Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A few words about Stage Directions... with the emphasis on "few"

My all-time favorite Hollywood writer/director, Billy Wilder, was once asked if a good director should also be a good writer?  His answer:  “No.  A good director should be a good READER.”  

In other words, follow the script.  

It’s our job as writers to convey our vision as best we can.  And very often that means detailed stage directions.  

But there’s a trap in that.  If the stage direction is too long and detailed no one is going to read it.  That’s just a fact.  Whether it be film or for the stage, when a director sees a page that’s a solid block of stage direction he skips it.  

So the writer has to be incredibly concise and convey the most with the least.  And trust me, that’s hard.  Just know that there’s always more you can cut out without sacrificing your intent.  

I learned that quite a few years ago.  A screenplay of mine was going to get a public reading in New York.  The producer said he had a guy who would go through my script and make suggested trims of the stage direction.  I said I didn’t want anybody changing my screenplay.  He said these would just be suggestions sent to me privately and I could take or leave whatever I wanted.  At that point I said fine.  I was proud of the fact that I wrote sparing stage directions.  Just wait’ll this guy sees he has nothing to cut.

A week later my script arrives.  I was gobsmacked.  It looked like one of those classified reports where 80% of it was redacted.  There were cross-outs everywhere.  At first I was furious.  Who the fuck does this guy think he is?

Then I started going through them one by one, and sure enough I’d say, “Well, yeah, I don’t need that” and “That is a little redundant,” and “that is a faster way of saying that.”  Eventually I used 90% of his suggestions.   And again, I always prided myself on lean stage directions.

Now, whenever I write something I always think of that guy.  What would he do to this paragraph?   As a result, I’m way tougher on my stage directions.   It’s a good lesson to learn.  

Another stage direction tip:  Slip in a little joke or two from time to time.  Reward the reader and give him a reason to pay attention to your instructions.   

Stage directions are vital — they’re your assembly manual.  Make sure they’re easy to read and follow. 

TOMORROW:  Billy Wilder is my guest blogger.


Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Loved it on the MTM show when Ted Baxter would read on the air the directions on his cue cards:

"Mississippi River rises. Thousands flee homes. Take off glasses--look concerned."


"And now here's Wally with the sports. Point to Wally!"

Arlen Peters said...

Many years ago I attended a very special series of programs presented by the Writers Guild. One featured legendary screen writer Ernest Lehman. This man had six Oscar nominations, wrote the original screenplay for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, along with the screenplay for WESTSIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. He read the stage directions for a scene from that screenplay. Then they screened the scene he had read. For years Robert Wise received high praise for his direction of that film, along with a Best Director Oscar. One of the famous shots was Julie Andrews singing the title song as the camera swooped up over a beautiful mountain and found her, arms outstretched, singing away. Turns out that shot, supposedly composed by Wise, was shot for shot from Lehman's script! Never forgot that!

scottmc said...

Reading this reminded me of David Mamet and J.M.Barrie. Mamet has few stage directions in his plays. (He feels that if it isn't in the dialogue it won't matter if the character says it while walking to the couch.) J.M.Barrie wrote very funny stage directions in his plays. While in college, I saw a production of a Barrie play where the director cast an actor to read the stage directions as part of the play.

Covarr said...

As much as I loved Barefoot in the Park, I still haven't gotten over how overboard Neil Simon went with some of those stage directions. It was also, however, one of his earliest works; I'd be curious to see one of his later scripts and how it compares in terms of density and amount of stage directions.

Michael said...

I am reminded of two stories.

One was told about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum--the film version. The script was supposedly way too long, so a producer cut a bunch of the stage directions so the script and thus the movie would be shorter. I don't know if that's true.

I do know that Jack Lemmon talked about Billy Wilder, who, after all, co-wrote with Izzy Diamond. Lemmon said they would be filming and Izzy would be off to the side and wave Billy over, and they would be in a corner, and then Billy would come back with something different. So Wilder was listening to something and someone, at any rate. Considering the films he made, he seems to have been someone to emulate, eh?

kcross said...

Musical scores occasionally have funny directions too. My favorite is "play like you've had too much wine to drink".

Barry Rubinowitz said...

One of the things that makes judging "Best Screenplay" hard is that we don't get to see the stage directions, let alone other descriptive notes the writer may have included. Those could be as important a part of the scene as the dialogue. Was that smirk or sideways glance on the page, a director's suggestion, or something the actor found?
When I was writing for TV, I would only use a stage direction if I felt it was critical, otherwise, I'd let the actor find it.

Kaleberg said...

A friend of mine works in the comic book industry. He was doing a story and suggested that the background in one scene should be full of mad scientist gadgets and look like Jack Kirby's basement. That crept into the dialog with one of the characters saying "This looks like Jack Kirby's basement." As you said, a little humor ....

Frederic Alden said...

I'm overcoming my skepticism about having a man who has been gone for nearly twenty years be your guest blogger tomorrow by considering just how great Billy Wilder was. Two of my favorite films are "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Sunset Boulevard".

Tim W. said...

Ken, I have some bad news about Billy Wilder....

As for being concise in screenplays, the first one I ever wrote I gave it to friends and family. Most came back with extremely unhelpful comments about things they liked, but the best feedback was from a friend who tore it apart and reduced it by a dozen pages. It was much better after that. Ever since then, anytime I get feedback, plead for people to be brutal in their honesty. If I wanted praise, I’d show it to my mom.

Unknown said...

So who was this editor of your script? None other than Cybil Shepherd!

Mike Bloodworth said...

It was only a few weeks ago you posted an excerpt from your "Dancin' Homer," "Simpsons" script. One thing I noted was the extensive stage directions. You pointed out that they were necessary so the animators would know what to draw. Maybe animation is unique, but it shows that there is an exception to every rule.

A suggestion for your podcast. Scare up a fellow playwright you respect and discuss this topic as well as editing, rewrites, etc.


D. McEwan said...

In The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams's stage directions tells us that the setting should "be misty and poetic." A stage director friend of mine, who worships Williams and wrote a play about Williams's life in which I played Williams (Williams read the play and complimented it), loves to cite that one. "Cue the poetic!" he likes to add.

One time I was hired to participate in a backers reading of a screenplay. I was to read the stage directions. It was an action-horror movie. The last 10 or 15 pages were all action, no dialogue besides screaming and "Look out!" That sort of thing. It was made clear to me that my job was to make the stage directions thrilling and fast and faster paced.

It was the oddest acting job I ever had, but I threw everything I had into making that dialogue-free third act seem thrilling and ever-faster paced. After the reading, I received lavish praise from all present and the writer for making it live.

The script raised no money and was never shot, but I got work from it.

kcross said...

This reminded me of a blooper I heard on the “Pardon my Blooper” record, where the announcer said: “The time is 9 PM, Bulova Watch Time. On Christmas, say Merry Christmas. On New Years, say Happy New Years”

DanMnz said...

Question: When is it too much or too little to a degree that the director may as well just write it him/herself after the edits?

Todd Everett said...

Today's script writers have a long way to go to match Shakespeare's stage direction from "A Winter's Tale:


...ANTIGONUS Come, poor babe:
I have heard, but not believed, 20
the spirits o' the dead
May walk again: if such thing be, thy mother
Appear'd to me last night, for ne'er was dream
So like a waking. To me comes a creature,
Sometimes her head on one side, some another; 25
I never saw a vessel of like sorrow,
So fill'd and so becoming: in pure white robes,
Like very sanctity, she did approach
My cabin where I lay; thrice bow'd before me,
And gasping to begin some speech, her eyes 30
Became two spouts: the fury spent, anon
Did this break-from her: 'Good Antigonus,
Since fate, against thy better disposition,
Hath made thy person for the thrower-out
Of my poor babe, according to thine oath, 35
Places remote enough are in Bohemia,
There weep and leave it crying; and, for the babe
Is counted lost for ever, Perdita,
I prithee, call't. For this ungentle business
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne'er shalt see 40
Thy wife Paulina more.' And so, with shrieks
She melted into air. Affrighted much,
I did in time collect myself and thought
This was so and no slumber. Dreams are toys:
Yet for this once, yea, superstitiously, 45
I will be squared by this. I do believe
Hermione hath suffer'd death, and that
Apollo would, this being indeed the issue
Of King Polixenes, it should here be laid,
Either for life or death, upon the earth 50
Of its right father. Blossom, speed thee well!
There lie, and there thy character: there these;
Which may, if fortune please, both breed thee, pretty,
And still rest thine. The storm begins; poor wretch,
That for thy mother's fault art thus exposed 55
To loss and what may follow! Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoin'd to this. Farewell!
The day frowns more and more: thou'rt like to have
A lullaby too rough: I never saw 60
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:
I am gone for ever.

[Exit, pursued by a bear]

JED said...

A possible Friday Question:
Stage directions in a radio play must be very different. There is so much that must be explained to the audience. Are they just the parts read by a narrator or are there still things not read to the audience like how to deliver a line?