From the E-Mailbag…

Bill Levin writes to ask me…

I was fascinated to learn that you learned about TV script forms from those Dr. Kildare scripts your neighbor had. If I wanted to become a screenwriter (a fantasy I've harbored), do you think it would be a good idea to get copies of every great screenplay I could and read and study them? How far would that get me?

Probably closer than you are but not far enough. Actually, reading anything is valuable to a writer. I've even learned from bad examples. The value of reading scripts is to learn the form and how to describe action in a crisp, efficient manner. It also helps you to get a sense of weight to your dialogue. Somewhere here, I have a book that reprints the screenplays by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie. I was beginning to write in script (screenplay, teleplay) form at the time I got it and it made me realize that most of my speeches were too long…and also too self-contained; that I needed more verbal interaction between characters, as opposed to them delivering dueling monologues.

Here's something you shouldn't learn from reading scripts. A few years ago, that most dangerous of creatures — a friend of a friend — got me to agree to read and advise him on a screenplay he'd written. This was this man's first attempt at writing a script and, I suspect, darn near his first attempt at writing anything in a professional arena. He sent the script over with one of those amateurish, paranoid attitudes: The script was registered with every agency in the world, I was expected to sign a confidentiality form with the assurance that he could sue and take my house away from me if I plagiarized him, etc. Don't you just love it when you agree to do someone a favor and they respond with threats?

When I opened the package, I glanced at the accompanying warnings and then noticed something about the script itself. It was sealed in plastic with a warning label that said something like, "By breaking this seal, you agree to abide by the terms of the enclosed form," etc. And the script itself was huge. It had to be over 300 pages. In which case, I would not be reading it so there was no point in breaking that seal.

I called the guy and asked him how long it was. I don't remember the precise number but let's say it was 325. It was around that.

I told him I had my first comment: Cut it by two-thirds. "There are very few people in this business who will read a script that's over around 120 pages," I said and I added, "I am not one of them."

He said, "I'm not cutting a word of it. Not now, not ever. I have a copy here of the screenplay to Apocalypse Now and it's 325 pages."  (I'm not sure it is but that's what the man said.)

I said, "Maybe it is but this is not Apocalypse Now and you are not Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius."

He said, "What difference does that make? This script is just as important."

I said, "I doubt that…but the script you have is not a script they wrote to try and impress a producer into taking on the project. Everything was probably committed well before they wrote that draft, maybe before they wrote any draft. What you have there is a shooting script. You need to produce a selling script. Do you understand the difference?"

He said, "Sure…but a perfect shooting script can be a selling script. All a producer has to do is read this and he'll see it's perfect and ready to go. All my friends who've read it agree."

That was pretty much the end of that conversation. Oh, sure…I went on and told him that had never happened in the history of Hollywood and he told me he'd be the first and I told him his fantasy was predicated on producers reading the script at all and they wouldn't and he told me he'd be the first and you can see why this script was never made. It was probably also never read by anyone besides his closest friends. It certainly wasn't by me.

But the point is not to confuse a script that's going to be made — which may also be full of unnecessary-in-a-selling script production details — with a script that's intended to get someone to say, "Hey, the guy's got something here!" There may also be things missing. When I write a cartoon script and I know I'm going to direct the voices, I leave out a lot of instructions to the actors because I'm going to be there to tell them verbally what I have in mind.

And that's not laziness on my part. It's me wanting to see what they'll come up with on their own without me telling them that a certain speech is to be delivered deadpan or with a sneer or whatever. If I'm not directing — if it's like the old Hanna-Barbera days where I'd hand in the script, not be at the recording session and not see or hear the thing until it was on the air — I put all that in the script. It's the only chance I have to convey what I have on my mind to the actors. But if I'm the director, I can tell them later, after they've had a shot at it without my influencing their first readings.

When you read sitcom scripts that float about, you're often reading drafts that were done after days of rehearsal. Let's say the show tapes on Friday. A new scene was written and/or improvised during the Thursday rehearsal. They commit its words to paper for the draft that's done Thursday night but they don't have to put in stage directions and actor notes because the actors and director already know all that from the Thursday rehearsal.

So you have to differentiate between a shooting script and a selling script. The latter is meant to be a reading experience for anyone who sits down with it and it's successful if it leads to a shooting script. A shooting script is just for the folks involved in the shooting.  It may have things in it you don't need — descriptions of things intended for specific people in the production process or to give security to the studio that proper direction is being given to the crew — or it may omit information that isn't needed. If a role is already cast, the shooting script doesn't have to describe what the actor looks like. If the art director already knows from meetings what the sets are supposed to look like and is designing them, a shooting script may not dwell on those descriptions. I have a script here somewhere for an episode of Banacek where they obviously decided to change the gender of a character who'd been written as a male. All the dialogue reflects the change, including scenes where Banacek is hitting on the character, trying to seduce her. But nobody bothered to change the stage directions and the description of the character which remained male.

Read all the scripts you can get your mitts on. But try to be conscious of what kind of script you're reading and whether it was intended to make a movie happen or a deal. Those aren't the same thing.