As one of the first steps in moving my musical about T.S. Eliot (The Wasteland) from stage to film, I’m needing to modify the stage script into a film screenplay. Like all writing, that process is iterative, but I’m getting close. So I thought I’d share some of my observations for any other writers out there that might be considering a similar transition.
One thing that makes this process easier is that there are really two film scripts. The screenplay that most closely corresponds to a stage script is known as a “spec script.” From a formatting perspective, it’s more-or-less identical to a stage script, and the purpose is the same. In film, the Director and other members of the creative team (e.g., Director of Photography) will use that as a starting point and create a shooting script. That’s the version that includes camera shots, close-ups, and other technical details specific to the world of film. So as writers, we don’t need to worry about that. In fact, trying to include that in the spec script is one of the marks of an amateur (so I’ve been told, anyway).
There’s another, more critical, high level difference between theater and film. In theater, the writer has full creative control and enjoys the status that goes with this control. As a minimum, this means that a production can’t deviate from the script, but can only interpret. This applies whether the playwright is present for the production or not. But it can go even beyond that, to include approving the way the script is interpreted. In theater, a writer can shut down a production if they have creative differences. When writing for television (good television, anyway), this is at least partially true as well (the writer with creative control in this case is called the Show Runner). But in film, this is virtually never the case. In film, the Director and Lead Producer have full creative control and are allowed to change whatever is necessary to realize their vision for the film. Part of this is simply a cultural tradition, but part is necessitated by the complexity and cost of creating a film.
Next month, I’ll share some of the nuts-and-bolts differences I’ve found between a stage script and a film screenplay.