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.

EDIT WHILE YOU WORK

An effective way to save time and money during your production is to be aware of editing during each process.

The first time I’m aware of editing comes at the beginning, when I’m doing a shot list, or storyboards for the film.  I can see in my mind how the scene will be cut together, and how the rhythm of the shots will affect the pace of the movie.  Of course some of these ideas will change during the actual filming process.  But, overall, I get a really clear sense about what the viewer will experience at this early stage.

If I get the sense that the scene will end on this shot, or that shot, or in a certain moment, I will make a note in the screenplay.  Sometimes this means crossing out entire sequences.  The screenwriters I’ve worked with in my career are usually fine with this, but I can understand how sometimes screenwriters might react in a negative way.  My advice: just don’t tell them.  Or, have an agreement in place to begin with that you have creative control.

If I know I’m not going to use a particular shot in the final movie, why bother wasting the time or money on the set by filming it?

Perhaps not every person who considers himself or herself a director can see this, or know this ahead of time.  I’d suggest that if you can’t foresee what the viewer will be going through, you aren’t equipped to be a director.  Cause I really believe that’s the whole point.  In that case, perhaps you should turn your attention to working in another aspect of filmmaking, or perhaps take up film criticism professionally.

Being involved in the editing process is the easiest way to get the hang of rhythm, timing and pacing.  Every director should be his or her own film editor at least during one phase of the editing process.  It’s okay to have help on technical matters, and to bring in additional editors for multiple points of view, but the director should know when to stop the scene, where to make the cut.  Having that knowledge will help shape the way you write and film your movies.

Back to the set.  There was a scene in my film OCCUPYING ED where Holly Hinton and Christopher Sams are lying on the floor playing chess.  There’s a great subtle dolly move inching closer and closer to them throughout the scene.  When the dolly stops, she calls out checkmate, and that’s where the scene ends.

However, in the screenplay the scene continued.  There was another page of dialogue and a couple of jokes.  I didn’t think the jokes were funny, even though everyone else on set disagreed with me.  I thought about filming the rest of the scene in order to test this later (had each test viewer thought the jokes were funny, maybe I’d keep them in even if I didn’t).  But, I decided to not film them, and to just end the scene at checkmate.  It just felt right.  I knew that even had we filmed the rest of the scene as it was written, I’d be cutting it out in the editing room.  It made no sense to waste the next 45 minutes shooting the rest of the scene when I knew it wouldn’t make it into the film.  I decided it was best to just go on to the next shot, the next scene.

If you’ve only made a couple of movies, and aren’t confident yet you can do this, my advice is to go ahead and shoot the scene as it’s written, and decide later.  After you’ve made more than a dozen or two movies it’ll become second nature, and you’ll feel great about saving the time and money on set.

STORYBOARDS

You don’t need to have elaborately sketched storyboards in full color with photo realistic details, but it is a good idea to have something planned and sketched.

I learned how to make storyboards before shooting something out of instinct, but there are a lot of filmmakers who have used the process in history.  Hitchcock is well-known for his storyboards—which were elaborately crafted and stunning in their own right.

Hitchcock storyboards for The Birds

When I made the storyboards for my film FIRECRACKER it took me weeks, and I did craft them with elaborately drawn details.  Partly because I wanted to communicate to the actors and crew exactly what each frame would look like.  When you are communicating something visually, it’s very important to show what it is you’re saying, in addition to saying it verbally.  Just saying we’ll shoot a “close up on that actress” can mean virtually endless options, taken from any angle, anywhere.  Do you mean profile, back of the head, face, three quarter turn?  Draw it.  Then we’ll know what you mean.

Again, your storyboards don’t have to be pretty.  It helps when they are, but the purpose of a storyboard isn’t much different than a screenplay.  They are merely means to communicate to whomever you are showing, what you’re about to do.  Sometimes, they aren’t meant to be shown to anyone.

When I draw storyboards, they’re for me to see and not really anyone else.  Of course, if someone wanted to see them, they can.  But the sole purpose is so that when I get to the set, I know exactly what I need to shoot, where, and how.

Storyboards from my film The Far Flung Star

They can be stick figures, crappy drawings, anything.  It doesn’t matter.  Are you making fancy cartoons and publishing high-quality graphic novels?  No, you’re making storyboards for your movie.  Keep in check.

When I’m sketching storyboards for a scene, I plan on sketches for an entire scene taking up only one sheet of paper.  I write the scene number on the top of each page, and once the Master Plan is complete, I can organize the pages of storyboard sheets behind each day of the schedule.  So all my shots are there for quick reference each day.

Dennis Hopper and I talked about this at length in his living room.  He felt that making storyboards was a great way to plan the vision of a scene, but that once you got on the set and the characters came to life, sometimes it could hurt to rely so coldly on the storyboards.  Especially if there was some kind of magic happening outside of the planning.  I agreed.

It’s a very good idea to do storyboards, even if you never refer to them.  I like doing them because I know that so long as I accomplish capturing those things, we’re golden.  Say you’re up until 3 AM dealing with a diva actor who needs babying, and you get little sleep, and the next day you show up on set feeling like a zombie and have no idea what to do.  This has never happened to me, but it has to a lot of filmmakers I know.  In that moment, so long as you’re prepared and organized, you’ll be able to make it through your day on auto-pilot.  So, plan something, even if it’s the bare minimum.

And be free.  Give yourself the freedom to capture something you hadn’t thought of before.  Actors will do certain things that inspire new shots, new angles.  If you get to the set and are inspired by the lighting, or architecture, or atmosphere, give yourself the freedom to scrap the planned storyboards and capture something new and in-the-moment.