A movie is essentially written three times. Once (many times!) on the screenwriter’s laptop, the second time during production and the third time in the editing room. And quite frankly I’m learning more about screenwriting from editing my first feature film “The Quiet Hour” – a sci-fi thriller taking place in the aftermath of an alien invasion – than from years spent reading and writing scripts, so I can’t recommend enough that budding screenwriters film something, anything, a short film, a scene of their film, a scene of an Oscar winning screenplay, etc. to learn the craft of screenwriting and realize how little text you need to tell a story. Even if you don’t have the directing bug have a friend direct it and sit next to the editor, which will be the best screenwriting course you can ever take. It’s by far the best way to learn about pacing, transitions, and rhythm. You will see how your scenes translate onto the screen and you will become more aware of what works and what doesn’t work.
When I embarked on the journey of directing “The Quiet Hour” after having directed a few shorts I thought my script was as tight as it could possibly be. I had done a stage reading with professional actors, been given plenty of notes, gone through quite a few rewrites, and I thought what I had on the page would be the perfect blueprint for a movie. In many ways it was indeed an effective blueprint as it attracted strong talent to the table and the story is currently shaping up very well as a movie. But little did I know that myself, my talented British editor, Michael Freedman, and my producing partner at Frenzy Films, Sean McConville, would have so many story development discussions very much akin to what we do while developing the scripts themselves. And I had no idea that I will emerge from the editing room with a fresh insight into screenwriting that will change forever the way I approach my craft. A stint at the American Film Market in Los Angeles gave me a good excuse to take a break from the London rain and the editing room and I thought I’d use the opportunity to share a few nuggets with you. Here they are:
1. When it comes to dialogue less is more
I’m a visual writer. The whole third act of my movie is pretty much a big visual sequence involving action and gunshots and I don’t write much dialogue but, regardless, once I got to the editing room I realized I still wrote too much dialogue. The trimming started with the actors who intuitively know that “less is more”. And once the rushes land in the editing room the pruning intensifies. Soon enough you realize that one look, one expression can say it all, especially when you are blessed to work with very talented actors as I was (“The Quiet Hour” stars Dakota Blue Richards, who was picked out of 11,000 kids as a lead for “The Golden Compass”, and Karl Davies from “Game of Thrones”).
I did commit a few sins though, hoping to wedge in a tiny bit of expositional dialogue here and there to get across a few basic facts of my science-fiction world. Inevitably, they all all had to go and we had to find more creative, and more exciting ways to convey the context of the story. Even a tiny bit of expositional dialogue slows down the film and doesn’t quite work; usually your actors feel it, even if they can’t always articulate it, and somehow struggle with the lines. Just look at “Prometheus” if you aren’t convinced and you’ll pick up on a few cringe-worthy moments that stem from explanatory dialogue (especially when they look at the brand new surgery robot).
2. Avoid repetition
William M. Akers who wrote “Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great” suggests you can only give information once in a script – and that’s very true in most cases. Beware of repetitions. Not only of information, which is an easy one, but also of emotional beats, which might be trickier to spot. It might not jump out at you on the page but it will become painfully obvious on a screen. While editing “The Quiet Hour” we realized that the same character walked off three times in an outburst of anger. Needless to say two of their tantrums had to go, no matter how strong the performances were, or how well shot the scenes were. It’s funny, nobody picked up on that at the stage reading because the scenes themselves worked but the hard truth is that three redundant beats created an undesirable impression of déjà vu as the story unfolded. So, the next time around I’ll ask myself whether I am repeating emotional information or not. And if I do the culprits will be nixed before I go to camera. I know that editing is a process and that inevitably scenes will end up in the bin because you can’t predict everything on the page (look at “Notting Hill”, written by Richard Curtis, one of the most brilliant writers of his generation, and how they cut whole scenes at the beginning of the movie because they realized one beat/scene was enough to show the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant character falling in love, and not the three they shot) but now I have been stung I shall certainly be more vigilant…
3. Don’t assume your scenes are in the right order
It’s extraordinary to realize how much better a scene can become if you alter what precedes it or comes after it. It’s something that really stuck with me when I read “In the blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch (a must read). Basically what he’s saying is that if a scene doesn’t work we tend to remove it or start tinkering with it, while maybe the problem actually lies with the scene that precedes it or comes after it. Maybe what comes before doesn’t work, or after. So the problem could just be that the scene you’re working on should come forward or later in the movie, and not that it should be cut. It might not be obvious when it’s on the page but it’s extraordinary how changing a scene’s location can transform the story once it’s on screen. A scene that drags on might be wonderfully appropriate a bit later. I was lucky, the story takes place over two days so my actors wear the same costumes all the time and I could shuffle up a few scenes for the good of the movie without upsetting the continuity (although as Walter Murch says story and emotion come first and continuity is way down on the pecking order so don’t be too hung up on continuity…). But of course as always it’s better to make the adjustment on the page before you go shoot your movie, and less time consuming and expensive. So from now on I will make sure I shuffle up my scene cards for a long time before locking a script as you never know what can happen if you swap something around…
4. Trust your instinct
Funnily enough, all the scenes I feared might be unnecessary ended up in the editor’s bin. You know when you have the nagging feeling you might not need a scene but you don’t cut it because everyone comments on how strong the scene is so you convince yourself you might need that scene. I would suggest you cut them and see if you miss them or not the next time you read your script. You can always add the scenes back in if they are missing. If you don’t miss them, then the odds are it will be the same in the editing room, so it’s best to let go of them before going to the trouble, time, and expenses of shooting them. Next time I’ll listen a bit more to my gut instinct because deep down we often know what’s best for our babies…
5. Put your ego aside with the bigger picture in mind
No matter how tight your script is some scenes will end up in the bin because you’ll realize they slow down the story or are no longer necessary. Editing is a discovery process and your story will take a life of its own and become the beast it was meant to become while the script will gradually recede as a distant shadow of its former self. Don’t be too precious. Don’t cling on to your script when you are editing your movie. As directors, especially writers/directors we are often attached to scenes for the wrong reason. I’m very open to notes on the page and value them but I must confess I have a hard time killing babies that took me a day of my tight 3 week shoot while I had to dash off a scene that was really necessary. So surround yourself with people you trust and listen to your peers. When my producer and my editor both agree that something needs to go they are usually right. The best test being that when I watch the cut a few days later I don’t notice the scenes are gone, proof I didn’t need them in the first place…
That’s it for now! More later after I’ve done a couple of test screenings and discover what I can learn from them.
And if you are editing at the moment watch “Kill your Darlings” by Susan Korda, it will inspire you.