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January 17, 2004 10:58 AM   Subscribe

In modern screenplays written for movies and television is it acceptable to include a fair share of Direction? I understand it used to be more common but has fallen out of vogue. (more)

I've been finishing up a teleplay while reading some of William Goldman's screenwriting books (which are fantastic), and opinions really seem to differ on this. In his screenplay for Butch & the Sundance kid there is significant direction, even down to very specific camera instructions. Yet I've read that this is widely discouraged these days.

In short: is it best to assume there is a skeletal "writer's copy" of the screenplay which is eventually transformed, via the director, into a more fleshed out "director's copy"?
posted by dhoyt to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
The New Yorker recently ran an article about the politics of screenplay writing that you might find educational. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be linked. Your local library probably has back copies of the magazine, it might be worth digging around, to give you some insight into the writing process. The story used "The Hulk" as a case study to illustrate some of the challenges screenwriters face.

The article does not go into detail about stage directions. But as to your second set of questions: I get the impression that movies start in one of two ways -- either with a concept from a director or producer, who then shops around for a writer, or with a writer. But the final screenplay is often the result of numerous revisions. With movies, at least, this is a highly politicized process, centered around rules written by the Screen Writers Guild, a union for movie writers. Often the final movie bares little resemblence to the original script. And frequently the original writer does not get "writing" credits for a movie -- these credits are determined by a committee that is independent of that particular movie-making process.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:21 AM on January 17, 2004

dhoyt, the term you're looking for would be "work draft". Once the studio approves the storyline, it'll be subject to possible (read: likely) revisions to suit it's overall anticipation for success. Afterward, it'll be given to the discretions of the producers and investors called in to oversee the handling of the project.

Directorial input is often secondary to the producers' involvement, as few directors, in spite of "auteur" designations are truly acknowledged in the industry as moguls. Even on the scale of, say, a Woody Allen or James Cameron, consideration may be given to the various actors, product sponsors, effects crews and even focus groups which may "suggest" even further tweaking of the screenplay. Beyond small independent releases, few scripts are translated to screen unmolested, unexpurgated, or otherwise unaffected.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:26 AM on January 17, 2004

I almost forgot: a more detailled look on the subject can be found
in How The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn't Have To); the book provides expert legal advice on how to keep your vision (relatively) intact.

The Unkindest Cut, by Joe Queenan is more light-hearted in tone, but also is worth a read.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:58 AM on January 17, 2004

dhoyt, camera direction is strongly discouraged in contemporary scripts, especially when the work is not commissioned or not written by a pro. if you're writing on spec I would sugget you avoid it as much as you can, meaning altogether, unless it can't be helped (for instance, if trying to conceal a person's identity or if pointing out something specific that would be done with an insert).

If, for whatever reason, you chose to ignore that advice, I would then suggest that you do your best to "hide" what you're doing. Direct the reader through detailed writing rather than the camera setup specifications. For instance, in olden days you'd write (sans italics, of course):

Jenny drives. Scott sits silently in the passenger seat.


as she squeezes the steering wheel.


her foot SLAMS on the brake.

Today, you'd write this as

Jenny drives. Scott sits silently in the passenger seat.

Jenny WHITE KNUCKLES the steering wheel. Sunlight glimmers off her wedding band.

She CRUSHES the brake pedal with her foot.

or something like that. (Note that I am not suggesting your script be littered with CAPS. They're usually only used the first time a speaking character is introduced, and for signficant sound effects.)

It's the "same thing" but you haven't stepped on any toes (the director or DOP's, for instance). However, if you've got more than a half dozen such "suggestions" in your script I would argue that it's more than likely overwritten. Your job is to tell the story not direct the film. You'll have to decide which details are important enough to punch.

In the example above (from one of my own scripts), I chose to juxtapose the wedding band and the brake pedal because it's the first scene in my script and I want to say without dialogue that my character is ending--putting a stop to--her marriage. I could have writen it as

Jenny drives. Scott sits silently in the passenger seat.

Jenny braces herself and slams on the brakes.

and it would be considered correct (preferred, even, by many), but I personally don't find it as effective even though, again, it's the "same thing".

There are of course people who will disagree with everything I've written above and point to countless examples of contemporary writers breaking the "rules". Simply put, if your writing style is stellar and your story compelling, no one will care. However, only one in five thousand scripts fits that description so it's always best (especially if you're an amateur) to follow the rules as much as you can.

While we're on the topic of screenwriting, I highly recommend James Ryan's horribly titled Screenwriting from the Heart which is the best book on screenwriting that I've ever read (and I've read 'em all).
posted by dobbs at 12:26 PM on January 17, 2004

What dobbs said about breaking out the shots (those are the sudden, all in caps halves of sentences in the middle of the slugs indicated there,) and leaving the camera alone. I'm a working screenwriter, and while you can get away with murder if you've already been hired, while writing specs you want to avoid telling the imaginary director what to do. With sufficient examination of your shot, however, you can *still* tell the camera what to do without actually invoking the camera words. For example:
             One minute, Chloe's staring into the face of her                                               
             attacker,  the next moment, he's gone in a black
             blur. She tips her head  back, and her eyes widen.
              CHLOE'S POV
              The alley's turned upside down, and something- a   
              man! Swoops down it on the end of a black                  
              rappelling line, the Thug's  collar (and the Thug 
              with it,) clutched in one hand. As Chloe turns over, 
              the world rights itself, but the strange apparition 
Technically, the upside down POV shot should be a directorial decision, but I thought it was a darned good image and snuck it in with great success by just innocently describing Chloe's POV. I've found that it makes for a more dynamic script, actually; the slugs aren't nearly so dry and it makes the whole thing more interesting to read. Which is important, because before somebody will buy it, somebody has to read it. ;)
posted by headspace at 8:40 PM on January 17, 2004

Response by poster: (Excellent feedback all around. Thanks, you guys)
posted by dhoyt at 10:38 PM on January 17, 2004

You're welcome. Good luck with your teleplay.
posted by dobbs at 11:42 PM on January 17, 2004

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