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 206 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, it’s great to be back on the air with you. Last week was a strange episode because it was the first time in the Scriptnotes history where I had not actually listened to the episode before it was aired. So the interview with Alec Berg, I had heard none of it, and suddenly it’s there in my ears as I’m on the treadmill. And I thought it was delightful.
Craig: Well thank you. I was a little worried just because we were winging it technologically. I mean, we were just basically sitting around my laptop because I had stupidly forgotten the microphone and all that other stuff. But, you know, it’s proof that content is king. It doesn’t really matter what it sounds like as long as what people are saying are interesting. And Alec, as always, was fascinating.
John: He’s a great guy. And so thank you for doing that interview. We are back at our real microphones on Skype. We are on different coasts, but it’s more like a normal show this week. This week on the show we’re going to be talking about revenue sharing. We’re going to talk about scene description. And we’re going to talk about reshoots. These are three kind of cool topics. So, I’m eager to get into it.
But first, follow up. On last week’s episode of the show I talked about the USB drives that have all 200 episodes of Scriptnotes on them. I said that you could use the special promo code — what was the promo code, Craig?
John: I said you could use that promo code and save 20%. I was wrong. It’s 10%, which is $2. I just got math — math is hard for me in my head as I speak. So many people used the code Singularity that we’re almost sold out. So, it may be moot by the time you’re hearing this podcast. We may be sold out of those USB drives. But thank you to everyone who purchased one of those.
Craig: That’s great. I’m glad that people are picking those up. You know, it is our contention that if you don’t have the money to go to film school, but you do have — how much does this thing cost?
Craig: $20, minus ten percent.
Craig: $18, plus tax, not a bad option. It’s certainly cheaper than the cheapest film school is per day.
Craig: So, give it a shot.
John: Give it a shot. This week we want to talk about revenue sharing. And this was a topic that got sent into us by a friend on Twitter. I’m sorry, I didn’t look up who actually sent us the link to the article, but I thought it was really interesting because I had not heard about this kind of plan before. So, what’s happening is Paramount Pictures, AMC Theaters, and Cineplex Entertainment are cutting this new deal for two movies that they’re going to be releasing.
First is Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and then there’s also Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. And when they release them into theaters, very shortly after being released in the theaters they will be coming out on home video. Now, we’ve seen other movies before that have done sort of day and date, a lot of indie films will do the same weekend they’re out in theaters they’ll be available on iTunes. But this is sort of a special case where it’s going to be wide releases of these movies and then at whatever point it drops below 300 screens it goes out on home video very shortly thereafter.
Craig, what did you make of this?
Craig: Well, it was very interesting. It’s smart, but I want to get into why it’s a very specific targeted strategy. Let’s walk back for a second to the history of this situation. There’s a natural push and pull between the studios and the exhibitors. The studios understand that they make most of their money from the first couple of weeks in exhibition, and then following that they get less and less coming back to them.
The theaters continue to take a pretty healthy piece of the ticket sales, but of course a bucket of popcorn costs just as much on week five of a movie as it does on week one. What concerns the movie theaters is, look, if you give us a movie and then you turn around four weeks later and put it out on digital, people just aren’t going to come to the theater. They’re just going to wait the four weeks because it’s maybe easier than driving to the theater. They’ll just wait and they’ll see it at home. They won’t feel like they’re missing out on an experience. They won’t feel like, you know, oh my god, everyone around me has seen this movie except for me and I’m waiting the three months before it’s available on video.
So, the studios naturally want to shrink the window between theatrical release and digital release. And the exhibitors want it to be as long as possible. So, here’s what Paramount does. They say, look, on these two films what we’re saying to you guys is let us release this thing on digital way earlier than we normally would. We’re going to really shrink that window. But to compensate you for this we’ll give you a piece of what we make on the digital following three months after the initial theatrical release. So we put it out in theaters, 17 days go by, and now it’s still running in your theaters, but you can also watch it digitally at home.
For those people who watch it digitally at home, from that — up until 90 days from the start of the theatrical release — we’ll kick back a little piece of it to you guys. And when I say a little piece, it could be a big piece. We don’t know what the actual percentage is.
And it’s fascinating because, of course, the exhibitors, the theater owners, they have nothing to do with you at home buying the movie. It’s basically the studio buying the right from the theaters to run the movie in the theater and then allow them to sell it to home video. Of course, look at the movies that they’re doing it with, and there’s where it gets —
John: Yeah. So, the two films are Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. And those are genre movies and there’s a really telling quote from one of the theater owners. Ellis Jacobs says, “Some films generate 99% of their gross in the first four to six weeks of release, followed by a two-month window where they’re completely unavailable to the legitimate marketplace.” And that term “the legitimate marketplace” is really what’s underlying all of this discussion.
When movies are released in the theaters, people go see them in the theaters because that’s the only place to see them, until they show up on torrents. Until everyone is just illegally downloading them. And so there’s always been that period of time where people could download those movies and watch them at home. It just wasn’t legal.
And the studios are saying, listen, we want to actually capture some of that money and be able to make money off of these movies during this time when people are just streaming them, or illegally downloading them.
Craig: That’s right. So, the studios want to shrink the window in part because they want to make more money, and in part because they want to defeat piracy. On these two movies, the exhibitors understand that when they say — I think the quote you said, “99% is within the first four to six weeks of release.” He’s being really generous with that number. My guess is that on a movie like a Paranormal Activity title, 99% of the theatrical gross is within the first three weeks.
Because it’s such an opening night business. It’s very teenage driven. It’s also — they have a high Latino turnout. They have a high African American turnout. We know that Latinos and African Americans are big drivers of early movie-going, like first week of movie-going. They are right on those releases.
So, on a movie like a Paranormal Activity, everybody, Paramount and the theaters, they know that, meh, after 17 days of a theatrical run, a lot of that juice has been squeezed out of the orange anyway. So, this way the theaters are kind of saying, well, we probably weren’t going to make that much money off these movies anyway after 17 days. And since you guys are willing to kick back to us some of that sweet digital money for another 73 days, why not? What you won’t see are any arrangements like this with movies that theoretically play in a more traditional way.
John: Agreed. I think it’s important to understand that the relationship between studios and exhibitors, exhibitors being the theater chains, they are contractual, but there’s also some governmental influence underneath this. Because once upon on a time these used to be vertically integrated companies. And so Paramount used to own its theaters. And if we still were setup that same way, Paramount would have done this a long time ago. Paramount would have recognized that like, listen, why bother with a window. Just get it out there, get a big push, and like next week we should put it on digital.
But they have to have this complicated relationship with their exhibitors now because they’re not allowed to own them, so they have to have a negotiation. And that negotiation has been sometimes favored towards the studios, sometimes favored for their exhibitors, but they need each other, because they’re not allowed to own each other.
And so exhibitors quite reasonably are worried that if the average theater goer understands that a movie is going to be available two weeks after it’s on the big screen, they’re just going to wait and see it at home. And that is really their worry and that’s why they don’t want most films to go this way.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the theaters and the studios do this interesting dance. It’s a dance of negotiation where the exhibitors desperately want the big movies. The studios want them to take all of their movies, right? So, there’s that whole negotiation. Yeah, you can have The Avengers if you also take this. Right?
Okay, so there’s that part. Then the theater owners obviously want as much time as possible in the theaters exclusively, because that’s why people go to the movie theaters. The companies, of course, want to make money however they can, as fast as they can. Then, the studios really want the exhibitors to make movie theaters as awesome as they can. The studios want movie theaters to be all digital, and have great seats, and to be clean.
They don’t want movie theaters to charge too much for tickets to drive people away, unless it’s a really great movie, then they would love that. If the movie theaters had their druthers, popcorn would be free, because they don’t make any money off of it. And they know that movie goers are annoyed by the high prices of concessions. All these interesting things are going on here. So, far so good — both businesses seem to be okay. It’s a weird thing.
I’ve always felt that the nature of the exhibition arrangement is one of the reasons why you see this remarkable permanency in Hollywood studio corporate history. You have these big five studios and they’ve always been the big five studios and they pretty much always will be because they’re the ones that have the libraries and the negotiation clout with the exhibitors.
John: Yeah. It’s one of those kind of weird oligopoly/olinopsony, what is the equivalent of the oligopoly for the buyer side? There’s a very limited number of buyers. There’s a very limited number of sellers. In this case you have two of the buyers, if you want to call them buyers, the exhibitors, dealing — cutting a deal with one of the big sellers. And it’s an experiment that I think everyone is going to be watching because a lot of studios are making movies that are in this window. A lot of Lions Gate movies feel like they’re kind of in this window.
Craig: I agree. And if it works out mutually to everyone’s success, now, of course, it creates a whole other channel of negotiations because if this works then the next thing that happens is the studios say, well, we’ll do it again, but we’re not going to give you quite as much of the digital. You know, this will always be the way that corporations deal with each other. It is fascinating.
I think from a screenwriter point of view, this is a good deal. Because all of our residuals are for what we call ancillary markets. So the primary or what they call secondary exhibition. Primary exhibition covers theatrical release and curiously enough releases on airplanes.
Craig: So, we don’t get any money from the run in the theater. We only get money from sale to television, downloads, rentals, etc. This is good for the writers of Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension, and the writers of Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse because they should get a nice boost on the digital sales. So, from a writing point of view, all of us should be very much in favor of this.
John: Fast forward to the next negotiation and how much do you want to bet the studios want to put a clause in there that defines ancillary markets as being markets that are encountered within like a 90-day window after theatrical. I just feel like there’s going to be some way that they’re going to claim that, well, this is still part of the theatrical release because we’re still sharing the proceeds back with the exhibitors.
Craig: I think they may ask. I mean, the obvious response is —
Craig: You can share with anybody whatever you want. But we get a piece of your grosses, period, the end. That’s it. You can give it all to charity. We don’t care what you do with your end.
John: Mm-hmm. But I would not be surprised if this becomes — if this is successful and other studios try to emulate this model — I would not be surprised if we see this kind of hybrid approach being a factor in upcoming negotiations.
Craig: It may very well be. We’ll see. We’ll see. I hope not. Because to me it feels like kind of a big strike issue, unless we can show that this is a minor, minor deal. Like, okay, if you’re giving away 1% and you want to take away 1% of our residuals during that 67 days, I suppose there’s a negotiation there. Maybe. Because it’s minor. But, you know, but — ah…eh…
John: I don’t want us to put a dark cloud over what I think is overall an interesting idea and an interesting experiment because everyone who goes to see these kinds of movies recognizes that there’s something really weird and broken about sort of how long that window is between these kind of movies and when you can find them legally online.
John: And honestly, all screenwriters want — we’re not getting paid any residuals on those stolen movies, so —
Craig: That’s right.
John: We want those to be converted to legitimate sources.
Craig: That’s one of my beefs with the Writers Guild is that they — we should be as aligned as possible with anti-piracy efforts. Sometimes I feel like we’re not quite there the way that the DGA is. But, yeah, no question. The system is old in a new era. And these sorts of creative solutions will happen more and more, but I do think that they will happen in this way, in a very a la carte way. Because this is not a model that applies to most movies I would even argue. It just applies to some.
John: Yeah. So far we’ve only seen this applied to these kind of special genre movies and as we’ve talked about in previous episodes the day and date releases, home video, and theatrical for indie films, sort of like the Sundance movie —
Craig: Right. Because those movies tend to only be running theatrically in a few cities anyway.
John: Exactly. Cool. Our next topic is something we’ve never actually done before, which is, you know, we’ve done Three Page Challenges where we’ve looked at three pages that listeners have sent in and gone through them. We end up talking a lot about the scene description, but we’ve never really talked about scene description just by itself. And so I thought this week we would go through and take a look at seven examples of produced screenplays, movies you’ve seen, and what those looked like on the page.
And so if you want to read along home with us, there are little snippets that are available. You can follow the links in the show notes at johnaugust.com. And they’re just little graphics that take a screenshot of a piece of the page so that we can talk about what those words were on the page that became the scenes that you saw. So, the six movies that we’re going to look at are Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted, and Whip It.
So, these are just a random sample I picked this morning of different movies, some of them are what we consider action movies, others are just dramas or comedies. But just a sense of what those words are like on the page and by scene description let’s just talk about our terms here. I’m really referring to everything that’s not the character’s talking.
So, it’s everything that would be on the page to help describe what the movie actually is, but isn’t a character talking. And so those are the action lines, those are how you are moving across the page. What punctuation you’re using. What nouns you’re choosing. What verbs you’re choosing to sort of show how things look.
John: So, let’s take a look at Aliens. Aliens is really one of those movies that screenwriters of my generation sort of go back to, because it’s one of the first scripts we just read and loved and kind of tried to copy James Cameron’s style.
This is an example from the start of Aliens. This is him describing the Narcissus. I won’t go through all of this, but I’m just going to give you a sense of what it feels like on the page.
INT. NARCISSUS. There’s no day or night. Just INT. NARCISSUS.
Dark and dormant as a crypt. The searchlights stream in the dusty windows. Outside, massive metal forms can BE SEEN descending around the shuttle. Like the tolling of a bell, a BASSO PROFUNDO CLANG reverberates through the hull.
CLOSE ON THE AIRLOCK DOOR. Light glares as a cutting torch bursts through the metal. Sparks shower into the room.
A second torch cuts through. They move with machine precision, cutting a rectangular path, conversion as the torches meet. Cut off. The door falls inward revealing a bizarre multi-armed figure. A ROBOT WELDER.
So, that’s the very start of Aliens. This is coming to find Ripley in her spaceship. And I remember what that looks like when I saw it in the movie, but this would have given me a very good sense of what this movie felt like. Craig, how do you react to this?
Craig: Well, this to me, I think of this, and I’m not sure if it’s because the script was so influential, or if it’s simply within a tradition that’s longer, this feels like a very typical way of doing things. And I don’t mean to say boring at all. I mean to say this is sort of how you do it. Like when I think of like a good classic way of writing description, it is a little bit prosy, right? He doesn’t shy completely away from prose. “Dark and dormant as a crypt” is evocative.
But he’s using — he’s not writing full, complete sentences. He’s doing a lot of little bursts. Like, “Sparks shower into the room” is a technical sentence, but it’s not like a full, or like the words “Cut off” is a sentence. That obviously is a little bit of a fragment.
So, he kind of goes fragmented at times. Mostly the action description is focusing you on the visuals and on the audio, which is important. So, to me, this is a very classic way of doing things. There’s not a lot of stuff in here — there’s nothing cute. There’s nothing clever or referential to the reader. There’s nothing that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t watching or listening to the movie.
This, frankly, is pretty much the way I like to approach things. Also interesting is his use of capitalization which is very much the way I use it. And it’s when I feel like it.
Craig: So, you know, sometimes he’ll say, like he’s using it in a typical way when a new character enters. ROBOT WELDER. THREE MEN. Sometimes he uses it to call out a specific prop. HYPER SLEEP CAPSULE. Sometimes he uses it for a sound, or even an action. Like he says, “Outside, massive metal forms can BE SEEN.” And it’s there just to help you. It’s almost like you can see the camera swinging to it, you know what I mean?
Craig: So, this is very classic. I think you could not go wrong if you adopt this as your style.
John: Absolutely. Let’s talk about the literary techniques he’s using. So you have metaphor and simile in here. So, “Dark and dormant as a crypt.” “Like the tolling of a bell.” So, obviously you can’t see metaphor and simile up on a screen, but that’s how you’re trying to create the image in the reader’s head, or create the sound in the reader’s head.
He’s not afraid of referencing the camera. So, it does say, “ANGLE INSIDE CAPSULE,” “f.g.” for foreground, which is not common, but you totally get what’s happening there. This feels like a script that was both written to be shot, and written to be read. He actually has a great appreciation for the person who is spending the time to read the script and is trying to create on the page as close to the experience as what he wants to create on the big screen down the road.
John: So, this is terrific on that level.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. And it’s one of the reasons I get so frustrated when so-called script whatevers say, “Don’t do…script…” because what he’s doing here isn’t so much writing a script like, oh, I’m just writing directorial notes for myself. What he’s doing is helping the reader watch a movie. Everything he writes in here, everything, is essentially him describing to you the movie that’s running in his head. So, “Dark and dormant as a crypt” is evocative and I can see it. And then I see, “Searchlights stream in the dusty windows.”
I see all of it, and it’s — even “Like the tolling of a bell, a BASSO PROFUNDO CLANG.” So, some people might not know what a Basso Profundo Clang is, but they know what the tolling of a bell is. So, we’re good.
Craig: “Light glares as a cutting torch bursts,” I can see it. It’s all about helping me see, and the angles help me see.
John: The next last paragraph, “ANGLE INSIDE CAPSULE as light stabs in where the dust is wiped away, illuminating a WOMAN, her face in peaceful repose.”
So, here we go. This is a long sentence for what this. So, “Inside the capsule, light stabs.” Great. I totally get what the stabbing is in that case. “As dust is wiped away.” So here it’s like we’ve moved to passive voice kind of here for a second. You know, dust is wiped away. But we’re inside and he’s using the whole sentence to sort of let us know this is a longer shot. We’re inside something. It’s meant to be mysterious and it’s meant to be a little bit more serene inside here. It’s just terrifically well done.
Craig: It’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s so purposeful. Like this is my favorite kind of description, frankly, because it is both creative and utilitarian. I’m a big fan of this sort of thing.
John: Great. Next up we have Erin Brockovich, and here’s a snippet of the script by Susannah Grant.
INT. MASRY & VITITOE — lord, I have no idea what the name is — RECEPTION AREA — DAY.
Morning. Erin walks in, wearing her usual garb. She passes the coffee area where Jane, Brenda, and Anna are milling. Brenda sees her, gives Anna a nudge. They both check out her short hem. Anna nudges Jane, who looks as well. Erin glances over just in time to see all three of them staring back at her judgmentally. She stops in her tracks and stares back.
Y’all got something you want to discuss?
The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.
INT. ED’S OFFICE — DAY
Ed is walking over to his office with the coffee cup in his hand when he trips over the same box of files again.
So, a very different style here. This first paragraph, all the scene description before Erin talks is just one block. And yet it works really well for me because it gives me the feeling that this is a oner, that basically this is all happening in a single shot. This is all sort of one idea is them looking at her. And then we’re going to circle back around to what her reaction is to them looking at her.
Craig: Yeah. This is a very common way of describing scenes that are not about the camera. The camera should not be noticed here at all.
So, when we look at James Cameron’s opening, it’s incredibly visual because there is no dialogue and it’s entirely about telling the story of the mystery of a space that’s being illuminated and exciting things are going on.
This scene is about people and what’s going on in their heads. And about what looks mean and what looks don’t mean. And looking away and looking at. And in that case this is appropriate because I don’t need to know the angles on that, at all. The angles, frankly, will be incredibly boring and obvious.
It’s entirely about the performance, so in this case I like the fact that the action takes a back seat to the performance. And all of the action is now actually describing what’s happening inside people’s heads, so that when Erin says, “Y’all got something you want to discuss?” and then they go back to stirring their coffees, I know exactly what happened.
You could have done this in dialogue. You know, it could have been whispered. “You see what she’s wearing?” “Y’all got something to discuss?” “No, no, no.” Right?
And so I like that in this case you go, no, no, I don’t want to do that in dialogue. I want to do it in action. Well, this is how you do that in action.
John: Yup. I mean, if you didn’t understand English, you would still understand this scene. And you would understand that they are looking conspiratorially and reacting. And that she says something back that shuts them up. That’s all you really need to know. So, honestly the line of dialogue isn’t especially important for making the scene work.
Craig: Yeah. This is one area where — I don’t want people to think that just because I say you’re allowed to use camera angles means you should always use them. This would be a place where it would be very clunky to suddenly say, “Angle on Erin. She stops in her tracks and stares back.” You just don’t want that. Because it’s a boring shot.
John: Yeah. This makes it seem easy and sort of thrown off in a way that’s just right. I wanted to talk about that last line before we go to the next scene. “The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.”
It’s a great example of just varying your sentence length to create a good rhythm on the page. So, those were some long sentences beforehand. It was a big long block. Here we just have two short sentences. “The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.” A three-word sentence that lets us know that that scene is done and we’re on to the next thing.
You don’t need a Cut To when you have Erin walks on. That short sentence is your cut to.
Craig: That’s correct. And I would also say that let’s say your intention was that she would say, “Y’all got something you want to discuss?” and then you just for whatever reason wanted to cut away to something else, sometimes I’ll read in scripts where people end a scene on a dialogue line. It’s just a bad idea I think in general. Because you do want the line to land somehow.
Now, here you clearly need it to land, plus Erin is leaving. But I think in action it’s best to begin and end a scene with action.
John: Yeah. And of course you’re not making a blanket —
Craig: No, it’s just a good —
John: Yeah, so I’m sure you have scripts where you’ve deliberately ended on a line of dialogue and I’ve done it, too, but it’s a very sort of unique special case where you definitely want to leave the feeling that the camera is ending up on that person as they say this line, and you’re not supposed to be getting the reaction. That the next shot is the reaction to what they just said.
Craig: Yeah. I probably even in those circumstances, I’d probably pull a Cut To in there because I want some sense that I know what I’m doing. That it’s intentional.
John: Yeah. I think the Cut To is almost required for doing that technique.
Craig: Yeah. Ooh, I want to read this one.
John: You can read this one. This is Ocean’s 11 by Ted Griffin.
Craig: Right. And here in this little snippet you’ll see that these are all called out as individual scene numbers. So, this is from a production script where everything was numbered. So, I’ll sort of emphasize where things are capitalized.
MIRADOR SUITE. Now empty, Livingston’s monitors still displaying the masked men in the vault.
WHITE VAN. Navigating the streets of Las Vegas.
FIVE SEDANS. Tailing the van, security goons piled into each, and maybe we NOTICE (or maybe not) the Rolls-Royce tailing them.
TESS. Pacing in Benedict’s suite, biting her nails, debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny. ON TV: a newscast of the contentious aftermath of the prize fight.
UZI GUARDS, bound and unarmed, unconscious to the activity within the vault.
RUSTY’S CELL PHONE opened and unmanned.
BENEDICT listens — the line has gone dead. He hangs up.
Ooh, good job.
John: So good.
Craig: Good job, Ted.
John: Good job, Ted Griffin. I wanted to include this because so often you see like, well, the question is like well how do I do a montage, how do I format a montage and, you know, sometimes you do it with bullet points, sort of you quickly go through a list of shots. But this is more commonly what you’re really needing to do in a montage which is you’re moving between different people and different places and they all have to build up to sort of one greater sequence. And this is great example of how you actually do that.
So, you notice that the start of each one he’s in all caps in uppercase doing the where we’re at. So, MIRADOR SUITE, WHITE VAN, FIVE SEDANS, TESS. And then the description right after that is set up in a parallel structure, so it’s always navigating, tailing, pacing. He’s coming with an adjectival, participle phrase to sort of give you a sense of what the action is, but not really the verb. So, it could be, “White van navigates the streets of Las Vegas.” But instead it’s, “White van, navigating the streets of Las Vegas.”
It’s a continuous action that we’re just catching a glimpse of it while it’s going on.
Craig: Yeah. This is all about creating the sense of flow across things that otherwise would be considered fragmented. So, let’s just go right off the bat here. Ted gets rid of INTs and EXTs. Doesn’t need them. Doesn’t want to bother with them. And I don’t blame him at all, especially when you have so many of these in a row. It would be just like word salad to have all these INTs and EXTs, and we don’t need them. We know that the white van navigating the streets of Las Vegas is outside. And we know that Tess in Benedict’s suite is inside.
We’re getting all of that. So, he says, eh, screw all that formality. Don’t need it. I also love that the way it’s running here, there’s a rapidity to it. We can feel the pace of these scenes. We can see — there’s a motion going on to all of this.
And then there’s this interesting — this would fall — I would put this in the school of extreme utility. But, then there are these little twists. For instance, “FIVE SEDANS tailing the van, security goons piled into each, and maybe we NOTICE,” and in parenthesis, “(or maybe not) the Rolls-Royce tailing them,” which is great, because that’s different than what Cameron does. Cameron probably would never write that, because what do you mean, maybe not? Well either we do or we don’t, right?
But actually that is something. Like the instruction there is a careful viewer who is paying attention to that will see it, but otherwise they won’t. We’re not making a deal of it.
John: In the script I just turned in, there’s some scene description of an apartment that we go to the first time. And I call out that there’s some memorabilia from an earlier scene in the set decoration, but it’s not crucial. It’s like it’s a useful thing that’s there that helps sort of connect it to an earlier thing, but it’s not an urgent thing that the viewer doesn’t see it that the world comes crashing to an end.
And so that “or maybe not” is a useful thing. It’s not saying like throwing up your hands like you don’t care. It’s saying that it’s like it’s there and it’s interesting, but it’s not essential.
Craig: Right. Similarly, there’s a thing that probably I don’t think Cameron would do in his description, but I like that Ted does it here. On Tess, “Debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny.” Well, can you film that? Yes, you can.
As long as the screenplay has made it clear that she’s in a position where she would be debating that, what you’re saying there is act like you’re debating that. And I’ll see it. I should be able to see — that’s something that an actor can act. So, I like that that’s there. And then you see that on TV there’s this prize fight going on. So there’s all these layers of stuff.
I love that Rusty’s cell phone is his own scene. It’s just great. Because that — here’s the other thing. Once you start down the road of a pattern for a montage, you’re in that pattern.
Craig: So, you can’t just suddenly go, okay, now here’s a bunch of things all together in one scene. No. Uzi guards and now Rusty’s cell phone is his own scene, just sitting there, all good, and then you go back to Benedict. “The line has gone dead.” Great. Great. Great.
Just a really good way to move you through this moment. It’s fun. You can feel — like you can almost feel the music through this which is great.
John: Absolutely. Probably a good sign for almost any montage is that you should be able to sense the underlying audio, which is generally music, that’s going to be the bed that’s going to tie all these things together.
And each of these shots feels about the same length, even though they consist of very different material in them.
Circling back to what you said about Tess, “Pacing in Benedict’s suite, biting her nails, debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny.” In all these examples, these are scenes that were already set up someplace else. And so if you’re coming back to something you don’t have to sort of do all the work again to establish who that person was, what they were doing. We had an earlier scene where we saw her. We saw or we knew what her situation was, so we don’t have to do the full recap here. It’s just like, you know, remind us like, oh, she’s debating what she’s going to do.
John: Great. We got it.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s really underscoring also how much work the screenplay has done well, because there’s a simplicity and a clarity. There’s no confusion at this point what her pacing is about. That means the screenplay has done its job. So, excellent work there. Ooh, can I read this one, too?
John: You can read this one, too.
Craig: Only because it’s like my favorite and I just feel like maybe I’ll get smarter for having read it. [laughs] So this is a little bit from Unforgiven by David Webb Peoples. Obviously one of the great, great screenplays ever.
BAH-WHOOM! Munny fires and smoke belches out…
Skinny is blown back against the wall and falls to the floor a bloody mess and…
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar near his leg but he freezes because…
Munny has turned the shotgun on him and Munny sees Ned’s Spencer there and his eyes show how feels about it.
For a moment while the smoke clears the bar is silent and there are nervous glances cast at the bloody body of Skinny but Little Bill keeps his eyes on Munny.
Little Bill says, “Well sir…You are a cowardly sonofabitch because you have just shot down an unarmed man.
Actually, I think in the movie they flipped that. Regardless.
Then….It has become a very formal moment and there are, figuratively speaking, only two people in the room, Munny and Little Bill…and WW Beauchamp is watching them, scared to death, but this is it, what all those Easterners dreamed about, the showdown in the saloon.
John: So much to love here. And so different than some of our other examples. And that’s why I thought we would include it.
John: So, let’s talk about dot-dot-dot and dash-dash. So, here David Webb Peoples is sort of continuing the continuity of the action by ending each line on a dot-dot-dot. So, and…, and…, because…. So, there’s a cause and effect to each time that we’re cutting.
You know, you don’t necessarily have to believe that each one of these paragraphs is its own shot, but it kind of feels that way.
We’re always in the present tense, and yet look at the choices he’s making about present tense. Skinny is blown against the wall. So, rather than saying the shot blows Skinny back, he is blown back, so we’re seeing the effect of that shot from a previous cut.
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar near his leg, so we are — so often in screenwriting books they’ll talk about like oh don’t use —
Craig: Get rid of I-N-G. Wah!
John: Yeah, exactly.
John: But here twice in a row, because we’re establishing geography and location and sort of the continuity of a person’s action.
John: It’s so fascinating here, I think, where Munny has turned the shotgun on him. So rather than saying Munny turns the shotgun on him, like it has already happened, so we’re coming into a moment that has just happened, so we’re seeing the effect of what has just happened.
Craig: It’s so great. It’s so great. And, you know, this is where these, again, these screenwriting knucklehead gurus out there, I just want to put them all on a spaceship and send them into the sun, because they don’t even understand, ooh, here it comes, they don’t understand —
John: Yup. I knew it was coming.
Craig: They don’t understand the point of verbs. This is a — this is masterful. What peoples is doing here is masterful. And if you pay attention you can see the movie happening because of the verb tenses, right? Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer means when the camera cuts to Bill he’s already in motion. Not reaches for, which means he makes a decision to reach and then reaches. He’s already moving. The thing is already there. And then, but he freezes because Munny has turned the shotgun on him.
Munny has turned the shotgun on him means that Little Bill is discovering something that has happened off-screen that he didn’t realize happened, and that’s so impactful for the audience. Because it means that he’s going to see something first and we’re going to see in his eyes fear. And then we’re going to reveal what he’s scared of.
This is how verbs work, you enormous pile of [laughs] of exploitative —
John: You’re not talking to me. You’re talking to some strawman —
Craig: You exploitative mother-f’ers. “Don’t use I-N-G verbs.” You idiots. Right? So this is what it’s about.
And I love it!
John: Mm-hmm. This last paragraph is so fascinating to me, because “It has become a very formal moment and there are, figuratively speaking,” so it’s a huge long paragraph. This phrase, “it has become a very formal moment,” doesn’t that feel like a slow pullback to you?
John: It’s like you’re just like you’re recognizing like, oh, we’ve been in these little moments and then suddenly we’re getting bigger and wider and we’re sort of seeing what exactly has happened here.
So, it’s like it’s taking stock of the last few moments and sort of like what the scene is like now. And you don’t have to do this, but in some ways to write to Unforgiven you have to do this, because that’s what the movie feels like.
Craig: Absolutely. And, by the way, I think wrong. I think that this is exactly the order that Little Bill said it in. It’s just maybe he fiddled with a couple of words. But, no, of course, it’s exactly right. So, here’s the deal, right, I love dot-dot-dots. I’m a huge fan of them because what dot-dot-dots do for me is they kind of imply you’re holding your breath. You know, like Walter Murch wrote this great book called In the Blink of an Eye where he talks how the audience will naturally blink where you kind of want to cut, you know.
And that’s just the way our brains work. And similarly, when things like this are happening, it’s common for people to say, “Oh my god, I finally breathed. Like I was holding my breath through that whole thing.” That’s what dot-dot-dot is doing. It’s saying hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. And then Little Bill says this, and the way that David Peoples writes this last paragraph it implies you’re breathing now. In fact, we’re going to take our time to breathe and discover this tableau, that it’s now formal. Now, all the action is over and we have entered this new weird thing where two gods among men have dropped all the pretenses and are cutting to the truth.
And then I love this, “And WW Beauchamp is watching them, scared to death that this is, what all those Easterners dreamed about, the showdown in the saloon,” which is something that is acted beautifully in that moment. It’s just great. And there’s nothing wrong. It’s not too wordy, as far as I’m concerned. I feel like this is really bursty, like quick bursts, and exciting, and then when the movie becomes a little bit languid, the action becomes languid.
So this is poetry to me. The use of action is helping imply the pace of the scene itself.
John: Great. Our next example is from Wall-E, which has a similar sort of strange style to it, like sort of not conventional style. But completely suits the movie that Wall-E is. So, Wall-E, if you remember, so much of Wall-E takes place like a silent film. And if you read the script, it sort of feels that way.
So, I’ll describe this to you and if you look at the actual sample, these single sentences are all their own line. So there’s no paragraphs here. They’re all just given their own line. They’re blocked together in some ways to sort of imply a bit of more continuity of action, but they’re all single sentences.
EXT. TRUCK — NIGHT
Wally motors outside. Turns over his Igloo cooler to clean it out. Pauses to take in the night sky. STARS struggle to be seen through the polluted haze. Wally presses the “Play” button on his chest. The newly sampled It Only Takes a Moment plays.
The wind picks up. A WARNING LIGHT sounds on Wally’s chest. He looks out into the night. A RAGING SANDSTORM approaches off the bay…
Unfazed, Wally heads back in the truck. It Only Takes a Moment still gently playing.
…The massive wave of sand roars closer…
Wally raises the door. Pauses. WHISTLES for his cockroach to come inside. The door shuts just as the storm hits. Obliterates everything in view.
Craig: Well, I love Wall-E. Love Wall-E. I would not recommend that people write traditional screenplays this way. I wouldn’t even recommend people write animated screenplays this way, because this document feels like a notes documents for people who are all working on a movie.
This document feels like it’s in support of reams and reams of storyboards and story art. And on its own is simply not going to do the job. Like, I read this and it doesn’t make me see the movie at all.
It feels like a support document. So, I think that this is a more technical way of doing things within a framework of a storyboarded process, but I don’t think that this would be advisable for a movie where somebody didn’t know your story at all and was going to read it.
John: I disagree with you. I think I could read this document and have a really good sense of what the movie felt like.
And it would take me a little while to get into this strange spare style, but honestly it does feel what certainly the first half of Wall-E feels like to me, which is a bunch of individual shots where he is a small figure against a large landscape or, you know, just he’s center frame and there’s just this giant emptiness around him.
I really dug it. And so even if you were to try to apply some of these lessons to a more conventionally written screenplay, I want to talk about trimming off subjects of sentences because you don’t need them a lot of times.
So, let’s imagine these first couple of sentences where in a more conventionally formatted script. “Wally motors outside. Turns over his Igloo cooler to clean it out. Pauses to take in the night sky.” You don’t need the He’s, you don’t need the It’s, you don’t need Wally’s, as long as you have parallel structure between those sentences, we get it.
And particularly if you’re writing action sequences, you’re very often going to trim off those subjects because we know who’s doing it, so just give us the verb and let’s keep going.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. I do that all the time, and I obviously write in a more traditional sense. Where this doesn’t work for me, if I weren’t familiar with Wall-E, if I didn’t see artwork, I hadn’t been looking at storyboards is things like, it says, “A raging sandstorm approaches off the bay…” but that’s it. It’s just a raging sandstorm. Okay.
And then it’s a “massive wave of sand.” And then it says, “The door shuts just as the storm hits.” It’s so flat and I’m not excited. And I want to be excited in things like that. He says, “Whistles for his cockroach to come inside.” I’m not sure if a cockroach does come inside there, or not. I don’t know. And it says “obliterates everything in view.” It’s all so flat and it feels very much like Wally himself, like Wally is writing this script. But I don’t want Wally to be writing the script. I want somebody like Pete Docter to be writing the script to make me feel for Wally, which is in fact what was going on.
I think it was Pete Docter who did this one, right?
John: Yeah. Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton.
Craig: Oh, Stanton.
John: Other credits were Jim Reardon, yeah.
Craig: I’m just fascinated by this. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to ask our friend Emily Zulauf like what the deal is with this, because I can’t imagine that they would give this to somebody that didn’t know anything else and say what do you think of this movie we’re making. So, I’m in a different place than you are on this one.
John: Yeah. For sure you could imagine this document along with the artwork, or the sense of like each of these lines became one panel of a storyboard. And maybe that’s sort of how their internal process works. But I really do think this is a way you could write a script and have it be quite successful. So, all right, next is a much more conventional thing but also quite delightful thing from our friends Derek Haas and Michael Brandt. This is from the movie Wanted.
THWAP! A bullet finds its way through the space and hits the Electrician in the back of the shoulder, spinning him around.
CLOSE ON: Cross’s gun. Another shot and we follow the bullet, across the dock, and dipping low into the next space in the paper stack — right where Electrician is now leaning…
…the bullet buries in his eye, sending him to the floor.
Wesley sees Cross race for a set of stairs. Just as Wesley is about to cut him down, Cross fires at a wooden beam holding back some massive rolls of NEWSPAPER. The rolls tumble over and Wesley has to dive out of the way, allowing Cross to escape up the stairs.
Wesley, Fox, and the Waiter all race for the stairs.
Craig: Yeah. To me, this is, again, very traditional way of doing action. One thing that the guys do here is they’re not shying away from violence, right, so the action — when we write action, you can say like, “He’s shot, falls to the ground.” And the action is telling you this is a movie about the ballet of violence. When it’s “THWAP! A bullet finds its way through the space and hits the Electrician in the back of the shoulder, spinning him around,” we understand that we’re doing ballet now. First of all, we know that we’re actually following the bullet, which tells us, again, about pace.
When “the bullet buries in his eye, sending him to the floor,” it’s underlined. They’re like, hey, this is what we’re about here. This is a movie in which violence is supposed to be operatic.
And people running and dancing around, like I don’t know what these guys are thinking, and I don’t need to. I don’t know what their characters are in this moment. It’s not about that. So, contrast this with say like in Unforgiven we can see like, oh my god, he turns and then there’s this moment of dread. And then we reveal this. This is more pure action.
And this is a very typical way of writing pure action. High energy. And use the action to let us know exactly how lurid we’re going to be.
John: Yup. Also, the use of underlining is part of the reason why I chose this section of the script. Action scripts will tend to use underlining as like an extra form of punctuation. It’s like a way of sort of visually indicating what the key crucial beats are. And so you will underline the things that you want to make sure the reader doesn’t miss, but also it’s just going to give you a sense of this is already a very loud scene, so what are the loudest parts within this loud scene.
And sort of what do you need to make sure you’re focusing on. Even within the uppercase, like that NEWSPAPER still gets capitalized because — it’s not just because it’s a key prop, but because it’s a big thing you need to make sure you don’t miss. It’s a thing that’s going to be causing the action in the next section.
John: It’s essentially its own character for the rest of this paragraph.
Craig: Yeah. And so like if you don’t capitalize newspaper and so everything is just underlined there, you’ll notice it, but massive rolls of newspaper you’re like, well, okay, so massive rolls of newspaper. Newspaper doesn’t seem very massive to me. Massive rolls of all capitalized newspaper, I’m just already imagining lots of newspaper, like a massive amount of newspaper, which is what they want. So, they’re smart that way.
I thought this was done really, really well. And, by the way, just side note, love this movie. Love — so entertaining. I was so entertained by Wanted.
John: Yeah. Wanted is a movie that knows what it is in a way that so many movies don’t. It never shied away from being its own true self, and that’s what I really appreciated about it. It was nutso.
Craig: Yes, it was.
John: And wasn’t Chris Pratt in that? Chris Pratt plays like —
Craig: Yes, he plays like his jerk buddy at work who is screwing his girlfriend.
John: Like on a copy machine. There’s some crazy —
Craig: Yeah, exactly. He hits him in the face with the keyboard and the keyboard letters spell out F-U I think, or, I’m trying to keep it clean. But it was very cool. I don’t know, Timur is nuts, man. That guy — I love that movie.
John: Yeah. I love it, too. Whatever happened to Chris Pratt?
Craig: I don’t know. I don’t know. For a moment there, uh, you know, I think he’s just mostly doing that role, like he plays that guy, the jerk.
John: The jerk. Yeah.
Craig: Like the jerk who is in a movie for a scene to make the hero look good.
John: Yeah. Sometimes you get typecast because it’s really who you are.
Craig: Yeah, well he gained a ton of weight. He’s like 300 pounds now.
John: It’s rough. Our final example is from Whip It. And I wanted another example of a montage. And this is a movie that has a lot of montages because like most sports movies there’s time where you’re really trying to summarize down what a match feels like, what a game feels like, to sort of those key moments. So, here is one of the matches in Whip It.
MONTAGE: THE BLACK WIDOWS VS. THE HURL SCOUTS.
The First Jam — Bliss CHEERS Crystal Death on from the bench, Robin Graves sneaks past to get the points for the Widows.
Johnny Rock-It says, “Robin Graves makes off with three points. The Widows take the lead!”
Bliss watches as jam after jam the Hurl Scouts get smoked. Her team is disorganized, each girl doing her own thing.
Smashley jams for the Hurl Scouts, but gets frustrated and starts a FIGHT with one of the Black Widows.
Letha jams as Smashley sits in the penalty box.
The SCOREBOARD reads: BLACK WIDOWS 20, HURL SCOUTS 3.
Smashley is back to jam, but takes a nasty BLOCK. She’s hurt. Malice turns to Bliss.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it gets the job done.
Craig: Yeah, this is pretty spare, actually. I mean, I’m kind of a little surprised, because I’ve seen the movie which is so much fun, and these things are such high energy. I mean, I guess I am being a little critical. Like I kind of want sound. I want sound. I want crunching. I want like, you know, like starts a fight, like how? Like punches her?
John: Punches her? You know, I feel like I actually got some of that sound and some of the feel just by the use of the verbs she did choose. So, “jam after jam they get smoked.” Picking the fights. Takes a nasty block. I think this scene comes from later on in the movie, so this may be after we’ve had quite a few examples of like what these matches feel like, so this may be one of the shorter matches in the movie overall.
Craig: Right. Okay, well that’s a good point. Because there is a real fatigue that can set in. It’s one thing to do the ballet of the bullet smashing into eyes, and people smashing into each other, but if this is the ninth or tenth of these at some point in the movie, then I guess short-handing makes sense, because one thing that does happen — and everybody knows this as you’re reading a script — is you read faster. It’s like faster, faster, faster because if the script has done its done its job right, you want to see what happens
Craig: You want to see what happens. So, you start to go faster and faster. You don’t want quite as much really painstaking detail in here. And perhaps, you know, if Smashley has started a fight before, then — and it’s been spelled out really clearly, then starts a fight here, I kind of get how she’s doing it.
So, that makes sense to me.
John: Cool. I hope this was helpful for people. So, you can find all of the examples that we talked about here. There’s little images that you can download on the Internet. Just go to johnaugust.com/Scriptnotes and in the show notes for this week’s show you’ll see all of these images that you can read along with us. Thank you, Craig.
Craig: You know what? That was great. I feel like we’ve got a pretty big show here. Maybe we should push reshoots to next week?
John: I think we’re going to push reshoots to next week. So, in next week’s episode we will talk about what are reshoots, why do movies have them. How do writers get involved with reshoots? What happens if the original writer is not the writer on the reshoots? And we’ll talk through some of our own examples with our films that have gone through reshoots and what has worked well and what has not worked well.
But there is time for One Cool Things if Craig has a One Cool Thing.
Craig: Uh, my One Cool Thing is your One Cool Thing.
John: All right. My One Cool Thing is A World Without Work. It’s an article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. And I thought it was just a really good think piece overall about what is the future of America and other western economies going to be like as more and more of our work gets replaced by technology. And so to date we’ve seen like factory jobs being replaced, but as clerk jobs and transportation jobs and other things get replaced, there may just not be a place for some people to have jobs in the classic sense that we’ve had jobs.
And what does the world look like, not just in terms of how does the economy work, but psychologically how do we deal with a society where not everyone is going to be employed or needs to be employed. And so I thought it was interesting for everyone to sort of take a look at.
Also, the kind of work that you and I do, Craig, is sort of kind of weird luxury work. And we’re not kind of crucial or fundamental to any part of the economy. And we could easily, while we’re not going to be replaced by computers tomorrow, it just got me thinking about sort of what my life would be like and what my identity would be like if it weren’t the job that I had.
Craig: You know, artists have never been essential to society the way that people that grow food are, or doctors are, but we’ve always been in demand. I mean, well, not all of them, but a bunch of them.
So, the nice thing is I always feel like what we do at least, there’s always a place for it. People will always want to be entertained. It’s just innate to the human condition. So, yeah, I don’t think we will be replaced by computers.
I think I could be replaced by a computer. [laughs] That’s just me.
John: I think it does, and this article does lay out, is that it does allow for a greater number of people who have artistic ambitions to sort of fulfill those artistic ambitions because there’s no fundamental need for them to be working.
And so I think it may create a class of people who were never kind of looking for a job, or just decided to have sort of the minimal jobs and just become artists in whatever capacity they wanted to be because there’s no pressure to define yourself by making a certain amount of money.
Craig: All right.
John: We’ll see.
John: Craig, thank you so much for another fun podcast. Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. I’m not sure who did the outro this week, but if you have an outro for our show, you can write into email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send your questions, long questions are the place for that.
Short questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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And that’s our show this week. Craig, have a fun week.
Craig: You too, John.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available in the store while supplies last
- Paramount, AMC and Cineplex try new revenue-sharing initiative on The Wrap
- Excerpts from Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted and Whip It
- A World Without Work by Derek Thompson
- Outro by Stuart Neville (send us yours!)