On Monospace and Time
Screenplays can be works of art in the same way that architectural blueprints or particularly attractive signposts can, in fact, be works of art. A script is primarily a functional thing but despite this, or perhaps because of it, it has the potential to be artistically pleasing.
I would like to argue two points. The first is that, without realising it, script-writers and script-readers have become so wrapped up in the appearance of the document that they are neglecting its function. The second point is that by correcting this balance and focusing on the functionality, we can paradoxically make screenplays more valid as works of art.
The current formula for a screenplay is that it must be written in Courier 12 point, 10 pitch, on US letter-sized paper, ideally in one of the standard screenplay software packages whose names you probably know if you are reading this. The strict adherence to monospace should result in a page-per-minute balance, so that anyone picking up the manuscript can flick to the back, check the last page number, and know the movie’s eventual running time.
A neophyte marvels, no doubt, at the long, hard journey of exploration and discovery that led to this formula, but the truth is much simpler—it’s because of typewriters. Remember those things? Works of art themselves, a word processor and printer combined, the clackety-clack of the keys a joyous sound still associated with writing (maybe not for much longer).
We used to write screenplays on typewriters. When we started the slow switch to computers, say for drafts up until production, it made sense to match the old format since typewriters would be used on-set for rewrites.
That’s how we ended up using state-of-the-art computers to print documents that look like they were produced in the 1920s.
If you applied the same business model to architecture, there would be no 3D modelling software—just Paint. If you applied it to finance, Excel would be as immutable as a meticulously inked ledger and “pivot table” would mean tipping your monitor on its side. This screenplay software could only be more arcane if it disabled the backspace key.
It’s all very nostalgic, and maybe some filmmakers still use typewriters on set; I can imagine David Mamet sitting on the edge of the grip truck with one in his lap, clickety-clacking the next day’s revised dialogue—and that’s cool. But why is a whole industry sticking to a format defined by the limitations of a machine that’s now rarely in use?
Because it works, you might say.
Except it doesn’t work.
The page per minute theory is true some, but by no means all, of the time and when it’s true, it’s true by accident. Factors that unbalance the equation include but are not limited to: the ratio of dialogue to scene description; the amount of dialogue; the amount and presentation of technical notation (we’ll come back to this in a minute); most significantly, the interpretation of the screenplay by the production team.
The script for Walkabout was famously 14 pages long and resulted in an hour and a half of film. Robert Redford has just starred in All is Lost, 106 minutes spun from a 30-odd page script. The shooting script for Casino Royale is 113 pages, but the action scenes added more than 20 minutes of screen time. James Cameron’s screenplays are reportedly novel-length and packed full of detail, though perhaps not quite so much as the 161-page Rear Window. If you find Paddy Chayefsky’s awesome Network script online and plug it into any popular screenwriting program, the result will run more than 200 pages; the original script was about 150 and the film itself lasts 112 minutes. Zodiac went into production with a 200 page script, and ended up at two and a half hours—apparently David Fincher told the actors to talk fast. The shooting script of Back to the Future is, unbelievably, 147 pages long.
Some scripts condense enormous action sequences to a single line, like “They fight” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or “The most terrific speed-boat chase you’ve ever seen” in Live and Let Die. Similarly, the static ten-minute shot in the middle of Funny Games did not occupy ten percent of its manuscript.
Technical notations seem to be included arbitrarily. In your average script, some scenes end with a line devoted to the instruction CUT TO while other scenes don’t. Sometimes dialogue is given a parenthetical descriptor like (firmly), (sarcastic) or the classic (gingerly) in a line all of its own. In an effort to cut William Monahan’s Kingdom of Heaven script to a more reasonable length, 20 pages’ worth of these descriptors were summarily excised.
Screenwriters regularly chop detail from their work, like descriptions of location or costume or props, in order to get the page count down. Then in pre-production there are expensive meetings in which department heads discuss what the locations should look like, what the characters should wear, and what props to use.
The most effective way to judge a film’s running time from the script is, controversially, to read the fucking thing. If you’re at all familiar with scripts and/or films, then you should know how to do this: you simply use your imagination. If you’re lucky, the writer has made it easy for you by telling the story at a consistent, cinematic pace. If not—if you’re reading a phone book-sized script where every second page has an “epic car chase” or a “static shot of flower opening in real time”—then the formula won’t help you anyway.
The look of the document is quickly becoming an anachronism that discourages its primary use, which is to be read by somebody. There’s nothing quite like a coffee-stained, dog-eared manuscript, but these days we are more likely to receive a screenplay as a PDF to read on our laptop or tablet. I keep copies of mine on my Kindle, and I’m a luddite; a friend of mine read my most recent script on his iPhone whilst flying back from holiday.
Courier, eye-bleeding enough on the printed page, looks like fucking cuneiform on a backlit screen.
Once you start reading, your eye’s journey over the text is constantly interrupted by monospacial potholes: wrapping Courier without hyphens creates lines that look like bars of a graph jabbing at the right side of the page. Blocks of description longer than three lines might as well be etched into the Rosetta Stone: human vision rejects them as simply being too goddamn ugly to read.
When I’m writing a script for myself to direct, I use a ubiquitous word processing program which I won’t name purely so this doesn’t read like a particularly belaboured advertisement, but you know which one. All I did was create a bunch of paragraph templates with keyboard shortcuts, which makes it easy to switch between dialogue and action.
And the font? Arial 12 point, fuck knows what pitch. It’s bland enough to justify use in a technical document, and it’s easier on the eye and the LCD. When I look at an Arial script on my Kindle, I can actually see the text. I’m not an Arial pioneer, either—it’s the standard font for screenplays in France.
While we’re taking a tangential trip across the Channel, I should mention that the best screenwriting manual I’ve ever read is a slim volume I picked up in a bookshop in Lyon: Savour rédiger et présenter son scénario by Philippe Perret and Robin Barataud. No theoretical discussion, just practical advice on producing a clear, concise, readable and functional document. Examples: one paragraph of action represents one shot; imply rather than state (with CLOSE UP, DOLLY etc) the position of the camera.
The first script I wrote after absorbing this guidance was a massive improvement, both as a technical document and as a jargon-free piece of writing. One of my regular readers said it was the first time he read, rather than scanned, the action. I put dialogue descriptors on the same line as the name of the speaker (“DANNY (off/continued/gingerly)”) and religiously shunned redundant terms like CUT TO. Rewrites were about carving away the unnecessary detail and indulgent prose, but leaving the words that will be useful to the actors, the editors, the sound guys, the prop guys and so on.
I could go further off the beaten track—we all could, and arguably should. These days, electronic documents are fucking amazing: I can add comments or hyperlinks, for example to music that might accompany the scene, or to pictures of the big train station where the climax takes place. And that’s just everyday stuff. A more advanced screenplay package could include much more: scenes could be collapsed or expanded, like hidden rows in Excel, to reveal notes or whole files relevant to various departments. As a project gets closer to production, a screenplay could absorb storyboards, call sheets, directorial scribblings and all manner of other things.
Now, if you’re my age or older, or perhaps just a little bit younger, you might say: Yeah, but there’s no electronic substitute for having a thick, annotated manuscript under your arm. And I agree. But we’re doomed, you see—the kids don’t want to carry around a fucking Yellow Pages, they want tablets and roaming high-speed internet. The next generation of film-makers is going to be exponentially more tech-savvy than us, and we’re the generation who mastered independent films using consumer products like camcorders and video editing software.
It’s not uncommon to meet producers who have not read the script of the film they’re managing, or who read only a much earlier, half-remembered draft. Why? Because who cares, that’s why—everything they need is in other separate documents or on a spreadsheet somewhere. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Redesigned, the screenplay could be the master document, an expandable compendium of everything you need to make the film.
That’s the way we’re going: technology and youth demands it. We can resist or create something on our terms.
If you’re a screenwriter, now’s not the time to push boundaries. Stick with the monospace for the time being, otherwise nobody will make your film. But if you’re a writer/director, you can change things. Have a traditional script for anyone who needs it, and a proper version of your own design that suits your needs. When you’re sending the script to someone, send both versions. Then, on set, refer to your own.
That’s how we force progress: by inoffensive increments. And when the screenplay performs the shit out of all possible functions, it will be beautiful again, maybe even a work of art.
Originally published 18/10/13