Hank Isaac: Underfunded Overachievers

lilac big scene

Night, cars, crowds – the most expensive scene in LILAC

The Crafting of “Lilac” Part 3
by Hank Isaac

I came to screenwriting and film making from the visual arts. My undergraduate degree is in Industrial Design. When I was in design school back in the 60s, the head of the program would always give his charges a little pep talk at the beginning of each school year. As young eager students, we generally zoned out during the talk.

But I do remember – all these years later – one significant comment. He said (again, my paraphrasing): It’s quite easy to draw a pencil line on a piece of paper. Just remember that, eventually, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people will be spending potentially millions of dollars to make that line. And then they’ll be cranking them out – one each second – and people all around the world will be looking at and using that line. Their lives might even hang in the balance on that line (the head of the program was a designer of surgical instruments). Corporations. The world economy. The future of humanity. Anything could hinge on that line.

Just remember… you do have an eraser.

I remember when I first started writing screenplays some years ago. It all began in a fabulous yearlong course. I quickly became overly concerned about how much everything was going to cost. Then my teachers, a mix of screenwriters and producers, said: Your job is to create the characters and write their story. If you’re lucky enough to sell it, someone else will figure out how to make it all work.

That’s pretty comforting advice. So I can set my story in eighty countries, perhaps in the mid-1600s, with some sort of mega-monster on the loose. And vampires.

Sure, why not.

Except…

…what if I’m the one who has to “make it all work?”

Okay, so maybe not eighty countries. Hey, I know! They’re playing RISK®. On a card table. In the living room. And one guy accidentally cuts his lip. With a toy dinosaur. While an old costume drama plays out on the TV. For ninety minutes.

The most expensive scene in my new WEB series, “Lilac,” lasts about thirty seconds. It’s outside. At night. In a city. On the street. Spanning a distance of about a hundred feet. With child actors. Extras. And the police – actual police. What if it rains? What if some sort of mad dog gets loose there?

I recall writing the scene and the stages it went through. Is it less expensive to get a couple of old cars and dress them up as police cars – including flashing lights, recruit two more actors, make or rent police costumes, create police paraphernalia, than it is to hire real police officers and their cars? No. The real thing is actually way cheaper. Plus, you get security for the shoot as a bonus.

So the question constantly hanging in the air was: Is this scene really necessary?

Well, it accomplishes a number of things: It pays off the entire opening sequence. It surreptitiously connects the main character with her soon-to-be antagonist. It shows us a side of the main character previously hidden. And, in showing that, sets up not only the end of the first season, but also suggests the quest that will drive the main character throughout the second season.

So, yeah, the expense was worth it. But, man… It’s worse that watching a meter drop in a NYC taxi.

I have to acknowledge that as both a screenwriter and a filmmaker, every time I’m writing and realize I need a certain scene or another character, I kind of cringe. I know it’s going to cost more. Sometimes a lot more. This doesn’t mean I don’t write it. At least in early drafts. But it does mean it will be revisited many, many times over the course of development.

Being a filmmaker and having to go find the funding for my projects has also made me a better writer. I get to apply the how-important-is-this test to every shot. Every scene. Every character. I know what it takes to light scenes, make sets and props, cast talent, direct actors, create the support infrastructure necessary to execute a filmed project, and the hundreds of other seemingly endless tasks required to get to a finished product. And no matter what, somebody is going to have to plan out, cast, set up, film, edit, score… every word I write.

So every word better have a good reason for being there.

Lilac is here: http://youtu.be/r7CqN29dFqA

Next time: Writing on the edge of propriety.