Breaking the screenplay

Imagine you’re a development person. You have a pile of scripts on your desk and you have to wade through them. They’re all about the right length, they’re all nicely bound and they’re all formatted correctly because, if you expect nothing else from a professional writer, you at least expect them to be able to observe the simple rules of formatting. So you take the top one off the pile and you open it up and page one is a lot of white space and the text is in Courier Final Draft, or Courier Prime if the writer is fancy. And the two words at the top: “FADE IN” and then a line or two of white and then it says “INT. A ROOM – DAY” or “EXT. FARMHOUSE – EVENING” or “EXT. A CITY STREET – NIGHT”. And then there’s a couple of lines of description because the writer has read her Mamet and her Goldman and she knows that she’s not supposed to put anything there that can’t be filmed. This isn’t literature, this is a blueprint for a movie or a TV show and it’s nice if you can pretty up the language a bit but for the love of God only write that which can be seen on the screen or heard through the speakers. So that is what she has done, and then a character speaks and… And now you pick another script off the pile and it’s the same. And the next. And the next.

Screenplays all look the same. They don’t all read the same but they pretty much all look the same. How hard that story has to work for those first few pages to overcome the dreadful fucking tedium of the format. How that format sets itself against creativity.

Write only that which can be filmed. Why? Have you any idea how many people have to read this thing before it gets anywhere close to MAYBE being filmed? And you’re going to bore the pants off all of those people becaue you’re such a puritan? Because you took Mamet’s advice? Goldman’s advice? You took advice from people whose scripts can be as dull as anything because the mere fact of their name being on the cover means they skip most of the development process anyway? Not that their scripts are dull, obviously, they’re brilliant. But their advice is a little sucky.

There are so many scripts. So. Many. Scripts. Your one needs to be a good read. And that’s not just in terms of story, it’s in terms of style. We’re told we must write only that which can be filmed because this document will be used by the people who are doing the actual filming and they have no use for “style”, they need an instruction manual. Well, I have some news on that; a dispatch from the front lines where I’m a director as well as a writer and I’m happy to report that these heads of department are smart people. They can figure out how many locations are needed, how many sets are to be designed and what they should look like, how many characters there are and what they should wear. They can figure these things out from pretty much any document you put in front of them.

And more news; the script supervisor can time the damn thing. We’re told that our scripts should work out at about a page per minute in screen time. Why? One of the first things that happens in pre-production is that the script goes to a script supervisor who sits down and reads it through with a stop watch, allowing time for pauses, for action etc. You think she checks the page count and makes a guess based on that? My scripts for a 58 minute BBC show tend to come out at around 80 pages. I like the actors to talk fast and we very rarely cut much out of them. Another writer might hand in a script of 67 pages and that may also time out at 58 minutes. I don’t know who needs the script to be a page per minute but I guarantee you that person has nothing to do with actually making the thing.

Who are we writing for? In the first instance, the reader. So entertain them. Obviously you need a good story, that’s a given. But assume everyone has that so NOW what sets your script apart? NOW what makes it a better prospect than the other ones in the pile? Why can’t it be a “page turner”? Why can’t it be a good read? Why must it read like an instruction manual?

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a spec TV project called Kaleidoscope. It’s a three-part show and the story is sufficiently left of centre, and no one is paying me to write it, so I thought I’d experiment with the form a little. Rather than take the standard format, I would monkey around. I wanted it to feel less like reading and more like someone was excitedly reporting a blow-by-blow of this great show they saw last night. So I made the tone more conversational. I stopped worrying about page count and just told the story in the most interesting and exciting way I could. At the point I figured maybe a character’s motivation was unclear, I stopped to explain it. Then I made a virtue of that and turned that motivational stuff into prose; in a different font with different formatting. Pretty soon I had whole chapters of prose within the script. some of them are even in the first person. The stuff that needs to be filmed is clear and can be pulled out by production people. The stuff that can’t be filmed is still useful to the reader and pretty much invaluable to the actor, who now has a much better handle on who the character is and what they’re thinking.

Then I found myself trying to describe a particular real world location and I brought myself up short; why am I trying to do justice to this place in words when it’s 2016 and I can pull photos of it from Google? So in go the photos. “INT. MUSEUM – NIGHT” and here’s what it actually looks like and now on with the story…

This wasn’t just an experiment in style though, it was a creative shot in the arm. I haven’t enjoyed writing this much in years. 26 pages one day. 26 pages. Because I was having so much fun. Because the stuff in my head was no longer a square peg that had to be fitted into the round hole of a “correctly formatted” screenplay. That hole could be any shape it needed to be.

It’s a dangerous game though; people who don’t know me may well assume that I don’t have a clue how to format a screenplay, people who don’t direct may not understand that this document is just as filmable as its more conservative cousins. I don’t doubt that there’ll be problems along the way. And I know I won’t be able to do this on most of my work-for-hire.

But I recommend tinkering with the form anyway, if for no other reason than to blow the cobwebs away and remember what it was like when telling stories was an act of enthusiasm and passion. Before it became fucking maths.

I’ll finish the third episode of Kaleidoscope in about a week (that’ll be three hours of TV from scratch with no outline/plan etc in about 5 weeks – that’s enthusiasm for you!) and I’ll let you know how it goes down.

Talking to myself

I’ve been making some notes on a new draft of the BBC thing I’m writing and I took some time out to set out/remind myself of some basic rules that we all should be observing as screenwriters but which it’s only too easy to forget about when you get into a flow. These are all rules that I have broken in previous drafts of this script, so I know just how easy they are to break and I can also appreciate, reading these previous drafts back, the damage that breaking them can do. If the following sounds brutal, please understand that this list was orignially intended as a note to self and my interior monologue tends to be a little unforgiving…

KEEP THE SCENES SHORT. No one ever complained that a story contained too many short scenes. You look at a great TV pilot (Mr Robot being a good recent example) and you see how much story can be crammed into an hour if you keep the scenes short.

CUT THE CHAT. For most of us, dialogue is a piece of piss. If you’re good at it, you get complimented on it and you start to think it’s your unique strength. It isn’t. Of course it’s good to have great dialogue but chat becomes a crutch; characters jaw on for page after page and it reads nicely and actors love it but really, who wants to sit through this shit when you’re meant to be telling them a story? If a chunk of dialogue isn’t doing something significant for story AND character, get rid of it.

EACH SCENE HAS A POINT. Each scene moves the story forward. If it doesn’t, bin it. Each scene should have a point AND a point of view AND conflict. If it doesn’t have all three, cut it or fix it.

THE TURNS IN THE STORY NEED TO BE HAIRPINS. Here I’m talking about twists. A twist is “and he reveals himself to be the bad guy” or “and then she shoots her best friend in the head” or “then she proposes to him” or “the dead guy gets up”. The guy you suspected was probably the bad guy turning out to be the bad guy is NOT a twist. Anyone who saw the movie of Prince Of Persia knows what I’m talking about here. Your turns need to be BIG.

THE AUDIENCE HAS SEEN A MILLION OF THESE THINGS. Whatever genre you’re writing in, you are NOT better informed than your audience. If you’ve seen this scene before in something, then so have they. They’ve watched a million forensics guys realise that this puncture wound could have been made by a needle; they’ve seen that episode of CSI where the DNA didn’t match because his twin brother was the killer. Whatever. If you’ve seen it, they’ve seen it and that’s not good enough. I reckon 90% of television drama is scenes you’ve seen before. At least have the courtesy to nick two ideas from something else and fuse them in a new way.

WE’RE SPENDING TIME WITH THESE CHARACTERS. We need to know WHO they are quickly but we don’t need to know WHY they’re like this until later. That’s a cast iron rule, I think. I know House is an asshole within twenty seconds of him appearing on screen but it takes a lot longer to find out WHY he’s an asshole. That’s one of the mysteries, don’t blow it too early.

DON’T STOP FOR EMOTION OR ATMOSPHERE. These things should be in every scene. If you have to stop the story to make me feel something, you haven’t done your job properly. (This was quite a major note to self after reading a previous draft.)

KEEP THE HERO PRO-ACTIVE. It’s so easy to let shit happen to your lead character and have her just react to it. That’s not what makes a protagonist. A protagonist is supposed to be driving this thing. Luke Skywalker might stumble onto the idea of the princess who needs saving but it’s his determination to save her that drives the story and that determination drives every scene that he’s in.

IF A SCENE IS ONLY DOING ONE THING, CUT IT. This is important real estate, this page of script. To turn it into television or a movie requires a hell of a lot of money and manpower. If this scene isn’t doing everything it can possibly be doing to move the story along, develop character, promote conflict, set up stuff for later, give us atmosphere and emotion etc then it isn’t worth the time and effort of filming it and you should fix it or bin it.

IF A SCENE CAN BE CUT, IT WILL BE CUT. If not by you, then by the director and editor later and after, as above, a lot of money has been spent filming the useless piece of shit. If there’s the slightest chance you can skip from the end of scene 1 to the beginning of scene 3 without going through scene 2, then scene 2 should go in the bin right now.

This is not a definitive list, obviously, but these are the key guidelines I’ll be trying to observe over the next few weeks as I re-draft this script. I hope some of the above is useful to someone else out there.  

I haven’t figured out how to disable comments on here yet (I’m sure it’s easy but it’s late and I’m hungry and I can’t be bothered to figure it out). I’d love to hear from you but not here; talk to me on Facebook if you know me there or on Twitter @juliansimpson1 instead.

Why TV has become more culturally significant than film

(This is a piece I wrote some time ago)

In a recent interview Steven Soderbergh observed that movies may no longer be as culturally significant as television. Lots of people have commented on this, using shows like Breaking Bad and Mad men as examples of how television can cater to a much longer, more involved narrative capable of greater nuance. There’s some truth in that thinking but it also misses a larger point.

Culture helps shape our view of the world and our shared experience of it connects us to other people. Television requires a greater commitment from the viewer than a movie and so says more about us: just because someone you meet at a party broadly shares your enthusiasm for Jaws or The Godfather or The Matrix it doesn’t necessarily mean you have that much in common with them. I like Taxi Driver, so did John Hinckley; I don’t think we’d have been friends.

The commitment required from television, however, speaks of broader common ground. If we both loved Friday Night Lights, it means we have both devoted roughly 55 HOURS of our lives to watching the show. To have lasted out that commitment we surely have similar tastes in character, narrative and theme and we likely share the same overall sense of morality that forms the show’s foundation.

If we both loved a show like that, we probably have other things in common. At the very least, we now have a solid, secure base from which to explore other areas of shared experience.

Netflix, iTunes and the box set have made watching television a much more active endeavour than it was when it was broadcast-only. As a result, television drama is now a more powerful medium than it ever has been and the shared commitment to bingeing on episodes and hoovering up whole extended narratives has strengthened the cultural significance of TV over film.

Anyway, get back to work…