The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 53 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, right before we started recording this you were going to tell me the history of “D’oh!”
Craig: D’oh! So, I said “D’oh!” or you said “D’oh!” because I hit the button wrong. And so you pointed out correctly that “D’oh!” as popularized by Dan Castellaneta, the actor behind Homer Simpson, is never actually written out as “D’oh!” in the scripts. It’s written out as…
John: Exasperated gasp or grunt?
Craig: Annoyed grunt.
John: Annoyed grunt.
Craig: Annoyed grunt. It’s always been “annoyed grunt.” No Simpsons script ever says, “D’oh!” And there was an interesting interview with Dan — an awesome guy, by the way, I don’t know if you’ve ever met him; the nicest guy in the world. And he, when they asked him to come up with something there for annoyed grunt, because there was nothing there, they didn’t even know, they were just thinking that it would just be some kind of annoyed grunt. He remembered that there was this actor, I believe his name is Jim Finlayson — I think it’s Finlayson — who is a Scottish actor who played the straight guy in a lot of old Laurel & Hardy movies.
And he would go, “Doohh!” and usually it was because the idea was that he was trying to say “damn” but you couldn’t say “damn” back then.
John: A-ha. Yeah.
Craig: So he would say, “Doohh!” [laughs] And so Dan Castellaneta sort of converted that into “D’oh!” and gave us this wonderful annoyed grunt that we have today.
John: Yeah, the world is better for having “D’oh!”
Craig: Oh for sure.
John: It’s fantastic.
Craig: Oh, yeah. Doohh! I like the old Scottish word, “Doohh!” It’s somewhere online. You know what? I’ll send you a link and you can put it up for the podcast. There’s actually a very brief clip of Jim Finlayson saying, “Doohh!” on YouTube. It’s quite educational.
John: Very good.
Craig, today I thought we would talk about action.
John: And so I’m not talking about action like a genre, so we’re not talking Lethal Weapon movies, but action as stuff that characters do. So, anything a character says, well that’s dialogue. Anything a character does, that’s action.
So when you look at it at that level, really almost any script you’re going to write is going to be full of action. I guess maybe some genres, like a romantic comedy or like My Dinner with Andre, wouldn’t have a lot of action, but most movies are going to have a tremendous amount of action. It’s the kind of thing we don’t pay necessarily as much attention to because you never really get credit for it as a screenwriter.
Craig: That’s true.
John: If there’s dialogue people will say, “Oh, well somebody wrote that funny dialogue.” If there is a well-constructed sequence of action, no one really thinks about the fact that the screenwriter had to write that. But somebody did write that, and this is going to be talking about writing that kind of stuff.
John: So, there are certain movies where action is just sort of peppered in between things. And so, you know, a lot of comedies there will be action, but it’s mostly about the talking. Some genres, you know, horror movies, war movies, will have big set pieces that are all action. And writing those is incredibly draining and difficult, but rewarding when it’s done just right. So, let’s talk about making those awesome.
Craig: Yeah. What should we do? How do we make it awesome?
John: Well, I think the first thing to think about is: think about reading the action sequences. And obviously the first thing a screenwriter needs to do is read a ton of scripts. And if you read a lot of scripts that have long action sequences, you’ll start to recognize what does not work on the page. And what tends to not work on the page is the stuff that makes you want to stop reading it. Either you stop reading the script all together or you just sort of skim the page and you don’t really read the action.
And if a person isn’t really reading the action in a comedy, it’s probably going to be okay, because that’s not really the meat of it. But if you’re writing a war movie and they stop reading the action, or a horror movie and they stop reading the action, you’re sort of dead. So…
Craig: Yeah. This is one of the most frustrating things about writing action in the screenplay format. Because you’ve made two interesting points. The first point is that it is incumbent upon us as screenwriters to actually create the action that we intend to see on film. It may not work out exactly like that, but ultimately the — For instance, let’s take Die Hard: So he’s on a roof and he has to get off the roof because there is going to be a bomb going off and he sees that there’s a fire hose, a water hose for fire. And he takes that and he wraps it around his waist. And he jumps, and he goes down, and then the thing goes against the thing. And then it falls over…
John: It breaks.
Craig: …and he shoots his way through the glass. That’s an idea that the writer has to invent. So you are responsible for what’s on the screen. But, your second point: very well taken. You are responsible up to a point. The point where you have to stop being responsible is the point where it gets really boring to read. So we are forced to be both creative and incredibly economic in the way that we get those ideas across. It can be a challenge.
John: Yeah. So some suggestions I have for any action sequence or any bit of action that you have to describe: Keep your sentences short. Long sentences are more likely to get skipped and short sentences feel short; it feels like you’re getting right to it.
Keep your blocks of action scene description short. Three lines is probably a lot. You can vary them up — some can be one line, some can be two lines, some can be three lines, but if you have action blocks that are four lines, five lines, ten lines, people are going to skip them. They just will. So, as you’re going through your script and you see blocks of action that are more than five lines, see how you can break them up. See if there’s ways you can make them… either by cutting inside there or by just breaking them in half so that they not so intimidating for a reader to read.
Now, that’s not universal. Some writers love big blocks of action, and they get away with it. I read a David Koepp script that was like a half a page solid of action. But, in general, as I find the scripts that I’m actually willing to read, they keep those action lines short and tight. And they keep the blocks kind of small.
Craig: Yeah. Another tip is to think about how the text actually looks on the page. I get very OCD and finicky about it, particularly when the action leads up to something. Every action moment should be its own microcosm of beginning, middle, and end. And the end should be something that is surprising, and a revelation, and interesting, and moving us forward to the next thing.
You don’t want to necessarily have that thing drop off and end up on the top of the next page. You want it to pay off in that moment, and you want to use white space on the page to create suspense and tension. It actually works very well that way. Sometimes the best way to write action is to actually use more space, so take away some of the text and use some of the white page to really create impact.
And you can also — and I hesitate to say this because I don’t want people to go nuts with this — but I have seen some scripts where people use interesting formatting choices to kind of sell the action. I read a script from a young writer named Adam Barker, he’s very talented, and he did a very cool thing. There was an action sequence where someone is stalking somebody in the woods and our stalker has a bow and an arrow. And he pulls the bow back and he…
And “Lets” was its own line. And then “It” was kind of indented in. And “Fly” was indented even more. Like you could see the arrow flying just from the way he indented the words. Very clever. And it was fun to read. And it evoked — in its own way it evoked what his intention was, was for that arrow release to be a real release, instead of just, “He picks up the arrow and fires.”
John: Exactly. Remember, you’re always trying to create the experience of watching and hearing the movie in the theater just on the page. So, breaking those into three separate lines makes it feel like you’re really in that moment. You’re trying to create this hyper present tense as you’re working with the words on the page.
A script I did pretty recently, there is this very giant mechanical sound that preceded just really bad things happening, and so it’s a DWAAARRRM. And so for that DWAAARRRM I wrote it out as a big long onomatopoetic word. And that’s one of my rare sort of bold underlined words with double exclamation points at the end. But it’s saying, like, this is a really important thing. You are really going to pay attention and everyone is going to really notice this thing.
It’s important the first time it happens, but it becomes an important rhyming device, because later on in the sequence when you hear that thing happening you know stuff is about to get much, much, much worse. So, keeping in mind sort of how — not just how the reader is going to read that one page, but how you are structuring the sequence overall so that there is give and there is build.
And talk about white space, one of the most useful things I have found is using intermediate slug lines. So, a slug line is just a word over in the left hand margin, or a couple of words on the left hand margin, all upper case, that highlight a new moment within the action. So, it’s not that you’re moving to a different scene usually, but you’re going to a different moment in the action, or you’re highlighting a certain aspect of what’s going on there.
It replaces a lot of times, used to do “Angle On” or “Close-up Of.” A lot of times the slug line just by itself can give you that feeling of what the camera is doing next.
Craig: Yeah. I also like capitalize. And I don’t have a specific set of rules for when I capitalize or not, but sometimes in action if there’s something I want people to pull out of it, assuming they’re skimming, I give it all caps. He FALLS. “Falls” might be in all caps. Grabbing onto a ROPE. Swinging down and landing with a crunch, he looks up, BLOOD. And “blood” is in all caps. Something just to engage — you know, you can actually see this in children’s books. Children’s authors have gotten really good at figuring how to capture young readers’ imaginations just through the manipulation of text font size, style, and even though we don’t quite need that level of ADD-oriented writing for our readers, it’s nice to at least throw them some things so it’s not all just a stream of Courier.
Because, your script is the fourth script they’re going to read today, of twelve maybe.
John: Yeah. To clarify, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t be writing in Courier. You should write in Courier. Your script should only be in Courier. I don’t think I’ve ever read a good script that used anything other than Courier, have you?
Craig: I’ve never written a script that used anything other than Courier.
John: There was Gus Van Sant script at one point that like every line was sort of in a different font, and it was as crazy as it sounds.
So, you’re still using Courier. What we’re saying is that there may be special cases where you are breaking out the bold or you’re breaking out the underline. But those should be special treats.
If you need the reader to focus on something, you can give it upper case. You can sort of break the lines in a certain way that they’re going to be noticing that special thing. I’ll put down a script if I see page after page where things get, like, asterisked and double underlined and bold faced. If you are shouting that everything is important then nothing becomes important.
Craig: Correct. Yeah. You don’t want to turn it into something ugly. And this comes down to taste. And now suddenly the writer has to be visually aware of what the page actually looks like.
There is sort of a trope that you can sort of tell if the script is bad just by flipping through it and looking at the way the pages look. And, it’s not always true, but there is something to it, that well-composed pages that have a… — You know, for instance, I don’t like pages to just have dialogue on them. And I see it all the time.
I’ll add action lines just to break up the dialogue, even if they’re not technically necessary, because I just don’t like the strips, you know?
Craig: There’s just something about the way the page looks that becomes more pleasing and inviting to the reader.
John: When you have a lot of pages that is just dialogue, it looks like a bobsled shoot, like you’re just going to shoot down the page and nothing is going to stop it. And you want something that just breaks it up in the right place. You know, actual people speaking does have give and take and starts and stops. And just adding that bit of sort of throwaway action that people aren’t really even reading the action, it’s just stopping them enough so that it has some texture to it.
Craig: And it reminds you along the way that maybe you’re missing an opportunity for something to be going on beyond two people talking. You know, Ted Elliott tells this great story about how he and Terry Rossio were hired to work on Aladdin. And it was their first animated movie. And so they wrote this scene where Aladdin meets the princess in the marketplace and she’s disguised as a beggar and he doesn’t know she’s a princess. And they wrote the scene, it was really good dialogue that they liked between the two of them.
And then the story artist showed them what it looked like and it was basically his face, her face, his face, her face, his face, her face. And they looked at each other like, “Oh no, that’s really boring.” And that’s when they decided to… — Then they said, “Okay, well we have this monkey; maybe the monkey is jealous? Maybe the monkey is doing something behind their back while they’re…”
And suddenly the scene became a scene. And that’s a great lesson to think about when you’re talking about live action, too. Sometimes just ping-ponging back and forth between faces is boring. And if you look at a script at you just see strips of dialogue, in your mind that’s what will be happening. Ping-ponging.
John: The point you’re making there is it’s crucial because we shouldn’t just be talking about action like this, action sequences. Action is what’s happening within the scenes. It’s all the stuff that the characters are doing. And so you had a scene that the dialogue was fine but you still have to be able to write all that action of what that monkey is doing that’s making that scene interesting and alive. And making sure that however you’re writing the action for the monkey is really interesting, but it’s not going to pull the reader away from what’s actually happening in the dialogue.
John: And so finding that balance is really tough, so that it can both be about the dialogue and be about the background action that’s happening as part of it.
Craig: Yeah. Ideally they’re both interrelated and that’s how you get layering.
John: Yeah. Another sort of technique you can think about for when you need to write action is what I call parallel structure, which is that sometimes you can find — if you have a lot of sentences that start like, “He runs down the alley. He breaks open the door. He charges up the stairs.” You can often lop off your subjects of those lines. So, “He runs down the alley. Busts open the door. Races up the stairs.”
You can often use fragments once you’ve established what the subject of those sentences is going to be. It’s a way again of just making you feel very present in those moments by losing little bits of it. You can often still lose punctuation. So, a lot of times when you have action sequences, a couple action lines, especially if they’re feeding into some dialogue, don’t end the sentence. Give it like two dashes or a dot-dot-dot that feeds into the next line of dialogue.
So, just don’t stop things. Let them keep running.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. It’s rare that I put a period on the end of anything, really, I mean unless it’s sort of a final thing. You should just ask yourself what am I supposed to — what do I want the audience to be feeling right now? If I want them to feel anxious sometimes I’ll run a bunch of words together and take the spaces out from between the words, like the paragraph is on coke, you know?
There are all sorts of things you can do. You don’t want to overdo them. You just want to be aware. And you want to ask yourself is this action paragraph or action sentence conveying a sense of my intention or is it just boringly descriptive, or is over descriptive, is it prosy? That’s the other classic rookie mistake is to write action like you’re writing a novel, describing the shade of the light as it passes over the glistening due covering the flowers, the blah, blah, blah.
John: Yeah. And it’s not just an adjective problem. I find a lot of times it is people use really poetic verbs to describe some things that are like, wow, that just pulled me completely out of the moment. It’s too much — the sky is always being painted by things.
John: And a little of that scene description can be lovely. Too much of it becomes really, really frustrating. I find characters also have a hard time walking in scripts. They’re always “approaching,” and “advancing,” and “skulking.” And sometimes that specificity is really important and sometimes people should just walk. Or sometimes people should just be where they need to be.
Craig: I like “crossing,” because at that point… — See, sometimes what I don’t like about the purple prose is that it is giving me the sense that the writer isn’t really into the movie. They’re into their document of the screenplay. And I want the reader to be into the movie. So, I like crossing because that’s in fact what’s happening.
“He crosses over to her.” We’re blocking now. We’re making a movie. Sometimes you do need to be more descriptive about how people move, but yeah, the skulking stuff and all that, it can get a little much.
John: So, general advice for all of these kinds of situations is to read a lot of scripts and read scripts of movies you like and try to find styles of stuff you like. For me, and actually for most writers I think of my generation, the James Cameron scripts were incredibly influential and incredibly helpful. So you read James Cameron’s Aliens script and you have a really good sense of what this world is going to be like and how it’s going to feel.
And the kinds of things we’re talking about — the keeping the blocks short, keeping sentences short, only talking about the camera when you really need to talk about the camera — that’s a very James Cameron kind of thing to do. And that was an incredibly important thing for me. The Aliens script, the Point Break script were both hugely influential.
But we have some different scripts that we can talk about today because we are actually going to do four samples…
John: …of the Three Page Challenge. So, it’s a groundbreaking episode in that we’re going to talk about four. And we specifically chose these samples because they’re about action. And so we can talk about what these scripts are doing terrifically well in action, and what they could do a little bit better in action.
So, we’ll talk about them overall and our impressions, but we’re really going to focus on the action in these scripts and what’s there and what could be better.
So, the four scripts that we’re going to talk about, if you want to read along with us they are all going to be in the show notes for the episode, so johnaugust.com, and podcast, and find this episode. And let’s get started.
Craig: All right.
John: We’re going to start with a script by Ben Jacoby. And I’ll give you a little summary here of what happens. So, we open in an alley in Plav, Montenegro where we meet Terry Redding, who’s in his 40s. He meets up with Ian Morris, who is also in his 40s. Ian tells him that the target is upstairs and alone. So it feels like some sort of assassination or something is going on here.
We see Terry walking down a hallway. He passes some assault agents who are apparently on his side. From outside there are thermal sites that look through the brick wall and show that a man is sitting in a certain position in a room. Terry knocks on the door; there is no answer. He opens it to find General Aliyev bound to a chair. He’s dead, electrodes through his body, and there are these pipes that are pumping these colored fluids into him.
Terry realizes it’s a bomb. He runs for it. There is a huge explosion, blue flames that melt flash. At the bottom of page three we have an aerial shot of the CIA headquarters of Langley, and it’s snowing.
Craig: Yeah. I enjoyed it. I thought it moved along pretty snappily. I mean, there is a cool idea in it which I like, and I thought that the idea was revealed well. It was setup well and revealed well, so there is this concept: “We’re going to lure these guys to get someone and then we’re going to blow them up. But we know that they have thermal imaging and they can see if someone is alive or not, so they’re going to see this dead body in there and not fall for it. But what if we take this body, heat it up, and make it look like he’s alive with the very stuff that we’ll then use to blow these people up?”
So I thought it was actually setup well. There was good suspense. There was an explosion. I was a little confused by the nature of the explosion, which almost bordered on supernatural. Perhaps that’s intentional.
But, I wasn’t bored by much. I thought it was, you know, set the — I liked it. What do you think?
John: I liked it, too. There’s some really good stuff there. I actually really like the description of the explosion because it was sort of supernatural. It was clearly supposed to be a very unique kind of explosive device happening, and so I liked that the description took its time for that. And I liked the description of the machinery that was pumping the stuff through. I thought it was all really well done.
Just some style notes. This one, he uses bold slug lines, which is fine. If you like to bold your slug lines, go for it. And so there is no right or wrong bolding or not bolding it.
I thought he did a great job keeping his blocks of action pretty short.
John: So I was never tempted to skip over stuff because I’m not making too much of a commitment to read two or three lines at a time.
I got confused by some stuff. On page two — I’m sorry, actually — On page one, “Terry advances down a dilapidated hallway.” Okay, “advances down” is one of sort of my, like, well he’s walking. I just felt like we could do better than “advancing” because it makes me think of, like, “What does advancing really mean?” I stop to think about it; and you never want me to stop and think.
Craig: Right. “Moves” would have been a perfectly good word there.
John: Yeah. “Moves.” “Makes his way down.”
“Pre-Soviet floorboards creak under each footfall as he passes ASSAULT AGENTS, one after another, nestled in nooks, Vector machine-guns at the ready.” Couple issues. First off, that’s a really long sentence that is bringing together a whole bunch of different stuff. So, are we focusing on the creaky floorboards, that it’s Pre-Soviet Russia, Assault Agents? I don’t know what Assault Agents are so I felt like I needed that broken into two sentences and, like, tell me who assault agents are. Are they soldiers with Kevlar and night vision goggles? I don’t know who these people are.
John: So I was confused and, again, I had to stop and think about it. Oh, and there was a bit of poetry at the start that I wasn’t crazy about. “Gray autumn wind strokes the streets with dead leaves.”
Craig: Ah, yeah. I mean, don’t need that sort of thing. It’s not the end of the world but, I think… I mean, ultimately here’s what happens: It doesn’t get read. It becomes literally whitewash for your eyeballs.
John: Yeah. Here’s the other thing I’d say: We can’t see wind. We can see dead leaves. And so if you really want the leaves blowing down the street, like, “Dead leaves scrape across the street as we reveal Terry Redding.” I mean, you can have those dead leaves there, but we can’t see gray wind, so give us the leaves if you’re going to do that kind of thing.
John: An overall general note: I liked sort of what happened in this teaser, but it felt like an Alias teaser to me. It felt like, okay, this is the first opening act thing and then we’re going to get to Langley and then we’re going to sort of start the story. I didn’t know anything about these characters, and I wanted to know a little bit more about what was unique or special about these people given these three pages. Just something more specific about them, because all the dialogue that we have here is very sort of standard boiler-platy for this kind of genre.
Craig: Yeah, that’s true. Of course, page four could be spectacular and we could find out about these people and what happened. I hesitate to judge on that basis. I mean, yes, it’s true: many, many action movies open this way with guys on a mission and then something explodes. But, in terms of the way he crafted it, I thought it was well done. There is an interesting idea at the heart of it.
And I liked on page two, just to circle back to my point about white space, “Terry pauses. Deep breath.” Return. “HE KNOCKS ON THE DOOR.” All Caps. Return. “No response.”
I like that. He took the time on the page, and that creates anticipation. You know, what you can’t teach, what no one I don’t think can teach to screenwriters, is rhythm and dramatic rhythm. You know that this guy is going to walk up to a door. He’s going to knock on the door. And you know as the writer that on the other side of that door is something that is quite the opposite of what he expects, of what everyone expects. That justifies a sense of anticipation.
And that justifies writing it out this way. So there’s a good, innate sense of rhythm and how this should be executed. So, all told, I think it’s a good example of how to write action well. And good job. What was the writer’s name again?
John: Ben Jacoby.
Craig: Well done.
John: Yeah. Hooray. Congratulations, Ben.
Let’s move onto our next sample. This is by Trevor Hollen. And it’s a script, the title page on this was Everything Means Nothing to Me.
Craig: Great title.
John: It’s a great title. What a great title. It feels like a good dark anthem, or like sort of a punk rock emo kind of awesomeness. I like it.
Craig: Yeah. Really cool.
John: So some description about what’s happening here. So, we open with a beaten up woman named Max. She bursts out of a warehouse, handcuffed to a dead man, which she drags behind her. There are some headlights. She looks up as brakes squeal. We cut to Max watching a movie at a theater. This is obviously, evidently before, because she’s not beaten up. Then we’re with her in the lobby where she looks at a poster for a movie called Streets of Fire.
She checks her phone. Two missed messages. The battery dies. She drives and she smokes. Then, earlier that night, we have a scene at Meltdown Comics — which I think is where they record the Nerdist Podcast –
John: — where we meet a new guy named Johnny who shoplifts, and then he exits. We crosscut this with Max, and then we go back to Johnny, who is pursued by two guys. And that’s the end of page three.
Craig: Well, I mean, it’s hard to critique this on the basis of the way that the action was written out. It wasn’t that the action was written out poorly per se; it’s just that I was bored. I mean, and I shouldn’t have been bored because it starts with this woman — she’s not dragging a body; she’s got a body slung over her back, which immediately stops me. It’s not easy, assuming this is an average weight man of 175 pounds — 175 pounds of dead weight over a woman’s shoulder as she’s walking is a little bit of a tough one to buy, especially because she’s tiny.
And then these headlights light up her face. She turns. Brakes squeal. Okay, and now we’re in this theater. I got a little confused. I thought, okay, this is actually set in the ’80s because she’s watching… — the Streets of Fire is going to be coming up, but then I know she’s got a cell phone, it must be a retro theater, I guess, that shows old movies.
Now she’s in the car. I’m not sure if the scene, Int. Max’s Car, where she’s driving and listening to South Pacific, is necessary. Nothing happens in it.
We go to Johnny. Johnny is reading a comic book. He walks outside. And now he’s being followed. We cut back to Max’s car; she’s still singing — not sure why. And then now these other people are following Johnny and, oh my gosh, here comes a truck, which I just saw on page one. I just saw trucks. [laughs] This is a different truck, by the way.
Craig: If it were the same truck I’d think, “Okay, there’s killer trucks out there,” but there’s two box trucks on the first page. There is a pickup truck that is about to hit Johnny on page three. The whole “I’m about to get hit by a truck” thing is a tough one to pull off anyway because it’s a little bit cliché. To try it two times in the first three pages, you’re starting to push it.
John: When you first said that you got bored, and it seems like it should be really hard to get bored in three pages, but I kind of got bored, too. And it’s because I got confused. I got confused. I lost faith that my rapt attention would be rewarded.
I felt like the script wasn’t connecting, like the dots weren’t connecting, and I didn’t believe the dots necessarily were going to connect, especially while it’s sort of line to line. And it honestly starts at the very beginning for me, is that as I gave you the description I told you, like, this girl Max, but as it’s actually on the page, “Door flies open. MAX exits bloody as hell. Right eye is swollen shut. A (very dead) man is handcuffed to her left wrist and slung over her back.”
Okay, wait, so she’s a girl but the only way that we know that she’s a woman — Max feels like a man’s name — but we know it’s a woman because of “her left wrist.” But, why are you burying that here? Why did you let that go through… — You already gave us an image of her right eye being swollen shut, so we saw that in our head, but we think it’s a man. So, now we have to go back and replace that image in our head with a woman.
If you had just gave us like, “A young woman exits, bloody as hell. Right eye swollen shut. A man is handcuffed to her left wrist and slung over her back. This girl is MAX.” Then, like, okay, so we know it’s a woman first, and then we know her name. Then this would be a little bit more into this first moment that’s happening.
Craig: That’s a great point. That’s a really good point, John, because you know what: it’s funny — when I read that paragraph I just didn’t understand why, but you’ve put your finger on it, of why I stopped. My impression was that, “Oh, the author is being a bit clever here,” like, “Look, I’m just going to subtly point out she’s a woman this way.” And I thought, “Eh, don’t be clever, I hate that.”
But actually your point is the right one. I had to rebuild the image in my head. And that’s on the top of page one. That’s a bad feeling.
John: Yeah. Also at the top of page one. “FADE IN:”
“EXT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE — NIGHT.”
Next line. “The Warehouse District of L.A.”
Okay, so you said warehouse twice in two lines. That doesn’t actually give me anything else. So, rather than sort of saying, “The Warehouse District of L.A.” that line could be something that gives me a sense of what this place is like. If you want to say that we’re in Los Angeles, that’s fine, but give us a sense of what this actual space is rather than just like “Warehouse District” because I don’t know what the Warehouse District looks like or feels like.
So, give us some color of light. Give us some dogs barking in the distance. Give us something else that gives us some color to it rather than just, like, giving me a thing that I don’t know.
John: There was some stuff I did like, and I want to point that out. I felt like the writer had some interesting detail stuff that made me curious about the characters. I liked that her car stereo is ripped out of the dash, and so she’s listening to a boom box instead. That’s cool.
I like that we’re in specific places, like Meltdown Comics. But where I lost faith was we were cross-cutting between… — So we start in, it feels like, the presence tense, and then we move back in time, and we’re sort of catching up for awhile. But then we move to Johnny, that’s apparently earlier that night. And, like, okay, so we’re still moving back further in time, okay, but it’s not clear then — is he in the same timeline as Max at this point? And it’s only three pages in.
Craig: God, I didn’t even notice that. In my mind, literally in my mind, I just assumed that this was happening simultaneously. You’re right, it does say earlier. That’s insane; you can’t do that. You can’t do that. [laughs]
John: It’s unclear to me whether that “Earlier that night” means earlier than the very first scene we saw where she was dragging the body, or if it means earlier…
Craig: No, no.
John: …It should be earlier than the last thing we saw. And the last thing we saw was Max driving. And so, wait. Are we in a third time sequence here?
Craig: Yeah. We’re apparently going… — Maybe this is one of those going…No, it’s not a going in reverse movie because it starts after, and then we go back, and then we’re moving forward because she walks out of the theater. I don’t understand what’s going on now. Now I’m really confused. I also have to say, you know, you don’t want to read the first three pages and think there’s two scenes I could just cut here because they’re not doing anything for me. This is precious real estate; everything has to be earned.
Wow, you’re right. That is earlier. Yeah, no, you can’t do that.
John: So, Go, my first script, my first produced movie, it opens with something that happens later in the movie, so we see Ronna in the ditch and she’s “18, bloody, and bleeding,” and so that’s a description of her. And so we’re like, oh, we know that something interesting is going to happen there.
And then we have Claire giving some dialogue, which sort of sets up the question of the movie. And then it does start moving forward in time. But it’s not trying to be incredibly clever or sophisticated at that point. It’s like it is setting up sort of a world, and then the story starts. And I just didn’t have faith that this story was going to be starting here because just a bunch of stuff was happening.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a bit of a confusion that’s going on in there. So, I think this one needs a little love, a little help.
John: Needs a little love.
Next, go to a script by Randall Knox and Jason Zahodnik called Dog Tags. So, some description on Dog Tags. We begin at an infantry camp in North Africa, 1942 — I love period movies –
Craig: Me too.
John: — where a private slides a field report under Colonel Mason’s door. Inside the Colonel’s quarters we see a man in silhouette who is smoking. He looks through the field reports. A hand pulls out a handgun. Then a single gunshot. Only then do we realize there was a second man in the room and he’s staging this to look like a suicide.
We cut to a British transport plane roaring through the sky. Inside a few dozen soldiers. The copilot says they’ll be down in 20.
On the runway we single out a British officer, Jack Sherman, and an American military police officer named Richards. They introduce themselves to each other. The British Officer has, surprisingly, a southern accent. He’s here to investigate the Colonel’s death. And that’s the bottom of page three.
Craig: Right. Well, so this is sort of a prime example of overwriting action. Here’s the good news — I’ll lead with the good news. I really liked what was happening. I like the trick of what happened in the room. I thought there was a really good idea behind it. It was interesting. And I liked the final exchange between the guy who runs the outpost and the man who’s been sent to investigate this crime. It had good promise.
There are some dialogue issues. You made a point a couple of these, when we did one of these, remember there were three pages where the first line of dialogue was on the third page? There’s a little bit of dialogue on the first page. The second page is all dialogue-free. And then the third page, this copilot comes out and delivers very clunky dialogue. And similarly then Major Richards has clunky dialogue. And a lot of people announcing stuff that everybody in the scene already ought to know, that kind of thing.
Craig: But this could be improved greatly by just thinning out the action descriptions to get to the meat of what we need to know.
John: I agree. I felt that the opening was overwritten for what it was. All we’re seeing is a private delivering a folder to his commanding officer. And so there was a lot of stuff sort of happening that didn’t really get us very much of anything.
So, if you want to setup a world, maybe we should have walked through the camp a little bit more, seen a little bit more of sort of what this universe was. But it felt like a lot of shoe leather just to get a folder underneath the door.
Then, once we were inside, I actually kind of dug the description of what was going on. It felt very Hitchcockian, that it’s a very limited focus in that the camera is looking at this, the camera is looking at this. One thing I would point out though: there’s a lot of “we sees” and “we hears,” and some people hate “we see” and “we hear.” I actually like “we see” and “we hear” when used judiciously. Here I thought there was a little too much of it.
Craig: I agree actually. Yeah, I’m a big fan of “we see” when it is called for. But, for instance, “We see a limp arm dangling from a chair,” you could actually just say, “A limp arm.” Or, “we see” is okay there, but I don’t know…
John: On page two, it starts with, “We hear him sigh as he sets his glasses on the desk.”
Craig: That should be, “He sighs.”
John: “He sighs.” And I would make the…
Craig: “He sets his glasses on the desk,” you know.
John: I would make — “A limp arm dangles” is fine, too.
To me, here is the criteria for when I think you are justified using a “we see” or “we hear:” If the cause is invisible, a “we see” or “we hear” may save you. It might say like, okay, “We hear a tremendous rushing of something,” or a lot of times I’ll use the “we” for if we are describing how the camera is moving. So, like, “We float over the camp as we slowly descend into something.” I’ll use the “we”s for that, but a lot of times — I would always look for if I can take the “we see” or “we hear” out, and it makes as much sense, then cut it out.
Craig: Yeah, I tend to use “we see” for things that I want the audience to be aware of but also for the audience to be aware that other characters aren’t aware of. So, “A man rises. Behind him, we see a killer with a knife.” Because if you don’t say “we see” sometimes it is implied that he might know that there is a killer with a knife back there.
But, everybody has their different cause for it, but in this case what sort of pops out to me about the way this was written — I’m not surprised that you liked the action description of the part in the tent, because aside from the fact that it was innately interesting, we are more forging of description of big ticket items: murders, suicides, sex. We are far less forgiving of long descriptive paragraphs of sleepy military camps while folks snooze.
And, frankly, the biggest crime of the first paragraph is that by overwriting about the moonlight and the smoking cigarettes and the quiet and the sleeping, is that he’s burying — the writer is burying an important thing that he has put in there, which is that artillery is going off in the background.
John: I completely missed it.
Craig: And the reason that’s important, is because I believe now that someone could get shot and no one would flinch because they just think it’s just an artillery. So, if I were doing this I would probably say, “SUPER: North Africa — 1942. A military camp. Rows of tents. Men are sleeping. In the background, pop, pop, POP. Artillery goes off. The men barely flinch. They’re used to it by now. A private walks across to…”
You know what I mean? Make that something, so that we get that it is important later. You’d be surprised, screenwriters, how often the rest of the producing world, the directors and ADs and prop don’t ever get that that was important. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? So you make it important.
John: Looking back at that first paragraph, which I’ll admit I did skim because it was seven lines long, I missed that the artillery was going off partly because it wasn’t capitalized. And we’re sort of past the stage where like, oh, all sound effects and have to be capitalized. We’re not doing radio plays anymore, so it’s not that that’s important, but the artillery is really important. That’s the most important thing that’s helping to set up the scene there, so that should be capitalized.
I also feel like all the other people that he’s passing, or groups of people, capitalize them too so that we see that there are more people in this world. Because just looking at that first paragraph, I sort of assumed that the private was the only person that we’re seeing in the whole scene.
Craig: Yeah. And just very quickly on dialogue — because I read it and might as well help you out here if I can: What the private said was fine. And then we get to this copilot. “All right, you lot. We’re twenty minutes, give or take a tick, from the base, so be prepared to get out and unload sharpish. We’ve got to keep the runway clear.” That’s a lot of talking from a guy who’s talking to seasoned — what appears to be — seasoned people, or at least people who know what their job is. It’s not like they’re jumping out of a plane for the first time or getting off a plane for the first time.
To me it could be as simple as “’20 minutes.’ Slams the door shut.” Do you know what I mean? “The guys all look at each other.”
Craig: Then, when they land, Jack, our hero I assume, who is going to be investigating this, comes out of the plane. And there is a pudgy military officer, Major Richards, and he says to Jack, “Major Sherman, I’m Major Richards. I’m the head Military Police officer here at the base. Welcome to Algeria.”
I’m pretty sure that he’s been expecting him. “Major Sherman. I’m Major Richards. Welcome to Algeria,” would be fine. “I’m the head military police officer here at the base” — eh, that’s probably unnecessary. We should be able to tell from his stature or from something that’s not spoken that he’s in charge.
“Given how quickly you were flown out here, I’m sure you’re wondering what the situation is.” Perhaps maybe just, “You’re probably wondering what the situation is.”
And then Jack says, “Y’all have a dead colonel on your hands and you need me to confirm how it happened.” “Oh, so you’ve been briefed.” “No.” I like that. I like the fact that he hadn’t been briefed, but somehow he knows what’s going on. That’s kind of cool.
But just watch the overdone dialogue, particularly when you’ve done such a good job of creating silent, interesting stuff — meaning dialogue-free interesting stuff.
One more thing I’m just catching on page three: So we’re at exterior runway, “20 minutes, give or take a tick later,” which is kind of funny. The copilot was saying, “Give or take a tick later,” and he uses that, that’s fine. But the actual scene description here, “The plane touches down and taxis to a halt. The men inside file down the staircase and unload their cargo from the rear.”
John: That’s — you both have the plane landing, taxiing…
Craig: And taxiing.
John: And the men have disembarked and gotten their gear. In two sentences. So that is fast. And while it’s true that once upon a time we used to do, “Atlanta burns” for like Gone with the Wind, and there wasn’t more description, it’s like…that is a tremendous amount to pack in two lines. So, I would question whether, do we need to see the plane land? Okay, let the plane land in a scene header and then let’s get right to the people that we want to pay attention to disembarking.
John: Don’t setup all the background action.
Craig: Yeah, the way that’s going to be in the movie is, “A plane comes down for a landing. Cut to…” I mean, whether you want to write “Cut To” or not, “The men are offloading the plane.” We’re not watching planes land and taxiing. You might as well write that they unbuckle, send their service items to the aisle, etc.
John: Yeah. There are movies where all that specific detail is really important. This is clearly not that movie, so I would say: edit it.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Our final action sequence for this batch is by David Stripinis. And let me give you some description here:
We start in a South Boston bar in 1984, where everyone is watching Mary Lou Retton win the Olympics. Fire trucks outside take us to a brownstone fire. One of the fire fighters, Kavanagh, is going through the house. In the nursery he finds a dead woman cradling a baby. The baby is still alive. Part of the house collapses, apparently trapping Kavanagh and the baby as we end page three.
Craig: Right. So, well, there’s a very, very, very generic thing going on here. It doesn’t start that way. I had hopes on the first page. There’s this bar scene; it’s very Boston. People are watching Mary Lou Retton. They’re getting excited. I understand completely what time it is because of that, which I thought was very nice.
And suddenly these fire trucks are going by, people run outside, and that carries us to this fire. Now, page two just comes from the generic fire book: men going through, saying things that firemen say like, “Get out of there,” and, “We’re out of here,” and, “No, I’m not leaving until I check this room. Someone is here.” “Get out of there.” Very, very rote.
And you have to be aware of the movies that have come before you and not simply just do exactly — I mean, that is the fire scene. Everybody has done that fire scene. But it’s not that it was written poorly — I mean, there are some interesting touches. A teddy bear that’s melting. That’s kind of cool.
So, in terms of action description, “Flames whip around a nursery. A large TEDDY BEAR melts, it’s polyester…” Now, “it’s” with an apostrophe is a problem. “It’s polyester guts oozing out.” If you had put a period there I would have given him a gold star. But he says, “It’s polyester guts oozing out like the lava of Kilauea.” So that’s what we call a mixed metaphor folks. [laughs] That is the definition of mixed metaphor. Try not to do that; it’s unnecessary.
And this man finds this baby, which is really horrifying. This is the other thing, is tonally I have no idea what the hell is going on, because we started with this kind of funny scene in a pub, then we go to a very standard B-movie firefighting scene, and on page three we are literally looking at the most horrifying graphic thing I’ve ever seen.
And if this movie rests on being super horrifying and graphic, okay. But truthfully, you have to be really aware when you get this graphic and gross. And you have to give it credit and you have to honor it. I mean, like in Silence of the Lambs there are moments that honor it, but they don’t come on page three. And you’re really putting people back on their feet with something this — that is, I mean, you’re going to get people walking out.
John: It’s a really gruesome image. I think it’s an effective image, it’s just really, really gruesome. And your point about Silence of the Lambs is key, because in Silence of the Lambs we have invested interest in Jodie Foster and these characters by the time the gross, gruesome stuff comes. So we’re not going to, like, turn off from the movie when it happens.
But here it is happening so early, like, oh my god, I don’t know if I want to keep watching that.
Craig: Well, also, there’s no reaction to it. I mean, in Silence of the Lambs you have people looking at photos and turning away and reacting and being human, even in small ways, because they are disgusted by what they see. This man looks at something that’s the grossest thing ever and no response from him whatsoever in the pages. And that’s the most important part is how the characters respond.
Just as a thought: in the beginning it seems to me that if you’re going to show this bar, you probably don’t need three-quarters of a page of bar stuff and then have trouble, unless you were going to interrupt it in an interesting way. For instance, they’re all sitting around, woo-woo, they’re all cheering for the Olympics, and then BOOM, something rattles the window and they all turn up and look. And then they move to the glass and they see in the distance, BOOM, another fire ball. And then three fire trucks go by. Something that’s a little more astonishing than — I mean, anyone who listens to this podcast hears three fire trucks going by on any given day. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Yeah. We don’t even look anymore. We just know that they’re going to pass by.
Craig: Exactly. They’re going to pass by.
John: I agree. To me that first sequence, I like that it is setting up 1984. I think Mary Lou Retton is actually a very smart way to tell us exactly when this is happening and sort of what our world is, but I want to get out of there right after the bartender’s first line, either with some explosion or just the passing lights that lead us to that thing to let us know that this is just to setup the world and the time and now we’re going to follow these fire trucks and we’ll be in a firefighting mode.
The dialogue is an issue, and I felt so many of these lines could have been in our podcast last week where we talked about those sort of, like, the lines that you keep hearing way too much in movies. “Someone’s in there. I’ve got a live one.”
Craig: Even “Pull your team out.”
John: Yeah, “Pull your team out.” That’s in every firefighter movie.
Craig: Yeah, “Get out.” Just, “All right, everyone out.”
John: Since we’re talking about action, I do want to talk about the action, because even some of the stuff felt a little cliché to me, the actual description of stuff happening was kind of nice. And that moment that was described was really gruesome, but it was well-described. Our block length is really short. I was never tempted to skim because most of these times I’m only committed to reading one and a half lines at a time. So, you’re going to get me through the page that way.
John: And a pretty good breakup of sort of dialogue — I wasn’t happy with some of the dialogue but I was happy that the dialogue was interspersing the action. So, it’s not just I’m going to commit to reading a line or a block of scene description, but if a page is nothing but scene description I will panic a bit because it is like, “Oh my god, I can’t read that whole page.”
John: But because you were interspersing and you were doing other stuff on the page — in this case it is dialogue breaking up the page — I’m more inclined to actually read every word of it. So, that stuff I liked. And so to me it felt like a pretty good version of a scene that I’m going to probably see in Derek Haas’s firefighter show. But when Derek has his firefighter show I will know who these characters are ahead of time and will have a vested interest in their safety, and security, and what they’re doing in that scene.
Here I don’t because it’s the first time I’ve met this guy Kavanagh.
Craig: And I would be surprised if Derek’s show had this level of clamminess. “Get out of there.” “I told you get out of there, man.” You know, maybe it will, but hopefully not.
John: I think it can do better than that. But, at the bottom of page three right now Kavanagh is saying, “Sorry little guy. Guess I wasn’t meant to be a hero after all.”
Craig: Oh yeah. That’s brutal. Brutal.
John: What?! Maybe if you set up 15 pages before that his father never believed in him, or I don’t know, or where he’s going through training or something. But, like, what?!
Craig: It’s crazy. Who’s the screenwriter again of this one?
John: David Stripinis.
Craig: David. Okay, I like to talk to people by name. David, here’s the deal: This man just saw a burned alive woman with no eyes. Her eyes were melted away. He has found a live baby with a charred forearm. And injured babies are horrifying things for us to look at. He is facing death, and he has this very calm moment where he just sort of says, “Sorry little guy. Guess I wasn’t meant…”
I mean, no. Now here’s the thing: You don’t need that line at all. “He slumps down, back against the wall defeated. He pulls off his respirator.” That’s great. He’s giving up. I love it.
“The infant looks at him with a startling amount of clarity in his eyes. He looks back.” That’s all you need. No talking there. You’ve got to know when to talk and you’ve got to know when you don’t talk. And you don’t talk when you’re alone with a charred baby about to die.
You can get away with no talking there if you eliminate some of this other stuff. I would also argue, David, that you don’t need the whole “Get out” stuff. Because if you think about it, all you’re really doing is giving away what’s so shocking about what you’ve written. This should be quite the opposite. It’s a house fire, but it’s pretty standard. Everybody should be under control. We’re just doing what we do. It’s a fire. It’s dangerous. “How are we doing in there?” “Okay, just checking the last hallway.” “We gotta go man; this doesn’t look too good.” “Um, yeah, just give me one second.” “Boss says we gotta go now.” “Yeah, I said one second.” Opens up a door. There’s no one in there. And he walks over and he finds the baby. “Holy shit.” “We gotta go.”
And then suddenly out of nowhere, KABOOM.
It just would be so much more interesting than somebody explaining to us before we ever meet this guy, you’re about to die. Don’t you think?
John: I agree. Surprise. Because the minute we hear “Pull your people out,” it’s like we know the whole thing is going down.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And the whole “Pull your people out,” the whole thing is going down — that is usually used as surprised stuffing. It’s like filler surprise. It’s not really surprise. It’s fake surprise because we’ve seen it so often, but that’s what it’s there for.
You don’t need that filler. You have an actual surprise: A baby underneath a burnt-alive woman. Yikes. Yuck. So, I mean, use that.
John: Good stuff.
John: So, again, I want to thank our four people who wrote in with their samples, because these were amazing and you guys were so brave to write in and let us talk about your work. And I hope it was helpful.
Most people who have gone through this process seem to have enjoyed it. I’ve gotten good feedback from the people we’ve reviewed before, so I hope these four felt it was helpful and useful in their further writing careers.
Craig: And I just want to add, for our four people who sent things in, I just want to add for them that I thought each one of them had something that was very encouraging. There wasn’t one of them this week that I thought, “Oh, you’ll never be able to do this.” So, is that encouraging? Did that sound encouraging?
John: That did sound encouraging.
Craig: I love it.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: Oh my god. I keep forgetting that we have One Cool Thing.
John: Yeah, that’s okay. I’ll just give you my One Cool Thing and we’ll wrap it up early.
My One Cool Thing is a movie that’s in theaters right now. It’s called Sleepwalk With Me. It’s by a guy named Mike Birbiglia, who is a comedian who starts in and co-wrote and directed this movie. And it’s really charming, and I would highly recommend it. It feels very much like Annie Hall as a structure, in that it’s a guy analyzing a relationship and talking to camera at times while the story is being told. But it’s really funny and really well done.
I first recognize Mike from he’s in Lena Dunham’s show, Girls. He plays the guy who — Lena does a job interview, and he’s the guy who may hire her. And they have a very funny just one-off scene. And the scene was so good just by itself that I’m like — he’s on my radar.
And, god bless him, he made a really good little movie. Ira Glass of NPR fame produced it and co-wrote it. And I highly recommend it. So it’s playing in like 140 theaters across the country and I think people will really like it. I think it’s going to be the one little movie this year that could really break out. So I would encourage you to see it if it’s in your neck of the woods.
John: Great. Craig, thank you for a week full of action.
Craig: Yeah, that was, oh, I mean, I’m exhausted.
John: I know. Tiring.
Craig: Exhausted. Should we do another one? Should we stop the podcast and never do another one? Or should we keep going?
John: No, I think I’ll see you next week.
Craig: All right, screw it. Let’s do it again.
John: Talk to you soon. Bye.