I attended a high school recently that was participating in the Reel Canada film festival--a traveling festival of Canadian films that the students program themselves. Reel Canada then brings in the projection equipment and staff to run the day long event at the school, PLUS, visits from the directors and stars of the films. The day I attended, Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and NIck Campbell, (star of Da Vinci's Inquest) dropped by to speak to the students. My reason for attending was to promote the screenwriter-in-residency program at the Toronto Public Library. As the newly appointed S-I-R, I wanted to let kids know about what I'll be doing there over the next two months.
The first thing I did was ask for a show of hands from everyone who knew what a screenwriter did. In a gym full of kids, only a couple of hands went up. (Okay, I realize I'm dealing with teenage apathy to anything anyone over 20 has to say, but still, I could sense that they really didn't realize that everything they saw at the movies or on TV or on the internet was first written by someone.)
It got me thinking that it may be a good idea to start defining terms.
So, what's a screenplay?
Some people may know what a screenplay looks like--a bunch of pages of writing in a funny, not especially reader-friendly format. But how do we define this thing?
The great screenwriter Frank Pierson, (Dog Day Afternoon) once called it a "passionate letter to the cast and crew." That's probably what it is in it's highest form. But on the most prosaic, fundamental level, a screenplay is really a set of instructions to the cast and crew.
It describes in a very trackable way--breaking it down scene by scene--exactly what the reader should see and hear if they were watching the finished product.
It's a blue print or a rendering of what the final product--a film or TV show--would look like.
A set of instructions written in practical language that explains explicitly or implicitly what's required to film. Based on the screenplay, the props master will know if a gun is required for a scene. The casting director will know how many principal actors, day players and extras the production will call for. The production designer will be able to start choosing locations or designing sets based on what's described in the screenplay. All their jobs start with the screenplay. No one can afford to wait for filming to start to be told what to do. The screenplay tells them what to do. (Though it does NOT tell them how to do it!)
Read published screenplays of films you have seen to see how the screenplay evokes everything the finished film embodied. That's the best way to learn how a writer like Frank Pierson could turn a set of instructions into a work of art.