The Hollywood Standard

This site caters largely to aspiring screenwriters new to the profession. That’s by design. My initial ambition in writing the IMDb column, and then in creating the site, was to answer a lot of the questions I had when I was first starting out.

Screenwriting is an odd form: half stageplay and half technical document, somewhere between art and craft. And nowhere is its strangeness more apparent than the formatting. So it’s entirely reasonable that I’ve received many, many questions about margins and sluglines and whether a half-covered stadium is “INT.” or “EXT.”

But I’m done. Or at least, done for the time being. I’m going to cede all formating concerns to a printed book (yes, they still make them) which can answer newbie questions and let me focus on other points of word-pushing.

book coverThe book I’ve chosen to give up with is The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly straightforward and anticipates most of the situations screenwriters are likely to face.

The author used to work for the Warner Bros. script processing department, which the book’s blurbs highlight as why he’s an expert. Honestly, if I had seen this before I bought it, I would have put it back on the shelf with a shudder.1 David has Goliath; Ahab has the whale; I have the Warner Bros. script processing department. In my head, the department consists of three women in their 50’s who smoke and gossip as they retype scripts on 1980’s computers with amber monitors. For CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I had the displeasure of reading their “official” version of the script, and realizing that they don’t just spellcheck and change margins — they rewrite things. Just because. Fortunately, we were shooting in London, beyond the reach of their nicotine-stained fingers. We threw their script in the bin.

So I would say despite his background, rather than because of it, I’m still giving Riley’s book a thumbs-up. He admits (on page xvii) that “good writers with long Hollywood careers may find details here with which to quibble. That’s fine.” And I do have minor quibbles.2 But I also have a website with which to note my second opinions, so here they are.

Courier and margins

The term “fixed pitch font” is quaint, but let’s just say 12-pt. Courier. If you have a couple of Couriers on your computer, pick the one that looks best on-screen and printed. It really doesn’t matter that much.

Riley’s margins are fine, but I had to really think back to remember what “position 17” referred to (p. 4).3 Back in the old days, typewriters had mechanical stops to set the left and right margins, with painted (or engraved) markings to line them up. Tabs were set the same way. “Position 17” would be seventeen spaces over from the left edge of the paper.

That’s kind of fascinating in a post-neo-Luddite, technology-as-history Make-magazine way, but without explanation, it’s apt to be confusing to 21st-century readers. So perhaps that will be omitted in the next edition.

Medium shot (p. 12)

I’ve never typed this, and never seen it. Don’t use it. Same with “two shot,” unless it’s crucial for a joke.

Back to scene (p. 17)

Awkward. Better to use the “BACK TO HUCK” format he shows later on the same page.

Flashback (p. 33)

He underlines FLASHBACK and puts it in front of the scene heading. That’s not wrong, but I generally put it in brackets after the time of day. This way, it’s more likely to make it onto the call sheet for production.

INT. BEDROOM – DAY [FLASHBACK]

Capitalizing people (p. 47)

The book tells you to capitalize the first occurrence of only those characters who end up speaking, on the theory that AD’s need to treat these roles differently. I disagree. Capitalizing indicates which scene people are established in, which is a boon to other department heads, such as wardrobe and props. I capitalize the introduction of all roles, speaking or otherwise, including groups like FIVE SCHOOLCHILDREN or ANGRY VILLAGERS.

Parentheticals at the end of a speech (p. 70)

He’s right–a dialogue block shouldn’t end with a parenthetical. The exception is in animation, where this is common. You’ll often see dialogue end with (exasperated grunt) or (sigh).

Song lyrics in dialogue (p. 72)

He puts them in quotes. I suggest italics, in an 11-point sans-serif font. (I use Verdana, which pretty much every computer has.) It looks much, much better, and subtly signals that it’s not true dialogue.

Numbering “A” scenes (p. 95)

The A.D. on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Katterli Frauenfelder) taught me a different scheme which ends up being a lot less confusing for production and post-production. If you need to insert a scene between 121 and 122, you number it A122. That is, lettered scenes go before the normal scenes. The great advantage to this method comes during shooting, when each new setup for a scene is given a letter. If you shoot a master and two close-ups for scene 100, they’re labeled 100, 100A, 100B. For our inserted scene, Riley’s scheme would get confusing: he’d have 121A, 121AA, 121AB. Whereas Katterli’s method would give us A122, A122A, A122B.

If you’re doing A/B pages on a script, there’s very likely an A.D. involved, so consult with him or her about preferred numbering/lettering schemes.

Managing page numbers when a script is revised (p. 103)

Riley makes a heroic effort to explain a confusing topic, but trust me, you should never have a page A5B. If you, the writer, has a hard time understanding it, pity the poor wardrobe PA who has to figure out how to insert pages into her bosses’ scripts.

Once you get into the second revision on a series of pages, you’re almost always better off backing up and releasing a run of pages that uses true numbers. To use Riley’s example:

  • Between 5 and 6 comes 5A. (Yes.)
  • Between 5A and 6 comes 5B. (Okay.)
  • Between 5A and 5B comes A5B. (Never do this. Instead, revise starting at page 5, replacing 5A, 5B and adding 5C and further if need be.)

In general, the writer’s goal with A/B pages should be to release as few sheets of paper as possible, while still making it abundantly clear how it all fits together. In fact, I often attach a memo to colored pages explaining it. (Here are the memos I attached for the blue and pink pages of Charlie.)

Multi-camera (sitcom) script formatting (p. 117)

Here’s where I’m of no use. While I’ve read half-hour scripts, I’ve never written one, so I can’t say how accurate his advice is. But I will point out that every show is likely to have a “house style,” so it’s doubly important to get a real sample script from the show and duplicate it, right down to the punctuation.

And that’s it for my addendum/errata. Riley’s book will be nothing new to most screenwriters, but it’s a helpful and practical guide for newcomers. Note that he deliberately doesn’t teach anything about writing–and his snippet examples aren’t particularly inspiring. This book is strictly about formatting, and on that level, it’s solid enough that I hereby abdicate all common formatting questions to it.

  1. I got it on Amazon, and by the time I saw the blurb, I’d already broken down the box.
  2. Yes, I’m claiming to be a good writer with a long career.
  3. It’s not kama sutra.

Farrah Fawcett on Parade

Every week, I re-answer questions sent to Walter Scott’s Personality Parade®. Today’s column comes from January 7, 2007.

[q] I was shocked by recent photos of Farrah Fawcett. Is she near death?—Carey Roberts, Cleveland, Ohio

[a] Walter Scott cannot predict when or even if Farrah Fawcett will die, because he is not a doctor, and does not actually exist. He can, however, point out how great she was in “The Burning Bed,” and speculate whether the story paralleled any of the drama in her marriage to “Six Million Dollar Man” Lee Majors. (Answer: No.)

[q] Female fashion models get all the attention. But who’s the world’s highest-paid male model?—Nancy A., New York, N.Y.

[a] Sadly, Donald Trump.

[q] Can you bring me up to date on Kaley Cuoco, who played the late John Ritter’s daughter on 8 Simple Rules?—Bethany Page, Rehoboth, Del.

[a] What a coincidence that you asked that question: Kaley’s new Lifetime telefilm, To Be Fat Like Me, debuts tomorrow. Walter Scott will be setting his fictional TiVo to catch it, because he doesn’t want to bother Kaley’s publicist for a screener copy.

[q] My friend says the Reese Witherspoon-Ryan Phillippe split had nothing to do with her jealousy over his fooling around with other women—that it was his jealousy of her. I say, “Jealous of what?”—Lauren Walker, Washington, D.C.

[a] That’s funny: When I say “jealous of what?” over and over again, it sounds like “Jesuit.” Which brings up painful, long-repressed memories. Come to think of it, it’s not funny as much as heartbreaking. Maybe that’s why they split up.

[q] You suggested that The View couldn’t accommodate both Rosie O’Donnell and Joy Behar. Do you think Rosie is hurting the show?—Dennis Woods, Culver City, Calif.

[a] On the contrary, I think the show is hurting Rosie. Sales of her signature fragrance “Obscurity” have plummeted since she joined the harpy gabfest.

[q] Since the medical limitations on the use of silicone have been lifted, will more celebs get implants?—B. Grant, Laguna Beach, Calif.

[a] No. Hollywood celebrates inner beauty. And Walter Scott feels more than a handful is wasted.

[q] One of my favorite Hollywood stars of all time is Sidney Poitier. Did he do his own singing in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess?—Gene Lockhart, Naples, Fla.

[a] Google poitier singing porgy. It’s the first hit. Please Gene, don’t waste Walter’s time.

[q] Is it true that Christine Ebersole, star of Broadway’s Grey Gardens, almost quit showbiz?—Beth Bayer, Morristown, N.J.

[a] Yes. But consider this: it’s possible to “almost” decide to do anything. Just moments before she almost quit showbiz, Christine Ebersole almost told her neighbor that his wife was killed by a mountain lion, just to get see his reaction. That’s the kind of cruel woman she almost is.

[q] Please settle a bet. I say that Willie Shoemaker is the winningest jockey ever. My husband says it’s Laffit Pincay Jr. Who buys dinner? —B. Redmile, Augusta, Ga.

[a] Trick question: The man buys dinner. Always.


Scribble version, final version

In my post on How to write a scene, I showed the “scribble version” of a scene as an example of the process. In hindsight, it was a little unfair to show the bones and not show the body. So here’s the scribble version again, followed by the final scene. On real paper, it runs exactly two pages.

Scribble version

DUNCAN waiting edge of seat

ITO

I was one of the doctors who worked on your wife accident injuries severe, trauma team, sorry, couldn’t save her.

(sits, reflex)

nature of injuries, concern fetus wouldn’t survive in utero. paramedic able deliver caesarian boy healthy

(nodding not hearing)

nurse can take you to see him, know a lot to handle

what

a lot to handle

take me to see him?

yes

see who?

your son. paramedic was able to

(grabs clipboard)

I know this may seem

My wife wasn’t pregnant

Your wife didn’t tell you...

My wife has never been pregnant. been trying three years. fertility clinic last week

I examined the baby myself. nearly at term.

I don’t know whose baby, not hers.

Full scene

INT. ER WAITING ROOM – NIGHT

PAUL DUNCAN, 38, sits on the edge of his seat, vigilant. He watches every DOCTOR and NURSE who passes, waiting for the one who will talk to him. Finally, he notices the TRIAGE NURSE speaking with a doctor, GERALD ITO. The coordinator hands him a patient folder, then gestures towards the waiting room. Duncan stands as the doctor approaches.

Ito speaks with a practiced calm, making horrible news sound straightforward:

ITO

Mr. Duncan, I’m Dr. Ito. I was one of the doctors who worked on your wife.

DUNCAN

They said she was in an accident.

ITO

Her injuries were severe. The trauma team did everything they could. I’m sorry. We couldn’t save her.

Duncan nods. He wasn’t expecting to hear she was alive, but he had held out some hope.

Almost by reflex, Duncan sits down. Ito joins him.

ITO (CONT’D)

Because of the nature of the injuries, there was concern the fetus wouldn’t survive in utero. The paramedic was able to deliver the baby by Caesarian section. It’s a boy. Healthy and stable.

Duncan just keeps nodding. It’s not clear how much he’s hearing.

ITO (CONT’D)

If you’d like, in a few minutes, I can have a nurse take you up to see him. Or if you’d like to wait, I understand. This is a lot to handle.

Duncan looks at the doctor strangely.

DUNCAN

What did you say?

ITO

I said, this is a lot to handle all at once.

DUNCAN

(confused)

You would take me to see him?

ITO

Yes.

DUNCAN

See who?

ITO

Your son.

(patiently)

The paramedic was able to deliver the baby your wife was carrying. He’s healthy.

A beat. Duncan suddenly grabs the folder Ito is holding. He checks the name: Pamela Lynn Duncan. What’s more, her driver’s license is clipped to the file.

ITO (CONT’D)

I know this may seem unreal. A dream. That’s very common in a situation like...

DUNCAN

My wife wasn’t pregnant.

Choosing his words carefully...

ITO

Your wife didn’t tell you she was pregnant?

DUNCAN

My wife has never been pregnant. We’ve been trying for three years. We were at the fertility clinic last week.

Trying to remain calm...

ITO

Mr. Duncan, I examined the baby myself. It looked to be nearly at term.

DUNCAN

I don’t know whose baby that was. It wasn’t hers.

Why this scene? Well, I picked it because it’s pretty self-contained, and doesn’t feature any characters who had been set up earlier. It’s also an example of how the purpose of a scene is what you need the audience to learn, not necessarily your protagonist. The hero is not even in the scene, and these two characters never appear again.


Sell out

No, that’s not my advice to aspiring screenwriters.

The Nines sold out its first three screenings at Sundance, including the 1300-seat premiere. As of this morning, the only tickets available are for the final screening on Sunday, January 28th at the Rose Wagner.

Keep in mind, everything sells out at Sundance. That Ukrainian documentary about bottle caps? Gone.

But still, it’s exciting-slash-terrifying to realize that no matter what, a heckuva lot of people are going to be seeing my film one week from Sunday. It’s literally out of my hands–we shipped off the screening copy to Utah last week. At this point, I’m basically a passenger on this trip. And a little airsick, frankly.


Clarification on point one

In my previous post on How to write a scene, I wrote that the first question a screenwriter should ask is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Not only that…

Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is wrong. The characters are not responsible for the story. You are. If characters were allowed to control their scenes, most characters would chose to avoid conflict, and movies would be crushingly boring.

As I typed this, I anticipated a sea of hands shooting into the air, a chorus of But! But! Buts! So I added a lengthy disclaimer in which I wrote about terms like “character driven” and “character motivation.” But then I decided to cut it, just to get the reaction:

John, are you fucking retarded? A character must act his character not what’s most convenient for you. — Chris

Now that Chris has lectured the professional screenwriter on the craft, we can take a look at why I stand by my point.

We’ve all seen dull, mechanical movies where the characters are pretty much spectators. The story is driven by external events, without any real engagement or decision-making by the so-called hero. Sure, at times they may discover information or get in a gunfight, but they’re basically zombies. Plot-bots.

This is a fundamental structural issue, not a scene problem. From the conceptual stage, the characters were placed in the wrong seat of the car. They’re in the passenger seat, staring out the window, when they should be behind the wheel. The best scene-work in the world isn’t going to solve this problem.

Remember: This is a tutorial about how to write one scene. The first question is, “What needs to happen in this scene?” Or, to rephrase it, “What do I need to show the audience?” Yes, the character should be responsible for his or her actions and decisions inside the movie, but you, the writer, are responsible for deciding which moments the audience gets to see.

Think of yourself as a documentary editor. You have hundreds of hours of footage. Which bits are you going to use to tell your story?

In your movie–an inspiring drama set against the majestic backdrop of Alaska–the hero may want to win the igloo-building championship to prove his dead architect father’s theories correct and reconnect with his Inuit half-brother. But in this particular scene, what needs to happen is that the judges rule that ice blocks must be quadrilateral, thus thwarting the hero’s geodesic ambitions.

Clear? Great. Now let’s talk about situations when “what a character wants” does become scene-specific.

Actors and directors often talk of “character motivation,” using phrases like, “What’s the character’s motivation in this scene?” That’s a valid if somewhat dispiriting question, particularly on the set; either they’ve shown up without doing their homework, or the script really is that confusing. You may find yourself explaining that the hero is trying to rescue his son from the avalanche because he loves him.

If you re-read my how-to, at no point was I advising forcing your characters to act against their natures. But I was telling you to take control. My post was about writing a single scene, and a single meandering scene can derail a script. The argument that, “But my hero really wanted to watch TV for a couple of hours!” won’t win you accolades for your dedication to the craft.


MTV News on The Nines

As we get closer to Sundance, I promise not to besiege you with blurbs about The Movie–that’s what the other site is for. But here’s one. From MTV’s “Ten Most Anticipated” list:

6. “The Nines”
Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis star in this “Magnolia”-like drama, praised by some Hollywood insiders as the best script to make the rounds in years. All indications are that the less an audience knows, the better, so all we’ll say is the plot revolves around a video-game designer, a down-and-out actor and a TV maven whose lives become eerily intertwined.

Why we’re intrigued: Reynolds could be up for a big year, with “Smokin’ Aces” establishing him as a leading man and “Nines” arriving to display his dramatic chops. After memorable work in so many comedies, it’ll be interesting to see if he can pull off a Bill Murray-like transformation.

Why we’re afraid: The title is instantly forgettable, and way too easily confused with “The Ten.”

Your opinions? Rather than double up comments, discuss away in the Forum1.

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