Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stage direction -- cut it

Recently I participated in a screenplay reading. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, readings are a terrific way to really access your screenplay (or play or pilot or whatever). There’s nothing like actually hearing it. You’ll get a great sense of what works and what still needs work.

But the one problem with screenplay readings in particular is that so much of a movie is visual, which means a lot of stage direction. That’s fine for reading silently but it becomes very cumbersome when the directions are read aloud. You really kill the flow when you take two minutes to describe something that will happen on the screen for two seconds. I read the stage directions for this particular screenplay and the writer (a seasoned veteran) knew to cut the direction down to the bare minimum. (I can also now say that I worked with James Gandolfini, who had the lead role in the reading. He was very good, by the way.)

But the focus of my post today is on stage directions.

A number of years ago there was an organization in New York that held weekly screenplay readings. Writers submitted their drafts and if yours was selected they provided a venue, an audio tape of your reading, publicity, and help with the casting. I entered a screenplay and it was selected.

One of the services they provided was a guy who would go through your screenplay and thin out stage directions. Now I was a little offended at that. I prided myself on being very spare with my stage directions. I didn’t want some skeesix trimming my direction. They said that his cuts were only suggestions and I could use any or all or none of them.

In that case, I said “fine.” I thought, “Good luck to this guy finding trims. There’s not an excess word.”

A week later a script arrived and I was floored. With a black sharpie he hacked and slashed and must’ve cut at least half of my stage direction. I was now pissed. Who the fuck does this clown think he is?

Then I started going through his suggested cuts. Yeah, that’s a good trim… right, I don’t really need that… uh huh, that is somewhat redundant… etc. When I got to the end of the script I realized I had kept 90% of his changes.

It was a humbling but very important lesson. Now when I write screenplays I try to be super economical when writing stage directions. And then I go back and take what I call my Edward Scissorhands pass and cut out a lot more.

For that New York screenplay reading I got the great Dan Ingram (longtime DJ on WABC and voice of a trillion national commercials) to read the stage directions. And for me it was the best part of the reading. There were times I wasn’t even paying that much attention to the dialog. I kept thinking, “Oh wow! Dan Ingram is reading my words!” Great words like “he enters” and “Interior: Hotel Room – Day” but still!

You may be saying, “Yeah, making all those cuts are fine when someone has to read everything aloud, but what about when someone is just reading the script? Wouldn’t more detail and description help convey your visuals? No, and here’s why: People hate to read stage direction. Especially a lot of it. So the less you have the better your chances that the reader will read it at all. You want to be descriptive? Write a novel.

Just think of the Academy Awards and what it’s like when they stop to read the Price-Waterhouse vote tabulation disclaimer. Now imagine them doing that after every presenter. That’s a screenplay reading with too much stage direction.

Again, I appreciate that for the reading I participated in the narration was cut way back. Seriously, who would you rather hear for an hour? Me or James Gandolfini?

19 comments:

Carol said...

Obviously this doesn't work for a movie/TV show, but I always found it fascinating that all Shakespeare's stage directions and actor cues are embedded in his actual words. The only stage direction (outside of Exunt Omnes and Divers Alarms) was 'Exit, pursued by a bear'.

Anyway...this was your screenplay you were reading? What's it about? Any chance you'd share excerpts here? 'Cause...awesome if you did.

Pete Grossman said...

Dandy Dan Ingram! Yes! What pipes! Now that's good fortune, "Kemosabe."

BarbaraT said...

I'm all for little to no stage direction. In addition to the reasons you give, Ken, I think the actors are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves when to turn, pause, cross the room, reflect, beseech the heavens, etc.

But then I've also been told "You can't have too much white space." or more specifically, "You can't have an entire page that's just dialogue, you've got to break it up."

Sometimes I think it's all a conspiracy, that professional writers get together, smoke a few, and come up with these ever changing "rules" just to watch aspiring writers tear their hair out.

"Okay you guys, first we'll say CAP sounds, and then in six weeks, we'll say no, only an idiot would do that.




Canda said...

I was told by writers of "Mama's Family" that when Harvey Korman directed a TV show, he would read almost none of the stage directions, then later complain during the reading that the dialogue made no sense...mostly because he hadn't read a stage direction earlier, where a character, for example,accidentally locked herself in the bathroom. "Why is she asking for help?", he might ask. "There standing next to each other". The writers would then have to explain what was going on.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I'm going to have to disagree a bit on this one, Ken.

I'm all for keeping the script as clean as possible, but the way I see it, sometimes you just need the details to convey what you're going for.

That's even more true, if you're both the writer and director. If you want specific camera moves, or if you want a specific prop as a way to convey double-meaning, you need to have them on the page, so everyone is up to speed as to what you intend to do.

Stephen Robinson said...

Carol: I often reference Shakespeare when I explain why I use so few stage directions. I like to give the director and actors room to do their jobs.

I received some feedback on the play I'm writing that asked for more stage directions -- "What's the character doing while the other character is speaking right now? Is she washing dishes or drinking wine or playing with her hair?" I tried to find a polite way of saying, "I'm not writing a novel. This will all be up to the actor."

The challenge is in conveying enough character through the words that the actor knows who the character is and can use that knowledge to inform his or her reactions.

BarbaraT: I've also heard that you "can't have an entire page of dialogue." There are countless plays that do this, so that criticism doesn't hold much water. What does, I think, is "that bit of dialogue does not need to be a whole page... it stops the action cold."

TV, plays, and films are very different animals and often I'll read a play draft that's clearly intended for the camera (often even a film camera). Films are far more visual. TV tends to have more banter and stage plays tend to focus on the words (and even that is not set in stone).

R. said...

The idea behind breaking up pages of dialogue is just for that to serve as a reminder to the writer not to get so wrapped up in having your characters talk that you forget to have something happen visually. If your characters are just standing around yapping for pages at a time you might as well be writing for radio.

Yes, sometimes details are important, and if you're directing your own script that's a different situation, but if all your doing is writing the script, it just isn't your job to tell the director how you want the scenes shot and the actors how you want them to play their parts. Anyway, they're just going to ignore you. The problem is that many writers have their script visualized perfectly in their head and get carried away trying to convey exactly what they're visualizing. Honestly, you have to learn to accept that the final result isn't going to be a perfect match to what you've visualized, and if you can't accept that, well, then become Woody Allen and direct your own stuff. Sometimes it's frustrating. Everybody has had those, "Oh, Jesus, the director just killed that gag" moments, but it goes with the territory. Frank Tashlin (THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT) decided to become a director because he hated the way Norman MacLeod filmed his script for the Bob Hope movie THE PALEFACE.

R. said...

The idea behind breaking up pages of dialogue is just for that to serve as a reminder to the writer not to get so wrapped up in having your characters talk that you forget to have something happen visually. If your characters are just standing around yapping for pages at a time you might as well be writing for radio.

Yes, sometimes details are important, and if you're directing your own script that's a different situation, but if all your doing is writing the script, it just isn't your job to tell the director how you want the scenes shot and the actors how you want them to play their parts. Anyway, they're just going to ignore you. The problem is that many writers have their script visualized perfectly in their head and get carried away trying to convey exactly what they're visualizing. Honestly, you have to learn to accept that the final result isn't going to be a perfect match to what you've visualized, and if you can't accept that, well, then become Woody Allen and direct your own stuff. Sometimes it's frustrating. Everybody has had those, "Oh, Jesus, the director just killed that gag" moments, but it goes with the territory. Frank Tashlin (THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT) decided to become a director because he hated the way Norman MacLeod filmed his script for the Bob Hope movie THE PALEFACE.

Mike in Seattle said...

With every sentence, with every word: Does it move the story along or reveal character? If not, cut it. Does the way it is written allow the reader to see the pictures unfolding, to get a strong sense of what it is visually? Then revise or cut it.

And yes, no edits, no blocking, no telling the actor how to do it.

Also sage advice from my POV: no action description should be more than three lines because interest and comprehension span.

These words have been pounded into me by my mentors and I learn more about them every day. Hopefully one day they will pay off. I have a sense I'm getting pretty good at this, so we'll see.

Lisa said...

Okay Ken, I'm genuinely confused here. Keep stage directions to a minimum. Don't tell the actors how to play their parts. Makes sense. I've got some Dick Van Dyke scripts here, though, that do just the opposite. A lot of the visual stuff is VERY detailed about exactly what's supposed to happen and what Dick is supposed to do. I've got some Lucy scripts that are the same way. One Lucy Show script's second half is ALL stage direction. Not one word of dialogue. And just like the Van Dyke stuff is very detailed. "Written choreography" is what a friend of mine calls it. So like I said, I'm confused. I'm not doubting what you say. Just not clear on why, if stage direction and such is to be kept t o a minimum, why do some of these classic scripts do the opposite sometimes?

Thanks!

Pete Grossman said...

As my writing teacher used to say "Be ruthless. Have no ruth!"

D. McEwan said...

Some years ago (Over 20) I was asked to read the stage directions at a film scipt reading. I'd been carefully selected by someone who knew me because it was a horror movie, and the last third of it had almost no dialogue at all beyond "Oh God, no!" ""Please, dont!" and a lot of "Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!". The pages and pages of describing escalating horror action and violence had to be read for pace, and to build excitement and communicate the shocks with some shock impact. I gave an exhausting performance, and received a standing ovation at the end. The script never sold, but I got work from it.

scottmc said...

With respect to Lisa's comment regarding stage directions in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW; in Garry Marshall's memoir he goes into detail regarding writing for that show. He and his writing partner submitted scripts with stage directions like 'Dick does something funny wth his cumberbun'. Carl Reiner sent the scripts back saying the writers had to fully describe the 'something funny'.
I grew up reading Eugene O'Neill plays that are loaded with stage directions and thought that was the way to go. Then I read the plays of David Mamet. His plays are practically devoid of stage directions. Mamet explains that if something isn't in the dialogue, it isn't important. If a stage direction is essential then you work it into the dialogue.

Igor said...

I'd like to see a Mamet play written for a mime.

DrBOP said...

Well this is a coincidence I would have never expected. Among other pursuits, I'm a professional literary editor of mostly non-fiction and academic material. However, a friend of mine recently asked me to "take a look" at a humor/horror filmscript that he had written.
Not only does it seem to be a fine piece of work in regards to plotline and dialogue, it almost seems that he has been following your blog in regards to "writing funny" as opposed to "writing jokes" ; AND he seems to have presaged your advice here on stage directions : very spare, very tight and very well thought out.
This is, however, his first attempt (to my knowledge), and I was wondering if you were aware of other blogs that deal specifically with film scriptwriting in a manner similar to what you do with sitcom scriptwriting?
(I know to do some simple web-searching on the specific topic, but I thought perhaps you would know of someone special that you admired.) Thanks much.

Cap'n Bob said...

All of the slaps, eye gouges, and nose tweaks in the Three Stooges films were described in the scripts in detail. I suspect that the Dick Van Dyke and Lucy shows were also done that way because physical comedy requires more rehearsal and staging and can't be ad-libbed on the spot.

D. McEwan said...

I think it was George S. Kaufmann (But it might have been Morrie Ryskind. Making certain would require my getting out of this chair and crossing the room) who said of writing for the Marx Brothers: "How do you write for Harpo? All you can write is 'Harpo enters.'"

De TV dokter said...

I do think there is a clear distinction between stage plays and movie screenplays. The former should have the bare minimum of stage directions, precisely because this allows every new generation of directors and actors to look at the play with fresh eyes and fill in the blanks, change the setting, etc. It is (and I think should be) different from a movie.

D. McEwan said...

@De TV dokter, you should read Tennessee Williams's stage directions. He tends to write stuff like: "The backdrop should be misty and poetic." ("The Glass Menagerie"). As a stage-director friend of mine (Who has not only directed a LOT of Williams's work, but directed me AS "Tennessee Williams in a play he wrote about Williams's life) likes to say: "Cue the 'Poetic'."