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America’s #1 Film Instructor
Dov Simens inspired Quentin Tarantino, Michael Jackson and Will Smith. Now he gives Creative Screenwriting his best advice.
By Holly Grigg-Spall.
“Keep it simple stupid!”
Filmmaking guru Dov Simens leads the notorious ‘2 Day Film School’ – an intensive course in how to write, direct, produce, and release a movie under any budget that inspired the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and Chris Nolan, and gleans a string of A-List endorsements (just check out his website). His aim is to provide aspiring moviemakers with the tools and knowledge they would otherwise shell out four years of their lives and thousands of dollars for through a film school. Those that can’t make it to one of the seminars he presents in major cities across the world can buy a DVD set encompassing each stage of the industry.
The National Association of Film Schools labeled him America’s Number One Film Instructor for his 23 years of dedicated service encouraging screenwriters to get out there and make their first feature. In fact 40% of his students will do just that within a year of graduating from ‘2 Day Film School.’ His enthusiasm, positivity, and sheer energy is infectious enough to make anyone believe in their talent.
Do you think it’s sensible for a screenwriter to try to direct and produce his own screenplay?
I’m always strong on this being a business first and foremost. You want to be an established, famous screenwriter and the key to that is power. If the screenwriter gets their first script optioned and physically made and it goes to one of the big festivals who is going to be on the panel at that festival getting all the credit for the movie? The director. It’s a total disgrace how much credit directors get considering how much they do. The person who deserves the credit is a) the screenwriter and b) the producer or executive producer who came up with the money. The key is you need enough power to be the director who directs their own scripts.
You have to know you will have very little money to begin with. I call low budget $17,000 to $55,000. If you want to be a famous screenwriter, be a director. That feature film script needs to be 90 pages, basically a stage play. One page of screenplay becomes one minute of running time approximately. A studio feature might be 110 to 140 pages. Low budget guerrilla filmmakers they’re thinking 90 to 120 pages at most. The movie business is renting seats and selling sugar. The admission for any movie no matter what the budget is the same. No matter how long the film is the admission price is the same. “Keep it simple stupid” is my catchphrase. The shorter the movie the more screenings per day the more money is made. A 90 page script is just 90 pages of problems if you’re directing and producing too.
What kind of screenplay should a screenwriter be thinking will work best for their first director-producer project?
Take eight kids to a house and chop them up – the horror genre does live forever, once a horror movie works it becomes a franchise, goes to part seven and your grandchildren will be renting it. Regardless, take six to eight actors to one location – you don’t have to chop them up, but it needs to be a stage play. Contemporary, no stunts, no effects, no period pieces, no exterior night scenes (because there’s no turn around time in a less than three week shoot).
How difficult is it to also handle producing on top of directing?
The writing, directing, and producing duties take place at different times so it’s doable. Write the script and make it great, then take off your writer’s hat, and put on your producer’s hat and come up with money independent of the film industry. Once you have the money and are in pre-production, put on your director’s hat. Most people are going to have to write, direct, and produce their first feature. Can you also line produce? No. You’d be trying to do too much. Before you start pre-production find an excellent production manager and give them a line producer credit.
Unless your parents are billionaires and you aren’t already in a family with a marketable name you will need to use crowdfunding, or scrounge up money from family and friends, dentists and doctors. How much money you get is going to impact what you can film.
Is it a good idea to avoid the studios and therefore the possibility of losing control of your screenplay?
You need to get some marketability and credibility from your screenplay – they may not know your name but they can say “From the director of…” on your next movie release. Say you got the first feature done and for whatever reason it’s great and you got it into one of the ten or twelve major festivals where the acquisition executives go to find movies. The theatre sold out and in post-production marketing you got the buyers to come to the screening. You might sell your movie in fifteen minutes in the lobby of the theatre. If you are the writer-producer-director of an independent low budget film it will be distributed with 20 to 50 prints in the US. You need to have numerous projects in development – you can try to do the studio system, you can try to have a script optioned by a studio. Or you can get money from a studio to direct and produce your second project. You want all of these, a studio film, a writing assignment, and an independent project, on the go at the same time.
We now see filmmakers like Joss Whedon doing both – the big studio blockbuster and the personal DIY project made in his own home like Much Ado About Nothing. Do you think DIY is a good option when you want to make something no studio is going to want to support?
It’s a tough one – should you go with your heart and emotion or should you think business or should you do both? You should go both routes and try very hard on both. I’d make a story that just has to be told and a movie that’s a slam dunk just by the title, that’s tacky but will make money. I will then find out which direction God wants me to go with this. Cameras are so cheap, just pick it up and walk and talk and that’s a movie. If you have nothing to do for a week and a half go make a movie. It will start a rhythm.