Monday, June 14, 2010

Making a Short script long

One of the things one learns about writing along the way is that, in the words of Confucius, change is inevitable.

And when it comes to writing, you will be asked to change your story from the sensible to the illogical and sometimes from the illogical back to sensible. It is often said that a writer's best version of their script is the first draft. That making changes only satisfy the producer or production executive or actor only muddy the story up.

Clint Eastwood, in a recent interview said he went through a few versions of the screenplay Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples. Finally he realized one thing; that the best version of the screenplay was the original one that Peoples wrote.

This shows two things; that Eastwood had the sense that the original was better and that Peoples had written a good screenplay.

Unfortunately that's rarely the case.

I wrote a spec screenplay around 2003 called Field of Fire, a story about two military snipers stalking each other in Central Park. It was picked up by a company called Promark, now no longer in business.  Eventually it made the rounds and ended up with a producer I know who would direct.

But first I had to change it from Central Park in New York to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. And I had to change almost every location as well as much of the script. But a job is a job and it wasn't my best screenplay, nor even my favorite.

And once it was being filmed, it became clear that very little of the screenplay was being shot due to budget restraints and general lack of planning. It became a run and shoot production, rushing and grabbing shots anywhere they could.

When it was finished the rough cut was around 66 minutes.

Usually a rough cut is maybe 2 or 3 hours and for some it can go for many hours. This is the first version of the movie and the one where they throw in everything they can. Then the editor gets to cut it shorter to a reasonable viewing time. A feature length movie must be at least 75 minutes and it can be as long as it needs be with maybe a maximum of 3 hours these days.

For our movie, there was nothing to cut. The editor had used all the useable footage. All the cutting of scenes from the screenplay resulted in a feature that wasn't a feature yet. It needed at least 10 more minutes of good footage which translates maybe to about 20 minutes of shooting as there can be multiple takes and mistakes and camera errors and so on. And that's for the minimum requirement.

A page of screenplay is usually considered about 1 minute. Thus a 90 page screenplay comes out around 90 minutes.  It's not an exact science. Action moves faster than dialog for example. A 1 page action scene can come out at maybe 30 seconds.

They turned to me to figure out how to stretch it out.  Since I had been on the production as a co-producer, I knew early on that this would be a problem movie. When the script supervisor whispered to me that "they" were destroying my script, I was pretty much helpless at that point and decided to find something positive in this experience.

Now they needed me to fix the mess they created. I could walk away or I could do what I could. I wish I could have come up with something new but the only way to do it was to simply write a 30 page scene in one room with the principal actor.

Because we didn't have the money for anything else.

And that's where the flashback comes in.

I wrote a scene where the principal actor tells the entire story of the movie in flashbacks. This solution is not rocket science. In fact it's used often. I added two actors who were questioning him and they shot about 15 pages of the 30 I wrote. And Again, they rushed and cut short the dramatic scene I had written and effectively making it senseless.

And the movie reached a length of 84 minutes with tail credits. You can add a minute or so to the tail credits by slowing them down.

And it was awful. 

But I knew it from the beginning. My first draft of the screenplay was smart and tense with good characters. What came out of this one was cut-out characters and lame action scenes.

And what good thing did I get out of it? My scale WGA fee and H&P (health and pension). Sometimes that's enough.

So don't shoot the writer. You don't always know what they had to go through.

But right now I have to add pages to Casualties of Love, my micro-budget script because it was never intended as a feature film. And oddly enough, it comes back to one room and a bunch of guys and this time, a girl too.

(Wed:  The Emperor)

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