Breaking the screenplay

I wrote this post for my blog a while back (2016) and then it was published in The Author. But I was re-reading it today and thought it worth posting here. There’s an update at the bottom.

Imagine you’re a development person. You have a pile of scripts on your desk and you have to wade through them. They’re all about the right length, they’re all nicely bound and they’re all formatted correctly because, if you expect nothing else from a professional writer, you at least expect them to be able to observe the simple rules of formatting. So you take the top one off the pile and you open it up and page one is a lot of white space and the text is in Courier Final Draft, or Courier Prime if the writer is fancy. And the two words at the top: “FADE IN” and then a line or two of white and then it says “INT. A ROOM — DAY” or “EXT. FARMHOUSE — EVENING” or “EXT. A CITY STREET — NIGHT”. And then there’s a couple of lines of description because the writer has read her Mamet and her Goldman and she knows that she’s not supposed to put anything there that can’t be filmed. This isn’t literature, this is a blueprint for a movie or a TV show and it’s nice if you can pretty up the language a bit but for the love of God only write that which can be seen on the screen or heard through the speakers. So that is what she has done, and then a character speaks and… And now you pick another script off the pile and it’s the same. And the next. And the next.

Screenplays all look the same. They don’t all read the same but they pretty much all look the same. How hard that story has to work for those first few pages to overcome the dreadful fucking tedium of the format. How that format sets itself against creativity.

Write only that which can be filmed. Why? Have you any idea how many people have to read this thing before it gets anywhere close to MAYBE being filmed? And you’re going to bore the pants off all of those people becaue you’re such a puritan? Because you took Mamet’s advice? Goldman’s advice? You took advice from people whose scripts can be as dull as anything because the mere fact of their name being on the cover means they skip most of the development process anyway? Not that their scripts are dull, obviously, they’re brilliant. But their advice is a little sucky.

There are so many scripts. So. Many. Scripts. Your one needs to be a good read. And that’s not just in terms of story, it’s in terms of style. We’re told we must write only that which can be filmed because this document will be used by the people who are doing the actual filming and they have no use for “style”, they need an instruction manual. Well, I have some news on that; a dispatch from the front lines where I’m a director as well as a writer and I’m happy to report that these heads of department are smart people. They can figure out how many locations are needed, how many sets are to be designed and what they should look like, how many characters there are and what they should wear. They can figure these things out from pretty much any document you put in front of them.

And more news; the script supervisor can time the damn thing. We’re told that our scripts should work out at about a page per minute in screen time. Why? One of the first things that happens in pre-production is that the script goes to a script supervisor who sits down and reads it through with a stop watch, allowing time for pauses, for action etc. You think she checks the page count and makes a guess based on that? My scripts for a 58 minute BBC show tend to come out at around 80 pages. I like the actors to talk fast and we very rarely cut much out of them. Another writer might hand in a script of 67 pages and that may also time out at 58 minutes. I don’t know who needs the script to be a page per minute but I guarantee you that person has nothing to do with actually making the thing.

Who are we writing for? In the first instance, the reader. So entertain them. Obviously you need a good story, that’s a given. But assume everyone has that so NOW what sets your script apart? NOW what makes it a better prospect than the other ones in the pile? Why can’t it be a “page turner”? Why can’t it be a good read? Why must it read like an instruction manual?

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a spec TV project called Kaleidoscope. It’s a three-part show and the story is sufficiently left of centre, and no one is paying me to write it, so I thought I’d experiment with the form a little. Rather than take the standard format, I would monkey around. I wanted it to feel less like reading and more like someone was excitedly reporting a blow-by-blow of this great show they saw last night. So I made the tone more conversational. I stopped worrying about page count and just told the story in the most interesting and exciting way I could. At the point I figured maybe a character’s motivation was unclear, I stopped to explain it. Then I made a virtue of that and turned that motivational stuff into prose; in a different font with different formatting. Pretty soon I had whole chapters of prose within the script. some of them are even in the first person. The stuff that needs to be filmed is clear and can be pulled out by production people. The stuff that can’t be filmed is still useful to the reader and pretty much invaluable to the actor, who now has a much better handle on who the character is and what they’re thinking.

Then I found myself trying to describe a particular real world location and I brought myself up short; why am I trying to do justice to this place in words when it’s 2016 and I can pull photos of it from Google? So in go the photos. “INT. MUSEUM — NIGHT” and here’s what it actually looks like and now on with the story…

This wasn’t just an experiment in style though, it was a creative shot in the arm. I haven’t enjoyed writing this much in years. 26 pages one day. 26 pages. Because I was having so much fun. Because the stuff in my head was no longer a square peg that had to be fitted into the round hole of a “correctly formatted” screenplay. That hole could be any shape it needed to be.

It’s a dangerous game though; people who don’t know me may well assume that I don’t have a clue how to format a screenplay, people who don’t direct may not understand that this document is just as filmable as its more conservative cousins. I don’t doubt that there’ll be problems along the way. And I know I won’t be able to do this on most of my work-for-hire.

But I recommend tinkering with the form anyway, if for no other reason than to blow the cobwebs away and remember what it was like when telling stories was an act of enthusiasm and passion. Before it became fucking maths.

I’ll finish the third episode of Kaleidoscope in about a week (that’ll be three hours of TV from scratch with no outline/plan etc in about 5 weeks — that’s enthusiasm for you!) and I’ll let you know how it goes down.

UPDATE: The Kaleidoscope script got me an agent in LA, who then sold the show to Paramount Television. We’re setting the show up now. Ron Howard (RON ACTUAL HOWARD!) called me up to tell me how much he’d enjoyed reading it and that the new format really worked. I did a similar trick again with another TV script and we sold that in the US just before Christmas 2017. That Kaleidoscope script has also got me a couple of movie jobs for the studios. They really loved the change in format but asked me not to do it on their projects…