How to Turn Short Fiction into a Short Film
Making a movie or a short film can be an extremely exciting and fun adventure. It is a ton of fun being on a set and shooting your own film. And when you have adapted your own story and are making a film out of it…well, it is an amazing feeling and experience. I am sure there are a ton of manuals out there showing you how to turn a short fiction story into a film. But to be honest with you…I have never come across one. So I have decided to write out how I did it and share the tips and progress with you. Hopefully, you will find it easy to read and understand, and will have success with your own story.
I have made 14 short films in the last 5 years, and most of them I wrote myself. There was one that I adapted from a short story that was written back in the 30’s. It was a short story that really appealed to me, as it was a spooky little thing about how our desire to own and control can often be mistaken as “love”. And I was still in class, so I chose this as my final project. By final project, I mean this was my last film for class. Anyways… so this is how I did it.
1. Be Clear With Your Story
I read the story several times per day for the first week, trying to get a feel for how I wanted the story to look. Did I want to go into old classic horror? Or did I want to make a more modern tale of lust? I chose the modern tale approach. So in the very beginning, you have a story…one you really love and want to make into a film, or more likely, you have your own story that you have written. If you wrote it, then I would suggest that you give to several friends that you trust and have them tell you what they think the story is about. Many, many times, an author will write something and be completely stunned when someone else reads it and has a completely different interpretation. Not a problem…that’s art. It happens every day! But you want to make sure that you are clear on exactly what story you are telling. You don’t need someone else’s opinion…it’s just a way to make sure you have unbiased feedback. You really don’t want to think you have a comedy when in reality, it is more of a drama…or horror. I only bring this up, because if you are a newcomer to filmmaking, and when you get on the set, there are 2-3 different interpretations floating around, the shoot will be a mess until you get everyone on the same page. And you will waste a lot of time and money.
2. Begin Cutting
Okay now you start. If you are the author, then what I am going to say is not going to go over well. And it’s going to hurt!! Nothing you can do about it but take a deep breath and jump. Now what you have to do is go and start to cut out everything but the dialogue. Just make 2 separate files. One document with the characters dialogue. And one document with the descriptions of the world of the story…and of the characters in the story. Just dissect them and split them up. And go thru the entire story doing this. SO when you have finished, you should have two complete documents. The descriptions of the world give you and your cameraman an idea of how you want your film to look. It also gives you the different locations in the film. The dialogue gives you an idea of how each scene should happen… who is in the scene and where they are. (living room, in a car, in a restaurant…)
What you want to do is cut away the explaining and the exposition. Remember that a film is “Moving Pictures”. Descriptions don’t really work …for the most part. Get to the meat of the story, how is it told with “Pictures”.
3. Build A Shot list
So now what you do is put together a shot list. This is a breakdown of the shots that you see in your head. For example…the opening of your story takes place in a restaurant and a man is waiting nervously. This is how it might go:
- Montage of shots to establish the restaurant. Is it elegant or a dive? Get several shots of different aspects of this restaurant. Diners dressed to the nines enjoying their meal. A beautiful hostess is seating new patrons. The sounds are of dishes clattering and people laughing and talking.
- Another shot is of the man sitting alone at the table, waiting for his companion. Take 5-6 different shots of various time passage of the man waiting. He looks at his watch, he finishes drinking his water, things to show he’s been waiting for some time and is growing nervous.
- His companion finally arrives and sits. They begin to converse and eat their dinner.
Three different set-ups entirely…as you can see. And each one will be shot in a totally different way. For example, the montage can be moving shots on a crane. The man sitting alone can be stationary, on a tri-pod. And his companion coming in can be on a dolly shot moving with her/him. And this is where you can choose what is the best way to shoot it with your cameraman. This is recommended.
There are some directors who will storyboard every single shot on their shot list. Alfred Hitchcock was notorious for this, as he was also notorious for giving his actors very little freedom in their movements and portrayal of their characters. I don’t do this personally. I write out a complete shot list of every scene that I want to film. So this is my process of making my shot lists:
- Look at my script and write down the first scene and how I want to shoot it or how I want it to look on film. I normally start at the beginning and work my way thru. So I study the first scene over and over again. I look at the number of ways that I would like to shoot it. I will then write down the first set-up in regards to the camera angle and type of shot I want. Then I will choose another angle to shoot the same scene. I will then need to get coverage on these shots so that when I am editing, I have something to cut to for a reaction. And so when I have 4-5 different shots or set-ups for that first scene, I will then move on to the next scene and do it all over again. I actually find that this part is one of the most creative sections of the filmmaking process… for me anyways. Because there are so many options to choose from. So many different ways that you can use to tell your story. This part is where I go thru all of my options and run the scene in my head and visually see how it plays out. Does it work??? Or is there another, better way to do it???
What I am trying to say is this – ALWAYS finish your shot list before you get to your set. It will give you a road map of what you want, and how you will shoot your film. And because you are so well prepared, you can easily replace or remove a shot that you don’t need. Or you will be inspired to get another shot…one you didn’t think of before. And when this happens, it always feels great.
4. Hire Your Crew
If you are new to filmmaking, then you now start to look for your cameraman and your crew. Most cameramen will usually have a crew that they come with or can recommend. That is how it was on all of my films that I shot. Get an idea of when you want to start shooting and how long it will take. You will probably need to draw up a budget, because they will want to be paid. Unless they are willing to do it for the credits, and as a labor of love. This happens all the time too. Then have meetings with your cameraman about your shot list. Go over in detail together, because he or she will help you clarify what you want, set these shots up, and they will tell you what equipment you will need. Don’t go out and get the first cameraman that you see. Find someone that you can communicate well with. If this is your first foray into filmmaking, find someone who will be patient and go thru the story with you, determining what the best shot is and how to get it. Find someone who has some experience that you can check out. Make sure they will keep to your story and how you see it being done. Remember, they are there to help you. Not to do their own version of your story.
5. Get Your Locations Set
Locations are a very important consideration when shooting your film. They can make or break your film, if not taken seriously. My most recent film took place in a used clothing store, and I wanted the store to give the impression it had been there for many, many decades. So I set out to find the perfect shop. It took me about a week of driving around L.A. and looking at close to 15 shops. There were 2 that I thought “might do”…but nothing that reached pout and grabbed me. Until I happened upon the shop I ultimately shot in. It is an amazing location, one that I knew immediately was “The One”! So take your time and really look for the location that you want. Don’t settle for less, unless you absolutely have to.
So these are 5 important tips that will help every writer should convert their short fiction into a short film. There is an enormous amount of time and effort that goes into making a film. Don’t underestimate the process. If you take the time to prepare for your shoot correctly, then when you actually get to the set, things will flow much more smoothly. Because if there is one thing you can always count on, is that there will be “challenges” that arise on the set. It is how well you deal with them that will make or break your film.
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