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02/01/2006 - BABY STEPS

Everybody can't go to Film School. Maybe you don't have the grades or the money. Maybe you think you're too old. Maybe you're married with a couple of kids with responsibilities. Maybe you live somewhere far from a university or college that offers a film program or courses in filmmaking.

Does this mean you shouldn't try to be a filmmaker? Of course not. It's just that your options are limited. You have to teach yourself.

You won't get the well-rounded education that the upper echelon Film Schools provide. You won't be exposed to expert teachers with years of experience in their respective disciplines. You won't have access to the best equipment. You won't have the camaraderie that comes from being in a class with beginners like yourself.

But that doesn't mean you can't learn the fundamentals of filmmaking. It's like cooking. It would be cool, but you don't have to go to the Culinary Institute of America to learn how to be a great chef. And you don't have to take cooking lessons to become a great cook.

All you have to do is decide to give it a try. There are several books available on filmmaking. With them, you learn by doing. That's what this column is about. Learning by doing. The more you do, the better you'll get. It'll just be a more isolated way of learning the tricks of the trade. Think of yourself as Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. Training and learning alone. Wondering why he's doing some of the exercises. Filled with self-doubt.

You have to start with a script. Duh! Even if you have six full-length screenplays under your belt, you don't want one of them to be the first film you make. You can shoot them later. The best way to learn how to make a full-length film is to make a short film. Kind of like before you run the New York Marathon, run a few wind sprints.

And before you write a short film that you will eventually shoot, write a few that are just for practice. Just to see if you can tell a story in 8 pages with limited words and images.

That will be your first exercise (or wind sprint).

Start with a situation. I'll give you one. Out of sheer guilt, a guy has to tell his girlfriend/fiance/wife that he cheated on her. He wants her to forgive him. But when he tells her that the person he cheated on her with is her sister what might have been forgivable now becomes something else. I want this to be more of a dialogue-driven script. I'd like you to use camera directions and angles minimally for now.

You must do this in 8 pages. No more. What does that mean? You can't take too long to get the story started. So on Page 1 the guy has to spill the beans. And by the last sentence of the script (which must come no later than Page 8) the woman either has to forgive him or not. So you basically have 6 1/2 pages to squeeze a lot of drama in.

Short scripts have to be immediate. No wasted dialogue. No wasted shots. I suggest you set the film in one location. A place where two people can talk. As a filmmaker, presumably with a limited budget, things like location matter. While you may ideally want to set this scene in an expensive restaurant as the couple drinks wine, with lots of background atmosphere and wandering violinists, you may have to settle for the swing on your grandmother's back porch.

There's no right or wrong in this exercise. It's all about writing an 8-page script that, were you to film it, would be interesting to watch.

Did I mention that besides being the writer, you would also be the director? Remember all those books you've read told you not to use lots of stage directions and camera angles? Forget that. You're directing everything you write from now on. So put in as many specific shot ideas as you want.

There's a wonderful saying: We find our path by walking.

Start walking.


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