Filmmaking Tips from Producer and Filmmaker: Cinema Musings by CinemaWorld with Guest Writer Josune Hahnheiser
From An Idea To A Story by Josune Hahnheiser, Producer and Head of Development of Black Forest Films & CinemaSHORT Asian ShortFilm Competition 2023 Judge
“It’s what you do with your ideas that gives them value.“ - Viki King
Everything starts with an idea. This first spark of something catches your interest, inspiring you. This inspiration can be drawn from anywhere. It can be something you have experienced, or others did, an observation in the bus, it might come from a headline in the news, a book, an image or any other imaginable source. And, this initial idea can be anything, it could be a first simple premise like “War prisoner comes home after 8 years” or might even be further elaborated, but it can just as well be simply a thought, a feeling, the idea of a setting or a location like “I want to tell a story set in a bar”. That might be it for a start.
Yet, an idea, even a great, highly original and elaborated one, is far from being a story and it won’t be enough to sustain your script writing process. Above this, an idea can contain countless different stories depending on the individual developing a story out of it: different people will find and develop different stories from the same idea, in different genres, with completely different characters, settings and very different themes and messages.
Let’s take the idea of telling a story set in a bar. The creators of the highly successful and long-running sitcom Cheers, set in a bar, where a group of regular customers and staff interact might have started with just this idea of a setting and then developed it with an interest in the social aspect, the social interaction into a comedy series. The writer of the dark crime film The Drop, set in a mafia-run bar ,starring Tom Hardy as the barman who becomes entangled in an investigation after the bar gets robbed, might have started with exactly the same idea of a bar-setting. Though, the two motivations for telling the story in this setting and what they developed out of it couldn’t be more different.
So, one idea potentially contains numerous stories and each and every individual will develop his or her own story out of the very same idea depending on the writer and the writer’s intention. What you have to do is to find the story that is your own. This is the real beginning of your journey. Taking the idea past its initial form and transforming it into screenplay is usually a time consuming process and it is helpful to start the script-writing process by trying to figure out first what you are looking for, what the story is you want to develop.
What is a personal story?
How do you find your story, the story personal to you, within your initial idea? As easy and as obvious as it sounds, it usually isn’t that simple. But before I go into this in more detail, I would like to define the term personal a little more concretely.
One of the most common pieces of advice for young filmmakers is “look for a story that is personal” – “you need to know the world you are talking about ''. True as it is, naturally you need to know your film's world inside out, but often the advice is aimed at feeding one's ideas solely from what one has personally experienced. But first hand experience is not the only way to get to tell a personal story. A common misconception is to reduce “a personal story” to something from your surroundings and life experience, with a setting and with people you know. But that is only one possibility, naturally your personal environment can be a great source of inspiration and motivation to tell a story. But the meaning of “a personal story” is not limited to that.
So, what else can make your story personal?
A short film from a young Congolese filmmaker shown and awarded at Locarno Film Festival tells the story of an “Afronaut” who has fought battles over natural resources in a future space-scape and returns home to present-day Republic of Congo and he begins to understand what he must do to change the future for his people. With a sci-fi setting the film deals with the history of the country and its exploitation of people, nature and resources, themes deeply personal to the filmmaker connecting it with universal topics of loss, disconnection and alienation.
What to take from this? A personal story is (and has to be) something which resonates with you personally, this is elementary, no matter which story you tell and no matter at what stage of your career you are. It needs to have a theme, a core idea, which resonates with something you are personally interested in. Look for the personal connection and be as specific as you can in defining the core emotion of your film. You have to understand why you are doing this. Any reason can be valid as long as you can identify it and as long as you are honest to yourself about the reason.
Then your story can lead you to space or the future or to even crazier spheres.
So, what can help you to figure out what your personal reason is?
Transforming an idea into your personal story
Going back to the thought that the initial idea holds numerous different stories.
How do I find mine? One first elementary step is to ask yourself a couple of questions which can be summarized with:
And in more detail, a first step to identify the reason why you want to tell this particular story is by figuring out answers to the questions:
Why do I want to make the film?
Why am I interested in this?
What connects me to it?
Why do I want to do this particular film?
What is relevant about this idea?
All this questions will help you to get closer to what it is you want to tell with this story. Important in this filmaking process: be honest to yourself and give yourself time. You don’t have to have all the answers already. Brainstorm. Write down everything which comes to your mind and then, later, choose and decide. Development is a process of choice.
With every decision taken, every choice you carve out the direction of your story of what your central idea is and understanding your choices helps you understand what it is that interests you the most within the world you are about to explore.
And if it is a world you don’t know inside out, acquire knowledge, do research: The more you know about what you want to write about the better you can write about it. And again, you don’t have to know all at once. And more questions will rise during the development process.
Having figured out in the beginning what your story is about at its core, your theme, is an invaluable asset for your development and it has considerable influence over the world of the story and over all the choices you make.
And since it’s a dynamic process, keep repeating to ask yourself these questions again and again in every stage of the process. Naturally, your story evolves and with it the themes or your reasons for telling the story might change. Take the time and keep analysing, defining or redefining the core of your story.
And last but not least, don’t just trust your first ideas. First ideas are often the more standard and benefit from being challenged. Even if you come back to your first idea the idea will have grown going through the process of questioning it. Keep challenging the ideas all the time by sharing and exploring with others and by getting feedback. And again, this is a process you should continue in every stage of the filmmaking process.