In a recent round of replies to people who have contacted me through the site one communicant said they were planning to film an episode of their sitcom script to put on youtube. I replied to say they should think very hard before doing this and not just plough ahead and film a whole episode. That makes me sound like an awful naysayer like that teacher at school who said you’d never amount to anything. I promise that, unlike Chemistry’s Dr. Gosling, I believe in you totally. You will amount to something and I am one hundred percent confident of that. Prove the doubters wrong. Don’t listen to the haters, people. They are planning to hate but I, for one, plan to shake the fuckers right off. And so should you.
Thing is, you absolutely should film stuff when you can. But be selective and take time to make what you shoot as good as it can possibly be. The email got the numbskulls in my head doing a little dance, so I thought I should post some advice to make them stop. After all I’ve shot stuff in an attempt to sell an idea and failed massively, so why not learn from my terrible mistakes. I have also shot good ones that did sell an idea so, y’know, in yer face Dr. G.
I shot a little taster tape for a mock-documentary idea many years ago and the first fatal error was to put myself in it. Now, I am a moderately competent performer who has commanded as much as one hundred pounds sterling to perform in Warrington to an audience who seemed far more interested in their booze, their mates, or someone they’d just picked up. There was an actual real life couple snogging right next to me totally oblivious to the musical comedy truth bombs I was dropping. I am that good. But I can’t act. The tape also featured the very talented Michael Spicer who can act. That was a good decision, but we still didn’t get the thing on television.
Anyhow, thanks for your sympathy, but let’s give you a few pointers picked up from years of flinging shit at commissioners to see what sticks. (Tip – never fling actual shit at them, no matter how much of a knob you think they are, it may stick, but it is unlikely to get you a commission.)
1) Why do you want to film your script? It’s worth asking yourself this because it should inform what you do. Do you want to film a whole episode just so you can show people you’ve done it or do you want to sell your idea and help it progress and maybe get it on television? I’ve touched on this before in a blog about how a show gets made. I’ve seen really good examples where film and television students have shot a whole series but, while that’s still a huge achievement, they’ve had the time and resources to do it and its contributed to their studies. I’ve seen many examples where people have just shot too much.
2) Is your script good enough? Every comedy starts with a script or at the very least ideas that have been written down that will hopefully create laughs. So if you find that people haven’t taken an interest in the script so far then maybe it needs work. Even if people have said it’s brilliant, it can still be improved. I recently read a blog by Dave Cohen about Paul Abbott’s approach to scripts saying he redrafts at least 15 times. Abbott’s phenomenally talented and he does that? The two might be connected. I’ve written something recently with a co-writer and I think we’ve rewritten it that many times and guess what, it’s probably the best script I’ve delivered.
3) What should I film? Obviously, everything I say should be taken with a pinch of artisan rock salt. But if you have a thirty minute sitcom script that you want to bring to life it’s probably a good idea to focus on a few scenes involving your key characters. Or take your episode and create a short (5-10 minute max) taster that conveys the characters and a key story or two from your episode. Generally speaking, short form content works best online and if you’re sending something to get interest from a production company or commissioning editor then they don’t need to see a whole episode. Part of the process of getting other people on board is that those people usually want to feel like they are involved in the project. And that doesn’t have to be prostratenegative, especially if they are showering you with riches or at least chucking a few pennies in the hat that lies prostrate before you.
4) How should I film it? For comedy the most important thing is the content, so focus on your script, your cast and the direction (more below). It’s so much cheaper and easier to film great looking shots now, so try to match up to that if you can as it’s always nice to see pretty pictures, but it’s frustrating to see beautiful camera work when there’s a lack of content or if the style has overtaken the gag.
5) Who should I cast? Not your best mate or your mum because there’s no one else available. Unless your best mate is Steve Coogan or your mum is Jessica Hynes. And not yourself unless you are Steve Coogan or Jessica Hynes. Obviously, you are most likely to be asking people for favours, but people tend to do favours for people they like whose work they like. So, if your script is good and you are not a bell end then you have a chance. That’s another reason for keeping it short. If it just means a few hours or a day rather than a week shooting a whole episode with no pay and Tesco value crisps for catering then, again, it’s a bit more appealing. One of the skills in making comedy is casting and it is an incredibly hard thing to get right. Everyone has an opinion and it’s rare that everyone agrees, but if you cast actors who don’t feel right for the part or who don’t make your wonderfully crafted lines zing then you’re up against it from the start.
6) How do I direct it? I’m no expert, but I’ve worked with some top comedy directors and I’ve directed some small things myself with big crews, small crews or just me and a camera. There are probably very long essays out there about directing comedy by people with far more knowledge than me, but for what it’s worth….
a) Plan it meticulously but be flexible on the day because it’s a shoot so things will inevitably go tits up to some degree. And by planning I mean your shot list and blocking. At least have an idea of what shots you need and what your actors are going to do physically alongside opening their mouths to bring your masterpiece to life. And if you’re producing the shoot too then make sure everyone knows where they need to be and let them know what’s going on. If things are taking longer than you expected and some actors are hanging around then take a minute to let them know otherwise it’s like being on a train that you sense is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is massively delayed but no one on the tannoy has told you what the hell’s happening and if they don’t soon you really are going to have stern words with the train manager.
b) Rehearse beforehand if you can. Having a chance to hear your actors read the script will help and you’ll want to do a rewrite, so give yourself a bit of time between any rehearsal and shoot.
c) Be nice and be confident. Directing is hard, but you don’t have to shout and be a dick. Do shout if you need everyone in a wide area to hear what you’re saying, but shout politely. And direct the shout up and over the crowd and not right in someone else’s face. Like you’re lobbing a ball underarm for someone to make an easy catch rather than chucking it at them like an over sugared child with a snowball.
7) What do I cut out? Everything that doesn’t quite feel like it’s working brilliantly. At this stage you are selling yourself and your idea, so you’re not constrained by episode timings. Two minutes of brilliantly funny material is better than a half hour peppered with an occasional lightening of the mood.
8) What do I do now I’ve finished it? Show it off. Get the best version you can on youtube or vimeo, publicly if you want people telling you that you should probably have been shot at birth, privately if you’d rather avoid the hell that is people on the internet. Politely email it to any contacts you have or can find. Similar rules apply to sending out scripts, which I’ve written about here.
That’s enough for now. Good luck with it. And wish me luck too. I’m about to film my dark, heartwarming, high concept, low budget, found footage, political, romantic, zombie, slasher tragicomedy about the Labour party leadership contest. Not sure I can make it funnier or more appalling than the real thing and I’ll struggle to find as many emotionless beings stumbling around randomly attacking things. Ah well.