Split screens

How would you go about writing two scenes in a script that run at the same time in split screen, but don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other? Basically like a scene from the movie Timecode.


That’s a real challenge to do in standard screenplay format. While someone watching a movie can follow the action happening in multiple sections of the screen at once, the reader simply can’t. Reading is a left-to-right, top-to-bottom process. So you’re going to have to figure out another way to communicate the same idea.

Your approach depends on how crucial the split-screen timing becomes. For instance, in an earlier draft of the first CHARLIE’S ANGELS, there was a chase sequence between Alex (Lucy Liu) and the Thin Man (Crispin Glover), in which they were both trying to get to the roof of the building in order to reach the satellite dish that Eric Knox was using. The chase started with the two characters on opposite sides of an iron fence, which formed the dividing line down the middle of the screen. We then followed each character on separate, sometimes overlapping paths, as they fought their way to the roof. Finally, Alex kicked the Thin Man “through” the center dividing line.

In this example, the exact timing of who-is-where-when was important, so I chose to write the action as two parallel columns on a horizontal page. It was a pain in the ass to format, because Final Draft couldn’t handle it, so each time I printed out the script I had to make sure to leave blank “filler” pages in which to insert the properly-formatted side-by-side pages. Still, it was a fun challenge.

Ultimately, the split-screen stuff was dropped and the sequence became about Alex and the Thin Man kicking the crap out of each other.

For TIMECODE, Mike Figgis apparently didn’t work off a traditional screenplay at all. The entire movie was rehearsed and reshot more than a dozen times. To figure out who-is-where-when, Figgis used musical score sheets.

For your script, since the two sides don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, I would recommend writing the scenes out straight. If it’s important to indicate to the reader that certain scenes are playing side-by-side, just put a note in parentheses in the first line of a scene’s description. It’s not a perfect solution, but in most cases that’s as straightfoward as you’re going to get.

(This article originally ran September 29, 2003.)

September 11th

(Note: This article comes from February 2002. I’m including it as part of my summer reruns, and crossing my fingers it doesn’t become timely.)

Finding inspiration and motivation to write is hard enough on an average day, but ever since the September 11th attacks and the chaos which has followed, I feel especially useless. As I am not a professional writer, there are no demands or deadlines forcing me to stretch those muscles with any regularity. The state of the world we live in makes me sad, angry, and afraid. While those emotions may drive others to create an expression of their feelings, I simply say to myself, "Why should I bother? Movies don’t really matter." How have you been dealing with the recent events and if you don’t mind, should I bother? Thank you for taking the time.


Screenwriting is a pretty trivial profession even on the most sun-dappled days. In the context of human tragedy and international strife, it’s even harder to justify the ninth revision of your hockey-playing chimpanzee comedy. (For the record, there is already a hockey-playing chimpanzee comedy.) Much like every single person in North America, I went through the same stages of bewilderment, frustration, grief and fear after the September attacks. But after about a week, I got back on the saddle and started writing again.

Why? I think the answer is that I had to do something, and I’m better at writing than anything else I’ve found. I’m a pretty good cook, and know my way around a Macintosh in terms of graphic design, but pretty much the only hope I have of keeping a roof over my head is to continue to write. I don’t always enjoy it, and sometimes it makes me miserable. But in the sense that anyone truly has a calling, this is probably mine.

Now, since I’m a screenwriter and not a psychologist or counsellor, I’m completely unqualified to judge whether the sadness, anger and fear you’re feeling five months after the attacks is healthy. Obviously, it’s unproductive in the most literal sense, since you wish to be writing but find you can’t. So my advice to you would be my advice to any friend in your situation: find somebody who can help you out.

For what it’s worth, my friends and family who’ve sought help invariably say they wasted months making up their minds to see someone. Once they finally did, things improved much faster than they expected, and the world seemed much less onerous.

As far as should you bother writing, I’d argue it’s absolutely worth the trouble. Because while it’s true that some things did change on September 11th, 99.9% of things are exactly the same as they were on September 10th. What did change is your perception of them, and that’s a much easier problem to address.

Linear writing for non-linear films

When writing a narrative that jumps back and forth throughout time and events (ie. PULP FICTION, THE KILLING) is it standard operating procedure to write the story in a more traditional straight ahead format then re-arrange the script; or is the script written in a non-linear format as we see it in the movie?

–Matt Higgins

While there have been cases where a film’s timeline was juggled after-the-fact (HEAVEN AND EARTH was one), the vast majority of scripts are written with the non-linear elements in place. It’s a cliché, but screenplays are really blueprints for making a movie, so the two forms should match up scene-by-scene.

If you’re planning to write a story that will ultimately unfold in a non-linear way, such as GO or MEMENTO, it’s a good idea to make a second outline of the story as it happens in "real time," to make sure the logic tracks. In fact, this kind of outline is helpful with any kind of story, because even if a script moves forward scene by scene, inevitably characters will refer to things that happened "earlier," and it’s important to make sure all these events could have happened in the sequence you propose.

Personally, I find that non-linear structure is often just a flashy trick to disguise bad storytelling, or worse, a boring plot. It demands that the audience pay closer attention in order to figure out what’s going on, but rarely rewards the effort.

An analogy: When laser printers first arrived, they gave people access to calligraphy fonts like Zapf Chancery Italic, a typeface designed for wedding invitations. Suddenly, people printed entire newsletters in 9-point Zapf Chancery Italic, without any consideration of whether it was the right tool for the job. (It’s not. It’s almost unreadable.) Now I cringe whenever I see the font. It’s been ruined for me.

What these novice designers – and many novice screenwriters – failed to recognize is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I wrote GO with three overlapping chunks because that’s the only way it made sense; to intercut between the plotlines would have slowed everything down too much and made it confusing. In short, I used a strange timeline because that’s what the story required.

Always ask yourself why you’re choosing a particular way of telling the story. Used well, and with the right material, non-linear structure can be a very powerful technique. Used poorly, it just makes a crappy movie harder to follow.

(Originally posted in 2003.)

Where to begin a script

When you start writing, or right before you start writing, what do you know? What do you know about the story and characters before you start putting words on paper?

–Dustin Tash

Although I don’t do it on every project, I’m a big fan of writing off-the-page, which means creating character bios, alternate scenes and sequence chronologies to help me figure out the story and the characters. For example, I’ll write out the whole story from the villain’s point of view, both to track that the logic works, and also to gain insight on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

You don’t have to stop doing this once you begin writing the screenplay, either. If I’m getting frustrated with the script, sometimes it’s much more helpful to write up related pieces than to bang out another scene I don’t think is working.

Just make sure this prep-work doesn’t keep you from actually starting your script. You don’t have to know everything about your story and characters before you begin. Discovery is the best part of the writing process.

(Originally posted September 10, 2003.)

Summer Reruns

Over the next two weeks, you’ll notice a bit of deja vu at this site: old articles suddenly popping up on the front page, with new dates and old comments. It’s not a technical glitch. I’m putting the site into reruns while I’m out of the country and off the grid.

Malawi MapI’m going to Africa — specifically, Malawi. I’ll be working with an organization called FOMO, which runs programs to help the orphans of Mulanje, a district in the southern portion of the country. U.S. Doctors for Africa is one of their partners, and the trip is somewhat under their auspices. While there, I’ll be teaching English and helping repaint a school.

“Why?” is a fair question. A few months ago, I was talking with a student who was just graduating from college. When I asked her about her summer plans, she enthusiastically described an upcoming trip to Uganda. I said something like, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”

Not more than 10 minutes later, I realized there was absolutely nothing stopping me from doing that — other than a bit of fear and inertia.

This isn’t research for any particular project, but it’s homework just the same. Part of a writer’s job is to imagine. I can imagine giant chocolate factories, conjoined chanteuses, and epic sky battles. But I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like to be an orphan in a landlocked country that’s lost a generation to HIV/AIDS. So I’m going to see what that’s like. I’ll end up writing about it here and in other publications, but the main reason I’m getting on the plane is to get some grasp on a situation that is, to me, unfathomable.

While I’m gone, Matt will be minding the store. Please be nice.

Summer Sundance, part two

questionmarkWhat exactly do you discuss at Sundance? They’re entering with completed scripts, which I assume are perfect to them at the beginning, so where to next? And if you participate in the Screenwriting Lab are you automatically given a Directors Lab spot, if that is what you so choose to do with your completed work?

– Christina Shaver

The scripts the Fellows are bringing to Sundance are completed drafts, but they’re still works in progress. The advisor meetings aren’t notes sessions, but rather a chance to talk through ideas with experienced writers, whose fresh eyes can identify problems and opportunities. It’s like therapy for your script.

Over the last two days, I met with Braden King and Dani Valent, whose script HERE is a road movie set in Armenia, and Sophie Bartes, whose COLD SOULS is an existential comedy.1 Both projects went through the Directors Lab, so the filmmakers had a chance to see how the scenes worked when put up on their feet, which left them with new questions and ideas.

Over the course of the lab, each writer has five meetings with different advisors. In some meetings, I’ve gone page by page with the fellows, looking at how this line on page 19 is setting up an expectation that never really pays off. In other meetings, I’ve left the script in my backpack, instead talking in broad terms about character POV, balancing tones, and the rewriting process. It’s a conversation, and all based on what the Fellow needs. One of the smartest innovations in the Sundance Labs experience is that the advisors meet each morning to talk through the previous day’s sessions, thus building on each other’s work.

I screened THE NINES last night for the group. It was strange to see it in one of same theaters as January, but with a completely different crowd and set of expectations. (And a new, vastly better digital projector.) Atom Egoyan had screened THE SWEET HEREAFTER the second night, and it was terrific to finally be able to ask him questions about his movie and his process.

Sundance doesn’t change much year-to-year, but there have been a few adjustments this time:

  • There’s a documentary lab running concurrently, so we’ve gotten to mingle with some editorially-oriented folks.
  • There’s wireless, and thus blogging.
  • In an effort to reduce waste, they handed out water bottles and coffee mugs upon arrival to use instead of paper cups and disposable bottles. It’s been remarkably effective. Because you’re at altitude, you have to drink a lot of water, and having a container with your name on it makes it simple.2
  • They got rid of wine at dinner, but added receptions to (partially) make up for it. Again, you’re at altitude, so it doesn’t take much.
  1. My final project is Richard Montoya’s WATER AND POWER, adapted from his acclaimed play. I lucked out this year in that all of my assigned projects feel like Actual Movies I Would Pay to See.
  2. We recently banned bottled water at home. Our water cooler was using $145 worth of electricity each year, and that’s not counting all the energy wasted packaging and delivering the giant bottles. It’s surprisingly easy to adjust.