit back and before I even know what the book is about - I ask myself: 'How does it end?'"
Mike Douglas, a gently perceptive host, asked, "After you write your ending, do you then work backward until you have a book to go with your ending?" Mickey, that famous tough guy twinkle in his eye, said, "By the time the fish bites, I have my dinner, my ending - and a book to write!"
I envied Mickey Spillane because he had worked out a simple scheme to create his fiction - and he sold millions of books. More so, you could tell Mickey Spillane was a guy who had fun doing what he did.
Jump cut to a few years ago. I was hired to rewrite a screenplay with no beginning, no middle and an ending so patently stupid, it pretty much guaranteed the movie would never get made. Needless to say, I was not counting on having much fun. Which made me think of Mr. Spillane, sitting on the beach with his line in the water. At which point, it came to me that there might just be a way to have some fun writing a movie.
What I did was think back to my first job: a film editor cutting low-budget trailers. I looked at the script and I asked: "What would the trailer for this look like?" Then I wrote the trailer before I wrote the movie!
Unlike Mickey, I knew I needed more than simply an ending I could work backward from. I had to figure out the many key elements that make a movie - and movie trailer - work for an audience.
I sat back for a second, and imagined I was in the theatre. The 64 minutes of commercials had just ended and the audience was informed the feature would begin after a few previews. I then actually heard a voice. Not from above. It was that guy you hear in almost every trailer. With that unique sonorous tone, he boomed: "In a world where men were men and women wished men were scarce..."
I then wrote down a few lines of narration for the trailer and described a visual I figured might get people interested in the movie. I then remembered a line of dialogue in the script that sounded great (there weren't a whole lot to choose from) and I used it for the next scene.
I knew I had something to work with when I laughed out loud at a sequence I had written for the trailer. I guess it helps to inform you the screenplay was supposed to be a comedy.
More importantly, by the time I was done, I was able to use the trailer document to help me structure the entire movie - as well as provide me with specific ideas to how to get from one point to the next. In other words, knowing the trailer helped me figure out the guts of the story - the stuff that comes between those big scenes a trailer uses to get an audience excited.
Of course, it's not a perfect or be-all-end-all solution. To me, the magic of great screenplays is creating all the little moments we remember when we watch great movies - and more importantly, conjuring characters we let ourselves get involved with and stay close to for a couple of hours.
None of that hard work changes a bit. What writing the trailer does do is help you figure out what your movie is going to be. It tells you why you should be excited about it and best of all, it serves as a great guide. Outlines and treatments tend to talk about the movie. Trailers are the movie. They give you the tone of the movie and they tell you if it's working.
If you've read this far, you deserve to find out how the screenplay I was working on turned out. The producer liked the draft I turned in. He then got fired, which of course meant that I got fired, after which another writer was brought in and told to change the script back to the draft I was originally handed. The film never got made, but I'm still proud of the way my version turned out - and I was glad to have figured out a way to work that actually made writing screenplays a fun experience
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