Greetings! I just returned from Singapore where I was teaching screenwriting students at the Tisch Asia School. If you see any typos, blame the mojitos as I began writing this post poolside in the Lion City. Also, I’m sorry you guys may have to wait a few more weeks for my series on outlining. As you know, we take an Amish barn raising approach to this website. Pick up a hammer and get busy and eventually there’s a barn. If things aren’t happening fast enough for you, hang tight, our small team is hammering away.
Now, if you’re not already a fan of the Scriptnotes Podcast then I want to remedy that right now. John August and Craig Mazin are spitting science on the weekly and you ignore the show at your own peril. They have been attempting to slay the dragon—that is, screenplay formatting. And, if you know me, you know they’re singing my song. This week, I’m going to add my voice to the conversation and put out some complaints about current screenplay formatting as well as some suggestions that I think could help bring movie software and screenplay formatting into the 21st Century.
The entertainment industry is one of the most technologically advanced businesses in the world. It also gathers together some of the most creative minds in the world. So why are we still using the screenplay formatting that Charlie Chaplin used?
Writers were never meant to write in screenplay format. Even Matthew Weiner, the writer/creator of “Mad Men,” says in an article on Indiewire.com that he dictates his scripts, and his assistants take it from there. Screenplay formatting is for everybody but the writer. Imagine what would have happened if Shakespeare had to write plays and also annotate and footnote his works at the same time. That’s what writing and formatting feels like to me.
So, in order to solve the problem, let’s look at how screenplays are used:
1) They’re a readable approximation of the movie that will eventually be made. You should be able to read them and lose yourself in them as you would with a book.
2) They serve as guides for location managers, set designers, costume designers, editors, directors of photography and other crew members.
3) They’re on-set references to cue actors on their lines and blocking…the main reason why the dialogue is separate and the margins are narrow (and double-spaced in sitcoms).
I can’t think of any other reasons, can you? Looking at a screenplay, you would assume it was purely a guide for crew members, with a little drama crammed off to the side. Not necessarily a pleasurable document for people looking for a good read. The struggle is to make them fun but that’s kinda like creating a blueprint that has to give technical information on measurements while simultaneously trying to sell how beautiful the building is going to look after all the paintings are on the walls and the trees have been planted. It’s a wonder screenplays sell at all.
My first big problem starts at the top. The first thing I write in each scene—the most important detail, is the least important thing to me as a writer. The location. If you want to see a guy not care about something, watch a director tell me he’s changing the location of a scene of mine. But there it is. Right off the bat, I’m doing the location manager’s job. “EXT. DIRT ROAD – DAY”. First “EXT” and “DIRT ROAD” are redundant so I’m immediately showing the world what a terrible writer I am. Then “DAY”. Of course, it’s friggin’ day! It’s a dirt road! What’s the point of filming it at night. Why can’t I just say, “HENRY (62) is carrying a large gas can down a long DIRT ROAD,” and be done with it? No, I have to say “INT” or “EXT” or the whole industry comes crashing to the ground. And what is an “INT” or an “EXT” anyway? Is a PHONE BOOTH an INT or an EXT? How about a BUS STOP? A SEWER? What about “EXT. HELMHOLTZ CRATER, MARS – DAY”? You’re probably going to shoot that on a sound stage in front of a green screen. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night so why do I have to type it on my script? Craig Mazin made that point in the Podcast and I practically got up on my chair and did a black power fist in the air. Frankly, I write animation. Nothing is INT or EXT but I’ve still got to write it! More importantly, nobody reads slugs! They stop the read. They tip the story. And they’re silly. Get rid of the slugs and make the location manager read the rest of the script like everybody else. I don’t indicate costume choices so why am I scouting locations?
I have the same problem with adding “CUT TO:” and “DISSOLVE TO:” at the end of scenes. It feels as intrusive as indicating MASTER SHOT and CLOSE UP in the action. The Editor and the Director of Photography have worked hard to get where they are, why am I trying to do their jobs? The good ones never pay attention to “CUT” and “DISSOLVE TO”s anyway…and I’m glad.
As for dialogue, I don’t understand why I have to cram complicated thoughts onto a thin column like it’s a joke on a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper. Let me widen the margin just a bit. Not too much. I like the magazine-like legibility of the dialogue strip, but I could use a few words here and there…especially for monologues. And I’ll never understand why I can’t put paragraph breaks in there. That’s just infantile.
A little inside baseball: I use the exact dialogue margins that Quentin Tarantino used in the DJANGO UNCHAINED screenplay. Why? For the same reason I used to imitate Chauncey Billups of the Pistons when I shot free throws. For the same reason I wore Michael Jordan’s brand of shoes. You want a little magic to rub off on you.
Okay, now that we’ve got all of the complaining out of the way, what do we want this new miraculous evolution in screenwriting software to do? Well, for that you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, tell me what you’d want to see. I’d love to incorporate your ideas into my next post (with credit, of course). Maybe we’ll get this off in a letter to John August and offer a little help and encouragement to him and his software team as they take this on. See you then!