Writer / Director
Oliver S. Milburn
For me the first draft is never the first draft; the second draft is the first draft. At first I basically write a script in which every character at every point in their dialogue says exactly how they’re feeling and what their motivations are. So, in the ‘first draft’ of Titanic, Jack would say:
“Rose, I’m really cold here in this water. I think I’m going to die, or at least one of us is. Your survival is more important to me than my own – so pure is my love. I’m letting go of the floating object now.”
And no-one would cry, except perhaps because they’d be smashing their heads in frustration against something very blunt.
That example is an exaggeration, I admit, but the point is that you need to understand the function of each scene, both as a means to move the plot along and a way to define your characters. I honestly believe that when the essence of a story comes to you, it is more of a subconscious process than any spark of genius you have. Various themes – a combination of personal feelings and events – have made a connection in your head and you’ve formulated the bare bones of a story. It is important therefore, to understand that story fully in your conscious mind, because that is the one writing the screenplay.
Needless to say no-one ever sees the ‘first draft’. The draft I present is actually the second draft, in which point I’ve gone through and replaced all the dialogue with a reasonable version of what each character might actually say. I’m sure I don’t need to tell most people, but don’t insult your audience. Allow them to work out character motivations themselves; allowing you to focus on giving your characters realistic dialogue. As Kermode has noted with regards to Inception, even ‘mass’ audiences these days tend to like a bit of intelligence in their movies.
I recently watched a film, I shan’t say which. In one scene a shot panned to a recently constructed wall with spaces for three windows. One of the main characters puts a window into one of the three window-spaces, he then leans out of the next window space and says “That’s one window in.”
WE KNOW! WE JUST SAW IT!
This happened repeatedly throughout the entire movie, with everything from character motivations to physical movements. The characters would state in no uncertain terms what they were doing or why they were doing it.
That is exactly what you avoid once you’ve done the ‘first draft’. Remember you’re making a film; the things you write in the description sections will be seen by the audience, so as long as they’re written clearly they don’t need to be reiterated in the dialogue. If for some reason they do, you hope the director will make that call. This includes emotions depicted visually. If a character has two sweets in front of them and is looking repeatedly, uncertainly, from one to the other, you don’t need them to say “oooh, I’m not sure which one to eat”.
Essentially, because this is film, things visualised are usually much better than things spoken, so try to tell as much of the story in the action as you can. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin and can write mind-boggling dialogue – there are exceptions to every rule.