Do you have a clear idea of the genre of the film before you start to write? Do you write to a model, like the three-act structure?
Usually you have a pretty good idea what genre the movie is before you start writing, at least in the broadest sense – a comedy, a thriller, an action movie. And of course, within any category there are sub-genres. "Comedies" can be romantic comedies, black comedies, action comedies, family comedies, spoofs and so forth. You could spend a weekend listing all the different sub-genres and still find movies that don’t fit into any.
More important than knowing where to put the video at Blockbuster is figuring what approach you’ll be taking, and that’s where the real work comes in. For instance, CHARLIE’S ANGELS is an action comedy, so logically it should do some of the same things as LETHAL WEAPON or RUSH HOUR. But from its inception, there were always going to be things about CHARLIE’S ANGELS that would be unique and difficult.
First, the characters. The movie has three heroines who need roughly equal screen time, each with their own subplots and love interests. Bosley needs enough to do so that an actor will want to play it, but not so much that it takes away from the Angels. And then there’s Charlie himself. He’s the disembodied voice on a speakerphone box, yet we need to believe he’s a real person.
Second, the tone. Trying to escape the cheesiness of the TV show, early drafts of the script played the world very cold and high-tech, almost like a MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE movie. While we wanted the Angels to be super-competent when they were in danger mode, we needed them to be huggable when they were off-duty. They needed to be like your best friends: rowdy, caring, impetuous and fun. Also, we wanted the movie to be a love letter to Los Angeles: the sun is always shining, colors are hot, and everyone looks great.
Finally, the action. Early on, we agreed the Angels wouldn’t carry guns. The decision was less because of the social message than the action possibilities. Gun fights are about people hiding behind things; we wanted the Angels punching and kicking. We ended up hiring the fight team behind THE MATRIX to train the actors in martial arts, and I can’t imagine the movie any other way.
Notice that all of these decisions were made BEFORE we started talking about plot or structure. That was the right choice, because it meant we could develop a storyline that would fit the movie we wanted to make, rather than dress-up a pre-existing plot with details from our movie.
The actual outline we used for the movie was simply a list of 20 sequences. It was less than half a page. But it took months to get there. During production, some of the sequences changed for budget, schedule or location reasons, but the underlying spine remained exactly the same.