Of course grammar matters

questionmarkThere is a question I’d like to ask. Regarding grammar on screenplays, how important is it to film companies, producers, studios, etc. I was under the impression, grammar can’t be filmed, so ? Your thoughts.

– Frederick

I’m generally of the school that there are no dumb questions, but I think your question is dumb enough to merit front-page attention. It’s also functionally ungrammatical, which gives it a nice bonus for irony.

Of course grammar matters.

It’s bizarre and saddening that aspiring screenwriters will agonize about the perfect margins and the proper number of brads (two), without ever considering whether a question mark might be appropriate at the end of a question. Or inappropriate at the end of a vaguely declarative statement.

True, grammar can’t be filmed. But scripts are read by people, not cameras. And people deserve the best writing you can muster. That means matching your subjects and verbs, watching your tenses, and practicing careful punctuation.

Bear in mind: as grammarians go, I’m pretty lenient. English is not Latin, and many of the so-called mistakes are really just the opinions of stubborn jerks.

But wrong is wrong. And yes, it matters.

Your question was originally posted in the comments section of another entry. A helpful reader pointed you to my lengthy missive on professionalism, which unfortunately did not meet your needs:

It didn’t answer the question. It made a vague reference to presentation and professionalism. Which means, studios, producers will assume it’s great. This is really an annoying question because it puts people on the spot about their education, grammar is at all time low in America and no one wants to discuss it. I hope I’m not dropping a bomb here.[…] He was aiming for inspiration. Inspiration isn’t an answer.

If I ever start a line of subtly demoralizing t-shirts, I now have my first slogan: “Inspiration isn’t an answer.”


10 things I hate about me

Kevin Arbouet tagged me to answer 10 questions about mistakes and bad practices.

Taken the wrong way, the whole exercise could be kind of negative and bleak. But one (hopefully) learns from one’s errors, so it’s in that spirit that I further the meme.

1) WHAT’S THE WORST THING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN?

With hindsight being 20/20, probably Fantasy Island. My concept was probably interesting only to people familiar with the show. (Short version: Roark dies on page 13, and shit goes haywire.) There were too many characters, and it was all too arbitrary. Years later, “Lost” did everything I was trying to do, and so much better.

2) WHAT’S THE WORST LINE YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN?

From Demonology: “Somewhere between fuck me and fuck you — there’s the problem.” I held onto that dumb line for far too long, until the exec finally called me on it.

3) WHAT’S THE WORST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER GIVEN?

To my former assistant, Rawson: “I don’t think anyone is clamoring to see Vince Vaughn playing dodgeball.”

4) WHAT’S THE ONE TIME YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD HAVE SPOKEN UP BUT YOU DIDN’T?

I did a rewrite of a movie for a pretty big producer. In the original script, the sister of the protagonist was a flight attendant. I changed her into a pilot, just because I thought it was more interesting. The producer insisted that I change it back, because, “That’s absurd. I’ve never seen a female pilot. I just don’t believe it.”

I know a female commercial airline pilot; I had recently been on a flight with a female pilot; four seconds of Googling could give me the exact statistics that I needed to prove that female pilots are not the Yetis of aviation. But I said fuck it, it’s not worth fighting about and changed it back. I regret not making my point, though it wouldn’t have really amounted to anything meaningful.

5) WHAT’S THE WORST PITCH MEETING YOU’VE EVER HAD?

Just this year, I pitched my take on Black Monday to Paramount. I had this bad feeling going in, sort of like when you think you might be catching a cold. Except this wasn’t a case of the sniffles, but rather some kind of aphasia. I couldn’t get three words together. It was awful.

David Hayter is writing it now. God bless him.

6) WHO’S THE ONE PERSON YOU’D NEVER WORK WITH AGAIN AND AREN’T AFRAID TO NAME?

Don Murphy. Runner up: Bernard Rose.

7) WHAT’S THE WORST SCRIPT IDEA YOU’VE EVER HAD?

Highlanders. Early in my career, I was up for writing one of the sequels. I probably spent a solid week working on my take, without ever once stopping to think, “Seriously, Highlanders?”

8) WHAT’S THE WORST THING ABOUT YOU BEING ON SET?

After a certain point, I have a hard time masking my boredom. Every other person on set has a job to keep him or her busy. My job is to watch rehearsals, then stare at the monitor during each take, silently whispering the dialogue I wrote. During the 95% of the time we’re not rehearsing or shooting, I get incredibly restless.

Come to think of it, the script supervisor has largely the same job (and lack thereof). I could probably never be a script supervisor.

9) WHAT’S YOUR WORST WORKING HABIT?

Particularly when I’m re-writing a script, I suffer from what my friend John Gatins refers to as the line-painter dilemma. Here’s the short version:

A guy is hired to paint the yellow line down the middle of a country road. The first day, he paints five miles. His supervisor is impressed. The second day, he only paints two miles. His supervisor thinks, “Well, maybe he had a bad day.” But the third day, the guy only paints half a mile. The supervisor asks the guy what’s wrong — why is he getting so much less done?

“Well,” the guy says, “I have to keep walking back to the paint can.”

The screenwriting equivalent, of course, is that at the start of each day’s work, one’s instinct is to go back to page one and read-slash-revise up to where you left off. Which is a very counter-productive habit.

10) WHAT’S THE WORST MISTAKE YOU’VE EVER MADE?

I could have bought Muhammad Ali’s old house. My real estate agent got me in to see it, and I loved it. I went back to see it twice, once with my contractor, to figure out exactly how I’d redo it. But I chickened out at the price. Now, of course, it’s worth three times that. I drive by it twice a week when taking my dog to swimming lessons. And every time, I think, damn. That should have been my house.

Not that my current house isn’t perfectly fine. It’s great. But it’s not epic-great. It’s not a house that I’d happily die in. That’s the Muhammad Ali house, my San Simeon.

Looking back, almost all the things I regret are non-actions — chances I didn’t take. I actually got a tattoo to help me remember that.


Cut-scenes do not a videogame make

Screenwriter and videogame developer Jordan Mechner, who is writing the Prince of Persia movie I’m executive-producing, has a [great opinion piece](http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/story.html ) in the new Wired magazine. In it, he argues that videogame-makers need to stop trying to ape Hollywood blockbusters, and instead focus on creating playable stories:

In a movie, the story is what the characters do. In a game, the story is what the player does. The actions that count are the player’s. Better game storytelling doesn’t mean producing higher-quality cinematic cutscenes; it means constructing the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story occur not in the cutscenes but during the gameplay itself.

You can see the whole article here.


How accurate is the page-per-minute rule?

questionmarkEvery screenwriting book I’ve read, class I took, and basically the first rule I learned says:

ONE PAGE OF A PROPERLY FORMATED SCRIPT = APPROX. A MINUTE OF SCREEN TIME.

I know one page of say a battle can last five minutes whereas one page of quick dialogue my last ten seconds if the actors talk fast… So my question is, is this rule true?

Has your 120 page script been a 2 hour movie or was it more like 90 minutes?

My main reason for asking this is I want to make my own low-budget movie. And the best tips I get say keep the script 90 pages or shorter. And to make it a play (dialogue heavy, one location).

However, from my short film experience and being an editor, I saw a 90 page script of a friend be only 55 minutes when edited. And I know Kevin Smith’s CLERKS was 164 page script, but is only a 90 min movie because of the dialogue.

So, how can I find an accurate length of the movie before I shoot it. Or should I have a 130-page script if I want to make my own feature? How do the big boys figure out if there’s enough actual screen time on the pages?

– Matthew Kaplan
New York City

Your instinct is right: the one-page-per-minute rule of thumb doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. True, most screenplays are about 120 pages, and true, most movies are around two hours. But the conversion rate between paper and celluloid is rarely one-to-one .

That’s why when a movie is in pre-production, one of the script supervisor’s first jobs is to time the script. She or he reads through the screenplay with a stopwatch, estimating how long each scene will play, then adds up the total running time. Generally, they go through the whole script twice, averaging the times.

How accurate is the script timing? Well, that depends on how well the script supervisor has factored in the director’s style. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain featured long, contemplative shots of the heroes herding sheep, which another director might have dropped altogether. But generally, the script timing is in the right ballpark.

Although a script supervisor has more experience, you can time a script yourself. My advice would be to read the dialogue aloud, while trying to pad for non-spoken moments. It’s easier with some scripts than others.

As far as my own films:

Go was 126 pages, but came out at 103 minutes — without any major scenes left out. It wasn’t play-like, but the pacing was quick.

Big Fish was 124 pages, and 125 minutes long. To my recollection, only one significant scene was omitted, so the page-per-minute rule came close.

Both Charlie’s Angels movies went through so many drafts during production that an accurate page-count is impossible. But the first drafts were around 120 pages. The original film was 98 minutes; the sequel was 106. The pacing was obviously quick.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 128 pages, 115 minutes.

Corpse Bride: 73 pages, 76 minutes.


How many drafts does it take?

questionmarkHow many rewrites do you go through before you feel your baby is ready to be read by agents, producers, etc? And does a screenwriter have to focus on just one genre or can he or she cross-pollinate into another genre? I notice some movies blur into two genres occasionally.

– Daniel De Lago

When I read about professional chefs, they often talk about having a “food sense” that tells them when something is ready. That is, they can put the fish under the broiler, then go off and work on something else, and return at exactly the moment the fish is perfectly cooked.

This “knowing when it’s done” sense only develops with experience. Beginning chefs are all too likely to pull something out a little too raw or overcooked and flavorless.

And the same is true with screenwriting. When I was first starting out, I was really unsure about when a draft was finished. I now have a pretty good sense of when something is ready for public consumption, which for me is really the first draft. That is, I’ve generally hand-written scenes, typed them up, assembled them into one big draft (called, cleverly, the “first assembly”). I then spend considerable hours tweaking and shaping and revising until I have what I consider the first draft.

This is what goes to my assistant for proofreading and reality-checking. (“Did you mean for the hero to leave in a helicopter but land in a private jet?”) A few quick fixes, and it’s ready to be seen by whoever the point person is on the project, generally the producer or executive who hired me.

Should you, Daniel, hand in a draft this early? Probably not. I’m a better writer now than when I first began, and don’t make the same mistakes I used to. To continue the cooking analogy, one way to make sure something is done is to check the temperature. Use your trusted friends and colleagues as your thermometer. Let them be your guide as to when something is safe to put on the plate.

In terms of genre, I never pay that much attention to what something is “supposed to” be, which is one reason my movies are a little bit hard to place on the shelves at Blockbuster. Go, Big Fish and Charlie’s Angels are all generally filed under comedy, but they’re not the same kind of comedies that Tim Allen stars in.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Tim Allen comedies.

(Well, actually, there is. The one that’s actually funny — Galaxy Quest — is funny because it’s not really Tim Allen’s movie, and relies on a big and talented cast to carry the film’s complicated conceit. But I digress.)

Genre should be a guide, not a straightjacket. One of the reasons I’ve never written a romantic comedy is that the expectations are so clear (meet-cute, complication, misunderstanding, resolution) that it wouldn’t feel very fulfilling to create one.