STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

So you want to be a screenwriter?

You’ve decided to write a script and make it big.  You’ve found a great story that, for some reason, you think other people want to read (or see for that matter).  You’ve written it and are now ready to shop your script to producers and directors.  Shopping your script is the first mistake, which I shall address on another day, but if you are determined to have someone else make your movie – there is something you should know.

Not only has The Industry become lazy and formulaic when it comes to storytelling (and you’ll have to comply as well), it is now imperative that every screenplay must look and feel identical.  Coming up with a good idea to write about is one thing.  Coming up with a good idea people are willing to pay for is another.  But the most important thing – the thing they never tell you – is that you MUST BIND YOUR SCRIPT LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!

Never mind the story.  Never mind the content.  It’s come down to this: If your script does not have those common, unsightly and second-rate brass “brads” attached to the top hole and bottom hole – your project is worthless.  They will tell you that only amateurs go to Kinko’s.  Because “everyone” knows you MUST OBEY THE RULE OF THE BRASS “BRAD”!

Never make the horrible mistake of placing it in a three-ring binder.  And never, ever, put “brads” in all three holes!  Because “everyone” knows you’re supposed to only use the top hole and bottom hole.  A writer I once knew told me his script was returned unread because he’d placed a “brad” in the center hole.  As ludicrous as this might seem, this is no joke.  It’s really happening to people.

Most of Hollywood can’t understand how to read something unless it has these brass fasteners.  But let that be a lesson.  Do I really want to work with people who are obsessed with the binding and not interested in my cast, financing, marketing plan or that seemingly, from their point of view, irrelevant part known as cinematography?  Come to think of it: No… I don’t.  I want to work with people who can understand pictures and sentences, too.

On my street, I bind scripts professionally.  I love the look and feel of it.  The appearance says: QUALITY.  DISTINCTIVE.  IMAGINATIVE.  And those emotions happen before reading the first sentence!  Going one step further, I like to include photographs and sketches that assist in setting moods and atmospheres – the kinds of things that separate a motion picture from a novel.

Still, it doesn’t do any good.  Several years ago, a woman named Elizabeth called me from Miramax and said she was excited to read my script.  I made the horrible mistake of sending it to her.  Several days later, she telephoned and told me, “It’s perfect for Dimension, so I sent it to them.”  I was livid because she was passing it around without my approval.  I asked for her to return it at once.

I received the script the following day.  When it arrived, I found it had been completely dismantled.  The crucial photographs were removed from the script, and the binding was replaced by those stupid second-rate brass fasteners!

Now, it’s not like I only had a few pictures.  I’d actually placed one on every other page. So it was clear to me that someone had wasted an entire afternoon going through the script page by page and removing 125 pictures.  Isn’t that silly?  They had to make it look like all the other scripts in order to understand it!  Also, I looked up on staples.com and those stupid “brads” are called “standard punch brass fasteners.”  So next time you hear a dimwitted industry executive say “brads” you will know the extent of his or her mental capacity.

There is something to be said about going against the norm.  Doing things in an unorthodox manner separates you and your material from the millions of people and scripts milling about the basin.  But for some reason – fear of not fitting in, perhaps – most people will continue to worship the “brass brad mentality” and end up looking like everyone else.  Sure, they’ll fit in.  But no one will see them because seven million other people have done exactly the same.

My advice?  If you feel the need to write something clever – simply eat something spicy and the feeling will pass.  You’ll be much happier in the end.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine in 2004.)