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 463 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we talk about action. That’s right, it’s an all-craft episode where we look at how the words on the page become the high adrenaline events on the screen. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we talk Emmys.
Craig: Ooh. Emmys. I know about that.
Craig: I’m an Emmy expert. LOL. LOL.
John: This is going to be one of those shows where we are literally just focusing on one thing and kind of one thing only. It’s all about writing action. So, it’s been much requested. And it’s kind of like our Three Page Challenges in that we’re going to be looking at the actual scenes from movies and TV shows that you’ve enjoyed and looking at what those words look like on the page. So just two very quick bits of news before we get into that.
This past week the WGA East and West members voted to approve the new contract which we talked about on the show last week. 98% of people voted yes for that, so great. Congratulations. That’s done.
John: Now we can just think about three years in the future.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, generally speaking forgone conclusion with these things, but that’s good. It is odd – I don’t know who the people are that are voting no. I mean, I fully support their right to vote no. I just don’t know quite what they were thinking. I just always wonder what do they think would happen exactly. If you vote no, yeah, I don’t know. Anyway. But yay democracy.
Craig: Three more years of working. And huzzah.
John: In less good news, the past week CAA laid off a bunch of agents and support staff.
John: So 90 agents laid off. 350 support staff. So, that was across all their offices, so it’s not just Los Angeles. CAA has a bunch of different businesses in different capacities. But it is not great news. We’ve talked a lot about how support staff are being especially impacted by shutdowns. So the fund that Craig and I helped organize originally for support staff, there’s still money there. It’s run through the Actor’s Fund. So we’ll have a link in the show notes to that.
So if you are newly laid off from CAA and are looking for some money to tide you over that may be an option for you.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know the specifics. One of the folks that I do know did get laid off. But what I’m hearing is that a lot of the agents were out of sports and live events which makes sense. I mean, the music business – so professional musicians make most of their money from live events, not from album sales if they’re from a major record label, because the record label takes so much of that money. So, without live events, yeah, they’re just not earning. That means the agents aren’t earning.
The shutdown has essentially taken – you know, we think of it from a writer point of view like, hey, we the writers walked out of these agencies. That was over a year ago. But since basically production shutdown in late March I want to say actors don’t work. And directors don’t work. And actors and directors are kind of, you know, that’s a rolling income thing.
So, this is not surprising, but it is unpleasant to see people, especially when you’re talking about folks that are on support level losing their gigs is bad news. And it would be wrong I think to not extend this also to just the country at large. The economic report that came out today was grim, and particularly grim for people who are – I mean, because I don’t really care how hedge fund managers are doing. I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t care. They’ll be fine.
But for the average working American this has been absolutely brutal and, you know, we’re not a hugely political podcast, but just shame on the Trump Administration. Just shame on them. I’m going to say it. I don’t care if we lose our one Trump voter. [laughs] I don’t care.
John: I really like when John and Craig talk about this thing but not about anything else in the world.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Yes. All right. Let’s get to our marquee topic. This is something I’m excited to get into. Action scenes. And so we should probably define our terms here because obviously one of the hallmarks of screenwriting as opposed to playwriting is that you as a screenwriter are describing what characters are doing quite literally in some cases in a screenplay than the way you wouldn’t in a stage play.
So there’s action throughout and there’s scene description throughout. But what I mean by an action scene or an action sequence is where the actual movement of characters and what they’re trying to do takes precedent over any dialogue, over any normal things that would happen in the rest of the movie. Craig, help me out with a definition of an action scene.
Craig: I think essentially we’re talking about a movement of choices and behaviors that are not relying on dialogue but rather on what we see. It’s as simple as that. Because sometimes action sequences can be broken down to one character has to pick the pocket of another. We will write that action sequence very similarly I think as an individual writer to the way we would write a shoot-out.
So we’re talking about things that are not dialogue-based, they are not conversational, they are about movement and behavior.
John: Yeah. And the function of action sequences in movies, because something Megana and I were talking about off-mic is in many ways similar to sort of how a musical number functions in a musical. It is a moment which all this heightened tension sort of bursts out and becomes a sequence which is about the movement rather than about the thinking or about the thinking or about the planning. And so sometimes it’s a release of pent-up tension. It marks a change in sort of dynamics. And it kind of goes back to a limbic response rather than an intellectual response. It’s really just the physicality of action sequences tends to be foremost.
Craig: Yeah. In musicals a lot of times because there are lyrics there they can still – sometimes they can be very internal, very thinky. They can be soliloquies. When we are dealing with these kinds of sequences in movies in television one of the things that happens generally speaking is the writer starts to use all the things that are very specific to the mediums. That means being able to edit. So, just a very simple thing that we have that live performance doesn’t is we can edit before we get into the editing room, right. We can just intercut, crosscut, and up-cut. So reduce time between things.
And we can also move from inside to outside, from high to low. There’s a dynamic aspect to it that starts to happen. Even like when I describe the example of somebody picking someone else’s pocket, close on a hand, somebody is looking. There’s a person outside who sees a car go by with two people in it. All of these things can happen that force our writer brains to think in a very different way. It’s almost like we’re using a different section of the cortex.
John: Yeah. And I think my comparison to musical numbers isn’t about the internal/external thing. It’s about in real life people don’t burst out into song. And also in real life action sequences don’t tend to happen.
Craig: Thank god.
John: Yeah, thank god. So, it breaks from our normal reality. Because in normal reality people are having conversations all the time. But they’re not having shoot-outs. And so it’s a break from sort of what we normally expect. And it becomes an important different texture in your film. And so based on the genre of your film there’s an expectation that you’re going to have some action sequences and if you don’t have those action sequences there’s something strange about your movie.
Craig: Yeah. Then you’re making My Dinner with Andre, which I love. But that’s the thing that people are always like, “We’re not making My Dinner with Andre.” Poor My Dinner with Andre. It’s a perfectly good film. It became this like negative example.
John: Absolutely. It’s always the negative example in things.
Craig: “Oh, I didn’t realize we were making My Dinner with Andre.” Shut up.
John: All right. So we’re going to take a look at samples from eight movies and one TV pilot. So, like the Three Page Challenges you should probably pause here and download the PDF we have which is sort of a master sample of all these things. So I’ve picked certain scenes from these movies. And we’ll talk through sort of what we see.
I tried to pick things that were representative of the style the writers used in how they were doing stuff, but also to show the range of what can be possible here. So I didn’t pick any sort of Craig’s example of a pickpocket. That can be an action sequence, but here I went for bigger things. So it’s either a fight between two people or a sort of bigger sequence where we’re cross-cutting a lot.
And I should also stress unlike a Three Page Challenge we’re not critiquing what we’re seeing on the page here. We’re just sort of observing it. Because none of these are bad examples. They’re all actually really good. And there’s just a range of ways you can do the kinds of things we’re talking about. And it’s important to talk about why writers make different choices and all these choices are OK. Just understand sort of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Craig: Yeah. And all these writers are excellent. And it’s good to observe how they tackle their problems. It’s also good I think to absorb the fingerprint aspect of it which is to say that you and I are the least pedantic people when it comes to this. Rather than suggest that there’s a prescriptive way to do these things what we’re really saying is there isn’t. The best way to do them is the way that is natural to you. I suspect that you and I will both look at one of these and say, oh, this is the closest to the way I happen to do it, but the idea is really here are all these different ways. These are cubists. These are pointillists. These are impressionists. But they’re all making beautiful things. Which one are you?
And if you’re one of these, look how the master does it. Because each one of these men and women are really, really good.
John: Agreed. So we’re going to start off right what I consider the top here and I think writers of my generation we all looked to this script and this screenwriter for clues on how to write action. So we’re looking at Aliens, screenplay by James Cameron, story by Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill. Aliens is fantastic. The sequence that I picked here for this example is near the end of the movie. So this is Ripley versus the Queen. We’re on the ship. And it’s remarkable.
So we’re starting at Scene 192, Page 102. Let’s take a look at some of what he’s doing here and how his sentences work. On page 102 we have pretty short little scenes/sequences. We’re cutting between different locations. On the next page we’re getting into much longer blocks of action. It’s all just terrific.
John: So I’m going to just start reading at the top of the page here.
“Without warning it moves like lightning, straight at her. Ripley spins, sprinting, as the creature leaps for her. Its feet slam, echoing on the deck behind her. She clears a door. Hits the switch. It WHIRS closed. BOOM. The alien hits a moment later.”
Craig: Right off the bat this is cool. I love this. And this actually of all the ones we look at, by the way, this is the one I think is closest to the way I do things.
John: It’s probably what I aspire to most. And I would have said that this is how I try to do things. I don’t think I necessarily do it as well as this.
Craig: No. None of us do.
John: I think my actual style is reflected a little bit later on in our samples here. So let’s look at just that little block I read. Why that’s so good. Again, “Moves like lightning, straight at her. Ripley spins, sprinting, as the creature leaps for her.” So, again, our verbs are crisp and clear. We can definitely see what’s happening here. “Its feet slam. She clears a door. Hits the switch. It WHIRS closed. BOOM.” Short sentences that just get to the point. He’s using parallel structure so he can get rid of the subject of sentences. Because she clears a door, hits the switch, he doesn’t have to use she again. It’s quick and punchy.
Craig: Yeah. And what I love about this more than anything is that I can hear it.
Craig: This is something that I think a lot of screenwriters simply neglect and it’s my personal obsession and that is writing sound. So, you can see things, obviously, and a lot of what I love about this paragraph is that not only is it exciting to read, but it’s incredibly useful for everybody on the day.
So, I understand basically how the blocking of this works, including what Ripley is meant to do. Spins. Sprinting. This is clearly a paragraph written by somebody who has seen this scene in their head. He understands that when the alien moves at Ripley she is going to be facing it, therefore she has to spin first before she runs.
So, these are important things. They actually – subconsciously we will notice when they’re not there and things won’t be as satisfying. “Its feet slam, echoing.” OK, what a great noise that is. I can hear it. “It WHIRS closed. BOOM. The alien hits a moment later.” You can hear it. You can feel it. Makes me so happy.
John: So, to the sounds here, just on this page, we have the whirs, the booms, the hum, whine, crash-clang, another crash, a wallop. Screeches. All appropriate. They’re all uppercased which is a really common style. So, originally uppercasing comes from, I think, radio plays in which uppercasing was important to mark like these are literal sound effects that are going to happen live while we’re going through the script. Is it crucial to uppercase all your sounds? No. Is it a style that’s pretty useful? Yeah, it is. I mean, I think you can see the sounds – the fact that I was able to pick out those sounds on the page was because they were uppercased. And it’s an expectation that they’re going to be uppercased. So do it if it feels right for your style.
Craig: Agreed. Over the years I have reduced the amount of uppercasing I do. But only I think just because, I don’t know, as I get older maybe I get a little more confident and I feel a little less need to grab people’s attention with format. That said, the amount of uppercasing here is completely appropriate. When you’re doing an action sequence that’s when you’re going to want to probably loosen up on your uppercase-ometer and let more come through.
It doesn’t have to be a particularly consistent thing. For instance here you do have a lot of uppercased sounds. But you also have an uppercased “scene through.” There’s actually no reason to uppercase “seen through” there, except this. When you’re writing what can sometimes happen is you find yourself wanting to uppercase something because in your mind it is this punchy moment. So in this case “Newt scurries like a rabbit as the looming figure of the alien appears above, SEEN THROUGH the bars.” Meaning just because he’s done that I understand that she’s going to feel it. She’s seeing it. And that’s her fear coming through. SEEN THROUGH. Even if I don’t consciously understand that as I’m reading it I will feel it.
John: Yeah. Now, often as we looked at Three Page Challenges we talk about keeping blocks of scene description relatively short. And on this first page we really are seeing that. Most of these paragraphs are just two to four lines, which is great. And we’re moving between different areas of the ship. He’s using his INTs. If you chose to just use those as slug lines without the INT that’s fine, too.
You’ll notice that there is no day or night because we’re in space, which all makes sense.
But if you look at the second page here there are some long blocks of scene description here of action. And it works because I’m reading every word of that. Because I’m so invested in this. Much easier for James Cameron to do on Page 103 of the script that is fantastic that we love than early on in a screenplay. If this was Page 2 as a reader I might go–
Craig: Oh man.
John: I’ve got to read a lot here.
John: But here is fantastic and it works. And so I would just say don’t be afraid of doing this in the right moments because what I see here on page 103 if you were to space it out the way we would space out other stuff in this it would be an extra page or two to get through all of that.
Craig: Which may be why this is this way. Sometimes I think when I read these things that it was probably paragraphed out a little bit more liberally and then as the page count grew maybe he thought, nah, I could save like literally three pages if I just stop being so crazy about hitting the return.
I personally love hitting the return. This is page 103. That’s not too bad. So, yeah, I’m not sure why that choice was made here. Personally, just for the reader’s sake, I do find it easier to read when I get breaks. When I hit a paragraph like this I do tend to take a breath and it’ll slow me down a touch. So I do like a little bit more white space there.
And I wonder if there was some originally.
John: There could have been. The last point I want to make about this Aliens example is that even in the midst of action sequences he’s not afraid to just pull out another simile or metaphor. This is on page 102, so she’s strapped herself into “Two tons of hardened steel. The power loader. Like medieval armor with the power of a bulldozer.” Great. And that like medieval armor with the power of a bulldozer is exactly what that thing feels like when we actually see it. It’s great. It gives a sense of like, OK, it’s like armor and a weapon at the same time. It’s worth that sentence to put that in there so we really get the notion of what that is.
Obviously you can’t shoot – there’s not enough filmable thing in that little sentence fragment. But it helps us understand what it is we’re going to see when we see that moment onscreen.
Craig: You do need this internal watchdog in your mind as you’re writing. And it’s like newspapers have the – what do they call it? The ombudsman. And the ombudsman who works at a newspaper is the advocate of the reader. And you need an ombudsman in your mind when you’re writing and that’s the advocate of the audience. You know exactly if you’re James Cameron what that thing is. You’ve researched it. You’ve looked at it. You’ve had people draw pictures of what the future version of it will look like.
But the people reading don’t. And you need to give them a little tiny, tiny something so that they do, so that they can appreciate and enjoy this the way you want them to. And you don’t want to take a lot of time doing it. You don’t want to – you know, this is not where you do David Foster Wallace footnotes. So, “like medieval armor with the power of a bulldozer” I think may win the contest for fewest words required to properly describe that. And it does it great. And it also doesn’t sound cheesy either.
You know, the worst versions are the ones that are derivative, like mechanized medieval armor from hell. Well, you know, don’t do that. Just be accurate. And this is accurate.
John: Absolutely. All right, let’s go to our next sample which has a very different style on the page, but also is a movie that I love. This is Near Dark written by Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red. Craig, you had suggested this, so tell me about your affection for Near Dark.
Craig: Well it’s a movie that I feel like not enough people have seen. In general Kathryn Bigelow, everybody knows Kathryn Bigelow probably from her – well, relatively more recent films like Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. She is a fantastic director. Earlier on she was doing a lot more writing as well. Near Dark I think was her first big feature film. And it’s a vampire movie but it is to vampire movies what Tremors is to good old monster movies. It’s this kind of dirty, deserty, gritty version, although Near Dark is way darker than Tremors.
And it is a wonderful prelude to another one of my favorite Kathryn Bigelow movies which is called Blue Steel with Jamie Lee Curtis and Ron Silver. And it is very actiony, but kind of actiony in that gritty ‘70s-ish sort of way.
Craig: And so I was kind of fascinated to see how she and Eric Red had done this on the page. And I’m not disappointed because it is a very specific style. It’s not one that I’ve ever used. But when you read it it does give you that kind of feeling. That kind of Near Dark feeling.
John: I may be wrong about this but I feel like this is also Walter Hill’s style. And that Walter Hill, if I remember correctly, often does this just single lines stacked up on each other. So if you’re not looking at the PDF of this we should probably describe what we’re seeing.
Rather than traditional paragraphs these are just single lines stacked up on top of each other. And so:
Jesse throws the car keys into Caleb’s open palm. The farmboy yanks the bedspread off the bed and throws it over his head. Mae reaches out with her hand, touching Caleb’s arm.
Those are all single sentences but there’s not space between them. They’re just literally stacked up on top of each other like a tower. It’s weird but it works. It changes your expectation of reading. And I think it makes you read a little bit more slowly. But that may not be the worst choice for this because it really reduces each of these lines down to kind of the minimal action required.
Craig: Correct. It’s very sparse. So it’s kind of giving you as little as it can, as opposed to James Cameron’s style which is very much, OK, I want to excite you. You’ve got to feel this. I’m telling you this story and I’m in your face.
This is very sparse. So it betrays no emotion. You are providing the emotion for it. So here’s a sequence from Page 75.
Jesse throws the car keys into Caleb’s open palm. Period. Next line. The farmboy yanks the bedspread off the bed and throws it over his head. Period. Next line. Mae reaches out with her hand, touching Caleb’s arm. BULLETS flying left and right.
Bullets flying left and right – bullets is capitalized, but there’s no sense of urgency. It’s just fact. Bullets flying left and right.
She looks into his eyes. Caleb meets her gaze. Another EXPLOSION of GUNSHOTS.
So there is this kind of sparse montage. It’s almost like a Moviola is telling you this story, because it’s very montage-y. It’s very like visual, visual, visual, visual. Even with some sounds stuff. And in doing so it does impart a coolness. Do you know what I mean? There’s a style to it.
John: It’s detached. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. Like this script is smoking a cigarette. You know what I mean? It’s got shades on. It’s cool.
John: And that said, it’s not just reporting. And so it’s not just a list of what you see. A few lines later, “The sun attacks him beneath the bedspread.” The sun attacks him. That’s a poetic-y kind of thing to do. It’s not simply just reporting what we see in the shot. You’re making literary choices in sort of how you’re describing those moments. And I get that. I get what the sun attacks feels more dramatic than sort of like sun hits him. So there’s choices being made here.
Craig: Correct. And if you do a paragraph style of this the way Cameron does in time you may start to lose a little bit of the excitement of it because in a way you’re helping it be exciting. And what I like about the way that Kathryn and Eric did this is they are requiring you to just derive excitement from it. So when you get to this section:
He smashes his foot into the gas pedal. The sun blazes through the darkened windshield. He moans assistant the subdued light hits his face. Blackening the skin on his forehead.
The way that “blackening the skin on his forehead” is just its own line with no more emphasis than what comes right after which is “He ducks below the dash” makes it somehow scarier. It’s almost like we’re not going to help you be scared by it. You’re going to now hear and feel the sizzle and the charring of skin. So it’s a really effective way to do this. But you have to have a kind of confidence in your material here. And the one thing that I’m pretty sure no one has ever accused Kathryn Bigelow of is a lack of confidence. I mean, she’s just so assured as a writer and as a filmmaker.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about trying to use this style if you are an aspiring writer. I think it’s a little bit risky to sort of go this way with the script that you are sending out to the town. Pros and cons. Pro, it’s unusual and if it’s great people will notice that it’s unusual and it will catch their attention and people will be excited about it.
Con. If someone opens this script on page one and they see this, they flip to page two, and flip ahead to page 20 and they see that it’s all this they may not take it seriously just because it just looks different. And so you’re going to have to just – if you’re going to do this you’re going to have to do it exceptionally well just to get over peoples initial reticence to read this kind of different scene description.
Craig: Yeah. I think that if this is instinctively the way you feel you would write best you should do it. The thing about reactions to screenplays is sometimes I think like if a screenplay is sort of unobjectionable in its format and style, if people read through the whole thing and go, “You know, it was OK.” They just think it’s OK. If it’s objectionable in its format and style and people read through and they didn’t like it they’ll be like, “Oh my god. What is this pile of crap?”
But none of it really matters because the point is they didn’t like the script either way. The gulf between good and not good is miles wide. I do think that if you write something that is gripping and fascinating and you have two or three gripping and fascinating pages people will keep going. There is I think probably less fussiness out there than we are sometimes taught to believe. I think the people who teach fussiness are people who are trying to teach people a sense that they can control their fates, which they can’t.
So I would say like if you could write this and people literally who you force to read it go, OK, yeah, this is actually much better, you write better this way than the other way, then you should write this way.
John: Agreed. So, if you actually wrote the screenplay for Near Dark and you gave it to somebody–
Craig: Yeah. That’s my point.
John: Writing it this way? Good choice. Good choice.
John: Absolutely good choice. Last thing I’ll point out here is the scene headers are underlined. That’s great. Scene headers bold, great. Two spaces/no spaces. You have your choice. Make your decision. Be consistent throughout your script. Anything is fine. So just never come at us saying like, “Oh, it’s unprofessional because of this scene header choice.” It’s fine.
Craig: Yeah. The only thing I’ll add also–
John: Whatever you do is fine.
Craig: Whatever you do is fine. We’re very libertarian at formatting. If you are going to write in this style you need to earn your poetry. You have to be good at it. This is a little haiku-ish. So the very last bit.
EXT. TWO-LANE HIGHWAY – DUSK Three patrol cars swoop after their fleeing quarry like birds of prey. The object of their pursuit driving away from a setting sun. Red cherrytops igniting the livid sky. Two of the cop cars fan out. Windows rolling down. Shotguns aimed out.
That is very lyrical. And it helps if you’re going to do this to be lyrical. If you’re doing this style but you’re writing in a kind of prose, just a traditional dry prose way it’s going to get annoying. This is sort of style meets form in a nice way.
John: You’re giving the reader a reason to keep reading down the page, which I think is something we should underline about sort of all these action sequences is how are you maintaining the reader’s interest and involvement through the action sequence. And in this case it is by this sort of poetic-y lyric style. In James Cameron’s case it was just real mastery of painting exactly what it’s going to feel like in that moment.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: So, and it’s a great segue to the pilot for Lost, written by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. I picked a sequence which is late in the pilot, mid-to-late in the pilot. Jack and crew have found the pilot of the plane. I always loved that the pilot of Lost is about a plane crashing and the pilot is a character in it.
Craig: I know. It’s great.
John: So they found this pilot who has still survived. They’re up in a tree. And there’s a monster outside. It’s their first encounter with the smoke monster. The reason I picked this is that I had long heard that the J.J. Abrams style of TV writing used a lot of profanity on the page but also really sort of grabbed you by the shoulders and sort of shouted at you like what you’re seeing. And this was a good example of that.
John: And it’s just a very different look than the other examples we’ve had here. But I would say also very common in certain kinds of TV writing. So just really good to know what you’re seeing here.
So, let’s start on – so this is Page 79, Scene 80. Look at all the double dashes here. So, “Kate peeks in — but Charlie’s nowhere to be seen. Kate climbs back — peers into the inverted bathroom where Charlie is leaning over the toilet bowl — “
So it’s unfinished actions being sustained by double dashes. And it works well. It helps bring us down the page. We’ll start dialogue with dash-dash. Even if it’s not directly something being cut off from before.
Look at this long sound being described at the bottom of scene 80.
Craig: Can I pronounce it? I’m going to try to pronounce it.
John: 40-character word there. It’s the onomatopoeia of describing what this sound feels like. And making it big, making it uppercase, underlining it sort of gives you a sense of what it’s supposed to feel like to those characters in the scene.
Craig: Yeah. This is also a kind of style that emphasizes people. So, some of the other styles were emphasizing action and visuals. So when you look back for instance at the work with Near Dark once the dialogue ends and the action starts there is not much ever said. And it’s very much about the things that we see. Gravel. Cars. Road. A dog. Lights. And when we get to this it’s so much about people’s expression, the interruptions, and their emotions. Who they are looking at, so perspective becomes an enormously important thing.
Almost no one gets to complete a sentence which is a very common thing and an appropriate thing to do in scenes like this because it shows a certain awareness of naturalistic dialogue as opposed to stuff that doesn’t make sense. And all those dash-dashes are kind of implying that no one is waiting to talk.
So, you have – I mean, this is now dialogue, but: Kate: — It’s right outside — Pilot: — What’s righ –? Shh!
So, it’s implying this kind of chaos. When we get to the all caps underlined paragraphs, like these are absolutely screaming at you, and I think that that is partly an extension of something that I think television writing traditionally was more comfortable with, because in sitcoms like the classic three-camera stage-bound sitcom all the action is in all uppercase. So that’s kind of part of their culture there so it’s not quite as screamy I think in television as it would be – in a feature script I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.
John: Yeah. It is really, really screamy. We’re talking about the bottom of page 42. And just two paragraphs that are all uppercase, underlined, and what I’ll say is personally I wouldn’t do it very often. I would do it like once or twice in a script. I think the script probably does it a lot more than that. And that’s just the choice they make and it’s probably pretty common for this show. But:
SUDDENLY THE PILOT’S BODY GETS YANKED UP — BUT HIS LEGS HIT THE DASH SO WHATEVER’S GOT HIM CAN’T PULL HIM OUT AND KATE SCREAMS AND THE PILOT — HIS UPPER BODY OUTSIDE THE COCKPIT DROPS THE TRANSCEIVER ONTO THE FLOOR AND HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER AS JACK MOVES TO HOLD KATE BACK — CHARLIE SCRAMBLES UP, YELLING:
So, again, it’s not broken down into even sentences. It’s just like one long shreaky moment. And that probably is what it feels like. So I get it on that level.
John: It’s just as a reader I see that and I’m like, oh god, I’m going to have to get through that. But once I’m in it I’m like, oh yeah, I get why it’s doing that.
Craig: And also important to remember that when you’re dealing with a pilot script for a network television hour I don’t know quite how long this script was but my guess it was probably 55 pages or something. So it’s not quite the marathon of a 120-page feature read. This is a little bit harder to pull off in a feature because it is climatic.
Essentially once you get to a paragraph that’s six lines of all caps and underlined that’s the climax, right? I mean, you can’t really recover from that. And this does take place on page 42. So I would suspect that this is probably the loudest, screamiest moment.
John: Yeah, it’s actually 42 of 96. So it was a long pilot.
Craig: Oh geez. 96 pages? How the hell did they–? Wow. That’s a lot of pages for an hour.
John: Yeah, I think it was longer than a traditional pilot. I don’t think it was a one-hour pilot. But, still. That’s great. I’m quickly looking through the PDF and there are a fair number of sequences which do go to all uppercase. But they’re spaced out. It doesn’t do this all the time. And I think that’s crucial, too. You’ve got to leave yourself some – if you’re cranked up to 10 all the time we can’t differentiate what feels like this versus what feels like that. So you’ve got to pace yourself some here.
This is a big sequence and I do remember this from the pilot being like a HOLY COW this is a show that’s trying to do something really new.
Craig: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I wonder how that – well, I’ll ask Damon I guess. I’m just going to say, “Damon, I know you don’t like talking about Lost anymore. It’s enough already. But I’m going to ask you some more Lost questions.”
John: We haven’t talked about WEs and camera angles yet. So, the sample I had from Aliens didn’t reference cameras at all, but he will reference cameras. He’ll reference crane shots and things like this. I feel like we have some We Sees and We Hears in this Lost sample but I’m not spotting them yet.
As we said on the show before, the choice to use the second plural of “we” as a proxy for the reader and the viewer Craig and I both think is fine.
John: Just make sure you’re using it in a smart way. People who say that it’s cheating to use it are incorrect.
Craig: Stupid. They’re just stupid. It has little become the coronavirus is a hoax of screenwriting. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know who started it. I will forever – and this may be what I want on my tombstone. “It’s OK to say we in the action lines of a screenplay.” I mean, here we are, again, in the pilot script for Lost, which did pretty well.
John: Yeah, I think so.
Craig: And scene 84, “And we intercut now between Kate…” He’s even saying we intercut. As we’re tracking. Now they’re talking about the camera crew as we. You can do it any time in any way. You can do it all the time. No one cares. No one cares. I have never once met anybody real in this business who stopped and went, “Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, who is we?” Never. Ever. Ever.
Anyone who says you can’t use we or tries to restrict your usage of we or puts rules on we is an idiot. And don’t listen to them. And for god’s sake give them no money. End of rant.
John: So Craig’s tombstone it says, “Craig Mazin. We died.” And then it gives your date.
Craig: That’s right. “We see his tombstone.”
John: Indeed. All right, let’s go to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson.
John: I had them on the podcast a zillion years ago. They’re lovely. And I think they listen to Scriptnotes so hi if you’re listening.
Craig: If you’re listening I just want you to know I watched Lord of the Rings again. Again. I watched it again, John. All of them. I can’t stop watching those movies.
Craig: I can’t. I’m like at the point now where I literally know tiny things that are occurring in large battles and I’m just waiting for them like the people that go to see – you know, when Monty Python used to tour and they would just watch the dead parrot sketch and just say the words instead of laughing. That’s me now watching the Battle of Pelennor Fields and I’m like, OK, now you say take it down, take it down.
John: Nice. I wanted to put this up next because it’s just so different from what we see in Lost. So those Lost pages were so busy and so much and so shouty. This is so restrained and quiet by comparison. So there’s a lot of uppercase being used. But it’s very – the pages feel pretty spare and it’s not shouting at you very much at all here.
So, an interesting thing is that in these scripts characters are always uppercased. So, not just on the first appearance. They’re uppercased throughout it seems.
John: And you don’t see it so much in the pages that I picked here, but angle on, angle on, angle on.
John: Used throughout.
Craig: Perfectly fine.
John: Perfectly fine. Just a style that this trio uses to describe stuff. So, we do see here like:
CLOSE ON: PIPPIN COWERING… ANGLES ON: SOLDIERS throw themselves down as the NAZGÛL zoom overhead, emitting their piercing shrieks.
Even though it’s so much more minimal, they’re still doing a lot of things we’ve talked about in previous samples where they’re choosing where to throw their exclamation points, where to really emphasize this is an important moment that you really need to pay attention to.
Craig: Yeah. There’s one observation that – well, the first observation I make is that when I read “SUDDENLY! 9 NAZGÛL DIVE out of the dim sky” what I saw was 9 Nazgûl Drive initially. And I thought what an amazing address that would be. I would love to live on 9 Nazgûl Drive.
John: 9 Nazgûl Drive.
Craig: Oh yeah. Oh my god. That would be so cool. In like Morgultown. OK, so it strikes me that this is actually a brilliant way to relay action to people so that your script is not 5,000 pages. These are very long movies.
Craig: And this movie in particular was very long. And they know what they want to do. So they’re writing this together as a trio. One of the trio is the director. His plan for something like the following is quite elaborate. So, the Nazgûl of 9 Nazgûl Drive “circle LOW over the CITY, like VULTURES seeking doomed men’s flesh. SOLDIERS are plucked into the AIR by SHRIEKING NAZGÛL and dropped to their DEATHS hundreds of FEET BELOW. TOWERS and BUILDINGS are DESTROYED. CHAOS as SOLDIERS, WOMEN, and CHILDREN DODGE falling MASONRY.”
The words towers and buildings are destroyed are the kind of things that if you are writing in a script and you do not have a firm control over your own production is going to make whoever is doing the budget sweat. Because towers and buildings are destroyed is incredibly vague for what needs to be in a very thought-out sequence.
But, it seems to me that the trio here knows exactly what the plans are and they’re telling you what you need to know and otherwise trust us. When towers and buildings are destroyed it’s going to be awesome. And we have plans. We just don’t want to spend 12 pages explaining to you how that works.
John: Absolutely. So, it’s not the extreme example of Atlanta Burns from Gone with the Wind where it’s just like, eh, two words and it’s a giant sequence. There’s more happening here. It’s a little bit more detailed. But it’s not super detailed. And exactly the sentences that Craig pointed out here, another writer could have written them as three pages, where we actually see how this stuff is happening, how our characters are fitting into this. That’s not what they’ve chosen to do here. It really feels like a blueprint in the sense of like this is where this moment happens.
It’s not that it’s entirely just like, you know, a list of shots. There’s flavor here. So, on page 85, Gandalf yells – and you have to do Gandalf’s voice here.
Craig: When he’s yelling, “Not at the towers?”
Craig: “Not at the towers! Aim for the Trolls! Kill the Trolls! Bring them down!”
John: “TOO LATE! The TOWERS reach the walls, their DOORS crashing down, releasing ORCS directly onto the LOWER LEVELS.” So that choice of “too late,” it is that editorial moment there to really let you know what this is supposed to feel like. Without that we don’t get a sense of what the drama is there.
Craig: Correct. And if you haven’t seen the prior two films you don’t understand how much stink Gandalf puts on the name Peregrin Took. “Peregrin Took – go back to the citadel!” Oh, poor Pip. You know, he takes a lot of abuse. I’ve got to say Pippin does a great job of being yelled at and abused by everybody. He makes mistakes all the time. He’s the reason they get into so much trouble initially in the Mines of Moria, because he’s clumsy. And you know what? He’s still out there. And in fact he helps save Gandalf’s life in this moment. So good for you, Pippin. “Peregrin Took. [Unintelligible] Took.”
Sorry, I could do this all day.
John: Let’s go onto Natural Born Killers.
John: So this is the Quentin Tarantino script for Natural Born Killers and I read this script when I was in film school. It might have been the same weekend I read both the Aliens script and the Natural Born Killers. And they had a huge impact on me. I ended up writing the novelization of Natural Born Killers, which is one of my first paid writing assignments.
I loved Tarantino’s script for this and I did not like the final movie as much. But I think it’s so interesting to look back at what I loved so much about the writing on the page here. So the moment I picked is from near the end of the movie. So Page 127. I chose this because it’s an example of when you’re using sort of different formats to show stuff. Or when you have a couple things happening at once.
In this case there’s the news footage of what the cameras are capturing versus film footage about the reality of what’s going on here. And sort of how you juggle the two of those as a writer to show the textures that you’re getting out of this. So, Craig, what’s your first reaction to seeing this written here on the page?
Craig: Well, it is the kind of writing that lets you see what you are supposed to see exactly, which is why I, too, was a bit disappointed in the movie because it was an interesting mismatch I think of director and screenplay. I think there’s an enormous amount to love about Natural Born Killers. But I think there’s an alternate universe where Tarantino directs Natural Born Killers. He directs his own script and it’s just better.
John: Yeah. I think so, too.
Craig: And so here what’s happening is there’s this commentary on film itself, on the camera and the way the camera works. And it’s doing this wonderful job of having the camera lag behind action. And it’s so smartly done in that way and you can feel it. So a lot of off-screen stuff here, which is incredibly important.
Tarantino understands that part of what action is is what you don’t see. So, there’s a very impressionistic thing happening here. I probably talked about this on the podcast before, but one of my favorite moments in literature is from Heart of Darkness where they’re on the boat heading down the river, or up the river, down the river, and they’re heading via the river. And they are attacked–
John: They’re on the river.
Craig: They’re on the river. And they’re attacked. And our narrator looks over and sees the man that he was staying next to holding a cane and then he falls. And then only like a paragraph later do you realize it’s not a cane it’s a spear and the spear is buried in this guy. So he’s confused in the moment about what he sees, and so too can we be.
The camera follows the body to the floor and then you hear somebody saying something off-screen. “Oh God! Oh God! Ohhh…” “We’re sending out a hostage. Don’t touch him.” Off-screen the door is kicked open. That’s one of my favorite lines in this because I can hear it, which is so great. And then his camera comes around to catch what’s happening. And then he moves out.
So, it’s just a wonderful way when it says “This footage is very similar to Vietnam footage. It’s shaky, real, harsh, and it captures the pandemonium of battle,” you feel that. This is impressionistic writing. And it’s a great lesson in how to write action in a way that is about confusing the mind’s eye and having us be always three or four seconds behind what’s happening.
John: Yeah. I think this reads really well on the page and I think it’s probably more similar to how I would write action than – even though I would love to write like James Cameron, I probably write a little bit more like this in that I wouldn’t trust myself to have giant blocks of action the way that Cameron would let himself do.
But think about this writing and then think about the writing from Lost and they’re both showing these moments of pandemonium and overlapping dialogue and a bunch of stuff happening at once. And you could write a script that gets you to the same scene, both in the J.J. Abrams or the Tarantino way and they’re both good and valid choices for depicting this kind of moment.
It’s really about sort of how you as the writer can best string together words that get the reader to understand what it is that you’re going for.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, all of these efforts do reflect I think the writerly heart of the person doing them, which I love. I just love it. And it’s not that every script that one of these writers writes it’s always going to have the same kind of expression, but I do love the way that all of these are so, well, they’re unique. And I worry sometimes about the way – because we still insist that screenwriting can be taught, which I’m not sure is necessarily the case, there is this therefore requirement for, I don’t know, best methods. I don’t know if there are any – I think the best method is how do you write the best.
And how do you teach that? I don’t know how to teach that. I guess one thing that we’re doing here is we’re sort of saying to people we’re going to give you one of these around the world smorgasbords of different cuisines. Which one do you like the best? That’s probably who you are.
John: Absolutely. And I agree that there’s not sort of one best way to do things, but we’re really just talking about fingerprints. You said that earlier on in the conversation. You can sense that certain writers have a certain kind of style. And it would be weird for J.J. Abrams to write this scene in a Tarantino style or vice versa.
I will say sometimes I’ve come onto do a week’s work or two week’s work on a project and it’s not my movie at all. I’m a craftsman here. I’m just here to help out on one little thing. And I have found it useful to actually just try to model the style of the rest of the screenplay just so that my stuff doesn’t stick out wildly from everything else.
And so I’ve come into to do an action sequence and I will deliberately sort of match the other action sequences in the film just so it feels like the rest of the movie, so it doesn’t stick out as a weird anomaly.
And so looking at other people’s style can be really helpful the same way that a visual artist looking at other people’s style can see like, oh, I get what it is that this person is doing. I understand how they’re using line and shape and shadow and form. And I can do that if I need to, but I could also think about how this fits into my own personal style.
Craig: Absolutely. That is pretty much the way I try and do it myself. There are times – actually there was one time recently, the last thing I did like that where you come in and you do a week or two. It was on a script that was very well done. It was very well written by a writer who just has quite a different style than I do. And given what I was being asked to do I didn’t think I could do the thing where you match the style. And I told them, I’m like, look, this is not about anything other than I think I just need to sing – I’m a baritone. I need to be in a baritone. I’m pretty sure this person is a tenor. So I just need to do that, but understand it’s not a commentary on the style of the rest of the screenplay. I think it’s wonderful. It’s just this area right here needs a little something else and so I’m just going to do what I’m comfortable with. And everybody understood.
Including, I believe, the other writer who I spoke with and who is terrific. So if you’re going to stray from it at least say so. Acknowledge it. Because otherwise it is a bit odd to just suddenly dump a different color into something that has a certain palette.
John: The counter examples where I’ve come in to do a more major rewrite of something and even sequences that I wasn’t really touching I made some stylistic changes just so it would read like one document and it wouldn’t be schizophrenic as you’re jumping from one thing to the other thing. And so sometimes there’s criticism of like, oh my god, that writer came in and rewrote stuff that didn’t even matter. It’s like, well, it mattered because the whole document is going to be read as one thing and it needed to all track and make sense.
Craig: Thank you for saying that. Because as somebody who does arbitrate quite a few credit disputes I will see this in statements from time and time again where people say, “All they did was just rewrite this to change a bunch of superficial things to make it seem like they did it.” And I’m like, no. First of all, I’m not stupid. I know what a scene is. And if I read the same scene and they’ve just stylistically made a few things I’m not giving them a ton of credit for it or barely any.
John: Not a bit of credit for that. No.
Craig: Yeah. It’s just, dude, they need to run it through their typewriter so they can get to the next scene. It’s just a normal writerly thing to do.
I mean, I understand why people say it, but you’re absolutely right. If you’re doing a major rewrite you do need to just run it through your machine because you don’t want there to be lumps in the batter, you know? How many analogies can I use in one episode, by the way? I’m setting a record.
John: You’re really going for it here.
Craig: I’m setting a record. And by the way, they’ve all been amazing. I have to say. They’ve all been on point. Incredible.
John: They’ve all been really, really good. We’ll do a special edition where we ring a little bell every time you’re using an analogy for something. It’s going to be good.
John: Let’s move onto another previous Scriptnotes guest, Jennifer Lee. So she came on to talk with Aline and I about Frozen. I wanted an animation sample here because people sometimes think that animation scripts are wildly different. They’re not. They look like normal screenplays. And there are a few – like numbering can happen a little bit differently in animation screenplays, but having written a bunch of animation the scripts look like the scripts. Same for live action.
So the sequence here is again towards the end. I like this because it’s an example of stakes and crosscutting where you’re following a couple different characters and they’re each trying to do their thing. We as an audience have a sense of what they’re trying to do. Every time we’re cutting from one to the next we’re always wondering, oh, but what happened with Anna there? What’s up with Olaf? We’re always trying to track what people are doing. And it’s just a good example of how we do this.
And, again, there’s some stuff that’s written here that is not directly shootable but gives you a sense of the feel or the stakes. So on Page 103 here, “It’s a long, snowy way down. But what choice do they have? They slide down the ice covered building.” The “but what choice do they have” not strictly necessary. Without it though we don’t get a sense of what it is we’re supposed to be seeing in these character’s expressions and their choice to do this.
Craig: I think that is shootable. I think that’s – because I know what they mean. If I didn’t know what they mean–
Craig: But they’re good enough – you know, when she says, “But what choice do they have,” I know suddenly the camera is like I’m going to see their perspective, and then I’m going to have a reverse on their faces. It’s going to be kind of close. They’re both going to be afraid. But then they’re going to look at each other like here we go. Because there’s no other – or maybe they look back and they see that the storm is coming. Whatever it is, I understand what that means. And it’s actually a very good way – I mean, I’ve said before I’ve been writing a lot of dialogue in action these days. It’s a good way to give your actors or in this case the animators who are doing the acting a sense of what their expressions are supposed to be, what the intention behind their face is.
John: Now this is a big dramatic sequence. We’re near the end of the movie. A lot is happening here. But these pages look pretty quiet. They’re not big and loud and shouty. There’s no underlining. There’s no all caps. To make it clear that you don’t have to use all these tools in your tool belt to do big dramatic sequences.
Here Jennifer Lee, this is pretty restrained, and yet it’s completely doing the job it needs to do of conveying this big final action set piece.
Craig: The understanding of how these things are practically used is always helpful. For an animation script if you are working inside of the story the way that they were this is almost never going to be the sole point of contact between people and the movie because there’s also storyboarding going on constantly. So this becomes a very useful tool for production. But it’s always accompanied by imagery and illustration and animatics. And there’s so much more available.
So it makes sense that this is going to be a little less, well, the script feels like it’s not working so hard. Whereas when it’s all we have is text then we do sometimes have to work a little bit harder to at least let people know that this is a moment that’s occurring as opposed to just another skim page.
John: Agreed. All right, let’s take a look at a sample from Black Panther by Ryan Coogler. I love this sequence and I also like that it’s just a fight between two characters. So I’m picking the fight at the waterfall. And it’s a really good scene and there’s really good storytelling happening in the middle of a fight.
One of the most frequent questions you get from new screenwriters is like how specific do I have to be. Do I have to describe every punch, every blow? And that would be exhausting. And what Ryan is doing here is he’s giving us what’s important for us to see. These are the hits that actually matter. This is why it matters. This is how the dynamics of the fight shift. This is like a boxing match, so it’s important that you see that.
And here are the moments where it’s going to leave the being right with the two fighters to look at the reaction of the people who are watching this and sort of how they are encountering this fight that we’re seeing.
So, Craig, this is probably your first time seeing this on the page.
Craig: It is.
John: What are you feeling?
Craig: Well, first of all, love the white space. I’m just such a fan of, like when we were saying I wonder if Cameron was sort of compressing some paragraphs together, I love how easy this is to read. I also love how choreographed it is. So, when you’re reading this action you can feel this movement. This feels like dance. And that is something that I remember experiencing in the scene itself, which is that it felt like two very competent people who had been trained in something that was old and storied were now exercising that talent and that skill against each other.
And the description of movement here is wonderful. I pull from pages like this what the writer wants me to feel. And what I feel like he wants me to feel here is the beauty of this movement. This is a beautiful fight. I mean, when you look at how he describes these things – and he says, “Both with great skill.” Well that’s evident. Because he also balances it out. You know, they’re both, M’Baku and T’Challa are both really good at what they do and there’s showmanship to this. It’s a bit of a show. And they both have their different styles, which I love.
So, this was like watching or reading somebody describing ballet. And music criticism is like, I don’t know, I can’t remember what the analogy is. See, I’ve run out of analogies. But writing about dancing, it just feels counterintuitive and hard to do. Well, he did it. So this feels like an exciting thing because it’s not just, well, you know, good old toxic masculinity fistfight. It’s not that. It’s something else. There’s tradition to this. This feels quite historical and there’s like a culture to it, so I love that.
John: Now, on Page 25, this is the first time we’re cutting away from the sort of POV of being in the fight to people watching it. But even when we’re going to other people’s point of view, “From T’Challa’s POV we see Ramonda cheering from the sidelines.” So, again, we’re looking – it’s the sidelines, but it’s his reaction to the people at the sidelines watching, which is important. We’re centering the story on him. And so this is where we get to the first dialogue. “Show him who you are!” Sort of reminding us what the fight is still really about. Because one of the challenges when you have people fighting is at a certain point you stop thinking about what they’re actually fighting for. What the actual point of this battle is.
And what’s so good about this sequence is that it’s always clear why he’s doing what he’s doing and why he’s giving up his powers. What’s at stake is really clear. And not just his life, but his overall position within this hierarchy. So, just really terrifically well done.
And an important moment, so so many of these things I’ve picked have been late in the story, like sort of final battles. This is a very important early battle that shows who this character is and without this sequence you would not be as firmly rooted in his point of view.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, so all sorts of things get set up here, which is what good early scenes do. And it is, of course, the fight itself. This is all just the subtext where everything is about his character and the way he considers his rival, not enemy, but rival, which obviously will turn to an ally. But it is a great way of thinking about how to escalate and elevate what we’ve seen a billion times.
We’ve seen two guys fighting a billion times. Go watch any nature movie and you’ll see more two guys fighting. A billion times. It’ll just be animals or fish. But placing it and centering it inside of a kind of cultural or spiritual experience makes it different. And writing the action is such a way that it honors that and feels like it’s part of that makes this fun to read. And it also helps me understand why it’s not just two people beating each other up. Because that’s just boring. And this is not boring.
I mean, in the end, right, that’s our job? Don’t be boring.
John: That’s our job, to not bore people. Also, we have clear expectations of how fights are supposed to work is that one character will win and one character will lose. In this case it sort of seems like one character will win and the other character will die because we’re at the edge of this cliff. And so the stakes are really clear. So it’s a surprise when it gets to a point where it’s not about killing the other guy.
John: And that’s an important reversal at the end of this. So, it’s all just very, very well done. Again, a good script to look through overall, but I really like what he’s doing on the page here for this action sequence.
Craig: Wakanda Forever.
John: Another superhero movie that I really loved an action sequence in was Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. The sequence I’m picking out here is from the No Man’s Land, which is a really important character moment in which Diana first steps out of the trench, crosses through No Man’s Land, WWI, and got to the other side. And it’s her sort of really coming into her own superhero identity. So I wanted to look at what that looked like on the page.
So, this is more conventional. You’re going to read a lot of screenplays that are sort of done this way. And so just be used to this style because it’s common and effective.
One of the things I want to point out the difference between this and Black Panther is “IN THE GERMAN TRENCH. ON THE BATTLEFIELD. IN THE ALLIED TRENCH.” These are intermediate slug lines and they’re a way of sort of directing our attention without going through a full INT. SOMEPLACE – DAY. EXT. SOMEPLACE – DAY.
In Coogler’s script he does the same kind of thing but he uses full scene headers, which you don’t necessarily need to do because they really aren’t separate scenes. They’re just aiming the camera a certain way. And so this is kind of aiming the cameras at the German trench, on a battlefield, in the Allied trench. When you have a sequence that’s moving around to a bunch of different places these intermediate slug lines are a useful way of sort of grouping together a bunch of the kind of scenes that are going to stick together. Even knowing that you’re probably not going to necessarily follow this shot by shot, these are the places where this action is taking place.
Craig: Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if just from a scene numbering point of view that once the first AD got a hold of this that “In the German trench” became 77a. “On the battlefield” 77b. Because the scene numbers really are to organize your schedule and make sure that you get everything, right. Because a lot of times I think writers think that the numbers are just there to, I don’t know, have some sort of iteration. But in fact they go all the way to the editors who are keeping track and making sure they get everything.
Craig: So, in this case they probably would want to do this. But you’re absolutely right. This is kind of what I would call – this is the RP, the received pronunciation, of action description. This is just classic action description. There’s no twists. There’s no like funky bits. This is kind of right down the middle classic good old fashioned action description. And, by the way, absolutely nothing wrong with that, either. Not everything has to be quirky in its own way, or idiosyncratic.
This is probably the thick middle of the bell curve of how action is written.
John: Yeah. To your point about the scene numbering, I hadn’t realized this until I was looking at it. This is all considered Scene 77.
Craig: Yeah. No way.
John: Someone else has a different script that actually has little letters for each of these things because you got to just make sure that everything got shot, that everything made it to the edit, that you have everything. So for people’s sanity there would be more stuff. But it doesn’t matter for the read on the page.
John: Which is really what we’re talking about here. And so these intermediate slug lines and not doing the days and nights makes it an easier read. I think if we stuck in real full scene headers for each of these times we’re cutting between on the battlefield/in the German trench it would have been a little bit more exhausting. So I like this style.
Craig: It would have been a lot more exhausting. Absolutely. Because, you know, once you do get to that, that level of document really is a technical document. So you walk around on the morning of a shoot day and everybody is looking at their little tiny pages of the script. And they’re making notes. And those notes are technical. So, when we get to 77b somebody is writing down we use this lens. The script supervisor is checking in with the camera folks. It’s going to be this lens. It’s going to be this size. Everybody is doing that job. So it’s not about the read anymore. Nobody is there looking at the literary quality of it. It’s technical.
I’m kind of curious, John, what you feel, because I have a feeling – and again this is all preference, there’s no rights or wrongs, about CONTINUED at the end of a scene and then CONTINUED at the beginning on the next page.
John: Oh, so the thing that software will do for you automatically I don’t find it useful or helpful at all. When it’s an option I turn it off. Do you use it or do you not use it?
Craig: I don’t. I don’t because I don’t really know what it’s there to do. It’s a little bit like when you were a kid and you wrote a love letter to your crush in ninth grade or whatever, and so you’re like “this is what I think” and then you get to the bottom and you’re like “continue – arrow” because you’re afraid that they won’t turn the piece of paper over. [laughs]
John: They won’t know to turn the page.
Craig: It’s the most unconfident thing you could put at the bottom of the page. No, it’s not over. There’s more. Yeah, of course there’s more. I haven’t gotten to the end of it. It’ll be over when it says The End. So I don’t know what the point of that is.
John: So here is I think the point of it is that if you see the CONTINUED that happens on Page 80 it also carries across the 77 scene number. And so if you’re flipping through pages and you ended up on Page 80 and you’re like what scene number is this, you don’t have to flip back to see what scene number it is. So it’s a time saver on that level.
But it is just extra words [unintelligible] on the page and that’s why I just turn it off.
Craig: Yeah. And generally what happens on the day is when they’re printing out sides for everybody, which is what we call the little tiny mini script pages, of that day’s work there’s no confusion whatsoever. Because if you have Scene 77 on your first page of sides and then half of it spilling over to the next page and then Scene 78, which you’re not shooting that day on the second half of that page they’ll just put a big X through 78. It’s pretty clear what you’re shooting.
And I think also if you don’t do the continued they may just – I can’t remember if most software just sticks the scene number there anyway, just as a matter of course at the top of the page. I’m going to take a look right now and see if that’s the way it works.
John: Sides are a whole special business. And sometimes there will be problems in sides. And that’s again why it can be really helpful to have a writer on set. Because if you get your day’s sides and you realize they’ve actually left off a line of dialogue here, that stuff does happen. And people unfortunately will gravitate too much towards the sides and not towards the actual script. You have a script supervisor there, too, who is also keeping an eye on that. But sides can be a problem and things can come up.
I’m sure increasingly productions will move to digital equivalents of sides which can hopefully ameliorate some of the problems. But it’s traditionally been you’re at a photocopier and you’re shrinking down pages and you’re using a Sharpie to X stuff out. It’s traditionally been a very physical process that can be prone to mistakes.
Craig: Without question. And that is why screenwriters have to be on the set. Let me say it again. Screenwriters have to be on the set.
In television of course we’re there. We’re there because we’re running the show. But in movies there’s not only are screenwriters often not there, but they decided apparently that directors get to say if screenwriters can be there or not, which is freaking nuts. I mean, do directors get to say if the cinematographer is there or not? It just doesn’t make any sense.
So, nobody – nobody – knows the script better than the writer. Sorry. The writer. And if there had been 12 writers hire one whose job is to be the writer-writer. And they need to be there. And people need to respect what they’ve done. Because they’re the only person sometimes who has the complete and total picture. Especially when you have a non-writing director who really is focused on the work that day and who may come up with a brilliant way of shooting something that leaves one tiny important thing out that was on the page for a reason.
It’s mind-blowing to me. Absolutely mind-blowing. And another reason why I think the feature business continues to suffer, aside from COVID and all the rest of it, creatively in comparison to what’s happening in TV. Because there’s just this cultural exclusion of writers which literally serves no one. It doesn’t even serve the director.
John: I was worried we would get too far into the episode without any umbrage. So there we are.
Craig: We had some earlier, too. I mean, it’s been throughout.
John: Finally, let’s take a look at The Kingsman, written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. I picked this one just because it was a slightly different style. It’s very comic. And so I wanted to have something in here that has a sense of some fun and some whimsy to it. And you see that in some of the scene description. So it’s starting at Scene 204.
Some stuff looks like conventional action. “Bullets spray all over. Thank god for Eggsy’s Kevlar. The guard yells to his cohorts.” All that stuff reads kind of normally. But then like, “Elton is a revelation – a shockingly dirty fighter, biting and clawing as he wrestles the Third Guard to the ground.
So within this action sequence we have to see Elton John be doing some dirty fighting. And so it’s important that within this sequence you are emphasizing the stuff that is shocking and surprising. So it can’t just be a list of shots. It has to have a sense, the feel of the rest of the movie. And you want to make sure that your action sequence do keep in the style of the rest of your film.
Craig: Correct. So action is a sneaky way to influence a reader’s understanding of tone. When we think about Near Dark and the way that Kathryn and Eric did it, you can feel the tone of Near Dark in there which is – it’s sort of gritty and dirty and sweaty. And kind of desert poetry.
And this is clever. There’s a wink. It’s snarky. “Elton is a revelation” is funny. It’s just a funny way of putting that. “Lady Gaga kicks the Fourth Guard in the balls, but he just picks her up and carries her back towards the cells…” That’s funny. Not the balls part. The fact that he just picks her up and he’s like, “All right, Lady Gaga. Come on. You’ve had enough.
That is funny. And your action sequence or your action description should in some way feel like it’s in the same world as your characters. It has to match the vibe. I don’t know how else to put it.
John: In terms of tone and what a script feels like, obviously dialogue is incredibly important. That’s going to be a sense of the voice of your film. But the actual your voice is going to come through a lot in your action and the words you’re choosing to describe this thing. It’s why Near Dark feels so different than some of these other samples is because of how they chose to write those things.
John: So just be really mindful of things. And don’t assume that there’s only one right way to do things forever.
These last couple examples have been more conventional, but they still within that space find ways to convey what’s important about this film versus another film.
Craig: 100%. And, again, they will keep kind of letting you know how you’re – look, you can have a race between gazelle and Usain Bolt. That is quite serious. But it’s clear it’s not meant to be quite serious. “The best race we have ever seen is taking place.” There’s a certain dry British observational tone to this which is reflective in the movie. Because that is the movie and it’s wonderful. And so it’s smart.
The action is not an excuse for you to stop being smart, smart being literate, stop being clever or creative. It’s an opportunity. So use it. It’s just wasted, I think, if you look at it as this kind of “oh I’ve got to describe things now so let me just get that over as quickly as I can.” So like Jane and Matthew understand that this is an opportunity to entertain. Because the action description is meant to describe a thing that is also supposed to be entertaining. Not just there. They all – all the people we’ve read today have been very good at that.
John: So my small rant here is I remember, god, 10 years ago, 15 years ago I was sent a script and they needed me to rewrite out the car chase sequences because the very well paid famous writer when it came time for the car chases in a movie that was mostly about car chases would say, “And now it’s the coolest car chase you’ve ever seen. Better than you’d ever imagine. And it’s really phenomenal. But I won’t both wasting your time describing it here on the page.”
I’m like what are you doing!? You cannot just abdicate your responsibility for writing this action sequence. That is something that is going to be portrayed in the movie. It needs to be on the page. I was so angry that he had gotten away, apparently, well kind of gotten away with not writing those sequences and he was going to let someone else take care of that.
Craig: I’ve seen this and it is freaking mind-blowing every time. I feel this by the way in scripts for musicals, it’s like “Song.” But…
Craig: What am I seeing? [laughs] Are we just stopping the movie and playing a song against a black screen? This is part of our job.
John: Exactly the same. It drives me crazy. Or people just have assumptions, oh, you just write up to the song and write after the song? No. I wrote what happens in the song. And with the knowledge that lyrics can change. But I had to write – it is a scene. I write the scenes. The song is a scene. I’m going to write this moment.
Craig: Correct. It is our job. So don’t be that guy/girl. Don’t do it.
John: Craig, I want to say this has been a really exercise for me. Because so often when we look at pages we’re having to point out the things that are not working and try to be gentle with people’s feelings but also help them. In this case these were all really good writers who did a really good job describing the things that were in their movie which is the whole point of what screenwriting is, to help the reader see a movie before that movie even exists. And each of the examples is really good.
So I hope that people who are listening to this and reading through these pages recognize the wide range of possibilities there are for describing action and experiment. See what feels natural under their fingers to describe the kind of sequences they want to do.
A thing I did early in my career when I was trying to figure out how to write action, I would just imagine these crazy action sequences and just try to write them. They weren’t part of any movie. But I just wanted to get a sense of like how would I describe, like if that helicopter had to come into this building what would actually happen there. And those kind of challenges, it’s like learning to draw. It’s really awkward at first but then you kind of get better at it. And so I would just say look at action as an opportunity to improve your craft rather than as a drudgery, like a thing that you have to do when you get to those moments in your script.
Craig: Yeah. Because if you do that’s how it’s going to read. It will read like drudgery.
John: It’s going to read that way.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, movies are not just spaces in between people talking. The stuff in the action is just as important if not more so than the things people say. And we to honor that and practice our craft in those moments I think even more assiduously than we do when we’re writing dialogue. Because the more visceral part of experiencing television or film is what we see when people aren’t simply talking. That’s what we feel.
And even when it’s a conversation it’s important to understand where the action fits in and what I need to see. Tell me what to see. And for the love of god if anybody tells you that you can’t “direct on the page,” show them these things and then tell them to shut the F up.
Craig: Say, “We see you shutting the F up.”
John: That is the lesson they need to learn. All right, that’s it for that segment. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing, so one of your previous One Cool Things was that guy who was going through his Sudoku and had this brilliant revelation of how to solve a Sudoku.
Craig: Absolutely amazing.
John: I’ve been playing a bunch of Sudoku because a new app by Zach Gage who does a bunch of other iOS apps that I love called Good Sudoku came out. What’s clever about it is it has some tools to make solving Sudoku a little bit easier, but more importantly it lets you tackle much harder problems. Because you can ask for hints and it won’t tell you what the number is. It will tell you here’s how you can figure out the next step. Because there are strategies for doing stuff. It can talk you through that. And so it’s just a really well done iOS app.
If you’re curious about Sudoku and don’t really get how to do certain things in it, like X-wing for me was this bizarre concept for me to learn.
Craig: That’s a tough one.
John: It really helps out a lot. So I would recommend Good Sudoku. It’s a cheap app on the iOS App Store.
Craig: Everybody loves a cheap app. Well, my One Cool Thing this week is an aspect of a game that I’ve been playing called Ghost of Tsushima, which is pretty popular right now. I think a lot of people are playing it. It’s exclusive to the Sony PlayStation, so if you don’t have PlayStation, apologies. Set in feudal Japan and you’re a samurai. And you are helping repel the Mongol invasion, so basically kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, which is cool. But the part of it that I think is so wonderful, really enjoying, is the sword play itself, which I think is really strong.
There’s a certain way to do combat in video games that I find satisfying. And I think of it mostly in my mind as the Batman Arkham solution, which is it’s a button. And it’s a rhythm. It becomes like a dance, like we were talking about in Black Panther. You’re hitting that, let’s say it’s the square button. And that’s your primary sword swing. And you get used to the rhythm of it.
And then as you get better they’re like, OK, now here’s a new thing. You can throw in a triangle and do this. And as you keep going it sort of slowly but surely expands. And so you’re using all of the buttons, including the triggers. And doing different stances, different moves. And it just flows. And it becomes that very beautiful fluid combat the way it was in Batman in the Arkham series, or Spider Man, or now Ghost of Tsushima.
John: Excellent. Cool. Well that is our show for this week. So stick around if you’re a Premium member because we’re going to talk about the Emmys.
John: But for everyone else, Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, and edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our special action outro this week. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions.
For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. Or there’s a link in the show notes. You can find those show notes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record.
John: Craig, thank you for an action-filled episode.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: OK, Craig, I have some bad news for you. You received no Emmy nominations. I’m really sorry.
Craig: That’s weird. I don’t understand.
John: Because last year you got a bunch. And then you look at the chart, just really high. And now it just plummeted all the way to zero. Not negative. But zero.
Craig: Right. Zero. So, that is a–
John: You got snubbed.
Craig: Yeah. That is a dramatic fall off from lots to none. I mean, I didn’t have a show. So, I guess–
Craig: Sort of something?
John: And to be fair, I didn’t get any Emmy nominations either.
John: Same excuse for both of us, having no show.
Craig: That might be inter-Academy rival though. Like the Emmys think of you as the movie Academy guy. And so it’s like the Sharks and the Jets.
John: Yeah, a little of that. But we were not the only people who didn’t get nominations. And so I want to talk about, I have a small little rant here about snubs.
John: I hate the whole concept of snubs because to me snubbing implies that you deliberately chose not to give somebody something. I’m passing out cupcakes but I’m not going to give Susie a cupcake. That to me is a snub. You are snubbing Susie.
John: Reese Witherspoon not getting an Emmy nomination is not a snub really. It’s unfortunate because she’s a really good actress and was apparently great in all these shows that I didn’t end up watching, but there’s also probably a really clear explanation why is that if you’re a good actor in three different shows, and so some people are filling out their ballots saying I’m going to nominate Reese Witherspoon for this thing, but not this thing because it would be weird to nominate her for two different things. It splits it up. There’s a reason why she didn’t get a nomination.
It’s not because she’s not good. It’s because she was in too many things.
And I think the problem of too many is also the reason why some shows got “snubbed.” Because there’s just way, way, way too many good television shows in 2020. And we can’t give awards to everything.
Craig: Well, and there’s also this very vibrant prediction community. So, they have predictions about what is going to happen. They get kind of invested in their predictions. They talk about it. And a lot of the people who are writing the stories in the trades are involved and saying, look, I’m pretty sure the five people are going to be this. And then someone says, “Well what about this show?” And they’re like, no, you’re stupid. Well, but then that show gets nominated and so either we were all wrong or something went – they snubbed somebody. Clearly it’s a snub. It’s a snub because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do.
But you’re right. That’s not a snub at all. It was an unpredicted outcome. It is important to remind everybody that it is not ultimately the definition of what is good or bad art. Everybody has a relationship with television shows. I assure you that my daughter’s relationship with Criminal Minds is far deeper than her relationship with say Chernobyl.
John: Oh my god. What is up with Criminal Minds? My daughter is watching Criminal Minds as well. I don’t get it.
Craig: Somebody explain – and I’ve asked my daughter to explain it. She can’t, other than to say she must continue to watch Criminal Minds. It’s like the Chinpokomon thing from South Park. Is it there are subliminal messages? Are they taking over the world? I mean, nothing against Criminal Minds, but like my daughter is so into Criminal Minds that we happen to be – we were sitting together the other day and the topic of famous people came up. And she’s like what famous people do you have phone numbers for. And I’m like, OK, I’ll take out my phone.
And I start saying, OK, I have this person’s phone number, this person. And then I’m like – and I get to Paget Brewster who I directed in a movie 20 years ago. And I’m like, oh, you know what, I think Paget Brewster is in Criminal Minds. Because I don’t watch Criminal Minds. And she was like, “Wait, what?” And I said Paget Brewster. And I kid you not, my daughter cried. Like emotional tears. Because I knew Paget Brewster.
What has Criminal Minds done to our children? [laughs] What is happening?
John: OK. Have you watched any episodes of Criminal Minds with your daughter?
John: That show is so dark. I cannot believe how dark that show is. And that it’s on every week apparently on CBS.
John: It aspires to be Silence of the Lambs. But the fact that it’s just a CBS procedural, but it is also doing Silence of the Lambs, it makes it in some ways kind of more disturbing. Because it’s just like these characters are talking in perfectly normal sort of ways about incredibly gruesome things.
Craig: Yes. Look, I don’t speak ill of anything. I will simply say I don’t have the same relationship–
John: No, nor do I.
Craig: With Criminal Minds as my daughter does. I’m not the Criminal Minds audience. And I don’t understand a lot. I mean, I just don’t kind of get the whole Criminal Minds. I don’t know. It didn’t happen between us. We had a good first date, but it wasn’t going to last.
John: But back to Paget Brewster, I think of Paget Brewster as a comedy actor.
John: Because she’s so funny.
Craig: She’s amazing.
John: I see her on Another Period.
Craig: So good on that.
John: And I’m seeing her on this show and I’m like, wait, is that really the same actor? Because she’s just doing – she’s doing a perfectly good job of being in a crime procedural, but it’s not at all the actor who I think of her as. It’s so weird.
Craig: Well, it’s a really challenging concept. I love that we’re talking about Criminal Minds instead of the Emmys. It’s so much more interesting to be honest with you. So, Criminal Minds, they have a good starting concept for a show which is every week they’re going to encounter some sicko and they fly – and I love that they have their own plane. It’s awesome. They fly in and they’re like, OK, we’re going to figure out just what new flavor of total sicko this is.
And each one of the people on any episode of Criminal Minds would have their own movie at this point. Like there would have been a made for TV movie about that person.
Craig: They’re all so specifically crazy. But now they’re on like season 80 and it’s like their view of the world is literally every week there is a Ted Bundy level person up there, or John Wayne Gacy. Like every week.
Craig: No matter what.
John: But the Ted Bundy/John Wayne Gacy character is often some actor who is always playing a good guy in everything else. So it’s always like a James Van Der Beek or a George Newburn is the killer in it. And I’m sure they’re relishing the opportunity to play somebody who is not goody two shoes, but oh my god.
And I just don’t get what she loves so much about it.
Craig: There might have been something on TikTok. Like something happened on TikTok which as we know is controlling our children’s minds, and it just happened. And there’s so much. I mean, you can watch Criminal Minds in quarantine, by the way. It’s the perfect combination. Well, it’s summer, we can’t go anywhere, we can’t do anything. Criminal Minds everyone. And, yeah, so basically 15 year old girls are living the C-Minds life right now.
John: Just to get back to the Emmys for a second.
Craig: If we must.
John: When you cheated on me with the other podcast for Watchmen I was happy to see that Damon and company got so many nominations for Watchmen. It is a phenomenal show.
John: Which is great to see. And we have many other friends who got nominations. I’m genuinely happy for all of them that they’re being recognized for their hard work. I just also want to take this moment to recognize all the other shows and performers and writers who didn’t get nominations who also did really amazing work, because there just wasn’t space to acknowledge it all.
Craig: Exactly. On the Watchmen front, something cool might be going on there in terms of more to say on the radio. But I also want to call one person out. There is one nomination that made me the happiest, and that was Kaitlin Olson who got nominated for – I think it’s in the Best Short Form Comedy category. It’s the one that Megan Amram kept trying to win I think. And it’s for the show that she does on Quibi with Will Forte. And it made me so happy – the second reason it made me so happy is because I love Kaitlin. She’s fantastic.
But the first most important reason is because she’s married to Rob McElhenney who once again did not get nominated for an Emmy. [laughs] He’s just been waiting. Oh, he’s waiting. And, by the way, in all seriousness deserves it. Like the Always Sunny guys deserve it. I think the Mythic Quest folks deserve it.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So he’s just been always on the outside staring in, like the Little Matchstick Girl. And Kaitlin was just like, “Oh, hey Rob, look at this. I got nominated for an Emmy. Anyway, what do you want to do today?”
John: Yeah, Craig, had you been nominated for an Emmy for your performance in Mythic Quest I would have been happy for you, but I also kind of would have wanted to throw a trash can just on behalf of all the actual actors out there.
Craig: No, no, no, it’s inevitable that I don’t. I’m not sure, yeah, the appearance of Lou is always in doubt. Lou is not a character that you expect to see in the list of characters on the first page. Lou is a surprise. Like, what, episode seven, Lou? I don’t know if I’m going to be in the second season or not.
You know what? A little bit of Lou goes a long way. Let’s face it.
John: Yeah. It does.
John: Craig, thank you for the talk.
Craig: Thanks John.