How to Develop a Film Narrative from a True Story About Women's Empowerment in China
At our core we are storytellers. It's what we do. No matter what we are filming, we fully believe that if we treat the story as paramount and if all other things serve to support the story, then the content will be a success. Every lens choice, lighting choice, prop placement, and camera move (or lack of!) should be motivated by the story. If there is no story-supporting reason behind a filmmaking decision, then you are most likely distracting the audience and crippling the film.
When we first set up our production company Mike and I decided that we would devote a certain amount of our resources each year to passion projects. We also agreed that it would be great for those projects that to support good causes.
In March we released a film we produced called "Supposed to be a Boy", about a girl who was born to a poor family in rural China. It's actually the true story of our friend Lan Jiayi, who happens to be one of my wife's best friends and her manager at Freeleaf.
If you haven't seen the film yet, you can watch it right here in 4K:
Visualizing Conflict and Resolution
Our first challenge was taking Jiayi's actual story and boiling that down to a couple of minutes. We didn't want to trivialize anything but we also didn't want to over-dramatize anything, either.
The process began with a quick phone call. I was already familiar with most of her background, but I wanted to give her the chance to tell Mike and me her full story. I put my phone on speaker and let Jiayi tell us about life growing up in the 1990s in rural Guangdong Province of China.
The guys over at Stillmotion and the Muse film school have taught us a few things about storytelling and script-writing. One of those things is the visual approach to plot development. If you can map out key moments visually, filling in the rest becomes fairly simple. Start by identifying a very specific conflict (or more than one), figure out how that conflict resolves, then color in the beginning, middle and ending.
In Jiayi's story conflict was not hard to find. She grew up with a lot of setbacks and hardship. It was just a matter of deciding which conflict to explore in such a short film. We identified some of the mile markers in Jiayi's childhood, as seen in my notes from that phone call (if you can decipher my beautiful handwriting):
My initial plot graph didn't have specific events tied to conflict or resolution points yet. Instead here I've got a basic plot chart graphing out suspense v. time, and just below are a few of Jiayi's main challenges growing up.
(If you're wondering why in the notes this is titled "Lenore's Story", it's because Jiayi's English name is Lenore and that's what most of her friends call her today).
After this we had a face-to-face meeting with Jiayi. We looked at Jiayi's main challenges growing up and agreed that domestic violence was the main challenge that pushed her to get out of the life she had.
We also talked about the sensitivity of portraying domestic violence onscreen. The fact was that many of her family members would have the capability of seeing the film online. Shame and honor in China is a big deal, and we didn't want to burn any bridges in Jiayi's family relationships. This conversation led to the decision that in the film the audience would never really see who is being domestically abused by whom, but they would have a pretty good guess.
In the face-to-face meeting Mike played as a reference film an ad for Western Sydney University called "Deng Thiak Adut Unlimited":
Two really important inspirations came from this film:
1. Portraying Jiayi's younger self through child actors at key moments in her childhood
2. The jump-cut technique of seeing Jiayi's grandmother at the end, personified by the ladies that Jiayi works with today.
Scene-listing and Storyboarding
The next step in plot development is to fill in the blanks. How do we guide the audience into the setting, introduce the characters, create the conflict, build tension, climax, then arrive at resolution?
We identified elements of Jiayi's childhood that supported this overall movement, then outlined them into a list of scenes. At the beginning nothing was off-limits.
Domestic violence was already identified as a theme and a motivator for Jiayi, but we had to create key scenes that moved the plot forward. As we did this we also recognized the specific things that we wanted the viewer to feel, to see, to hear, and to think.
For example, we need the audience to feel that the domestic abuse makes 8-year-old Jiayi want to run away. The scene of her on the hilltop looking down at her tiny village visually evokes this feeling, even though the text on the screen never explicitly says she wants to leave.
This brainstorming process leads us into scriptwriting, which looks something like this on a first draft:
In pre-production this is where we pivot from bird's-eye on the overall plot movement to details of individual scene development. This phase can be a huge pitfall. It's so easy to lose the forest for the trees. Main themes and big-picture direction for the plot can fall through the gaps when you attempt to craft detailed scenes.
Storyboarding will save you from making this mistake. It allows the filmmaker to plan ahead how each individual shot will support the story itself and not distract from it.
This is our storyboard for the sequence where Jiayi is determined to make a change in her life and break the cycle of domestic violence and poverty:
Here are the real frames from the film:
There may be some slight differences between each sketch and the final shot, such as camera angle or focal length. But for the most part the sequence follows the storyboard. We did add a few extra shots such as close-ups and other coverage that were on-set decisions.
A good storyboard helps you know if you have covered every shot you need for the story to be told, and it allows you the ability to add shots on the fly if the time allows.
Sometimes we don't bother with a storyboard when we produce a film. But we have learned from experience that it can be an extremely helpful tool when we take the time to make one.
Even if it is a very rough sketch that is not pretty, it can save lots of time and money on set. Fortunately for us Mike got his bachelor's degree from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (广州美术学院), and he can sketch out several beautiful frames for a storyboard in no time at all. And since he is a cinematographer, all his storyboard frames are drawn out with camera operation and lighting setup in mind.
Check out StudioBinder's very thorough article: "How to Make a Storyboard for Video and Film: The Definitive Guide"
We use the content from the script and the storyboard to create a shotlist, which usually includes the A/V text from the initial script, a thumbnail of the storyboard frame, and other details about each setup in a scene like cast and location. This is what we bring to set with us:
Below are a few behind-the-scenes photos from the actual production of "Supposed to be a Boy":