Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Learning From Giant Ants (Part Two)


Lately, I’ve been reading more and more scripts that appear to be written by people who haven’t read anything other than their own scripts in a very long time. Certainly not a book or a play or a short story. So the scripts are drifting back toward the technical, but it’s a sort of whiz-bang technical; an attempt to duplicate on the written page some effect they’ve seen somewhere else, something that is supposed to be cool. You see phrases like:

Super fast zoom back to reveal previous scene was reflected on the pupil of Larry’s left eye.

There’s also the pseudo-CSI writing:

Laszlo sneezes. SUPER SLO-MO of mucus sailing out of his mouth. FREEZE. The snot hanging in the air. ZOOM into phlegm. Molecules zipping by like hot little sports cars. Then the snaky entrails of the virus itself!

Both are desperate attempts to hold the attention of a twenty-five-year-old producer or studio executive who’s spent much of his formative years playing video games. And it often works. But don’t kid yourself that this is writing. It isn’t.

Don’t try to give more information on the page than the image can contain. This is one of the most irritating expositional sins, something that immediate reveals a writer’s lack of technique. I’ll show you what I’m talking about. Let’s go back to Ben and Ed the first time we see them in the patrol car.

INT. NEW MEXICO STATE POLICE CAR (DRIVING) – DAY

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call as SGT. BEN PETERSON, a fifteen-year-veteran riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.


I have read character encounters in produced scripts that read like this:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON (48), been on the force since he got back from the Pacific where he saw too much death and lost too many friends to ever let himself get close to anyone again, which accounts for his second divorce and the kids he never talks about, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN (27), good-looking and a pistol with the ladies who just line up for Ed’s easy style and cool-as-a-cucumber masculinity. Ed, the son of the chief, who doesn’t want any special treatment, that’s why he’s glad to be partnered with the gruff and steady Ben, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.

How we are supposed to get all this information from a shot of two guys in a car listening to the radio is beyond me. Maybe it’s written on the windshield with a magic marker.

All that stuff about Ben and Ed might be true, but I don’t want to be told about it. I want to see it. I want to intuit it from the way these two men act toward each other. I want to get a sense of it from the way Ben looks at the little girl, from how Ed gets out of the car at the trailer and how Ben watches the younger cop crossing to the car. This is a dramatic form. The things we need to know should be dramatized, organically and elegantly.

There is something worse than this sort of billboarding. That would go something like this:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN. Ben looks over at Ed.

BEN (VOICE OVER)
We didn’t know what we were riding into, me and the kid. I figure I’d seen it all, between the war and fifteen years on the force, but nothing could have prepared me for what was going to happen. And Ed, he was green, but solid. He had the makings of a good cop. He could only manage to stay alive. I saw a lot of guys like Ed chopped up on those nameless islands in the Pacific. I like the kid. Didn’t want to get to close. That’s why I never went over for that homecooked meal. Bad idea to get too close. Way things worked out, wish I’d gone over to the house just once before...well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.


Ben picks up the radio.


In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve used voice over exposition and I’m not proud of it. It should be avoided by any means at your disposal, and if you have to do it, do as little of it as possible, get past it as quick as you can and try never to do it again.

But wait, there’s even a worse way to do it:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN. Ed turns to his left and looks into the camera, addressing us directly.

ED
That’s my partner, Ben Masterson. Been on the force fifteen years. I’m lucky to have him as a partner. My name’s Ed Blackburn. My whole life the only thing I ever wanted to be was a cop. And not just because my dad was the chief. It was something I knew I had to do. Cathy, my wife, understands, but I don’t think she’s too happy about it...


And so on and so on in a similar fashion.

If you see this sort of stuff at the top of a script, locate the exits closest to your seat because you may have to bail out at a moment’s notice: The person at the controls is not a writer.

(to be continued)

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