Four quadrants of screenwriting style

I’ve gotten a few questions from readers who’ve gone through the scripts in the Downloads section, many of them asking about my use of “we,” as in…

We hear SCRAPING as something behind the door moves closer.

Who is “we?”

I use this “we” all the time, and I’ve never really thought about it much. I guess it means either “you and I” (the reader and the writer) or “we the audience.” But which one?

Sort of both. The example above feels like it’s from the audience’s point-of-view. But in many cases, I’m using it more as the creator, such as…

As the pickup ROARS away, we reveal...


I love “we.” To me, it helps include the reader, giving the sensation of watching a movie, rather than just reading words on a page. But you should know that a fair number of screenwriters loathe this use of “we,” arguing that it’s always possible to write the same moment without it…

The pickup ROARS away, revealing...


In the end, there is no right or wrong. It’s just a matter of preference.

This got me thinking back to college, when I first had to take a Myers-Briggs personality type test. If you haven’t taken one, it’s definitely worth the twenty minutes, because it has an interesting way of breaking down personality along four basic axes. (Note: plural of “axis,” not synonym of “hatchets.”)

Even with different sets of questions, I come out pretty reliably — if not always strongly — as an ENTJ. It’s worth pointing out that Myers-Briggs-style assessments aren’t trying to say “who you are” as much as what your preferences tend to be.

I think the same characteristics can be found in screenwriting style. Different screenwriters have different preferences, some more strongly rooted than others.

The following is pretty top-of-my-head, so please chime in if you can think of better descriptors for what I’m talking about.

→ Literalist versus Impressionist

The Literalist believes that screenplays should only include what can be seen or heard, since that’s the only information which makes it up on the screen. The Impressionist is willing to bend or break the audio-visual barrier. He may write about things which cannot be filmed, or which reference things outside the world of the movie. (Such as, “Mendoza’s Ferrari is almost as hot as the one I’m going to buy when I sell this script for a million fucking dollars.”)

Personally, I’m pretty much a Literalist, although I’ll generally allow myself one sentence of unshootable information upon introducing a new character.

→ Completer versus Fragmenter

The Completer writes in complete sentences, like this one, with a subject and a verb. The Fragmenter? Nope. Won’t. Not his thing.

I’m a Completer. While you’ll occasionally find a fragment in my action sequences, I’m generally not a fan of rapid-fire word shrapnel. My aversion to fragments makes it very hard to do surgical rewrites of certain screenwriters’ work. I either have to adapt to their style — or more likely — rewrite every sentence of action.

→ Filmist versus Readerist

The Filmist writes screenplays that are intended for filmmakers, using specific film terminology (such as camera movement) and a minimum of fluff. The Filmist makes no concession to the non-professional. The Readerist writes for a more general audience, attempting to convey the feeling of cinematic devices without explicitly mentioning them, sometimes abstracting them to a literary “we see” and “we hear.”

I’m clearly a Readerist. I avoid mentioning the camera, and will even throw a “we” before a “CUT TO:” just so it reads a little better. But it’s worth noting that the classic screenplays, the ones that became the movies you loved, are almost all Filmist.

→ Show-er versus Teller

The Show-er attempts to include every important action in the story, while the Teller would rather forego some detail to convey the overall gist of a scene or sequence. Taken to the extreme, the Show-er would list every punch in a fight, while the Teller would leave it as: “They fight. Maddox wins.”

I’m a Show-er. For me, an action sequence is collection of a dozen smaller moments, and to breeze over them with a sentence or two is disrespectful. With a script, I’m trying evoke the feeling of having watched a movie, and that includes the action.

However, many of the top writers do compress action sequences, arguing that the only thing more boring than writing a long action sequence is reading one.

So, by my own system, I’d come out an LCPS LCRS. You?

Without their scripts in front of me, I’d put James Cameron down as an LCFS. Shane Black is probably an IFRT, but it’s been a while since I’ve read his stuff.

And again, this is all very work-in-progress. (I’ve already changed terms, messing up acronyms.) If you can think of better criteria for looking at screenwriting style (other than “good” and “hack”), please share.

Songs and production companies

questionmarkI’m pretty sure I saw you at The Groundlings on Saturday night. My girlfriend’s on a new TV show, Fox’s “The War At Home” and I attended the event with some of her costars.

I wanted to introduce myself and ask you a quick question, but then realized that a) I didn’t want to be annoying and b) you’ve set up a wonderful format for questions and answers.

Basically, is it stupid to include music cues in spec scripts? I realize the legality of it, and you don’t have full license for the song or any permission for that matter, but sometimes I feel like it really helps paint what you’re trying to convey.

Also, do you have a production company? I don’t think you do. Just curious.

– Chris
Los Angeles

You should have introduced yourself — because that wasn’t me, and it would have been awkward. Awkward stories are terrific fodder for the screenwriter.

For those who don’t know, The Groundlings is a comedy cult institution that for years has been a stepping stone for the performers you see on Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. My good pal Melissa McCarthy is a member of Groundlings; I try to catch shows whenever I can.

But Saturday night was not one of them.

On Saturday night I was buying vodka at the Mayfair Market on Franklin, just behind Kiefer Sutherland, who was buying cigarettes. The vodka was for a birthday party at Joey Lauren Adam’s house.

See, I can name-drop! I don’t even disguise them, unlike certain other people. Ahem.

Now, to your question. In my opinion, it’s okay to include a specific song if it’s really crucial to understanding the tone-slash-intent of the scene. But you can only do it once per script. More than that, and you’re writing liner notes.

Question #2: I don’t have a production company per se.

Like most screenwriters of a certain level, I have a loan-out company. I am an employee of that company, as is my assistant, Chad. But it’s not a true production company with financing and a slate of pictures in development. I probably could pull a production company deal at a specific studio, but to me, it’s not really worth it. I’d rather work with all the studios.

Comments are working again

newsApologies to any readers who found that their comments over the last few days fell into a black hole. The culprit was a new comment-spam filter which proved to be 100% effective.

It blocked everything. Sigh.

Everything should be fixed now. You’ll also notice that any new comments from John now show up with a little box around them.

I am a white male of European descent

Gene MapMy last normal job — the 9-to-5 kind — was as an assistant at Oliver Stone’s production company. At the time, he was in post-production on Natural Born Killers, and developing future projects, one of which was a remake of Planet of the Apes.

Any version of Apes must tackle the basic question of, “How does the hero get stuck on a planet full of goddamn apes?” Screenwriter Terry Hayes’s adaptation forewent rockets and crash-landings, and instead had our hero (or heroes, it’s been a while) traveling backwards in time through mitochondrial DNA. The device itself didn’t make a lick of sense, but it all felt very Michael Crichton: with enough jargon, almost anything sounds plausible.

The Terry Hayes/Oliver Stone version never got made, but it was my first introduction to mitochondria, which are fascinating relics we all carry with us. Essentially, they’re like little power plants inside our cells that are only vaguely related to us. We inherit them only from our mothers, which means geneticists can use mitochondrial mutations to track back lineage, determining who is related to whom, in a very broad sense.

So it was with my Planet of the Apes memory that I was intrigued by a post on Kevin Kelly’s very geeky Cool Tools feed about National Geographic’s Genographic Project. It’s an attempt to learn more about how humanity spread out around the globe by doing genetic testing on indigenous populations. The timing has become somewhat urgent, because people don’t stay put the way they used to, and they don’t always marry within their ethnic/tribal groups. In a generation or two, it may be very difficult to say exactly whose genes are whose.

National Geographic’s program is actually a kit you can order, which includes swabs for taking samples from the inside of your cheek. You mail the samples in, and a lab processes them. A few weeks later, you can enter your special code number on their website, and pull up a history of where you came from, genetically. For women, they track mitochondria. For men, they track the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son.

The home-test version is pretty rudimentary, and is really intended mostly to fund the larger project of testing indigenous groups. But it ended being pretty fascinating anyway.

The test revealed that I am a white male of European descent.

No shocker, there. My family is largely German, with a little English and Scottish thrown in. This translates to Haplogroup R1B (M343). I’d venture that most white guys reading this would be similar, if not exactly the same. But what’s more interesting than the result is the journey, which National Geographic charts really well. The report generates a map which shows where your genetic line branched out, in my case charting the journey from Africa (M168), through Central Asia (M9), and finally to Europe, where they kicked the shit out of those Neandertals.

pamirFor instance, my ancestors travelled through the Pamir Knot, which I’d never heard of. But looking at the picture, you realize that somewhere back in history, some relative lived there. Hunted there. Died there. It was 40,000 years ago, but it’s still in my blood.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s a shared history with pretty much anyone in the Northern Hemisphere — the Eurasian Clan, which includes Native Americans.

All of this got me thinking more about my long-gestating (or perhaps dead; it’s hard to say) adaptation of Tarzan at Warner Bros. One of the fundamental challenges with Tarzan is finding a way to handle race and ethnicity; having a bunch of white people fight over Africa brings back unwelcome memories of colonialism. My answer was to build the Mother Africa meme deeply into the story. No matter where you come from, no matter what color your skin, you’re related to exactly one African man who lived 31,000 to 79,000 years ago.

To me, that’s the Joseph Campbell/Star Wars-y aspect of Tarzan. Africa is destiny.

My little genographic field trip won’t advance science much, nor will it move Tarzan out of development limbo. But it made for a nice diversion. For $107.50, it’s a nice family project, particularly if your kids are old enough to understand why you’re scraping the inside of their cheeks. It’s a nice way of demonstrating the connectedness of things, and helping break down common assumptions of “us” and “them.”

Good Night, and Good Luck. And Good Job.

murrowOver the weekend, I went to see Good Night, and Good Luck at The Arclight. I liked it a lot, not only for its strong performances, but also its complete disregard for anything approaching traditional narrative structure.

The screenplay, by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, is full of good dialogue — much of it apparently drawn from transcripts. What it doesn’t have are other Syd Field essentials, such as character arcs, reversals, and clear motivations.

Stripped of such niceties as backstory and personal lives, the characters are left only with The Issue: challenging Joseph McCarthy and his destructive campaign against supposed Communists. Much like The Crucible can be read as an allegory about McCarthyism, Clooney’s movie draws parallels with the current between the media and the government (replace “Communist” with “terrorist” et voil√†¬°). But to the script’s credit, it works without this “meta” aspect. Execution matters, and it in this case, it’s executed terrifically well.

In its thematic austerity, it feels more like a play than a movie — and the fact that it’s entirely interiors adds to that sense. Some people may not like the film for that reason, and that’s valid. But the claustrophobia worked for me. Had it gone outside, I think I would have applied more “movie” expectations to it. By keeping it close and focussed, I never worried about what I was missing.

Digital filmmaking and the paradox of choice

So there’s no confusion: I’m a digital guy.

I’ll take a CD over vinyl, cameraphone over Polaroid. When it comes to life, and filmmaking, I’m largely pro-technology, anti-Luddite. In fact, I have very little patience for aesthetes who blather on and on about the infinite advantages of the analog world, be it $10,000 turntables or Maxivision projectors.

Give me some ones and zeroes, and I’m happy.

But in the same week, I had two experiences that pointed out the downside of my digital zeal. As things get faster, cheaper and more flexible, it becomes harder and harder to make “final” decisions.

I recently had the good fortune to visit the two motion-capture films Robert Zemeckis is making: Monster House and Beowulf. (The former is directed by Gil Kenan; the latter by Zemeckis himself.)

Tom HanksFor those who missed all the stories about the motion-capture process when The Polar Express came out, here’s my incredibly simplified explanation. Motion capture uses real actors, who wear special clothing (unitards, basically) outfitted with reflective dots. They have similar, smaller dots on their faces.

(Compared with this picture of Tom Hanks from The Polar Express, it seems the dot-to-skin ratio has shifted greatly. On the set of Beowulf, you could scarcely see the actors beneath all the mo-cap dots.)

Rather than filming with traditional cameras, the crew uses special sensors that record the location of each dot in space, from multiple angles.

Computers then transform this data into 3-D models. The actors are performing on an empty stage; there are no sets or props or costumes until later in the process, when animators map this information onto the wireframes. So “motion capture” means just that — you’re capturing every movement made by the actors, from big (swinging a sword) to small (a sneer). Special sensors even record each eye-blink.

While he’s on the set, working with the actors, all the director has to worry about is the performances. It’s more like directing theatre than a movie. It’s only afterwards that he sits down to “shoot” the movie.

At first listen, this sounds a lot like how George Lucas shot the last three Star Wars movies, with actors working against green screens. But it’s actually quite a bit different. Lucas is filming the actors; Zemeckis is simply capturing the information. Most notably, Zemeckis doesn’t even have to decide where to put the camera. Sitting at a computer months from now, he can pick any angle. He could play a scene in close-ups, or wide shots, or have the “camera” do impossible moves. He could decide to make the movie 3-D. There are really no limits.

And this is the biggest potential problem with motion capture. With nearly infinite options, how does the director decide what he wants? Is there such a thing as too much choice?

These thoughts were on my mind as I went to ResFest at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood. The film festival, which visits five cities each year, focuses on digital filmmaking, be it video, animation or hybrids of the two.

I specifically wanted to see the presentation about Panasonic’s new hi-def camcorder, the AG-HVX200. Rather than recording to tape, it records to P2 cards, which are basically four SD chips arranged in an array, with the form factor of a PCMCIA card. The cards are expensive, but they’re not really for long-term storage. The idea is that you immediately dump the footage onto your hard drive, wipe the card, and re-use it. In that way, it’s very much like using a digital still camera.

It’s definitely the camera I wish I had in film school. For a certain level of independent film, I think it will be a godsend.

I’d rate the audience for the presentation at about Geek Factor 7, with a fair number of nines and tens. During the Q&A, the second question was about the “true” resolution of the recording chip, which the presenter somewhat snippily declined to answer. I guess I sympathize. That’s sort of a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question. The raw numbers will never match the processed result, which leads to inevitable grumbling about how the camera doesn’t live up to its potential.


Comic Book GuyThe most annoying question came from a guy sitting behind me. I didn’t turn to look, but in my head, I immediately conjured the image of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. He took great umbrage at the presenter’s suggestion that one advantage of recording to P2 is that you can delete worthless takes in the field, freeing up more space on the card.

That’s heresy, he said, and irresponsible. You might need one of those 18 flubbed takes. I was alarmed at the passion of his conviction. He went on to say that he owned a post-production house, with several terabytes of storage at each workstation. So he would transfer everything.

Dude, I’m so happy you have so much storage. Maybe it can hold your ego. But I don’t think you understand how real filmmaking works.

We’ve all heard stories about how a director will shoot 20 takes of the same scene. What’s less often reported is the director doesn’t bring all 20 takes with him into the editing room. To understand why, we need to explain a little about film.

Film is expensive.

Okay, that was a short lesson. But that’s really the gist of it. When you’re shooting with film, you’re not only paying for the celluloid that runs through the camera, but also the processing of the negative, and the transfer (telecine) that lets you bring it into the editing system. All of that costs money.

So when he’s finished shooting a scene from a given angle, the director tells the script supervisor, “Print 3, 5 and 7.” That is, tell the lab that we only want takes 3, 5, and 7. The rest of the film negative will be processed and stored, but the other 13 takes won’t be given to the editor. (In case of emergency, such as an unforeseen glitch in the printed takes, the editor may occasionally have the lab go back and print alternate takes. But this is rare, and costly.)

Note that directors will sometimes say, “Print everything.” This will incur the wrath of the producer, who watches the film processing budget soar.

So what Comic Book Guy failed to understand is that filmmaking traditionally hasn’t transferred everything. Many decisions are made in the field. Permanently deleting a take from the camera may be more extreme, but it’s not sacrilege. In many cases, it makes sense. Anyone who’s ever snapped a self-portrait with their cameraphone knows that the delete button gets almost as much use as the shutter.

paradoxBoth the Zemeckis tour and Comic Book Guy’s misguided rant reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. As consumers, we’re conditioned from a young age to think that the more options you have, the better. But that’s not really the case. Study after study shows that the more choices you offer someone, the less happy they are with their ultimate decision.

That’s because we have a desire to optimize: we want to know we’ve made the best pick. But we psych ourselves out. The more options there are, we know it’s less likely that we’ve made the ideal choice. A restaurant is a good example. If the menu only has eight things, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know which one you want. It’s a quick decision. But if the menu has eighty things (think Cheesecake Factory), it’s a much more complicated decision-making process. Schwartz would argue you’d be less happy with the exact same meal in the second scenario. I think he’s right. The restaurant patron who says, “I want a salad” before he opens the menu is likelier to have a good meal.

I was a vegetarian for seven years. At most restaurants, there was exactly one thing I could order. And I was happy.

Coming back to digital filmmaking, I think this paradox of choice is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Zemeckis has made a lot of movies, so I’d assume he’s able to make up his mind pretty quickly and decisively about what angles he wants to use. But a filmmaker with less experience could find himself paralyzed — or worse, beholden to outside influences (like the studio) pushing for more close-ups, new shots, or whatever. It’s hard to turn someone down when they ask, “Why not give it a try?”

I’ve already seen this happening in the editing room, where the rise of non-linear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro has made it possible to work much more quickly. As the guy sitting at the right hand of the editor, I’ve definitely benefited, but it’s had a dispiriting effect on the editors themselves. They’re no longer the arbiters and gatekeepers they once were. Ironically, they’re a lot more like screenwriters now, where nearly everyone can offer an opinion on what should be changed — and too often, does.

So what’s the solution?

Self-discipline is a start. The director who only prints the takes he actually intends to use is making his life much easier. I think the Dogma philosophy is just an expansion (or, reduction) of that instinct. By depriving yourself of certain things, you can focus more closely on what’s left.

But the bigger need is to properly value the most precious resource in filmmaking: creative thought. It doesn’t show up on any budget, but it’s the single biggest factor in whether a film will be great.

Presenting a filmmaker with 100 options isn’t a help, but a hindrance. It means she has to consider 100 possibilities, or devise some system for winnowing them down into categories. That’s creative brainpower she could spend on some other, more important aspect of the film. Worse, the 99 unchosen possibilities will still weigh on her mind. In many ways, she was better off not knowing what she was missing.

Again, I’m a digital guy. But I think one of the best aspects of digital is its binary nature: yes or no, black or white, one or zero. To flourish, I think digital filmmaking needs to embrace some of this discipline.

We shouldn’t use technology simply to push back the decision-making process. Rather than cheering, “Anything is possible!” we should celebrate that “New things are possible.” The groundbreaking movies of the next decade won’t be the ones that use the most technology, but rather the ones that use it most intelligently.