Saturday, June 09, 2018

Stage Direction -- cut it

A few years ago 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 the late James Gandolfini, who had the lead role in the reading. He was very good, by the way.  It's such a tragedy he's gone.)

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?


Unknown said...

This applies to comic book scripts too, You don't want to hobble the imagination of your artist. I tend to write too much dialog anyway, which I will have to trim ferociously when I get the pencils back, adding the sin of too much direction is a burden no good script needs.

Mark said...

Great post Ken!

Sorry I couldn't log in yesterday to ask you a Friday question, so here it is....

You had once posted a blog where you spoke of one disadvantage of being in Hollywood was the constant shooting in your neighborhood but then you didn't mind it much.

I came across this great YouTube channel where these guys try to seek discomfort from various activities. One gag involved going around Hollywood and asking people if they could view the Oscars with them or sharing donuts by calling people's home or asking if they could swim in their pool or throw a party at their house. Is it a pain living in Hollywood, with so many "weirdos" trying out their gags on you people? It seems, many such YouTubers find Hollywood as the place to try out their gags.

Please share some stories :)


VincentS said...

I agree about stage directions being cut, Ken, but on the other hand they are telling what the camera sees and are therefore as important as dialogue in a screenplay so I think they should be descriptive and easy to read - as in a novel - as well as succinct.

Covarr said...

I was recently in a production of BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, and as much as I love Neil Simon's dialogue, I was completely floored how much stage direction he littered his script with. It's just non-stop, sometimes paragraphs at a time of inconsequential positioning. The first scene of act 2 in particular is overwhelmed by this barrage of directions to sit, stand, move seats, walk to the closet, walk to the mirror, etc. In the next scene, when the main characters are getting ready for bed, it's very precise and specific about when to take off what clothes and where to be when doing it.

It shows a serious distrust of both actors and directors when someone goes as far overboard with stage directions as Simon did in this script. Sure, there are some directors out there who can't block a scene to save their lives, but quite frankly they shouldn't be directing, and writers certainly shouldn't be catering to them. Like I said, I've never read any other script that came anywhere close to this (I'd imagine NOISES OFF does, but it actually merits heavy stage direction), so despite Simon being considered one of the all-time greats, this aspect came across as downright amateurish.

The way they're intermingled with dialogue makes it incredibly hard to read as well, but that might be a Samuel French thing as well; they are plenty willing to sacrifice readability for the sake of saving paper.

I could also rant about Neil Simon's use of ellipses... It's not uncommon to see nine or ten of them in a single page... (sometimes with a stage direction in between them),

gottacook said...

H. L. Mencken's The Wedding: A Stage Direction is a "play" that consists of nothing but stage direction. Perhaps it's not as sharp a satire as it was more than 100 years ago when it was first published, but it's still amusing.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Good advice. But, that poses the question, are stage directions merely suggestions left to the discretion of the director? Otherwise, how can they be eliminated? If there are specific directions that are absolutely necessary should they be trimmed, too? This sounds similar to your posts about having your scripts rewritten to the point that its a different show.

VP81955 said...

This is something I've learned as a budding screenwriter (and getting Dan Ingram to read stage directions, Ken? You know all the right people!). Keep stage directions, camera usage, etc., to a minimum. In my romantic comedy script "Stand Tall!", a pivotal scene occurs when an experimental machine designed to isolate and enlarge body parts goes awry during a minor earthquake, transforming lead character Colleen Cossitt -- who planned to undergo a breast enhancement -- into a 16-foot giant.

As the machine's door opens, we see a close-up of Colleen, who's unaware of her changes (her clothes also grew while inside the darkened chamber), telling the scientist who asked about her condition, "Never felt better. Just one question: Why are you all so..." We pull back to see Colleen at full-length and triple scale, dwarfing the stunned scientist, his aide and her best friend, as she concludes: " small?"

The scene needed to be set up that way to indicate audience surprise.

E. Yarber said...

Stage directions are something you learn to fine-tune as your writing skill develops. When I work with beginners, they tend to put the entire story into the dialogue, often resulting in tedious scenes where their characters merely explain the plot to the audience instead of creating distinctive voices and personalities. Getting them to focus on how they write directions, even at a clumsy level, forces the scripter to think about roles as people going through natural action, not vehicles for a situation being imposed on them by an author.

Dr Loser said...

I shall resist the temptation to remind you of the greatest stage direction ever penned by a playwright, Ken. Not for long. Maybe two paragraphs or so.

It's always seemed odd to me that the classic way of writing a script involves wordsmiths (say you and David, because I agree, the Power of Two applies) but not a stage director. From what I can see, the templates available on the Web put a huge emphasis on blocking things out with "Interior: Early Morning," which is just asking for somebody with no visual imagination whatsoever (again not you or David) to fill in a bunch of hooey. "The back-light is pink, suggesting dawn. Shadows fall on the lawn, which has not been touched by the lawn-boy, suggesting the possibility of sexual tension."

I don't think you can sensibly write a script without a sketch of stage directions. For example, boil that last piece of imaginary nonsense down to dawn/evening, and clearly you are making a scenario. So, here's a question for you: given sufficiently sparse directions, when would you, personally, want the stage guy to get in? Is it iterative? Are these two questions?

Anyhow, I promised, so here it is. The Winter's Tale, Act III:

Exit, pursued by a bear.

I don't know about writers ... the guy in charge of financing the first run of this thing must have been going off his nut!

Martin said...

But, Ken, what about scripts that ARE heavy on stage direction, and apparently for good reason? I have, for example, a copy of Carl Reiner's script for "My Husband Is Not a Drunk," the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode where a posthypnotic suggestion causes Rob to act drunk every time a bell rings. There's a lot of stage direction in this script. A lot. It's very specific and very detailed about what Van Dyke was to do during his drunk routines. There's no AD-LIB DRUNK ROUTINE here. I have reproductions of other DICK VAN DYKE scripts in which visual business is similarly laid out with very specific and detailed stage directions about what the actors were to do and how. Are you saying that Carl Reiner was wrong to write at that level of detail and specificity? That he should have just written ROB GOES INTO DRUNK BIT and left it up to Van Dyke to wing it? When you're writing scripts that feature a lot of visual business, aren't more detailed stage directions sometimes necessary?

I have reproductions of some I LOVE LUCY scripts that similarly have lengthy sections of stage directions, laying out exactly what was to happen and what Lucille Ball and the other actors were to do. They just lay out the visual stuff, kind of like a road map. Who does what and what happens when and how. I have a copy of a LUCY SHOW episode from late 1963 in which the last half of the script is ALL stage direction. There's not one word of dialogue. How can you write that kind of comedy without a lot of stage direction?

I have a copy of the shooting script for Laurel and Hardy's WAY OUT WEST, from 1938. Again, sections of the script have little to no dialogue, but long stretches of stage directions. But again, when what's happening onscreen is strictly visual, how can you not sometimes have extensive stage directions? What's the alternative? STAN AND OLLIE AD-LIB BREAKING INTO SALOON for five pages? What's correct, that or a script that lays out how they were to try and break into the saloon in enough detail that you can see it in your mind?

Justin Piatt said...

Covarr, Neil Simon got much better later on with stage direction, and has even admitted that his early work had way too much of it.

E. Yarber said...

Back in the academic phase of my life, I read scholarly papers on that briefly-seen Shakespearean bear. There is a school of thought that it was a man in a costume, another insisting that the troupe dragged a live bruin on stage.

It's a matter of record that the Globe theater was near an open-air arena where people paid to watch live bears being torn apart by hungry dogs, and Will S. had to devise plays that would compete with such diversions for spectators. It may be that he hoped to freak out the audience by making them believe that a creature from the competition had suddenly ambled over from next door. If so, the appearance may be history's first crossover episode.

Dr Loser said...

@E Yarber:
Stupendous! I love the idea of a Shakespeare cross-over episode!

I think I'd rather it was with Kit Marlowe or Ben Johnson, rather than a bloke in a furry coat, but hey, I'm not picky, and Shakespeare did comedy better than he's given credit for.

I wonder how he would have done with that sort of idea from Network Executives, though. "We've got this promising little show called 'Cheers'. Basically, it revolves around a working-class barmaid called Carla, Sharp, witty, a bit of a cook, very much a family girl. I think she'd be perfect for that new thing of yours. What was it, Coriolanus?"


Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks E. There's a similar rule in improv, "Show, Don't Tell." Too often people get on stage and talk about what the are going to do rather than using space work to act out what the scene is about. Unless the scene has some hysterical lines, it can make for some really boring improv. Sadly, experience doesn't always prevent this from happening.

Jeff Maxwell said...

I had an opportunity to read stage directions for a film with Christopher Walken and several other iconic actors. The movie was filled with so much stage direction it interfered with “hearing” the dialogue. Mr. Walken would occasionally glance up at me with that Walken face. I assumed he was either sympathetic, impatient, or gassy. Hard to tell. It was a huge lesson in the importance of being economic with directions.

I’m a big fan of Christoper Walken so it was a thrill to be there. I would have passed out in the presence of James Gandolfini. His performance in the film was almost exactly the way he read it that night. He had a lot of time to work on the part between all the stage directions.

Filippo said...

Isn't Shakespeare the cornerstone? Aren't directions the director's job?

D McEwan said...

Some years back, as a favor to a writer friend, I participated in a backer's reading of her horror-movie screenplay. (This was 30 years ago. The movie, whose title I've long since forgotten, has never been shot. Don't hold your breath.) The last 20 pages of the screenplay were entirely horror action sequences, with dialogue limited to "HELP!" "It's right behind you," and the old standby, "AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

I was reading the stage directions. It was my job to make the 20 minutes of scares and chases play and be exciting when read aloud. It was one of the most energetic performances I've ever given, and I've been in musical comedies.

The script never sold, but I got great reviews and some work from it. The small house was more impressed by my performance of the stage directions than they were by the script.