Filmmaking (Actually) Ep. 4 "What Belongs on The Page?"
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Join Koura on Episode 4 of Filmmaking (Actually) as she answers her first listener e-mail - from none other than her Mom! What belongs on the page when a writer is crafting a screenplay? How much room for collaboration should be given to directors, producers, actors, etc.? Listen as Ms. Linda answers the question on the airwaves of the world wide interwebs.
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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:
What Belongs on the Page??
Hello, my name is Koura Linda and this is my podcast “Filmmaking (Actually)”.
So last week's episode was an overview on screenwriting. And I always end with, “Let me know if there are any questions or topics you'd like me to cover.” And — we have our first question! This question is from one of our most loyal listeners: my mother! Okay, now before you say anything, my mom is actually an incredible writer. And she's probably one of my biggest creative inspirations. So this was her question: “How much of the writer's idea for the look, feel, and sound of a movie has to be on the page?” In other words, besides the dialogue and actions the actors are engaging in. (For example: Ruth says “I hate you,” and storms out the door.) Does the writer have to explain things about the scene or scenery in narrative paragraphs?
That is an excellent question. And the short answer is, it depends on the collaboration between the writer, the director, the producer, and the actors. There's different people who will tell you how much to write or how much not to write. It really does depend on who you're working with. So while a writer does have the creative control of creating the world, it's actually up to the director to bring it to life, and the actors to bring the characters to life. For me anyway, I say that a script shouldn't be overwritten, where every single action is spelled out.
One famous example of the script having general direction and then the actor kind of taking it to the next level is in “Risky Business,” and Tom Cruise does that famous dance where he slides out in his socks and he dances through the room. All the script said was that he dances. That left room for him to create on the role, and for him to do what he felt the character would do. So in the example my mom gave with Ruth storming out in anger, maybe it would read something like: Scene number; interior or exterior; Ruth's living room, or whatever the location is; Day or night, or whatever makes sense for the story. Then maybe it just says, “Ruth rushes into the living room. Andrew follows behind her. Ruth: I hate you! She storms out of the house.” Something like that. I mean, that's really basic, it's just an example. That said, there are general script-writing formats that you can research, and basic outlines that will tell you how to format a screenplay versus how to format a book and stuff like that.
And again, this is just my opinion about what detail should be included in the script, and how I personally both try to write when I'm writing and the types of scripts that I'm drawn to both as a director and as a producer. Specific details should be included in the script that are vital to the story. But it should also leave room for the actor and director to be able to create on the scene, along with any collaboration from the production designer, the director of photography, the set dresser, yadda yadda yadda. In the above example, Ruth is clearly not happy and bouncy and skipping into the living room. Words like “storms” and “rushes” help paint a picture of mood and tone. For me, the things that should be included in the script are things that are key to the story. If Ruth has to storm out of the house in that one scene because from there, maybe she runs into the street and gets hit by a car? You wouldn't want to write it to where she says, “I hate you,” and then she runs up the stairs. At the same time, the writer doesn't need to write that she turns to Andrew with her hands on her hips, she tilts her head slightly before shouting at him, and then he stands about 15 feet away from her with his fist clenched at his sides and he stamps his foot after she says her line. Unless, maybe for some reason in your story it's imperative that her hands be on her hips or that he stamps his foot. I mean maybe he's been stamping his feet this whole sequence, and in the next scene there's gonna be a chandelier that comes crashing down from the ceiling of the room below. And it's only because he's been stamping his feet that the chandelier is knocked loose. You have to make it really clear that he's stamping his feet.
The point is, films are a collaboration between the writer, the director, the actors, sometimes the producers, and then the rest of the creative team depending on how involved everybody gets. But technically, it really should be the director who is driving the direction of the film. And even though studios step in — that's a separate conversation, and why I prefer independent film personally — but even when there is a creative collaboration, there still is a point where each person's control kind of stops. That is to say, a writer can write a scene, but they can't direct it. And even though the director is directing a scene, they shouldn't really turn their actors into puppets. Directing an actor to hit a certain emotion or mark is one thing. But telling them exactly how to say every line? That's not directing, and that's not letting them act. At the same time, an actor has to know that the director has a vision, and they can't be so sure that their way is the only way for the character to react that they won't change gears when given maybe a different emotional direction for the character.
Quick sidebar: I know that is a very loaded topic, as far as the relationship between actors and directors, and there are a ton of opinions and schools of thought. And working with actors as a director, or working with a director as an actor, is a separate topic and I will probably go over that in a different episode.
While everything in film is pretty flexible, as a general rule, the script should be written with the key elements written out, with room for the details to be filled in by the director, the production designer, the actors, even the sound design. Another example: If two people are talking at home, the writer doesn't need to specify that they're specifically sitting at the kitchen table. Unless that's relevant to the story. I mean, maybe it's important that they sit at the kitchen table. If the conversation just needs to take place at their home, you can just say that they're in the kitchen. And then you can let the director of photography, and the director, and the actors work out the best spot for them to be talking. Sometimes it's something as silly as the location. Maybe they are filming in a house and the kitchen is really interesting. But if the conversation took place in the living room, that would actually be a lot more visually interesting, or it would be easier to shoot, or it would just be better without having to go back for a rewrite.
If it wasn't imperative in the first place, don't put it in the script. But maybe it has to be in the kitchen for some reason. All right, so then say, Location - Kitchen. Let the rest of the creative team really decide what's going to look most visually interesting for the conversation. You know, what is the power dynamic between the two people talking. Maybe one of them is standing, one of them sitting. Maybe they're both standing, maybe one of them is pacing. If any of those elements are really, really important, and you don't want them to get lost, include that in the script. Otherwise, let it play out organically and let the other parts of the creative team contribute their artistic ideas to kind of really bring that scene to life. You know, there are a million ways for two people to have a conversation, so unless one element of it is totally vital to the character, the scene, or the story, it doesn't need to be spelled out in the script. And if it is spelled out, it should be basically described, not with every single action written out in excruciating detail for the actors and director to basically become the writer's puppets.
I will say now that sometimes writers can be very concerned about their vision, and they really want to control every little thing. And it honestly can become a little bit of a micromanagement onto the director and the actors. Aside from the fact that all that can be a little obnoxious as a director or an actor, it also is a little bit overreaching as a writer. And I'm not trying to say anything mean to writers! Usually it's either from writers who just aren't educated, or writers who really should be working as a writer/director or a writer/actor. But because the whole job of the director is to bring it all to life, if every single moment of the script is completely dictated in a totalitarian way throughout the whole script, it's really hard for anyone else to kind of add their creativity to it.
For me anyway, the jobs are: the writer lays down the story and the basics, the director, the production designer, the director of photography, the actors, everybody else puts the flesh and skin onto the bones and makes it into a whole story. So it is totally possible for a writer to want to have that much creative input. And in that case, maybe they should direct, or production design, or be a director of photography, or be an actor, or be a writer/director/producer. There's nothing wrong with any of that. Just if you want to collaborate, it is really important to leave room for that collaboration from your collaborators.
Part of the magic of being a writer is that writers do get to create this whole world, and their key notes are the things that hold the whole story in place. And that's amazing! I mean, for me personally, one of my favorite things to do is to get a character backstory from the writer for the actor and for me as the director. It helps me understand a little bit more about who the person is, and what makes them tick, and kind of use that in creating their world.
So for “Names On The Wall'' we did this for the characters. I got a breakdown of each character from Nick Gambino — the guy who wrote the script originally — and it really helped when we were deciding kind of like how they would react to each other. What would they do? Their mannerisms and facial expressions. The actors did an amazing job of bringing it to their scenes. and I think it helped make the characters more three-dimensional and human. But the script didn't have every time they raised an eyebrow, or gave side-eye, or looked wistfully into the distance. The actors were able to just really understand their characters and because we worked really hard to cast really good actors, we found people who were able to bring the characters to life. And that's where each person's collaboration goes in the grand scheme of things.
This is my opinion, you don't have to agree, just throwing it out there. Writers: write your script, but be okay with letting it grow beyond that. And if you're not cool with that, that's totally fine. I really recommend considering becoming a writer/director, and working as a director, and maybe taking your work and bringing it to life without a collaborator so you don't have to worry about things not being exactly as you're wanting them to be.
But as a general rule, the details that you should include in the script are things that could basically affect the entire story if you got rid of them. Or affect the scene, or affect the mood, or the tone. Things that give your actor, and your director, and everybody a piece of what they need so that they can build the world the way that you're intending it. As a writer, you build the bones and then let the rest of the process bring it to life. To be clear, I think writers are amazing. I have a lot of respect for writers. I think it's magic how this whole world just comes out of the air. But the same way how, as a director I can't treat my actors like puppets, writers can't treat the directors like puppets either. So when a script is written, it should be written in a way so that a director has room to direct it, and so that an actor has room to breathe life into the characters in their own way. You can write a script where you're dictating every single move your characters make, but you might find it easier to find collaborators if you leave room for the collaboration.
Just my take on it. Let me know what you think. Feel free to comment like subscribe blah blah blah... All right! That's it. Bye!
You've been listening to “Filmmaking (Actually)” with Koura Linda. A Space Dream Productions podcast. Subscribe to us on any or all the podcast platforms, but we especially recommend our sponsor Anchor. If you like what you hear, leave us 5-star ratings and positive reviews on iTunes and Stitcher, it helps more listeners like you discover the show. But the best thing you can do if you really like the show is tell a friend. Want to leave a comment or ask a question? Email at filmmakingactually at gmail dot com. This is Spacey speaking. That's not really my name. My name is Spacey and I'm speaking. And we'll see you next time. Bye!
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