A reader of the script put me on the spot the other day. He hasn’t been the first one. When you say you’ve written a script, people always ask, “What’s it about?” But he had just read the script. He’s been a professional reader and development executive. So he phrased it a little differently: “What do you think it’s about?”

Read more…When I was in the Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU, they taught us “What’s it about?” is a trick question. You think the person means on the thematic, ultimate poetic level that all writers strive to achieve. But really they mean “What’s the plot?”

With a big commercial movie, the answer is a simple formula. Character A in Situation B wants C but conflict D must first be surmounted. Or, if you’re entirely derivative, you can just say it’s JAWS meets SPEED and let them make the back-formation.

But with an indie, hopefully your premise can’t fit in a canned logline. So you fumble around, mention something about ‘exploring the humanity of life’s quotidian miseries’ or something equally pretentious sounding. And the conversation abruptly ends. Nobody consciously wants to see quotidian miseries.

But this is just what the above script reader seemed to be asking for, a thematic description — not plot. So I ventured: “It’s about growing up. Becoming an adult.” We talked about this new phenomenon, the ‘quarter-life crisis.’ Demographics are shifting. People are staying in school later, getting married later. It was good discussion, but I wouldn’t have it with anyone who doesn’t understand the nature of film storytelling.

Because of The Graduate (or even the unfairly compared Garden State) I’d hate to say the quarter-life crisis is a new phenomenon. But the producers and I knew we wanted to tell a story about our generation, about the problems and issues we face. Because major commercial movies generally avoid making movies for our demographic that take us seriously.

And we knew we wanted to show off a lot of good actors. I’m a fan of the sprawling movies of Robert Altman (Short Cuts, Nashville) and admired if thought flawed both P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums. What do these movies have in common? What am I getting at?

What I’m getting at — where we arrived at — was three days in New York City and ten major characters all connected to each other in different ways. Every character has his or her own story, but the stories interweave to form a cohesive whole. Some stories end happy, some don’t. Some don’t even end conclusively. Because that’s what life is like. Just because it was three days didn’t mean we were going to try to sqeeze six days of the condor into it artificially.

Nor should we try squeezing ten stories into a single sentence. It’s really tempting to describe it as “about becoming an adult” or “how life and art are continuous manipulations.” But that’s a trap. It’s not up to us to tell people what they should get out of the story. That’s presumptuous, pretentious and probably rude.

So we have to have something else tell people when they ask, “What’s it about?” Here are my recommendations:

Establish a Foundation

Ask them if they’ve seen Short Cuts or Magnolia. If they haven’t, tell them that these were “very successful movies that followed multiple characters.”

Give Em the Setup

Say our movie follows “several New York City twenty-somethings over the course of three days” and that it has “inter-weaving storylines” leading to a “big conclusion.”

Now Tell One Story

You still want to keep it short, so you can’t get into every storyline. So just pick your favorite and say, “One of the main storylines follows ______ who is a ______. There’s a great scene where ________ happens. It’s really [emotion].”

Hopefully people will be excited at this point, not bored. And you can continue to tell other parts of the stories and a bit about how they interweave — although always always always refuse to give away the ending to any of them. It’s both courteous and good business. I always hate it when I see a trailer that gives away even part of the ending.

The thing that makes an independent film is buzz, which is just a fancy name for word-of-mouth. So let’s make the word-of-mouth as potent and intriguing as we can.