Director’s Checklist

By L. Tanner Smith

When I was in film-school, about to write and direct my undergraduate thesis film, my film professor assigned me a “Director’s Checklist,” which is a series of 10 questions to answer just to make sure I had at least SOME idea of what I was doing (or going to do).

When I did my own thing, making movies with my friends, I sort of put aside a lot of the stuff I learned in film-school and went mostly by instinct.

But for Millennial With a Cane, which does require a lot more than what I’m used to, I thought I should at least gain some insights from my past that I decided to ignore. For starters, I went back and found that checklist and copied the same questions and answered them in reference to this new project.

So, here it is:

  1. What do I care most about in this film? Two very important things to me is 1) that both the characters and their situations feel very honest and real, and 2) that the comedy and the drama both belong in the same film. Everything needs to fit effectively.
  2. What does someone who needs to care about this film as much as I do absolutely need to know? I wrote the screenplay as a way of speaking for both myself as an MS patient (the struggles, the depression, the ways I can be lifted up, etc.) and people around me who either understand, want to understand, or hardly understand. So, the people who see the film need to understand that they are not alone and the sorts of things that happen in the film are happening around us. 
  3. Who represents the audience in the film? Two characters represent different types of people in the audience. For the protagonist Delilah, it’s the confused person with the mental illness trying to make sense of it. For her best friend Lily, it’s the one who’s trying to understand what the illness means when someone she knows has it. 
  4. Is the protagonist a hero? Yes. Delilah can appear to be sarcastic and bitingly witty, but she’s well-meaning, stands up for her friends, and continues to carry on with the disease because she feels there’s no alternative. 
  5. Who is the dreamer? What is the dream? The four key characters (Delilah, Liam, Meadow, and Lily) each have a particular dream. For Delilah, it’s to be an actress and not let the disease bring her down. For Liam, the ambulatory-wheelchair user with progressive MS, it’s to produce his own stage play that helps speak his mind. For Meadow, Liam’s best friend, it’s a romantic interest in Liam, whom she’s known and cared for a long time. And for Lily, it’s to have her best friend (Delilah) back after they’ve had a falling-out. 
  6. What does the dream require? What is the sacrifice, and what is the reward of the dream? Particularly, as the protagonist, Delilah has to gain more self-confidence and not let stress overcome her, which is easier said than done. Also, Lily has an underlying prejudice against “invisible illness,” but she and Delilah can’t communicate anymore unless Lily tries to make an effort to understand what she’s going through. The rewards…..this is a public blog, so I probably shouldn’t reveal THAT much if I’m not selling a potential producer/investor on the ideas of the story/characters.
  7. Where is the drama and conflict in the film? Delilah is suffering constant flareups in her MS symptoms at a time when everything is going wrong in her life—she lost her job, she got rejected from another acting gig, and her relationship with Lily isn’t going so well, so she feels alone, which causes her to go to the MS support group and make new friends in Liam and Meadow, who help raise her spirits. 
  8. Where are the key moments of decision in the film? A turning point is when Delilah decides to get a cane to help with her balance issues. Then soon after that is when she decides to visit the support group. This is the moment she realizes she doesn’t have to be alone in her illness. That leads to the other important characters, which direct us to the key moments of the film. 
  9. What is the climax of each section and of the entire film? Mmm…….again, I probably shouldn’t give away much here (but I can assure you I had a full paragraph prepared).
  10. What can you use as metaphors/imagery for the characters and situations? In particular, I see Delilah as somewhat “artfully disheveled” and making herself cleaner (more “presentable”) by the film’s final act, thus illustrating the new version of her that she’s ready to become. 

That last question is as difficult to answer now, today, as it was before, in film-school. But as a director, it is an essential question to think about.

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