Greg Pak: FilmHelp: Pre-Production

Staging a Screenplay Reading

By Greg Pak

Last month I held a reading of my new screenplay “Robot Stories” at the Asian American Writers Workshop. I was very happy with the event — here are a few pointers based on the experience.

Why do this reading?

Step number one is to decide why you’re doing the reading. This will determine your schedule, presentation, and target audience. I wanted to do a reading of “Robot Stories” primarily for workshop/script revision purposes. The film is a feature consisting of three shorts — I wanted an audience to absorb the material in one sitting so I could see how well the shorts work together as a feature.
    Finding a producer or financier willing to back the picture would have been an added bonus, but that wasn’t my primary purpose for holding the reading. So I didn’t go hog-wild trying to get industry presence at the event. I sent emails to people on my mailing lists, but I largely left the publicizing of the event up to the Asian American Writers Workshop, the fine organization which was hosting the reading.
    It’s worth noting that if you want maximum industry turnout, you should avoid holidays. The reading took place on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, which a few folks mentioned as a reason for not making the event.

Casting, rehearsal

For the most part, I cast actors I knew in parts I knew they could nail. But I had no intention of doing the reading cold — I wanted the screenplay to come alive for the audience, which meant rehearsal. Since it was a just a reading, without blocking or memorization, we were able to be very efficient with rehearsal time, meeting the day before the reading for four intense hours.
    In casting the piece, I had everyone read multiple roles. This avoided the boredom an actor feels when he or she has a two page scene in the middle of the screenplay and never appears again. And it kept the number of people involved in the event smaller, which meant less logistical complication and fewer mouths to feed.


I provided three meals. First, an informal dinner at my place a few nights before the event, for whoever wanted to come over and hobnob. Two actors came, and since they were playing a husband and a wife in the piece, we were able to talk about the script and their characters and do a little reading. Entirely helpful and made the subsequent formal rehearsal more efficient.
    Second, I treated the cast to brunch right before the big rehearsal. The meal let people get to know each other, which is always good. And it ensured that everyone was well fed and jolly as we began to work, which was outstanding. A four hour rehearsal can be grueling if people have skipped breakfast.
    Finally, I took everyone to dinner after the actual reading. Since the reading was over, this clearly didn’t affect its outcome. But it was fun. And an entirely appropriate thank you, since I wasn’t able to pay anyone for participating in the reading.


I told the actors not to act out any of the characters’ movements physically. We treated it a little like radio or voiceover work. We set chairs in a half circle on stage. When an actor was in a scene, he or she would stand up, script in hand, to deliver lines. The actors would look at each other, working off of each other emotionally. But they did not march through any blocking.
    I brought in a few clamp lights, two light stands, and a dimmer. This allowed us to have a few light cues, fading up and down when the script dictated. A nice touch which helped the audience settle into the piece.

Two people reading narration

Having been to readings before, I knew that the most important and hardest-to-execute part of the production are the stage directions or narration. Without anything to see, the audience can quickly zone out during these descriptions. In order to enliven the narration, I always had two actors trading lines — every time there was a carriage return in the screenplay, a new voice took over. I paired men and women for this narration. So the actors could play off of each other a little, building a little scene as they read the narration. And the audience’s interest was maintained by a variety of voices telling them a single story.


In the biggest coup of the evening, my friend Rick Knutsen provided improvised accompaniment on the piano to the reading. We spent about an hour right before the reading going through the screenplay, talking about and practicing a few different music cues. We rehearsed many of the transitions with actors, music, and light cues.
    The music was minimal, but it helped enormously. It gave the actors something more to work with. And it helped bring the narration to life. I was extremely happy with the music in the last two pieces, less thrilled with the music in the first piece. This was my own fault as a director, though. And, actually, making a mistake like this was exactly the point of doing the reading — better to do it now than when I’m actually shooting the film.
   To be specific, the first piece in the screenplay is something of a tear jerker, and the music was very sentimental. So the piece became much too gooey. To make the piece work, I’ll need both the music and the performances to run counter to the sentimental tendencies of the story — then the emotional impact at the end will be much stronger. An excellent thing to learn at this early stage in the development of the picture.

Customized Comment Sheet

I made a one-page sheet which I asked audience members to fill out after the event. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What moments did you like the most? What did you like the least?
  2. What, if anything, did you find confusing?
  3. Do the three stories hold together as a single feature for you? Would you like to see this as a feature film or as a series of half-hour television programs?
  4. The title “Robot Stories” may be taken… Any suggestions for an alternate title?
  5. Please list three of your favorite movies
  6. Any other thoughts/ideas/suggestions? Things that could be cut, things that are missing, things that you just loved or hated so much you need to rant about ’em? Don’t be shy! (Please use the back of this page if you need more space).

I found the responses very interesting and helpful — although no one did have a good alternative title suggestion. I asked people to list some of their favorite movies just to get a little hint of their preferences and taste — helpful in determining how to take certain comments.


That’s all I can think of for now. After I’ve revised the screenplay, I’m hoping to do another reading or two, this time perhaps in hopes of getting some industry interest. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Budget for Distribution

By Greg Pak
Yeah, I know, at the pre-production stage, most of us are barely scraping together the dollars to get our films in the can. But remember that if you don’t have the money to properly push your film once it’s done, the whole effort is for naught.
For the average short, you’ll want to reserve $200 to $300 for VHS copies, $1000 for festival entry fees (and that’ll only let you submit to about 35 festivals — you’ll probably want to submit to even more), $200 for stills and press kits, and $300 for postage and packing material.
That adds up to about $1,800, more than I spent for the entire production and completion of “Po Mo Knock Knock.” Seems ridiculous to spend more than the film itself, but that’s the nature of the beast. Raise the bux and get it out there — otherwise you’re just sitting on your film and no one will ever see it.
Actually, now that I think about my own experiences, maybe it’s best� not to keep track of how much you’re spending to promote your film. I don’t even want to think of what I’ve spent flogging “Fighting Grandpa,” particularly when I add in the costs of traveling to festivals. But these were expenses I had to make — otherwise the film wouldn’t have been recognized and I probably wouldn’t have gotten either the agent I have or the grants I’ve received for my new documentary.

Test Converted 16mm Cameras

By Greg Pak
If you’re using a Super 16 camera that’s being converted to regular 16 for your shoot, shoot a test roll before you shoot real footage with it. If it’s been configured improperly, the framing will be off on your final image — you’ll end up with more image on the right hand side of your frame, for example, which will bug you and everyone else in the world who cares about decent composition.

Test-Shoot Rehearsals on Video

By Greg Pak
When I’m shooting fiction, I always try to have my cinematographer come to a rehearsal (ideally on location) with a video camera to shoot some of the set ups we’ve discussed. This way, before the shoot, we have a chance to see what we’re talking about regarding camera movement and frame.
Test shooting rehearsals on video also gives the D.P. and director a chance to find new and better camera angles for scenes based on how the actors are moving in the locations. Always good to do this ahead of time — saves some scrambling on the actual set.

Let’s Talk About Frame

By Greg Pak
Talk with your D.P. in exact terms about frame — for example, when shooting 16mm, specify that all important information should be within the TV safe lines. Otherwise, you may end up with an image that’s beautifully framed for film projection but looks cramped when transferred to video.
Also, make sure you know that you and your D.P. are thinking the same thing when you use certain terms — one person’s close up is another person’s medium shot.