Whether or not to American-ize

questionmarkI am from the UK and have written a script which I think would work either side of the Atlantic. Though the theme is generic, some minor details would not seem authentic to an American reader as well as technical differences, such as spelling.

Should I send an amended US version to American agencies and a British one in the UK, or send the original version to both?

– Paul James
via IMDb

I don’t think there’s a wrong answer, but here’s what I would recommend if I were in your place.

If it really wouldn’t suffer from setting it in the U.S., then go for it. Keep your UK version for British agencies and filmmakers, and do up a separate-but-equal version for the U.S. (Hint: put a “UK” down by the date on the title page, so you can easily tell which one is which.) While most Hollywood folks are clever enough to realize that a good script is a good script, there’s always a chance that a reader will see “Bristol” and think, nope.

Next, if you do set it in America, with American characters, you’re probably better off using American spellings throughout. That way, there’s no weird disconnect when Tyrell starts talking about “gang colours.” And have a native-born American whose opinion you trust do a careful reading through your script, just to make sure there’s no dangling British-isms.

Having said this, a UK writer shouldn’t worry about being too British. Or Scottish. Or whatever. There’s a long history of talented filmmakers crossing the Atlantic to work in Hollywood (and vice-versa). You shouldn’t try to sublimate your natural writing style to match some mythical American standard — which all too often resembles the lowest common denominator. But if you decide to American-ize this script, make sure you do so thoroughly.


Printing words on-screen

questionmarkWhen you want a title to appear on the screen (i.e. “Two days later” or “September 1987″) how do you write it exactly?

– A. B.
via IMDb

Printing words on screen works much just the way you’d think. You write TITLE OVER, like this:

INT. JOHNSON FARM – DAY

Robin pulls open the curtains, so tattered they begin to rip from the rod. Bright light floods into the dusty room.

TITLE OVER:

21 HOURS AFTER ABDUCTION

With a trained eye, she surveys the dank livingroom. Her attention focuses on a chest of drawers, which has been pulled out slightly from the wall.

Note that many times, you simply want to provide clarifying information to the reader, and have no intention of showing an on-screen title. In these cases, it’s completely acceptable to append the info to the end of a scene header.

EXT. POLISH GETTO – DAY [1945]

INT. MARGE’S KITCHEN – NIGHT [WINTER]

EXT. CENTRAL PARK – [THE NEXT] DAY

Of course, only append this bracketed information if it really is crucial to helping the reader understand the scene — for instance, if your story moves back and forth between two timelines. Otherwise, you’re just adding clutter.


New Charlie posters up

charlie onesheetAin’t It Cool News has the six new one-sheets for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Five of the posters feature the young Golden Ticket winners, while the final one has a new image of Willy Wonka, with the appropriate tagline, “semi-sweet and nuts.”

I hadn’t seen any of these one-sheets before this morning, but I strongly suspected these single-character portraits were on their way, given the somewhat-iconic characters of Veruca Salt and company.


Intercutting

questionmarkFollowing up on an earlier question: Maybe I’m foolish for asking this.

For location changes I have been using scene headings, so that in a phone conversation I will have:

INT. MARIA’S KITCHEN – NIGHT

Maria paces the room, phone glued to her ear.

MARIA

I can’t believe you’d do that!

INT. SEAN’S KITCHEN – NIGHT

SEAN

Do what?

INT. MARIA’S KITCHEN – NIGHT

MARIA

That!

Is it correct to assume that by using slug lines, I could avoid the scene headings? If I were to do it that way, would I use a slug line that is essentially identical to my scene headings but without the “INT.”? or “EXT.”?

– Brock

This type of scene happens all the time. Think about 24. If you put in a new slugline every time you changed speakers on a phone call, the script would be 180 pages.

Behold, the magic that is “INTERCUT.” Instead of your second “INT. MARIA’S KITCHEN”, just have a slug that says INTERCUT or INTERCUT MARIA / SEAN. Then you don’t have to keep doing the location sluglines. They’re really in one scene, even though it’s split between two places. It’s much easier for the reader to follow.

Your scene would end up looking like this:

INT. MARIA’S KITCHEN – NIGHT

Maria paces the room, phone glued to her ear.

MARIA

I can’t believe you’d do that!

INT. SEAN’S KITCHEN – NIGHT

SEAN

Do what?

INTERCUT MARIA/SEAN

MARIA

Mention my genital warts at a cocktail party!

SEAN

The guy was a doctor!

MARIA

He was a Ph. D! In philosophy!

SEAN

Rhetoric, actually.

MARIA

What’s the difference!

SEAN

There’s overlap, but rhetoric is a pretty narrow specialty.

Maria SLAMS DOWN the phone. We stay on her side of the scene. A beat, then she lets loose with a long-delayed, primal SCREAM.

The dog looks up at her with big, droopy eyes.

CUT TO:

EXT. SOMEWHERE ELSE – DAY

Next scene…


Why do you answer some questions, but not others

questionmarkWhy do you answer some questions, and not others? (Such as, well, mine!) And why do you answer some questions moments after they appear, while other ones take weeks?

– Various Readers

My assistant Chad transcribes all the questions on three-by-five note cards, then shuffles them exactly three times. I take the stack and begin spinning clockwise for approximately twenty-two seconds, at which point I throw all the cards in the air. The question that ends up closest to me — without actually touching me — gets answered.

Actually, it’s not nearly so elaborate. Whenever an interesting question comes in, either from ask@johnaugust.com, Ask a Writer on IMDb, or as a comment on a previous post, I flag it as a potential question to answer later. Sometimes, “later” translates as “right now,” but usually there’s a delay of at least a week. Sometimes more. Sometimes never.

There’s no malice or forethought. I simply answer whatever question I find most interesting at the moment. These questions tend to fall into two categories:

The biggest backlog of unanswered questions is “career advice”-type questions. Some of them are really interesting. One reader wrote a script that attracted the interest of a C-list actor a few years ago. Now that same actor is A-list. How should the writer re-approach him?

Good question! I don’t know. And that’s why I haven’t tried to answer it yet.

I really do read every question that gets sent in. Here’s my criteria for whether something goes in the “consider” or the “pass” pile:

  1. Does the writer have a grasp of spelling, grammar and punctuation? If not, they need more help than I can give them.
  2. Have I answered this question, or one very much like it, before? If so, they should just look at the previous answer.
  3. Would a decent percentage of site visitors be interested in the answer? Some questions can be so specific that it’s unlikely anyone else would care.

There are currently 21 questions flagged to be answered. Realistically, I’ll never get to all of them, because new questions will come in that catch my attention. That, and the whole screenwriting career I do on the side.


Sensible sluglines

questionmarkThank you for keeping your site up to date and offering so many great resources, not the least of which: your scripts. I have read your scripts, Rawson Thurber’s Dodgeball, and many others.

I have a question on the usage of slug lines and pacing.

A quick example:

TOM

carefully turns the dial a tad.

THE MACHINE

Hums, LIGHTS UP!

TOM

grins and turns the

REMOTE to the maximum level.

I am afraid I am overusing this technique, but would like your professional opinion.

–Brandon Walowitz
Los Angeles

Yes, you’re overdoing it, at least to my taste. I suspect you could find successful screenwriters who write very much the way you describe, but to me it feels like padding.

Just as you wouldn’t want to read a solid page of 12-pt Courier, you don’t want to read a series of short sluglines. There’s no flow. Think of these short sluglines as punctuation, little guides to help you make your way down the page.

Some suggestions:

  • Use a slug only if we’re going to be looking at something new to the scene, or if we’re cross-cutting between simultaneous action. In your example, “TOM” is the same guy both times, and “THE MACHINE” is probably already established in the scene.

  • After a slug, I usually start the next line lower-case, particularly if it’s the continuation of a sentence.

  • Try to have at least three “normal” lines between slugs.

  • Avoid mixing slugs and dialogue. It gets messy on the page.