The most important part of any movie is not the actors, the director, the equipment or even the budget… the final movie is the sum of all its parts, and they are all important, but in my opinion the most important part is the screenplay.
Without a story the actors have nothing to do or say, the director doesn’t have anything to direct, the cinematographer doesn’t have anything to light or shoot. It’s the foundation and without a good, solid base, your entire movie will come crashing down. If you don’t have a great story, you’ll never have a great movie.
As indie filmmakers we often wear many hats and the first one we put on is the writer’s hat. We have to come up with ideas, create and develop the characters, the dialog, the plot points… everything. A movie is like a magic trick – as filmmakers we are pulling thoughts and ideas out of thin air. It’s the stuff that only we can see in our mind’s eye, and we turn those ideas into something tangible that everyone else can watch, hear and most importantly, feel.
As filmmaker’s we can bring our audience back in time or transport them into a distant future. We can create a world filled with dinosaurs, aliens, robots… whatever we dare to imagine. We can make people laugh, make them cry, or terrify them and haunt their dreams. We can do all that and so much more, and it all starts with the humble yet oh so important screenplay.
But there’s a lot more to writing a screenplay that putting your ideas down on paper and turning them into a cohesive story. When you’re done writing your screenplay and think its going to be an awesome movie, chances are… it’s not. There’s always room for improvement.
I’ve said many times that to make a great movie you’re screenplay has to be perfect. Not really, really good or just needs a few tweaks. Before you start shooting a single frame it has to be perfect. And there’s a really good chance that the subtle changes that can bring your story from good to great to perfect are things you cannot see because now you are too close to your story. You know it and your characters intimately because you have thought about them, and written and rewritten about them so many times that you cannot see it as a first time viewer who doesn’t have the backstory.
This is where beta readers come into play… They take your great story, and help you make it even better. I often send the stuff that I wrote to several people, and on today’s episode I am joined with two of my very good friends who beta read just about everything I have written to help me fine tune the stories.
I am fortunate to have a few beta readers, but Mark Prestash and Mat Dolton are the two I rely on the most because they are the epitome of what makes a great beta reader – They are well read, enjoy a variety of genres, and are not afraid to tell me when something is not working.
They are not filmmakers but I trust and value their opinion when it comes to my films, which only goes to show you that your beta readers do not have to be filmmakers or writers, but they must feel comfortable enough to be able to honestly tell you what they like, or what they don’t like about your screenplay. Like Mark and Mat, your beta readers must feel comfortable enough to be brutally honest about the screenplay or it’ll never get better than your original draft.
Getting people to read your stuff does take a thick skin, and even if you disagree with their assessment or advice, you should always be thankful for their honesty.
If you want to shoot a great movie you must first write a great script… and you can’t do that without having great beta readers in your corner helping you polish your screenplay.