Good Reader, it’s time for Version 3 of our thrilling revisiting of screenplay format! I give you my word– and you can judge this for yourself starting with that Velveeta log above– this will be no bland/mind-numbingly boring discussion on the “rules” of screenwriting. This one will be F-U-N! Vamos….
- THE VELVEETA CHEESE RULE
“Keep your screen direction tight!” “Don’t overwrite!”
It’s all well and good to tell you this, but how much screen direction is too much? How many lines? What are the rules?
Here’s my own rule of thumb: When your screen direction can’t be covered by a block of Velveeta cheese, it’s too long.
Generally, five lines or less is a good break point. Cut on natural camera breaks; if we see a new character, or the camera would naturally move, add white space, go to the next line and start a new paragraph. This will make your script cleaner. Here’s an oldie but a goodie from Charles Deemer on White Space:
As usual, there are exceptions. Look at this passage from Gangs Of New York:
EXT. STREET DAY (WINTER)
WINTER WIND blows across a scene as strange and bleak as an alien planet. VALLON, carrying his cross high, steps through the doorway. The OTHERS slowly follow VALLON out of the building, which is three stories high and maybe a block long. A dilapidated sign identifies it as the 5 Paints Brewery.
It is the tallest structure in the midst of low, squalid SHACKS, winding ALLEYS as narrow as a snakes back, and DIRT STREETS filled with ruts, mud and filthy snow. A few PIGS wander forlornly about, rooting for garbage.WASH hangs stiff, in the middle of the square, from a peculiar monument erected to some forgotten war hero. The Brewery occupies one side of a SQUARE surrounded by some storefronts and a couple of collapsed wooden sidewalks. If this place resembles anything at all, it’s a horrible hybrid of London’s Limehouse and a pioneer town in the American West whose best days have long passed–or never came at all.
VALLON stands still, staring across the square past the monument. His battalion of irregulars waits for his signal. Now… very, very slowly…from around both sides of the monument comes ANOTHER GANG, in size the same as VALLON’s, men and women both, armed like Visigoths with HOMEMADE WEAPONS: knives, pitchforks, building blocks and bricks, boards with sharp nails protruding from the ends. Every member of this second group is dressed in a long DUSTER which reaches to the ankles. Several MEN in front of the group sport dusters made of leather.
Whoa! They broke the Velveeta Cheese rule! You said to give white space! You said keep the screen description to essentials!
Yes, I did. I also told you there is no one single way to write a script. There will always be exceptions to the general rule.
Maybe Martin Scorsese asked the writers to put in maximum detail (if Marty tells you he wants the script written long hand in green Sharpie, will you inform him that it’s improper format?) Maybe the producers wanted it that way. You, the Unknown Screenwriter, don’t have Scorsese; you don’t have producers. You’re looking for a way in, so as a general rule: Don’t make your screen direction into a giant block of Velveeta Cheese. Give white space.
If it’s a critical scene, sure, go Dylan Thomas on their asses, lay out the 3 dollar verbs. But if a character walks into Starbucks, please don’t tell me about the fake burnt orange flame logs in the fireplace, or the vermilion stitchery of the loungers, or how many single-pump caramel frappuccino drinkers are working screenplays on their Macs! Not unless it impacts story.
There are two uses for INTERCUT. The first is:
THE TELEPHONE CONVERSATION:
Establish the first location, establish the second, and then INTERCUT between them. ***PEDITTO NOTE: Check out this content from six years ago! I could write in The Donald and KellyAnne Conway, but this isn’t a political blog! Back to intercuts:
INT. JOHN BOEHNER HOME- NIGHT
Boehner looks on as a TV plays his news conference from earlier in the day. The phone rings, he picks up.
INT. JOHN MCCAIN HOME- SAME
McCain on the phone, watching the same TV broadcast.
You watching this?
INTERCUT MCCAIN/BOEHNER HOMES
They’re calling us obstructionists, nay sayers!
The party of no, what else is new?
Oh Christ, Olbermann again. The guy is a whacko. How do we spin this, John? How about getting the governors to not take stimulus money?
John, even for you, that’s a pretty dumb idea.
Oh really? Well, what’s your plan?
I’m thinking: Order in. Dominos, maybe some Family Guy I TIVO’ed. Can’t get enough of Quagmire. He breaks me up, for some odd reason.
You’re going to watch Family Guy while this country is burning? While we as a nation are at the shithouse door? Can I come over?
Set up both locations, intercut, and roll the dialogue. This lets the director decide which end of the phone conversation we’re seeing. To write in slugline after slugline takes the reader out of the flow. Remember, the reader is reading a movie, not a script.
One more note on phone conversations: With all respect to Phone Booth, holding on one-side of a phone conversation for very long is static, non-visual stuff. The recent use of texting in The Departed was well done, but extensive use of telephones is tricky to pull off visually.
Speaking of Phone Booth, here’s what a one-sided phone conversation looks like.
Then he starts to vacate the booth. The phone rings. And rings. Curious, he picks up the receiver. There’s a voice on the other end of the line. A DISTINCTIVE MALE VOICE.
Don’t even think about leaving that booth.
Stay exactly where you are and listen carefully.
I’ve got a heavy day, mister.
You know better than to disobey me.
I don’t know you at all.
Are you absolutely sure?
Who is this?
Someone who’s watching you.
Love the gray suit. That red andblack tie makes a nice combination.
Stu is taken back by the accurate description of his apparel. He looks around nervously.
The second use of INTERCUT is between scenes. Establish the first location, the second location, and then INTERCUT (or CROSSCUT). This also works for multiple locations in rapid-fire continuous action. Here’s an example from my screenplay, Crossroaders:
INT. CASINO- GAME 6- NIGHT
The dealer spreads out the new cards. Supervisors check for imperfections. Christy doesn’t watch, hungrily chewing a pastrami sandwich.
Lucky Nick, sweating as he looks at Christy, mumbles various obscenities.
Frank taking his frustration out on a slot machine, pulls too hard, hurting himself.
Susie takes off her wig, all pretenses gone, Wes and Sculley likewise undisguised, likewise in shock.
The dealer finishes the shuffle, and is abruptly tapped out. A BIG-GAME DEALER steps in. Pale features, coldly efficient and mechanical, offering Christy the cut.
(to the dealer)
No response. The new dealer spooks Christy, who buries the cut card.
A huge crowd pushes in, casino supervisors and the crossroaders surround Christy and the dealer, ready to play blackjack at ,000 a hand.
INTERCUT–ALL (TIME LAPSE)
Christy playing the first hand, losing.
Wes and Susie, digging in for the long haul, watching in an overhead mirror.
Cards ebb and flow, Christy wins, loses.
Lucky Nick downing stomach tablets, feeling ill.
Frank downing antacid tablets, feeling the same.
Lee and Gino studying Christy.
The dealer shuffling a second time, a third, without a word to Christy.
Christy battling, playing magnificently.
More cards ebb and flow, Christy wins, loses, and loses.
The crowd reacts with GROANS.
Christy wipes away sweat, coming down to earth.
Ditch sluglines for INTERCUT. It’s a more efficient way to navigate the script, and will lead to an easier read.
INTERCUT is also at the heart of suspense, crosscutting between two scenes, or pursuer and pursued, as in The Fugitive:
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…
(a quick probe)
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.
Lastly, you can use INTERCUT to simply break away from the first scene, as in American Gangster:
INT/EXT. REDTOP’S APARTMENT BUILDING – HARLEM – DAY
Frank leads his brothers up the stairs and down the hall.
Nobody owns me. Because I own my company.
INTERCUT: Feminine hands stamp small packets of blue cellophane with the words ‘Blue Magic’ —
And my company sells a product that’s better than the competition’s at a price that’s lower.