Sunday, August 21, 2016

T.M.I. in Scene Description

EXT. BANK - DAY - The FRAME is full of cop faces.
"The FRAME is full of cop faces [...] The fact is they love their work, which is criminals. There is a peculiar delight in ferreting out the criminal impulse in everybody, and a matching fury in punishing it -- which is the action of repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious. These are tense, funny, violent, and rigidly controlled men."
If that paragraph of scene description, which doesn't at all describe the image above of the scene that was ultimately shot, bored you, that's because screenplays are not supposed to be novels.

Scripts should read fast. Only include what is absolutely necessary in scene descriptions. Don't describe things that can't be seen or heard. How do you film cops "repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious"? How do the actors play that?

You may have heard these rules before. But guess what? The verbose description of a simple establishing shot above comes straight out of an Academy Award winning original screenplay by a writer who would go on to become the president of both the Writers Guild of America, West, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

That doesn't make it good screenwriting. However, there are times when a little literary flourish can help get the point across. For example:
Up In The Air starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Glorious close-up of Ryan's PLATINUM CARD sliding through the AUTOMATED MACHINE. Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan. Maybe we even do.
This line of description breaks about half a dozen "rules" of screenwriting, depending on which screenwriting book is your bible: Don't mention camera angles, never use CAPS for anything other than the first appearance of a character's name, don't use "we" to refer to what the audience hears or sees, etc. But most egregiously, rules sticklers would say there is no way to film "Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan."

And still the paragraph -- from the 2009 Oscar-nominated script Up In The Air -- sure paints a clear picture of exactly what the writer was trying to convey. The writer happened to also be the director in this case, but almost any director would have reached essentially the same result, including the feeling the writer was going for, based on that description.

Here's an example from the critically acclaimed 2010 drama The Kids Are All Right, also Oscar-nominated for its screenplay. This bit of scene description appears between the dialogue of two teenage girls discussing boys:
The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
JONI: Just cause you're like a 24 hour drive-thru doesn't mean I have to be.
This is their running schtick. Joni calls Sasha a tramp. Sasha calls Joni a prude. They love it.
You can't film that description. But without it some readers might assume -- from the actual scripted dialogue -- that these two best friends despise each other. Unless the writer had resorted to the even more verboten: parentheticals! Or on-the-nose dialogue.

On the other hand, even the pros can overdo their descriptions. The following excerpts are from the 132 page first draft of the George Clooney flop The American by 28 Weeks Later screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of twice Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffe).
The American starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Rowan Joffe
JACK completes his morning exercises then showers and dresses. His manner is precise and methodical. Only a man who has lived alone for many years can live like this.
Live like what? Exercising, showering and dressing? What does that even mean? Only single men exercise, shower and dress? Really? And are we really going to see Jack do all these things? That's a montage!
He hums as he cooks: Opera arias. And Johnny Cash.
Is he humming a mash-up? Or is this supposed to be two separate scenes? Or is it one long scene where he finishes humming an aria then segues to Johnny Cash?
If we were to see her in the Corso Federico II, we would think she was a secretary out shopping, a tourist taking in the sights, a middle class daughter of middle class parents making her way through business college or language school.
Sure. And if we were to see her with a fish tail, we'd think she was a mermaid. What's that got to do with the story?
The WAITER pours a thumbful of wine. It is pale red in colour and frizzante. At CLARA's insistence, JACK tastes it. It is dry and has a tar-like aftertaste.
And just what does a tar-like aftertaste look like on the screen?
JACK has driven to the remotest phone box he can find: not far from the entrance to one of the region's four national parks.
If we don't see the other three of region's four national parks, why do we need to know about them?

The script also contains a six-line paragraph describing the intricate details of a fountain with a 2-1/4mm diameter pipe made of bronze. I thought for sure the movie's Maguffin would at some point be hidden in this structure after so much time was spent describing it, but, alas, it is never referenced again. Nor is another character's son, who appears only once, while his father is on the phone. He has no lines but is nonetheless exhaustively biographied as being 14-years-old with Down's Syndrome and eating ice cream that his father is wiping from his mouth with a handkerchief. Good to know.
Shitty motel from IDENTITY by Michael Cooney
Perhaps the best example of how to tighten up scene descriptions comes from a booklet entitled Spec Format Guide. This example of what not to do is presumably not from a produced screenplay:
A sagging double-bed with a cigarette-burned bedspread stands against the far wall. The ancient wallpaper is faded and peeling. The threadbare carpet is badly discolored with stains the origins of which are best left unsaid. A disquieting breeze blows through the dingy window, causing the tattered curtains to flutter ghost-like in the gloom.
Here's how the guide suggests a good screenwriter would describe this same scene:
Works for me.

In case you're wondering, the Oscar-winning script quoted at the beginning of this article was Dog Day Afternoon. The shot, as so eloquently described, does not appear in the movie. Neither does this superfluous stage direction:
The Commissioner's hand lingers on Moretti's -- they are fond of each other, these men, linked in a relationship of a lifetime of shared experience, of attitudes, of maleness -- an accumulation of years of jokes about being late for dinner, of women waiting and women panting with desire, men secure in the bastion of their roles.
Too much information. Way too much.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't include extraneous information in scene description that can't be filmed and is not useful to the reader or actors.

ScripTipps: TIP: Contrary to the general rule, scene description IS allowed to add context to what is seen and heard.

ScripTipps TIP: It's okay to use scene description to help the reader understand the subtext of a scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can incorporate language that suggests intended tone and pace for the scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Use scene description to suggest an image or convey how an image should make us feel.

ScripTipps TIP: When writing scene description, don't describe the scene, describe the experience of watching the movie.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can comment on character in ways that help actors convey an idea nonverbally.

ScripTipps TIP: Verbose, literary scene descriptions in a screenplay slow down the read in a counter-productive way.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't use scene description to provide physical details of a set or location. That's the production designer's job.

ScripTipps TIP: Sometimes, just one word of scene description could be all it takes to get the point across.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on August 16, 2010.)