It’s about more than an alien invasion, or a big dance contest, although if you’re a fan of invading aliens or professional choreography you won’t be disappointed. It’s also a love story, born of deep space and lived on an underwater dance floor... (--Larry Doyle)
Few jobs require, along with more pragmatic skills, the possession of a feverish, unhealthy imagination. But screenwriting is one such gig, and as such, embodies a tricky paradox. The good part about being a screenwriter is that you largely make a living by living in a world of fantasy, and the bad part of being one is... Yo, dude! You're living in a world of fantasy!
Of course when it comes to the world of movies, you don't have to be a screenwriter to be delusional. It's an industry that encourages, nay, thrives on its denizens harboring reality-challenged points of view, which is the point of this darkly funny New Yorker piece by Larry Doyle, Let's Talk About My New M0vie.
Nonetheless, being near-certifiable in terms of your ability to make shit up can definitely be a plus in the screenwriting racket. And one of the ironies of this profession is that sometimes living in your own private Idaho is a direct route to winning the Grand Prix at Cannes -- witness the career of David Lynch. Given this, screenwriting workshops and courses and textbooks often proffer exercises in working this particular, peculiar writing muscle. You're trained to dream big.
For example, some screenwriting instructors ask students to pre-cast their fledgling works-in-progress, since imagining a given star in a part can often help a writer get a better fix on that character. I've seen evidence of this ploy's effectiveness in the professional world, by the way. I once read a spec where the leading lady's dialogue had a distinctive, idiosyncratic charm. It also struck my ear as eerily familiar, and halfway in, I realized with a shock of recognition that the writer was channeling Julia Roberts -- she'd nailed her manner of speaking, down to every rhythm and cadence. Whether the script ever went into development for Julia herself is moot; point is, the device helped give the role a vivid high profile that subliminally suggested "star."
I use a version of this logic in a couple of my courses, with an exercise in character development. I ask the writers to imagine the trailer of their yet-unwritten movie, and to write "the shot" or very brief scene beat that identifies their protagonist's defining characteristic -- the shot in the trailer that gives the audience instant recognition: "he's that guy." A few seconds of a paisley-swathed Brit leering buck-toothed at a bimbette, saying, "Oh, behave!" is all Austin Powers needed, and Travis Bickle's infamous "You talkin' to me?" is actually gravy on the already powerful, scarily non-verbal meat of his "pull out the hidden gun and aim it" gesture in three seconds of Taxi Driver.
Granddaddy of all such "fantasize your movie" workouts is the design your one-sheet poster exercise that's been a screenwriting class war-horse for decades. Just as envisioning which star might play your lead or how your protagonist would be portrayed in the trailer helps to hone a writer's conception of a character, figuring out what the movie's poster would look like can be an amazingly effective way to get at the core of what the movie is about.
Fantasizing the one-sheet (literally, the major selling points of the product as presented on one eye-catching piece of paper) works for a number of reasons. As David Anaxagoras explains in this post from his Man Bytes Hollywood blog, mocking-up such a poster "is a way of sneaking into the story through a back door that your inner critic is not guarding." It forces a writer to think visually and metaphorically, to come up with images that speak to the essence of what story is being told here, as well as what movie is being sold.
Now Melanie Aswell at Words For Pictures, inspired by Anaxagoras, has found a site that's specifically geared towards creating movie posters out of an image and whatever copy you provide: FlagrantDisregard's Create a Customized Movie Poster page. This amazingly simple, user-friendly program can mock-up a one-sheet for your imaginary movie in a matter of minutes (and kids, it's free!). Novelists, too, will find that the dimensions serve you well.
Thus, those of us who are photo shop-challenged can still have our fun (although obviously, pre-photo-shopping a creative collage of images will give you the most elaborate and professional-looking result). And it is a hoot, whether you're doing it to brainstorm your work-in-progress, or just playing with your... um, mind.
That's the downside, obviously. Aside from the fact that the poster you create is, in Anaxagoras's words, "a veritable bouillabaisse of copyright infringements," there's always the danger that you'll spend more time looking for the perfect font and color for the production credits (and deciding whether you want Scarlett or Jessica in that plum supporting role) than you will on writing the damn screenplay. It is a slippery slope, like from poster-mocking to thinking that the movie actually exists...
But hey, there's always time for fantasy in Hollywood! And truth be told, the two one-sheets at the top and bottom here took all of about ten minutes to put together (click on the posters to experience their life-sized glory). Of course, my snarky screenwriter's mind is already envisioning the use of a passel of these fake movie posters by some unscrupulous poseur (say, the narrator of Larry Doyle's piece) to seduce some comely naif, in a scene from a Hollywood-satiric romantic comedy... one I haven't written... not that this small detail would necessarily stop me from dreaming up a poster for it...
Toldja, didn't I? Living in a world of fantasy.