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Recently at a Meetup.com group here in Chicago, I was asked to give a down and dirty format lecture in about 55 minutes. Lightning round stuff, I barely had enough caffeine in my system to make it through.
Concerning format, the first three words out of my mouth are The Screenwriter’s Bible, by Dave Trottier. How the hell y’gonna beat it? I thought I knew everything there was to know about the subject but Dave’s has some chapters in there I never even conceived (how do you write sci-fi telepathic dialogue, for instance?) After this there are multiple resources online I like including johnaugust.com.
Not completely against self-promotion, early on here at SCRIPT GODS I had about 15 or so posts on format, which can be found easily scrolling to the posts of January through May 2010.
This post is a recap of the Meetup.com lecture. I’ll include links to the previous format lectures. Hope it helps.
Format isn’t sexy. Your story needs to be original, not the formatting. Format is, almost by definition, conformity. Screenplays need to look a certain way, run a certain number of pages, and obey basic rules that the powers-that-be want obeyed. Why would you want to mess with format and piss off the powers-that-be? Anger them at your peril. For me, the true battle with format is the keep technical jargon to a minimum. You want the reader see your movie, not labor through reading a script.
If your action lines go past five lines you’re being a pain in the ass. I know, you can go to Drew’s Script O Rama right now and find a dozen scripts where writers routinely go beyond five lines per paragraph. I ask you to use common sense. See through the reader’s eyes. Would you rather read a 90 page script with lean, mean description of two or three lines per scene, or 117 pages of endless blocks of Velveeta cheese description that begs the tired eyes of the reader to SKIP IT. And believe me, they will…skip it. They are looking for any excuse to pass on your project. Your Velveeta blocks are the justification.Where the camera naturally cuts, give white space, go to the next paragraph.
Try to keep your description tight. Don’t try to be the production designer and describe every piece of furniture in a Starbucks as a character rolls through for a coffee. I DON’T CARE! Caution too, along with unnecessary detail, is doing the director’s job by including any sort of shot detail. Not your job. While you’re at it, skip the parentheticals. It’s not your responsibility to give the actors line readings. Just get to the story.
Characters get CAPPED the first time we see them. If it’s the protagonist or key secondary character, give short descriptions. Go past JIM, 34, wears jeans…anybody can write that. You have to do better, go further. Get to the visual essence of the character, like this one from BAD SANTA:
A wiry, hard-bitten, sun-baked saddlebag of a man, GIN SLAGEL sits behind his cluttered desk sucking on a filterless Pall Mall. We can hear his in-taken breath rattling over and around the phlegm, growths, and polyps that line his embattled trachea. His words come out on an exhaled cloud chamber’s worth of smoke:
The difference is subtle. Series of shots plays out over a shorter period of time. Montage can play out over a long night, or over a full lifetime. Either can go in parenthesis beside the slugline, like this:
INT. PLAZA HOTEL- NIGHT- (MONTAGE)
Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae sip Maine lobster bisque with Merrill Lynch bigwigs.
They munch Free Range Organic Chicken with Bank of American honchos.
They slurp Nutella crepes with Citibank VP’s.
Or on a separate action, like this:
MONTAGE--FREDDY MAC AND FANNY MAE PARTY IN THE BIG APPLE
--Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae sip Maine lobster bisque with Merrill Lynch bigwigs.
--They munch Free Range Organic Chicken with Bank of American honchos.
--They slurp Nutella dessert crepes with Citibank VP’s.
You don’t want constant sluglines. It’s part of the technical scriptwriting that you want to minimize. Cut out the technical jargon to the best of your ability by using devices like Intercuts and Crosscutting. Here’s how a telephone conversation would look…establish both locations, then use INTERCUT:
INT. PAULY VEGAS HOME- NIGHT
Pauly watches the tube. Picks up the phone and dials.
INT. TOMMY VEGAS HOME- SAME
Tommy about to dig into a cannoli, Tommy picks up the phone.
Eating that cannoli.
How is it?
I don’t know, I’m on the phone doin’ the Sopranos with you answering a bunch of stupid questions.
Oooh, eeey! Easy!
INT. FEDERAL LOCKUP -- STAIRWELL -- DAY
Kimble descending. Doors open and close throughout the stairwell but the traffic is light...
INTERCUT WITH... GERARD -- Climbing the stairs. He reaches a landing -- and skims shoulders with Kimble, who pivots past on his way down.
Amazingly, neither man reacts. Not yet.
One flight above, Gerard’s subconscious taps him on the shoulder and brings him to a dead stop. He leans over the stairwell railing to spy... Kimble spiraling downward. From this vantage, it could be any dark-haired man. But still...
Others look up out of curiosity... but not Kimble. Two landings below, he falters a step, then tries to regain his step, keeps moving.
But Gerard is pulling his Glock: The hitch in Kimble’s stride told him everything.
Kimble blitzes down the stairs. Gerard moves after him.
Final Draft or Movie Magic are industry standard software. Celtx.com has a free version of Final Draft, buggy but usable. Word is unacceptable.
Cover Pages have TITLE by YOU and CONTACT INFO below. They do not have WGA registration number and should probably not have your home phone number. No cover art, no fancy fonts, bound by two brads top and bottom of three-hole punch paper.
Final Draft software pull down menu has a couple options I never use: GENERAL and SHOT. It has TRANSITION, which I rarely use (the FADES, but never CUT TO). You will use the SCENE HEADING, CHARACTER, ACTION and DIALOGUE almost exclusively. Even then, eventually you’ll use it like Word in the sense of tabbing to the exact spot on the page where the software automatically puts it. Notice I left out PARENTHETICAL. I wish you would too.
Every scene begins with a SCENE HEADING, also called a SLUG LINE. This is three parts: INT. or EXT. (Interior or Exterior). Then the location: BAR, CAR, HIGHWAY, APARTMENT. Then the time: DAY, NIGHT, LATER, SAME, CONTINUOUS always worked best for me. So it would look like: INT. BAR- NIGHT or EXT. HIGHWAY- CONTINUOUS.
Use ellipses and dashes. Three dots = pause. Two dashes = interuption. Why use a parenthetical (pause) or (beat) or (interuption) when you don’t have to?
Don’t write in specific songs unless you can pay for them. It’s not Muddy Waters plays on the jukebox, it’s BLUES MUSIC.
Use O.S. when a character is in the room but the camera isn’t on them. Use V.O. when the character isn’t there.
Foreign languages should be done in the action paragraph: In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Then roll the dialogue in English.
Ideal Screenplay length: Drama: 90-110 pages. Comedy: 90-100 pages.
I occasionally hear it from 19 year-olds in the hallways of Columbia: “I’m good with format, I’ve got Final Draft.” Sorry to tell ya, but uh-uh, wrong. You having screenwriting software doesn’t mean you’ve got formatting down any more than buying the Avid system makes you an editor or buying a 16-wheeler makes you a trucker. You’ve got to learn the craft.
Don’t let a reader ignore the four months you took to write a killer story because you didn’t know how to format. Get to work, get it down, then move on to the bigger battle of story.
If I want to learn to build a cabinet, I’ll probably look for a craftsman who actually builds cabinets, not the fellow skilled in talking about building them, or talking about people he knows who build cabinets who he can connect you to if you buy his book, take his online class, sign up for his traveling seminar, or just buy him another shot of Jim Beam.
While I’ve never been a GIANT CONCEPT guy (as my bank balance can attest) I do write screenplays, have been paid for that service, and have made a couple movies from those scripts. Alas, I’m not in the same league as the guys who founded Wordplayer.com.
Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot are the writers of Pirates Of The Caribbean. Billion-dollar franchise. Theme-park ride. Tell me: What do you do when they make a theme park ride out of your movie? How do you follow it up? Meet the Pope?
Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot had a long writing history before Pirates. Their filmography is ridiculous. When they established the Wordplayer site they did break-in screenwriters a huge service. Begin at the Site Map. Note: The site has seen better days. Not many recent updates, but I’m still recommending it because of the vast archive of information.
Check out the Forums, the Hall Of Fame. Many posts are out of date, like these posts from David Hoag: How I Got Agents Chasing After Me Like Lusty Dogs (scroll down to Hoag) and I Never Queried, I Schemed. Written in 1999, how relevant can they be for 2011? You be the judge:
“I never queried. I wanted to stand out. I had too much chutzpah to ask anyone for something. I schemed so they’d ask me. It’s better to have someone come to you, than to go to someone hat in hand.
Some people got press releases. Most people got “announcements” that looked like they came from a third party but not put any contact info — that would get my name out there in the ether and force people to ask other people about me, creating a buzz.
Then I would also do things like have a friend (a starving actor) call a particular agent at, say, UTA and say he was “Ed Brown in Scott Rudin’s office. We’re trying to get a copy of this script by David Hoag. Are you representing him now? Can you have the script ready by two? We’ll send our courier right away. Scott wants it covered tonight.”
Of course they’d say no, they didn’t represent me, but they’d want to know who David Hoag was after my friend tried to get the assistant to give him my number (as if they would have it, not knowing me at all!). The assistant would want to know who I was when “Ed” kept fishing for details about me, insinuating the assistant was holding out on him. My friend would say something like, “He has two scripts in the Nicholl finals or something. Everybody over here is trying to get a copy of one of the scripts. It’s very hot, we hear. [Name deleted] at [company deleted] said you were signing him, but then [name deleted] at [company deleted] said [another agent] at APA was signing him. I’m so confused. Well, thanks for your help. Would you call me if you get a copy?” Then my friend would leave a number for Scott Rudin’s office! We didn’t know anybody there! It was all a scam!
Within two or three days, I’d then get a call from UTA, asking if they could get a copy of my script. They would send a courier over right away…
Moviemaking is about creating illusions. Screenwriting is about creating illusions. It’s not always on the printed page, however.”
Also, check out the Columns. One of my all-time favs is The Off-Screen Movie:
“Director Jan De Bont was the first person Ted and I heard talk about the idea of ‘the off-screen movie.’ We were working page-by-page through our GODZILLA script (the good one, I daresay; not the one that was eventually filmed) and Jan was very focused on which scenes could be left off-screen, which could be trimmed down, and which scenes had to be shot. He was hyper-aware of distances to be traveled during cutaways, what people might figure out in the time they had, what actions they could take while other scenes were going on, etc.
At the time I put it down to the natural way a director would analyze a script — breaking it down for production, trying to save money by shooting only what was necessary. I knew the general rule of ‘Enter a scene as late as possible, leave it as early as possible.’ What Jan was doing seemed like a logical way to keep interest in the story — cut out the dull parts, and leave only the good stuff to be seen.
That’s true, as far as it goes. But there’s more to the off-screen movie than that…
“#3. FOOT LEATHER
Might as well get this one out of the way; it’s the easy one.
Simply put, the off-screen movie is a great place to leave boring stuff; what Jeffrey Katzenberg calls ‘shoe leather.’ Animation is so expensive, you want to get to the heart of a scene quickly; you simply can’t afford to draw filler.
Go ahead and cut driving, parking, opening and closing doors, walking up and ringing the doorbell, shaking hands, saying hello, getting invited inside, sitting down… you get the idea.
A show that does this masterfully is “Law & Order.” They’re expert at cutting from a story revelation into the next logical scene, usually mid-interview with a witness, responding to a question asked ‘off-screen.’
I find it actually more difficult to justify a cut out of a scene than into the next; you can’t always cue the cut with a dialogue line. Most scenes need to be at least somewhat incomplete in order to propel the story; one fights the impulse to make each scene individually satisfying, rather than let scenes service the overall story.
The challenge, too, is to go where the audience wants to be, not where you need them to be. One technique is to clue the audience that they’re not going to miss anything important by cutting away…
“#5. SURPRISES, TWISTS, REVEALS
Okay, here is where the off-screen movie really shines. In order to have surprises, twists and reveals in your story, you must hide stuff off-screen for a period of time.
When you think about it, the process of moving events from the unknown to the known, the unfolding story over time, is the essence of the narrative form — and perhaps intrinsic to the human condition. We live our lives information-deficient, afraid of the unknown thing in the jungle, but the storyteller is there to help us out. He lets us tap into knowledge from the past, distant experiences and the experiences of others — all sorts of stuff ‘off-screen’ — through the magic of story.
In the course of doing this, the storyteller keeps secrets. He holds surprises, twists and reveals, turning them over in due time, to maximum effect…”
Other archived articles I’d recommend: Death To Readers, Your First Contract, and 23 Steps To A Feature Film Sale.
When the guys who wrote Pirates Of The Caribbean jot down a 23-step guide to break into the biz, yeah, I’ll take the time to read that.
The last great resource they have are multiple articles written by INDY PROS, including this one by Max Adams on Writer Speak vs. Mogul Speak:
“Writers and “movie makers” speak different languages. If you don’t know this, it can get surreal holding a conversation with someone who is using writer terms, but is not a writer, because you are both using the same terms, you are simply using them to mean different things. I’ll give you an example:
When writers talk about tone — it is wistful, it is dark, it is suspenseful, it is eerie — writers tend to describe work in terms of an emotion evoked by the piece. They are telling you the flavor of the piece in their heads, in an emotional context.
When a movie maker asks you tone, like an executive or a producer, and this applies to agents too, they mean, “What movie that made a lot of money at the box office is this like?”
If you don’t know this, it is going to be hard to sell any pitches because a studio executive will ask you about tone and he will want to hear it is “Men In Black” in tone, while you will be saying, “It is suspenseful and fun.”
This one miscommunication probably cost me five pitches. They were really good projects, too. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. An executive would ask me, “what is the tone of the movie?” I would say, “it is dark and wistful and kind of fast paced.” The executive would say, “That’s great, but can you tell me the tone?” I would say, (looking at the executive like he was from Planet Zorg), “Um, sure, it’s dark and bittersweet and moves real fast.” And the executive would say, “That’s great, um, um, well I’ll get back to you.” And we would both walk out of the meeting wondering what the hell the other person was talking about.
I think this is one reason many writers think studio people are completely stupid and unsane. (Okay, some studio people are completely stupid and unsane, but not all of them.) “Why the hell do they keep asking the same question after I already told them?” Well, because you are speaking a language they don’t understand, and vice versa…”
Long elephant years ago, I was with William Morris. Back then the air was clean, the economy robust, and the logo at William Morris looked like this:
Then came the ’08 economic implosion and the ’09 merger of William Morris and Endeavor. Endeavor, of course, famous for the agent Ari Emmanuel, portrayed on Entourage by an ex-Chicagoan and noted sushi-eater…
The William Morris Endeavor merger added to the unemployment lines and list of “well-paying” gigs that won’t be returning. The new company logo looks like this…
This post isn’t a memory lane stroll so much as a discussion on certain questions and protocols you might need when you make your own way down those corridors of power.
My agent came from the publishing world, new at WM, looking to expanding his new writer client list and with a liking for casino screenplays. I was a casino dealer who happened to write a script about the inner workings of casinos and scamsters at that exact moment. He asked to see the script, then asked to see me. One meeting later, I was signed. The script was strong, sure, but the signing was just as much about luck and timing. Fact is, in today’s environment, getting a WME agent through a query letter is impossible. They don’t accept queries from unsolicited sources. Look to the Guild Signatory list at wga.org for a list of agencies, then call to find out which agencies still accept queries.
Hollywood speaks in silences. What I mean is: If there’s news, you’ll hear about it. Back in the Ice Age when I was at WM, there were no text messages. Communication was via telephone. Being new to agents, I had to learn the hard way how often to call for updates. Patience isn’t my strong-suit but you need patience. Don’t be the stalker, calling your guy every other day. Managers can be more hands-on, but constant calls can get wearying. You have to trust the agent is working on your behalf. You trusted the guy when you signed with him, so let him for work you. Give him space, especially if you’re…
Your agent has a client list that includes a major A-list movie star, two stars from Seinfeld, three up-and-coming B-listers, and you. You’re the runt sausage. Runt sausages don’t make demands. Runt sausages should just be happy they’re on the sausage chain.
Here’s a question I hope you have to ask yourself someday:
Do I go with a smaller “boutique” agency where I’ll get more pampering, or do I stay the runt sausage?
Such decisions might feel out of your realm but believe me, there may come a day you’ll have to answer that one.
My agent got me on the phone: “Got an interesting possible assignment. It’s about an elevator that becomes animated, and starts to kill people.”
The ar-tist in me responded: “Sounds like shit, man. An elevator? C’mon.”
“You might want to take a swing at this. It’ll get you into the Guild.”
My lack of interest was clear enough, long enough for my agent to say he understood and would find someone else. What he didn’t get just yet was just how clueless was this newbie writer.
Another question you might get at agency level: Do you ever turn down an assignment? An A-list writer getting his quote might have that option. But as a newbie (baby, in today’s lingo) it’s probably not wise.
If someone today came to me with an elevator-coming-alive concept, I’m thinking contained thriller ala Buried. I’m thinking what it would be like to drop 42 stories to your death. I’m thinking I’d write the story to the best of my ability, cash the check and get the Guild health insurance. Ah, the perspectives of age!
We got the casino script optioned. The beauty of optioning then was you could collect on multiple projects even if they didn’t get made. Times have changed. Zero-dollar options, one-step deals. Will you write a producer draft for free? Will you option your script for dollar $0? If you squeal, will it cost you work in the future?
The option the production company offered on my script was $5000 for a year. They paid another $5000 for the second year. After two years, despite several close calls and much interest, they couldn’t find the $6 million they needed, leading to…
“It speaks to your level of commitment on the project.” I always loved that. It came from my agent’s mouth when the production company offered us $1,000 for an option extension for a third year. They wanted to hold onto the property but it wasn’t a priority. It spoke to their level of commitment and pretty much signaled the end.
You have to decide if you want to lock your script up for that period of time, accept the diminished returns, or move on. We cut ties and moved on.
I cut ties, too, with my William Morris agent not long after that.
The Development person at the production company that WM introduced me to later moved on to found her own company. I called her and she gave me six names for representation. These were heavy-duty power players she was routinely lunching with over bourbon-glazed pork bellies at BoHo.
My next query letter had her name in the first sentence. Another door magically opened. R-e-l-a-t-i-o-n-s-h-i-p-s. Who do you know.
What if you don’t have these magical contacts? Sad tribes outside the country club gates.
Here’s the good news: If I can find my way inside that country club, so can you.
Nail your script down, get it out there. Write every letter you can, take every meeting, and get the script to anyone who can help.
Don’t give up.