You need to be imaginative, and love to write. You have to come up with a story, characters and settings, and the relationship between the characters and their dialogues.
To be able to write a good script, you need be an observer, with a strong interest in people's life and personalities. You also need to be good at visualising stories and describing your ideas in detail. Patience is essential. It takes time to write a script and you can go for months without any work. Confidence will help you fight for your ideas, and being a team player is essential to cooperate with the people from all departments. Above all you need to be passionate.
If your script is good, directors and producers will buy it from you regardless of whether or not you went to university or what you studied. The most important thing is to have a few scripts in your portfolio. However, To believes a bachelor's degree is a must. It helps to broaden your mind and enrich your mental landscape. It doesn't matter what subject you do: any knowledge could be useful when writing a script.
If you're writing a story about the financial crisis, it will help to know about economy and finance. Likewise, if your story is about a Chinese empress, Chinese history and literature are useful. If you don't want to do a degree, travelling is another way to broaden your horizons.
To did a bachelor's degree in Creative Media at City University, then took a Chinese Literature course at Chinese University. Depending on the market you want to write for, you need excellent Cantonese, Putonghua or English.
Fees depend on the scale and budget of the project, whether it is local or international, and your experience. Usually a producer will ask you to write a script for a project and you will agree on a fee before you start to write. You will be paid in instalments - when you sign the contract, after you have written the synopsis, and when you finish the project.
A synopsis is a summary of your plot and characters. It summarises in around two pages what you are going to write. For To, it is important to write a very detailed synopsis because it helps the producer understand where you're heading and it will avoid confusion later on.
To wrote her first script while still at university. It was a gangster movie, which later became the movie Jiang Hu. Producer Eric Tsang read the script while she was interning for his company. He liked it and bought it for about HK$20,000.
To says professional scriptwriters are usually paid between HK$350,000 and HK$800,000 for a feature-length script. On average, To works on two projects a year.
After Jiang Hu, Edko Film contacted To and asked her to write the movie that would become Fearless. To was in charge of all the writing until production started. It took her a year to write the script. Then a Putonghua specialist and a stand-by scriptwriter took over during shooting to finalise details and dialogues. After Fearless, To was asked to do the cultural research for Lust, Caution, and to write another script which was to be titled Secret.
There aren't many scriptwriters in Hong Kong, so there are many opportunities for work. The best way to start is to write your own scripts - it doesn't matter how long - and either shoot them yourself, or send a copy to local directors and producers. Another good idea is to take a small job at a local production house and make contacts. The local scene isn't that big, so with a bit of effort, your scripts have a good chance of getting noticed.
When you start to become known within the industry, you can afford to be pickier with projects. For To, it is important to try different genres and show she is capable of writing different types of movies. Otherwise, film companies will assume you only deal in one genre.
Like an actor, To has to choose her projects carefully. Sometimes, she turns down a job.
After a few years, some scriptwriters decide to direct or produce. Others become novelists.
A day at work
To works from home, usually starting at 1pm and writing until late at night.
When To takes on a new project, she first meets the producer to see what they want, and if she can work with them - it is important for her to believe in the project. She will then do research and brainstorm.
At the second producer meeting, she will share her ideas. If everyone is happy, they will sign a contract. Then the real research starts. This information triggers ideas and sets an accurate backdrop to the movie. For example, for Fearless, To had to read up on the events and mindsets of the Qing dynasty. She needed a clear idea of what people's lives and the political situation were like. The research takes about three months.
To then writes the synopsis, which usually takes another three months. If the producer doesn't like it, the job may end, but if everybody likes the story, To will take another two months to write the script. After many meetings to fine-tune details, the final script is handed over and the movie can go into production.