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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Alright, welcome to the podcast, we have on screenwriting guru, Dr. Format himself, Dave Trottier. Dave, thanks for being on with us today.
Dave: My pleasure, Geoffrey!
Geoffrey: Obviously, we’re going to talk formatting, because we’ve got the man himself. I’ve read The Screenwriter’s Bible several times, loved it, and even strongly recommended it in my own book, The Guide for Every Screenwriter. That’s how much I believe in it; it’s such a foundation. There is a little bit of belief out there where it’s “art vs. craft”, so I want to get your take on that.
Dave: I think it’s both art and craft. Ideally, we use both sides of our brain; there’s a critical side and a creative side, and they work together in unison. I don’t think formatting infringes on your creativity. The guidelines we have in screenwriting, for example “there should be a beginning, middle, and end,” they are guidelines. You adapt and creatively use those as best you can.
One good example of that is Sleepless in Seattle, from Nora Ephron, she uses the traditional romantic-comedy format, but she does it creatively. We don’t have the characters actually meet in person until the end, but we do have them meet over the radio. And there are moments at the mid-point where one/both is starting to get interested and fall in love. We have the separation, as a crisis, where he’s in one building and she’s in another. That’s the creative use of the traditional structure that screenwriters have used over the years.
Geoffrey: Awesome, I think that’s great. You can strike the balance there; you don’t have to lean to extreme into one or the other. I love that. You update The Screenwriter’s Bible regularly, and I think that’s great because the art/craft we work in is constantly evolving, almost more than generationally. It evolves through reduction. Before, you had establishing shots all over and sounds would be capitalized. Now, not so much. I find that interesting and I want to get your take on how screenwriting evolves over time.
Dave: I think it begins with the fact that no one wants to read, in this town. Therefore producers, agents, and other professionals will handoff your script to a reader/story analyst, who writes the coverage. Essentially, we are writing primarily for a reader because we have to get through the reader to get to the producer or to the agent. The reader wants readability, they are not interested in camera/technical directions; that’s for the shooting/production script, later on. [The reader] wants it to flow easily into his/her mind and heart because there’s so much to read. I think that’s part of the reason for the evolution. I would describe it as: we’re getting further away from technical intrusions and more towards simplicity, focusing on character and story, and making it an entertaining/interesting read for the reader so you can get to the producer and agent.
Geoffrey: That is great insight, Dave. That is fantastic. One thing I also found, when utilizing the reading script over the shooting script, I find the theater of the mind is activated quicker; when you’re not having to deal with camera directions or “Cut To:” ever other sentence.
Dave: That’s exactly right. Those are intruding on the thought process. I like to emphasize directing the camera without using camera directions. For example, in a shooting script we have: “CLOSE UP – A TEAR FORMS ON HER CHEEK.” In a spec script we have, “a tear forms on her cheek.” Well, that has to be a close up, you’re directing the camera without using camera directions. The reader gets it, they’re a professional.
Geoffrey: I think you’re right. I find that by forcing yourself not to rely on camera directions, it makes you cultivate and improve your voice, as a writer. Especially with writing action blocks.
Dave: It improves your voice and helps you develop your visual eye because you do want to present things [in your script] the way it will appear on screen, without going through those technical intrusions.
Geoffrey: Since you mentioned shooting scripts…In my experience with shooting scripts, when I’ve optioned or sold a screenplay, a director will take it and convert it into a shooting script. Have you ever heard of situations where writers have had to adapt [their scripts] into shooting scripts for a director?
Dave: If you get a development deal and are paid to write, naturally, you’ll write the script any way the producer asks, and that may be as a shooting script. There are some producers that simply may want to receive a script that has a little bit more of the shooting script quality to it. What you’re hoping for, after you sell the script, is that you’re the one who’s asked to convert it into a shooting script and make the revisions they’re looking for. [They’ll say], “We love it! It’s the best thing we’ve ever read! But we do want to make these changes.” You hope that you are the one that will make those changes. You want to be hired by them to revise your own script.
Geoffrey: Right, and that’s a whole new muscle to flex. Let me ask you about this because there’s a trend growing in popularity that I’ve noticed. It’s called the “scriptment”. There’s really no set definition for scriptment, as of now. I know it started with James Cameron, back in the late nineties, but I see they’re picking up steam lately. What is your feeling on the scriptment? Do you like them? Do you go by them? Do you have a specific methodology for them? Do you not like them?
Dave: I’m sorry, what’s the terminology?
Geoffrey: It’s called a “scriptment,” it’s a hybrid of a script and a treatment. It’s trending a little bit; you’ll see some writer/directors do a scriptment where they’ll focus more on scenes and less on dialogue, so you’ll have actors doing improv situations.
Dave: I have seen very few of these, so this is kind of new to me. My reaction to it is this is just another reason where people do not want to read. “How can we make it easier to read the script? Let’s do a scriptment.” If I am a writer who excels in dialogue, I’d want to avoid that.
Geoffrey: I agree.
Dave: If I am a writer who excels in narrative description and action that really grabs the reader, then I’m happy about that. I think the key will be, “who am I approaching and how do they want to be approached? What is it they want?” You may have to write [your story] in the form of a scriptment. That’s such a great term, I’ve never heard that term before.
Geoffrey: Yeah, it started with Cameron back in the day when he wrote a scriptment, then it went along the wayside, and now it’s starting to pick back up again. Approaches, in general, change because before you had treatments and now you have look books, pitch decks, and sizzle reels, etc.
Dave: I would suspect, Geoffrey, that scriptments are written more by established writers who don’t need to break in with a full screenplay but are already a known entity and therefore can get a development deal based off a scriptment.
Geoffrey: Yeah, they can leverage their name and brand. That’s a very good point. What kind of trends have you noticed lately with formatting? Have you seen anything changing or shifting in the ethos?
Dave: No, just a continuation of what we were talking about. We want lean, readable, and entertaining [screenplays]. It used to be 120 pages was the max, it still is, but they’d much rather see 110 or 105. I’m hearing, with comedy, 95-100 is great. With drama, 105-110 is more what we would like to see, so you want to keep that in mind. When you receive a script that exactly 120 pages, you know the script was longer and the writer just edited it down to meet that particular cutoff. It may not necessarily be a great script; it almost makes me worry a little bit that maybe it’s not going to be a good read.
Geoffrey: Because it looks bloated, already. … I’ve found lately, with the indie film industry, 86 – 106 tends to be the sweet spot right now. If you’ve got a horror/scary movie, you can roll in about 86 pages, so they can go lite.
Dave: Yes, especially horror. For an independent film, I can see 86 pages because that’s less to shoot and there’s fewer production costs.
Geoffrey: Saving on the budget, absolutely. One trend I’ve noticed is the bolding of slug lines. I think it’s an interesting visual, it’s kind of cool but I think it works in specific genres.
Dave: I’ve seen it as a fad, and I’ve wondered if this is going to continue. I don’t have a problem with it; people want to set apart those master-scene headings like it’s a new chapter in the story. It’s not something I feel must be done and I worry about it. If you are a person listening to this podcast and are just starting out, it’s nothing to worry about right now, focus on the story, do the basic formatting and make sure that’s correct. But you can do it if you want.
Geoffrey: Absolutely, if you’re just starting out, getting that format down is important. If you can make a well-formatted script, you’re already launched into the top 20-30% of screenplays, if it just reads properly. But as far as bolding scripts go, I’ve noticed if it’s a horror or action script, bolding the slug line looks pretty good. But if it’s a romantic comedy like Sleepless in Seattle, it may be a little too abrasive when you’re reading it. But that’s my own two cents.
Dave: I’ve heard readers say two different things. A couple of readers, who read for producers, have said [bolding] interrupts the flow. And others have said, “it helps me see that we’re coming to the end of a scene.” I’ve heard two different reactions.
Geoffrey: This is still a newer thing, so people are still trying to figure out if they like it. But it sounds like it can be quite personal. You are teaching at Script University, so you are teaching a formatting class for them, correct?
Dave: I teach a formatting class. I teach for them and on my own website: www.keepwriting.com
Geoffrey: If I could pick your brain a little bit more, what other tips would you have? We’ve got that we want to focus on the writing, characters, and story. Thinking of your book, one thing that always settled to me was keeping your voice consistent. If you’re going to write a flashback in a particular manner, there’s like 50 ways to do them, but if you’re going to do it one way then keep it consistent because even if it isn’t totally standard, at least it makes sense. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that for me.
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Dave: Consistent is one word, the other word is clear. Be clear and consistent in how you’re doing things and that will pay off for you. Clarity is so important with readers. They’re reading fast, so you can’t afford to lose or confuse a reader. The thing that just popped into my mind, when I said that, was my own personal little bias. When I see on page one, “A MAN walks into the room,” and on page seven we finally name him. Make it easy on your reader, name your characters the moment they first appear in the screenplay, unless you have a dramatic purpose for not doing that.
Geoffrey: That is so true. I just worked on a script for a student where there were three named characters and everyone else was just like “The Mailman”, etc. It’s so much more than consistency and clarity, it’s also [a matter of] if that script gets sold, that actor would love to have a credit as a named character, rather than just being “Guy Number 3”.
Dave: That’s true. Now if you have a lot of characters, you may have to use labels for some of your characters. But rather than use labels like “Guy Number 1, 2 and 3,” characterize them: “Nervous Guy, Snotty Man, Chubby Lady, etc.” You want to color every character; everyone deserves some characterization, even if they’re a very minor character.
Geoffrey: That’s brilliant.
Dave: Don’t forget to do that. That’s one thing I see a lot in scripts from developing writers. [They’ll have] characters that are pretty flat and are simply not well characterized or standing out. If you have two characters that are together a lot, it’s usually best to contrast them. Defining one helps define the other and they define each other because they’re so different from each other. Shakespeare used to do this, all of his central characters have a foil, that’s what he calls them. It helps define who that central character is. Don’t be afraid to provide an adjective or two that describes the personality of your character when you introduce them. It’s okay to do that. It gives us a sense of what the character is like. One of my favorite introductions of a character came from a client, she wrote, “TINA (46) dresses too young for her age and gets away with it.” That helps me understand something about Tina.
Geoffrey: That’s great!
Dave: That’s part of entertaining your reader and helping them enjoy the read so they recommend you in their coverage.
Geoffrey: It adds to the world building factor. It makes it interesting, not just using generic characters. I totally agree with you. You’re rolling me into character description because the big thing we had with the #MeToo movement, which was great, it really highlighted a big flaw in the industry where people would write [female characters] like, “TINA (30s) blonde bombshell.” That was a big issue, and looking at it, it really was a prevalent issue. Everywhere you read it, it was always about how hot or physically attractive [the female characters] were. I’m starting to see that finally trend away towards more descriptors like “Nervous” or “Control Freak”.
Dave: It’s personality. We have to remember, as writers, our characters are more than their bodies. My favorite characterization in beginning screenplays, I see it so often that I’m almost waiting for it when I read, is the male lead will be ‘ruggedly handsome’ and the female lead will be ‘beautiful but doesn’t know it.’ If you are using those descriptions, I would try for something different because we see them over and over again in the screenplays we read.
Geoffrey: I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Break It Down Show, and I got to interview Jay Moore. It’s a great podcast, I really recommend anybody listen to the Break It Down Show. Jay was in Jerry Maguire where he played a talent agent. We were talking about it and he told me when he went into the table read, the character had a one-word character description: Unctuous. That is brilliant because that totally tells you who that character is with one simple word. He said, “I knew automatically how to play this character. I went and did it and got the part.” When you see him in Jerry Maguire, you’re like, “yeah that’s an unctuous guy.” There is power in just a few words there.
Dave: Part of screenwriting is saying as much as you can with as few words as you can. The exception is in dramatic and emotional moments where we do want to expand and dramatize the drama and milk the emotions. But generally speaking, how can we say something with just a few words, or even just one word?
Geoffrey: I try and strive in my own writing, when I’m working with students as well, is to write like a Spartan. How can I really make this efficient but powerful? But dragging out those emotional moments are always fun because we can emotionally manipulate the reader, and that’s always an amazing ability.
Dave: It should be dramatized. I read in one script, “A gun battle ensues. Martinelli is killed.”
Geoffrey: Oh no, that was quick.
Dave: I was thinking this should be three or four pages, give me the gun battle!
Geoffrey: Give me something, give me the highlights!
Dave: We don’t need every single shot, but we do need to visualize what you’re saying. You don’t just say, “They duke it out and Jim wins.”
Geoffrey: That’s the famous thing George Lucas did, though, in one of the Star Wars films, he put “they fight.” The rest of it was up to the choreographer. You don’t want to be that Spartan with it. I always preach that you want to get the highlights, but you don’t want to over-choreograph either.
Dave: Exactly, we need it to be enough to visualize what kind of fight it is and what’s happening. One of my favorite action scenes is actually from The Princess Bride and I’m referring to the script. It’s the sword fight with the Spaniard and there’s a couple of things I like about it. One is that they’re not shouting epithets, like we so often see, they’re complimenting each other throughout this “to the death” duel. In William Goldman’s descriptions, he’ll describe this blow and that blow, and then he’ll give a summary description: “He faints. He swings but nothing works as he’s forced back against the Cliffs of Insanity.” There’s a summary description but he’s not trying to choreograph the entire sword fight.
Geoffrey: Just highlight it a little bit, that’s perfect. Again, that refers to the theater of the mind, how do we get these people to really visualize the script?
Dave: Another issue I see so often in screenplays is obvious exposition. Sometimes this is with a voiceover narration on page one that’s almost as long as page one. It’s just laying down, “here’s the stuff you need to know.” But also, usually in the first ten pages of the script, we have characters telling each other things they already know. For example, “How long have we been married, darling? Ten years, remember our honeymoon? Where was it? Oh yeah, Hawaii.” They’re not talking to themselves; they’re talking to the audience. You want to make sure in your dialogue, and particularly in your early dialogue, that the exposition is emerging naturally into the conversations. You don’t have to give us everything all at once.
Geoffrey: I agree with you 100%. I find that, when working with students, dialogue is the most difficult thing for them to understand. It gets down to “how do people talk?” Because people don’t speak in complete sentences. People use abbreviations, other people get cut off in the middle of a sentence by someone else. There’s so much dialogue, no two people speak the same. If you’re frustrated, you have a different tone, and you’ll use a different type of language. I always find that dialogue is that last step for writers to really master.
Dave: It’s the last thing to come. With interruptions, characters interrupt each other and are often on two different trains of thought. My favorite example of this is the first eight pages of The Social Network, that Aaron Sorkin wrote, where two characters are often on two different trains of thought and it’s handled beautifully.
Geoffrey: The Social Network is a classic because it’s Aaron Sorkin. You point to things like The West Wing and Steve Jobs, all the dialogue is maculate.
Dave: He labors over it. He doesn’t just sit down, write eight pages, then he’s done. He really labors over it.
Geoffrey: I guarantee you Aaron Sorkin’s first draft is his worst draft. We all have that terrible first draft and I always say the magic is in the rewrite. Getting into exposition, this is a visual medium, but it’s written, that’s the tricky part. I always tell everybody screenwriting is the most difficult literary art there is. You can cheat in other stuff, but with screenwriting, there is no cheating.
Dave: There really is none. Novelists who think it’s going to be easy, they find out they can’t include internal dialogue. That’s one of the things that makes a novel work, but you can’t do it in a screenplay.
Geoffrey: You can’t.
Dave: You can’t voice over a character’s thoughts, unless it’s a broad comedy.
Geoffrey: You’re getting into, what’s that big joke with the old Dune movie? Everybody’s always talking in their brain and you go, “what the hell is going on?” You can’t do it. The one thing I’ve noticed is that novelists will do that and when I’m working with them, I’ll say, “this is not filmable. You have to have things we can see on screen. I can’t see inside the guy’s mind. I can’t look at his neurons firing trying to express what his inner thoughts are. You have to show it.” So while I’ve got you here, let’s talk about subtext.
Dave: Subtext is also one of the last things to come. We were just talking about Aaron Sorkin and his first draft probably does not contain very much subtext. Normally, you want to get down what the characters are saying, first. Then you want to figure out, “how can the characters say this in a different way? How can they imply the meaning you want so there can be this underlying subtext?” Not that you have to have subtext in every speech, but it’s so much more interesting when a character is beating around the bush or using innuendo. That is more interesting than just coming out and saying something. Even something as simple as, “Here’s looking at you, kid” is more interesting than “I love you.”
Geoffrey: It is. I gotta tell you Day, I’ve been married 20 years and I love it when my wife tells me exactly how she feels so I don’t have to do any deep research into it. Then I know when I’ve frustrated her because she’ll say, “I’m frustrated!” I love that. But we don’t want to see that on screen. We don’t want people telling us their feelings or saying exactly what they feel. We want to beat around the bush because that’s interesting, it’s interesting to listen to. It gives the actor some meat to work with for the character instead of just trying to sell a bad line. The subtext is there, and it is one of the last things [writers learn] to do. One thing I’ve noticed with subtext, at least when I try to teach it, is if you’re working with it, you want to be trying to say two or three things at the same time to really get that depth in there.
Dave: That’s good advice.
Geoffrey: Thank you!
Dave: You’re welcome!
Geoffrey: Dave, I think I could probably talk to you all night.
Dave: This is fun!
Geoffrey: www.keepwriting.com is your website and you also teach a formatting class at Script University. I’m also on Script University, as well, I teach a rewriting class. The Screenwriter’s Bible is a foundation, it’s a classic. I love that you keep updating it. It’s such a great read.
Dave: Thank you.
Geoffrey: I just want to say thank you for being on, it’s great to pick the brain of a master.
Dave: It’s been my pleasure; the time has gone quickly. For you screenwriters out there,
good luck to you, I wish you the best with your writing, and keep writing.
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