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Editor's Note
For a while I've thought of adding an "Ask Filmmaker" section to the site. You write me a question about filmmaking and I try to answer it. If I don't know the answer - and there will be a lot of questions I won't - I'll get someone expert who does. It's not a new idea. John August and iMDb both do it, for example. But we'd put on our spin on the column.

Then this week a filmmaker named Mike Paulucci tweeted me this: "What are the big pitfalls to improvising a film off an outline as opposed to a full dialogue script?" It's a good question, and one I've thought about as I've produced two films without formal scripts (Harmony Korine's julien donkey-boy and Jesse Peretz's The Chateau). So, I thought I'd answer it and jumpstart that column.

But before I can answer a question about pitfalls, I should address the benefits of the improvisation approach. Nicole Elmer described some of them in a surprisingly contentious "Microbudget Conversation" column titled "Script vs. Story," so I won't rehash them now. In short, though, you radically shrink the timeline of your development process, and if you have good actors and collaborators, you wind up with interesting dialogue and even story material you never would have come up with through a more formal, "written" approach.

The pitfalls? (I mean, other than that you might suck at the process and make a bad film.) There are three big ones. The first is that the improvisation might not produce what a scene needs. When we did The Chateau, we worked from a very specific scene outline that spelled out exactly what the goal of the characters in each scene was. We also made sure to come up with characters who were all different from each other. Rich/poor, young/old, French/American, African-American/white. We tried hard to avoid what we called the "Real World" - as in the MTV series - issue, where a bunch of demographically homogenous characters wind up riffing about their "feelings." So, every scene had characters with differences, points of contention. And the outline was specific about what the point of each scene was. The thrill was in watching the actors get there in funny and thrillingly circuitous ways. Often this was magic, but there were times when it wasn't, and we'd spend half a day to find the line or two of dialogue needed to make the scene work. In our case, the director, actors, and even crew had a fine sense of when a scene was completed, but I think it'd be easy without a script to think you have what you need when you don't. You have to be super clear about what a scene requires to advance the story, and you can't always assume that something in your footage will automatically become that thing in the edit room.

The second pitfall is a practical one - unexpected stuff can find its way into a film through improvisation that you have to deal with later. Harmony Korine's Gummo (which did have a full script) had many improvised moments and we spent a lot of time going back and getting stuff cleared. In The Chateau, a song got improvised into the movie, and that was another epic clearance tale.

Finally, the third pitfall: you need a great editor, and, especially if you're letting the camera run during long improvs, you need to budget a lot more editing time. It's an old saying that you rewrite your film in the editing room, but it's doubly true on an improvised film.

That's my answer... maybe I'll expand it a bit with specific examples and put it on the blog.

Now, the sharp-minded of you will note something: what I just wrote is more of a blog post than a letter. I try to make these things a little more personal-feeling than this, or at least to issue a kind of call-to-arms that feels like it's been sent directly to you (for example: fight SOPA!). Stuff like this should really be on the blog. I mean, you're probably not thinking about making an improvised film right now.

But maybe I'm feeling this because I got this week my first Letter in the Mail from The Rumpus. A couple of weeks ago the site's Stephen Elliott had the idea to get writers to write a series of snail mail letters to readers. Elliott wrote the first, and I'll honor the venture's implicit compact with its audience by not writing about the letter itself. But I'll say that one reason I subscribed is because I'm interested in new ways to monetize content, and how content is perceived differently due to the way its transmitted. Is a Letter in the Mail something different than the site's regular email newsletter? Or, in our world, is a film different in a theater or on video? On DVD or via streaming on your phone? Can you watch Tarkovsky on a computer? (The answer to that is yes, you can: that's how Dimitry Trakovsky, who made a doc about Tarkovsky, discovered the Russian filmmaker.) And, about monetization: Elliot had the idea on a Monday, announced it on a Tuesday, had over 600 subscribers at $5/month ($60/year!) by the end of the week. The idea - sending a letter in the mail - even made the Today show homepage.

Joe Swanberg emailed me to say that the subscription DVD series I wrote about in September now has enough subscribers to be profitable. (For $100 a year, subscribers get one new Swanberg film and bonus materials every three months.) To celebrate the release of the series' first film, Silver Bullets, he's releasing another new picture, Marriage Material, free to everyone on Vimeo. I'll post the link when it's live next week.

You can get a free email from The Rumpus most days, or you can pay for a letter in the mail. You can watch a Swanberg film on Vimeo or support the filmmaker and get the collector's experience.

How can you play with the ways you get paid for your work?

See you next week.

Scott Macaulay

P.S.: Do you know what a re-recording mixer does? Alix Lambert got Michael Barry (The Big Lebowski, Young Adult, Michael Clayton) to talk about his career in film sound.
Upcoming At IFP
IFP PROGRAM ALUMNI IN PARK CITY Eleven IFP program-supported projects and numerous other IFP members are headed for Park City in the coming days. The Sundance line-up includes Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke's Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care, Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson's Finding North, and Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles in the US Documentary Competition , and Mark Kitchell's documentary A Fierce Green Fire in Premieres. Narrative films include Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild and Ry Russo-Young's Nobody Walks in the US Dramatic Competition, Erin Greenwell's My Best Day in NEXT, Musa Sayeed's Valley of Saints in World Dramatic Competition, and Terence Nance's An Oversimplification of Her Beauty in New Frontier. Nance's film was a selection of IFP's Independent Filmmaker Labs in 2008, Valley of Saints is fiscally sponsored by IFP, and all of the other films were supported by Independent Film Week's Project Forum from 2009-2011. Appearing up Main Street's hill at Slamdance will be Alex Berger's documentary Danland, a 2009 Project Forum selection, and Keith Miller's Welcome to Pine Hill, from the 2011 Independent Filmmaker Labs. Several of the filmmakers above and numerous others will be blogging about their festival experience on the FILMMAKER blog. Keep up with them there - whether you're in Park City or not.
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In This Newsletter
Editor's Note
Sing Your Song
We Need To Talk About Kevin
An Interview with Frederick Wiseman
IFP Program Alumni in Park City
Fest Deadlines
Join our Forums
New In Theaters
SING YOUR SONG This comprehensive, lovingly-put-together documentary tracks the life of one of America's most beloved artists, Harry Belafonte. From first-time director Susanne Rostock and co-produced by Belanfonte's daughter Gina, Sing Your Song highlights the 84-year old singer's rich musical legacy. But Rostock and her team focus just as much on Belafonte's long history of political engagement, tracking all the way back to his close friendship and work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A fitting tribute to an American icon, Sing Your Song presents the story of an important artist who was able to mix entertainment and politics seamlessly throughout his career.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN This chilling adaptation of Rory Kinnear's best-selling novel finds director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar) in fine form, crafting a visually arresting and deliberately fractured portrait of a blooming sociopath. We Need to Talk About Kevin stars Tilda Swinton as the mother of Kevin, a school shooter. Through flashbacks, Ramsay explores Kevin's family life, providing not so much explanations, but chilling premonitions of Kevin's future violence. For her part, Swinton gives one of her strongest performances yet, expertly maneuvering between guilt, anger, sympathy, and burgeoning fear.
Recent Blogs
This week on the blog, Scott Macaulay interviews Norwegian Wood director Tran Anh Hung and shares the trailer for Ira Sach's Keep the Lights On (pictured left), and Brandon Harris discusses the effects of the most obscure movies of 2011.

To read more posts from our blog, click here.
Newest Web Article

The New Year can be as much a time to reflect as it can be to project into the future. Some see the act of looking back as an integral part of moving forward. But on a brisk afternoon in Cambridge the day before New Year's Eve, Frederick Wiseman resists this notion. The legendary documentary filmmaker has been making roughly one film a year since 1967, only taking breaks when funding difficulties, or in this case critical recognition, require him to do so. Tomorrow night Wiseman is receiving the Legacy Award at the annual Cinema Eye Honors for his debut film Titicut Follies, which observed the appalling conditions at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Though completed in 1967, the film was withheld from the general public until 1991 due to its alleged violation of the inmates' privacy. More compromising for the prosecuting government of Massachusetts, however, was the abuse it revealed by Bridgewater's administrators. read more

Festival Deadlines
Los Angeles Film Festival
Regular Deadline: January 13
Final Deadline: February 23
WAB Deadline: March 2
Festival Dates: June 14 - 24

Hong Kong International Film Festival
Regular Deadline: January 14
Festival Dates: March 21 - April 5

Rooftop Films Summer Series
Regular Deadline: January 15
Late Deadline: February 15
WAB Deadline: March 1
Festival Dates: May 11 - September 20

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