Or you’ve got money: You were just awarded a grant that will fund your film.
Or you’ve written a script: “Wake” by Allison Vanore
Or all of the above.
I get this question all the time from colleagues, friends and acquaintances. What do I do first, second, third? The Producer’s Checklist is a series of posts about those things you should at least consider as a producer to ensure your production and, most importantly, the people involved are protected and can get the job done to the best of their ability on schedule and on budget. One of the first things that needs to be done once you decide to produce a script is to do a Script Breakdown.
Beyond the creative decisions that are made (and are very important – not discounting these at all) we need to start diving into what you as a producer need to do. Think of your script as the road map and your job is to come up with the best route to get from point A to point B… and when there is a road closure and bumper-to-bumper traffic you need to be able to re-route your team to find another way. So let’s take the very first 6/8s of a page (scripts are measured in eighths) from the script “Wake” and see what it tells us:
Let’s start with Characters. We meet two of them. Jules (female) and Ben (male) and they both appear to be 35 years old. Off the bat we know we’ll need to cast for these two roles. We also know they will be adults so no need to deal with hiring a minor. Now we need to decide if we’re casting a “name” or not. What a “name” means is a recognizable face that will help bring an audience to the film (which should translate into box office numbers/sales, publicity, etc.). If we cast Brad Pitt as Ben then we know we’re probably paying a huge amount for the honor and we’ll also need a certain level of accommodations that go along with it. These things will affect your logistical plan and your budget. Also, if Brad says ‘yes I’ll do your movie BUT I can’t work from date X to date Y’ then I bet you’re going to schedule your shoot around his schedule. Right? The investors say yes.
What does this excerpt tell us about the setting of the movie? So far we know it takes place (at least this scene) inside a house in the living room. This is a location we will need to rent or build.Along those lines we will certainly need to dress this set to look like the characters’ living room (Set Dressing) and provide (whether rented, purchased or built) the items called out in the script (Props). These are important things because we have to eventually budget for them and hire the people to head up these departments. Based on this script, our immediate list of set dressing: Curtains, Front Table, and Chair – okay those things are simple enough; and our list of props: Purse, Belongings, Wheelchair. Wheelchair is a bit more complicated as it seems it will be important that we get the right type of chair and it may also need to work practically on set. Start a list of questions to ask your director!
We also need to ask ourselves: do we know what time period this takes place? It’s not called out in the script but we can assume it’s probably modern until we learn otherwise from other clues in the script. If we continue reading and learn this takes place in 1920 then what does that say to you? To me it tells me that we’ve got a period piece and my producer brain starts seeing dollar signs (and not the ones that mean we’re getting rich). Period pieces are usually more expensive because we need to “sell” the time period. The easiest way to do this is with Hairstyles and Wardrobe. Picture Vehicles also sell a time period as well as Technology. If someone pulls out a Nokia cell phone then we might be in the year 2000 and the viewer/audience would know that. Or if Jules has an iPhone 6 and Ben has a Nokia from the early oughts then it tells us about his character or the lack of balance in their relationship. Props are important! Okay, I digress.
Side note: IF my script called for a specific brand like a Nokia then I need to get legal clearance to see that logo/brand in my film. I can also contact Nokia and find out if they are open to product placement which could mean they loan or give me a few phones for use on camera or if Brad Pitt is using the Nokia cell phone, they will probably give me money towards my budget for the exposure.
What we also learn from this script is the time of day. It’s daytime and we see daylight through the windows. This is important to know for the location where you film, the actual time of day you schedule filming, as well as the equipment we will need. Of course we usually always have control of our lighting when we shoot something so that’s not a huge issue but you need to take note of the needs of the script so you make the right decisions and are fully prepared. If we were shooting an exterior night woods scene for a horror film then we need to make sure we have enough light to light the dark woods. Sounds silly but you have to have enough light to “sell” darkness because the camera needs to be able to see the subjects in the frame. And if you want to see the trees 100 feet away from the subject you need to light those trees as well. That’s a lot of light.
Now I also see descriptions like “camera whisking around with her” and “we never stop moving” and “glides over.” While a director may have a different vision for this, the script is telling me that there is probably going to be a need for specific types of equipment. I should make sure to ask the director and budget for things like a Slider, Hand-Held Rig, Steadicam, Jib, and/or Dolly. Also, if we are going to be using equipment like this, this location where we create this set needs to be big enough not only to fit our cast, crew and typical filming equipment but to also allow us to use these larger and more complex rigs. A dolly with track cannot fit in a very small room and a Steadicam operator needs enough space to safely and effectively move around the action in the scene.The script also tells us that it’s apparent that Ben is in a wheelchair and paralyzed. Depending on the needs/requirements of the script, we could seek out to cast someone with this disability. SAG-AFTRA does have many actors in the union who have disabilities. No matter who you do cast though, there may be a certain amount of research that should go into portraying this character correctly. If you do hire an actor who is in a wheelchair (or has any disability), you will need to make sure all of your locations, your set, and transportation are all accessible to this person.
We also learn in the script some things that will be done in post-production (sounds from off-screen, etc.) so we don’t necessarily need to worry about that right now specifically. If there were something that would require visual effects then that’s something we’d want to make note of now, and plan for it now. That way we know we’re shooting it in a way that will work best for the director and the people working in VFX down the line.
Lastly, I mentioned this excerpt is 6/8s of a page. This is important for a few reasons. It’s how we all communicate about the length of a scene/script and where on the page something falls. So get used to measuring scripts in eighths of a page. Also, each script page generally equals a minute of finished screen time. So if this excerpt is 6/8s of a page, it will translate to about 45 seconds of screen time. This will also help you schedule out your shooting days and make sure you’re timing is correct for completing a movie. If it’s a feature film, we need to hit about 90 minutes or more. If it’s a short and we want to set ourselves up for the best possible festival run which is usually under 15 minutes.
All that information from 6/8s of a page? Yes, you bet. And this script starts out extremely simple. Imagine the script said “EXT. New York City – Day. The world trade center towers are newly in ruins and hundreds of thousands of people attempt to escape the city on foot covered in ash.” I don’t know about you but we should probably make sure we have a giant chunk of change in our bank accounts if this is the case.
To recap, as you read scripts, write scripts, or decide to produce a script, start reading and breaking down your script so you know what you need to do. The list generates itself and opens up a dialogue between you and the others involved so you can all get on the same page. Good luck!