Monday, June 30, 2008

It was Rob.

Gah, I spent the morning cutting episode one of Teen Drama Thing down from 76 pages to 72 (episode two is only 69 pages, so the disparity was a bit jarring), and sent it off, only to discover this evening that John August, writer of Go! and Charlie's Angels, has an entire blog post up about How To Cut Pages. I wish I'd known about the Widow Control thing.

Episodes of Teen Drama Thing are actually supposed to be an hour long, so eagle-eyed readers will note that under the 'one page=one minute' rule, they're still running a bit long. This is okay for two reasons:

1) I am extremely pernickety about timing, so like to lay every beat and pause out as clearly as possible, just so the actors and director have no excuse at all for messing it up. This does tend to take up a bit of space, but the final product won't run quite as long.

2) Visual texture is incredibly important to Teen Drama Thing, which is a poncy way of saying there are things going on in the background that might not affect the plot, but will affect the emotional tone of the piece as a whole.

UPDATE: also, 3), they need to run a bit long anyway, as inevitably something has to be cut, and you don't want to have to pad it out to get it back up to length.

Here's an example from HERO TRIP, the superhero/road trip movie I wrote a while ago, the future of which depends almost entirely on whether Will Smith's HANCOCK film makes $50 million next weekend. If it does, 'post-modern superhero movies' are back in a big way, and my script will get moved onto a 'read' pile. If it doesn't, 'post-modern superhero movies' are really really out. Here's the introduction to the real identity of REX, the movie's hero (this is right at the start, so isn't giving too much away).


Hanging in Rex’s wardrobe are an array of costume parts with a slick athletic vibe to them, like neoprene surfwear crossed with American football armor, the same theme as the costume we saw in the credits sequence, but now bang up to date, and clearly working clothes as much as they are a superhero outfit.

REX pulls on the leggings, boots, jacket, utility belt, gloves and a face mask that covers right down to the top of his nose (the costume parts are all a little bashed about, with a couple of carefully-mended tears here and there). As in the comic panels, his outfit is mostly dark blue and white, with a little red in it. On his chest is a simplified logo of a burning torch. No cape.

From a glass display case, REX reverently takes his torch. He looks at it for a moment, then tucks it into his belt, and stands for a moment, gathering himself wearily before he can truly become... THE DEFENDER.

Rex stands for a moment in a proper superhero pose. Then he picks up a control and presses the button - a platform raises from beneath his feet, lifting him up through a hole in the ceiling. Halfway up, it stops. Rex presses the button a couple more times, and it starts working again.

So, you could probably get away with 'REX puts on a costume and a lift takes him up through the ceiling. It get comedically stuck on the way', especially as the whole sequence probably takes around ten seconds. But this is a really important scene - for setting tone and character at least, so I figure it's worth taking a little time to get it right.

You can overdo this of course. One thing to be aware of is that many execs skip all the descriptive stuff and only read the dialogue, so, you know, you makes your choice. Anyway, description is important, and if you care about getting the details right, your script is probably going to run slightly long. And the last reason this is get-away-with-able, is because:

3: When your episode (we're back to telly now KEEP UP) is finally filmed, it will almost certainly be very slightly shorter than the script length suggested. Better to run slightly over the slot length and have to make a few very short cuts, than run too short and have to pad.

Very good article on screenwriting in today's Guardian by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who unlike me has had actual films made (24 Hour Party People, A Cock And Bull Story and others) and thus knows what he's talking about. Go to it.

Oh, also, that thing about not trying to cheat and resize the font a couple of points smaller to make the script a couple of pages shorter without losing any content? Execs know about this, and will totally spot it, apparently in under three seconds. I've never tried it, although I know a man who has. Professional discretion however, means I cannot say his name.


Boz said...

"No cape." Dharling, Edna Mode knows her stuff.

This is really interesting. So when you cut pages down from the Teen Drama Thing, did that mean you had to re-write other parts of it as well?

James Henry said...

Yay, a comment! Sometimes I worry the stuff about writing is actually quite technical and dull, and people are just biding their time until I accidentally cut one of my mum's apple trees down again.

With the teen drama thing, it turned out there were a few ghosts of previous drafts hanging around, so it was relatively easy to chop them out. It's always good for me to go through and pare dialogue down as much as possible, as well, as stuff that scintillates on the page can really hang around on screen like a bad stinky smell.

Basically, it's always better to write long, then pare it back, rather then come up short and pad, as I said. Sixt minutes is a weirdly long time though, especially if you're used to Buffy/Who length eps (normall around 42-50 mins). It's like having to put a whole extra act in, and if you're not careful, it can really draaaaaaag. Fortunately, teen drama thing is quite ensembley in nature, so you can always jump to one of the sillier plot strands to keep things ticking along.

Boz said...

Well. The apple tree stuff is funny too - but this is interesting and practically useful.

I reckon dialogue is the hardest thing to write. But 'sillier' plot strands sound very promising. Whee!

Am working through the links you have included, in lieu of actually doing any work today. Huzzah.

James Henry said...

Dialogue is something starting writers get really hung up on, I think - it takes a long time to refine dialogue to be both resonant and funny (if you're writing something comedic) and keep the story moving along. As ever, Arrested Development is breath-takingly good at this.

And there's always room for the silly. Glad to be of service, Boz.

Boz said...

I shall look forward to seeing Teen Drama Thing on my tellyvisualbox. Am I allowed to watch it, even though I am not a teenager - like Hollyoaks?*

* I don't watch Hollyoaks.

James Henry said...

I'm pleased to say that if Teen Drama Project/Thing does actually end up on the television box, all readers of this blog have special dispensation to watch it.

Boz said...

I am more hopeful: "when" not 'if".

Stuart Ian Burns said...

The most extraordinary page to screen script ratio I've heard about is the US series Gilmore Girls (currently showing mornings on E4) which would sometimes translate as 80 pages for 40 minutes screen time. But that was particularly dialogue heavy and that would usually happen in a couple of episodes a season in which the actors would literally hammer through the dialogue almost breathlessly like a 30s screwball comedy. On those terms, as you'd expect in terms of jokes, the hit to miss ratio makes something like Friends look positively stately. God I love that show.

Salvadore Vincent said...

Ah yes, the old trick of deleting odd words until a paragraph shrinks by a line (and hopefully also jumps up a page). I do this so naturally now that all my scripts look like Schott's Original Miscellany. (Check out his paragraphs if you don't know what I mean.)

Though I do sometimes wonder whether I'm doing myself a disservice doing this as the episode will end up overlength and they'll just cut what they want in the edit, which may not be what I would have chosen to cut.

My worst experience was when I spent an age cutting a script, only for them to return it insisting it was still overlength. Turned out my version of Final Draft won't let you select paper size - I was using my PC's default of A4, they were using US Letter (what with being in the US and all). Which meant I had to cut another page...

James Henry said...

Ah yes, I've had exactly the same problem. I think sending pdfs helps there, with the advantage no-one else can make any sneaky changes...

Salvadore Vincent said...

Presumably you could then just make your pages as big as you wanted. 120 pages, and each one the size of a tablecloth.

Actually, my last comment read a bit like a maths puzzle. So, given the different sizes of A4 and US Letter paper, the margin sizes of standard screenplay layout and the fact that I had to cut exactly one page, how long was my original script? (Show your working.)

Anonymous said...

I seen a clip from HANCOCK where he saves the stranded whale on beach by chucking it back in the sea and hitting a yacht - it was funny. Although Hero Trip has to be made to show the American's how it really should be done!

Karin said...

Hi! I stumbled in here by way of other blogs and found out something I didn't know before. They're called widows? In Sweden, we call them "bastards". The word is actually more crude than bastard (whore's child), but it amounts to the same thing. Technically. Funny how editing terms universally reflect nuclear family values.

James Henry said...

Hi Grammanaut. I ony found out there were called 'widows' on the day I made this here post. I am a bit rubbish at the technical wordy jargon (see?), and still get confused over which are verbs and which are nouns.

Karin said...

So am I, which sometimes makes professional proofreading for other people difficult. "You can't write that, because that thing doesn't go with the other... thing". The only reason I know what a widow is, is because the term for it is so brutal.