Q & A: Writing the "Unshootable"
The Scots stand and watch them [the English horses] come on. It's difficult to imagine the courage this takes; from the POV OF THE SCOTTISH LINES we see the massive horses boring in...But how would one film, "It's difficult to imagine the courage this takes?" You can't, and typically, beginning screenwriters are told to only write what can be seen or heard.
Another brief example, from Any Given Sunday (revised shooting script, dated 5/1/99, credited to Jamie Williams & Richard Weiner, John Logan, Daniel Pyne, revisions by Gary Ross, Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans, John Logan, Lisa Amsterdam & Robert Huizenga, current revision by Oliver Stone (whew, that's a hell of a list, and no, it wasn't the way it was finally credited -- check with Craig Mazin about how credit is assigned -- nor will I even try to link to all of those people)). In one of the football sequences, a player fumbles the ball. It is described as "a spectacular fumble -- the kind of fumble all running backs have nightmares about." After the fumble is run back for a TD, the running back "drops his head, the loneliest man in the world." All that is filmable in each of those lines is the initial phrase (the spectacular fumble and the dropping of the head). But the other phrases are used for literary embellishment, a general no-no in screenwriting.
My point with these excerpts was that, at times, it is okay to "break the rules" during these sequences. Such rule-breaking should be done sparingly and carefully. But it is certainly okay at times. This piqued the interest of my audience, and I recently received a follow-up question from one of my students. Nathan Flood asked me the following:
In adding a bit of unshootable description to set the mood, is that also acceptable for character intros. I've read to add a mood to the character as well, but I've also seen people react negatively (the jerks) when I write something that's not 'on the screen'.It is an interesting question. And before I answer, I should restate something, in case it is unclear. I am not a stickler for format. I don't want to read something that is completely off, as it indicates someone who has no idea how to write a film. But I'm not measuring margins, or tossing something out simply because there's a flashback in the first 10 pages.
Example: ...assistant district attorney JEFF WOODS, 45. A pit-bull in a business suit, he's only happy when he hears the word, "guilty".
To me that conveys the character I'm looking for, but should I leave out the '...happy when he hears..."? I like it as I think it better describes the type of guy he is more than the pit bull in a business suit.
I will also say that I can only speak based on my own experience, and may not have the same reactions as all or even most readers. That being said, I know most readers will overlook some "broken rules" and pay much more attention to whether or not the script is well-written and tells a good story. That being said, on to my answer to Nathan's question.
The unfilmable in a character intro is one of those things that I wouldn't mind, but that others might. The reason I don't mind the example you gave is because it really is a description of character. What I definitely DO object to is when I see actual facts that are unfilmable included in character intros. Stuff like "Carol has just lost her father, but is slowly getting her life back on track." (As in the script I just finished, that was written by two people who should have known better how to write a script and adapt a beloved children's book. But which I also can't speak about by name, due to confidentiality. Hopefully some day I can, but I was shocked at how bad the script was, and pray they find a way to improve this screenplay and make the film this book should be. But anyway...)
So basically, I'd be careful with using it, and be aware that you MAY piss some people off. Plus, I'd keep it to no more than a single phrase, as you did. And only then, occasionally.
Tags: screenwriting, script+reading, unfilmables, Braveheart, Any+Given+Sunday