Guest author and blogger Jon Spira has written feature film scripts for Manga Live, Palm Pictures and a multitude of independent producers. He has taught the UK Film Council Screenwriting course since 2004.
Screenwriting is probably the strangest discipline in the whole literary world.
Unlike a novel, short story, article or poem, the finished screenplay is not really a fait accompli. Even the greatest screenplays in the world when finished and signed off are merely the first step of a highly technical process. I’ve never seen a published screenplay for an unproduced film (unless it was of huge interest due to its place in a highly esteemed film-maker’s body of work).
A screenplay doesn’t really exist on its own. A screenplay is a blueprint for the production of a film. This is a good way to view it as, like a blueprint, it is a highly technical document which provides information for a very wide variety of people. Just reading a screenplay is a skill in itself. Understanding how this bizarrely, falteringly laid out piece of prose and direction could be visualized. Writing one is ten times harder. When you write a novel, you’re writing purely for your reader – to entertain or inform them. You can write the whole thing in first person if you like and just directly dump all that information into their head. A screenplay must be an engaging and distractingly enjoyable read but it also must deal with the expectations, demands and egos of far more than just one compliant reader.
I’m not going to tell you how to format a screenplay – yet – but what I do want to explain to you is who you’re writing your screenplay for and what their needs are.
To be impressed.
The producer holds the purse strings and have the ultimate authority on a film. To make a producer happy, you need to, most importantly, have a good, commercial idea. This means you have written a film for a specific audience and touched all the bases that audience would want from a cinematic experience.
You might think the Transformers films are cynical in this way but a film like The King’s Speech is almost identical in its awareness of what its audience demands. The producer also cares about budget, so think carefully before you make it rain in a scene or have a moment play out in front of a crowd of six thousand troops.
Running time is a big issue for producers. Legend has it that many won’t even read a script that feels heavier in their hand than the 90-page product they can most easily persuade cinemas to exhibit – if you write a two-and-a-half-hour film, nobody will touch it as cinemas would have to do fewer showings, therefore making less money. The exceptions to the rule are always from very well-established film-makers who market their wares based on epic qualities.
Keep it under 90 pages.
To have control.
Here’s your problem with the director. They probably hate you. There’s a gulf of ownership over a film which exists between the writer, who originates and creates the story and the director who interprets and realizes it. I’ve never held with the ‘Auteur theory’ but I can empathise with a director who slaves so hard over the job and who, really, is the person who will be held publicly accountable for its success or failure. They want to have creative control and you must give it to them.
That’s your job – to make them look good.
Careful formatting plays into this.
The biggest no-no is to write camera direction into the screenplay (‘we zoom in’ ‘the camera pans left’ ‘the camera walks alongside them’) as this is telling the director their own job. Their job is to take what you’ve written and translate it for an audience using their vision. But you have your own vision too – you’ve already visualised the whole film in the cinema of your mind, as you wrote it. So here is perhaps the toughest part of screenwriting – you must write in such a way that the director can only interpret it as you saw it yet think that it’s their own vision.
If you want a tight close-up of Billy’s eyes, you can’t write ‘extreme close up of Billy’s eyes panicking’ – you have to write ‘tiny beads of sweat form around the bags of Billy’s wildly rolling eyeballs’ – there is no other way a director can illustrate that without a tight close up.
To have technical information.
A technical crew couldn’t care less about your script or vision. They need the most basic of information and a screenplay formatted in such a way that they can get that purely by skimming. What do they want? They want clear and precise technical information. Formatting is key.
You must put a slug-line at the beginning of each scene. It should look like this:
36. EXT. SCHOOLYARD. DUSK
The ‘36’ is the scene number – this is important to the people who schedule the movie and make sure it’s running efficiently – the script supervisors, the assistant producers, the second and third units. The people who know what is happening when and why. You can’t say ‘we’re shooting the schoolyard scene today’ – there might be 30 of them, all differing wildly.
You must number your scenes.
The ‘EXT’ stands for exterior and it has a counterpart ‘INT’ for interior. Although it may be a whimsical choice to you if it is EXT or INT – for the production team, it makes a massive difference.
An INT scene can be shot in a studio or closed location – it is controllable and easy and can be done with far less fuss.
An EXT shoot demands issues of weather, light, sound, controlling the public – you need more crew, you must work quicker, it’s an entirely different proposal. Too many EXTs might even get the script rejected by the Producer on feasibility grounds.
The ‘SCHOOLYARD’ is your specific location – something that is going to have to be secured or created by the production design team. The set builders and production managers really care only about these words in the whole screenplay.
‘DUSK’ refers to the time of day, though more common would be DAY or NIGHT but if you have a specific vision of twilight, dusk, dawn, or the like, you must make that clear. This affects art design, location management and camerawork. Also, don’t forget that anything not shot in general ‘DAY’ will cost a production a lot of money in overtime and, again, affects feasibility.
Throughout the script you should also put important sounds and effects in block capitals to draw attention to them. The technical crew aren’t interested in your prose or the value of your work, they just want their responsibilities written clearly in CAPITAL LETTERS.
To have dialogue (and just dialogue).
Actors are the easiest to please. Their character names and dialogue run down a column in the middle of the page. It’s good form for everyone if the first time you mention the characters appearing in the prose sections, you do so in capital letters. It just lets people know that a new significant character is now making their appearance.
Everyone writes dialogue differently – sometimes you’ll add in stutters and pauses, I think this should be a very rare thing – along with writing in such a way to reflect accent. The actors can figure this stuff out for themselves. I tend to say write the best dialogue you can and then trust the actors and director to worry about delivery and reflection. It’s bad form to write direction in brackets preceding the dialogue.
The dialogue and strength of situation alone should convey the emotion.
That’s basically it. Remember that all writing is altruistic but when composing your screenplay, you’re not just writing for the generic reader – you have the power to make a lot of people’s jobs a lot easier or a lot harder and these are the people who will dictate whether you get a career.