Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don’t Be Afraid To Cut

I’m in the middle of reading Chicken Run, Hatching the Movie, which is both a pleasure for the eye and for the (screenwriter’s) soul. Here’s why:

Very few people have any concept of how much excess material a screenwriter generates during the process of writing a script. Even producers usually haven’t an inkling. It’s amazing how few ideas, scenes, characters, plot twists, etc., actually make it into the final 100 or so pages.

Screenplays sometimes take years to come to fruition. And yet the resulting script seems so … brief. It’s not an eight-hundred page novel, or a gigantic Technicolor triptych … it’s about 15,000 words, or the equivalent in text of a modest short story.

It took you three years to write that? You want how much for it?!

Reading in detail how the Chicken Run story went from version to version, how characters came and went and how locations materialized and then disappeared again, is not just a fascinating and educational read for any screenwriter. It’s also confirmation that this is a perfectly normal process.

One of the most difficult decisions, especially for less experienced writers, is to cut or replace material you’ve become attached to. Partly for ego reasons (Hey, I thought of that!!), partly out of neurotic fear (I’ll never think of anything as good as that again!), and partly because it entails extra hard work (damn, now I have to go back to the treatment stage again!).

But it inevitably happens. A new, better idea comes along and you have to remind yourself the quality of the finished script is the only thing that counts.

So next time you hesitate to throw out a character or a scene that is holding up the story, or that has passed its sell-by date and belongs in a previous version, just remember it’s what the guys and gals at the top of the food chain do too. And be aware that the more you write, the more you write.

Just don’t throw out your notes. You never know when one of those old characters or ideas might be just what your looking for.

Oh and hurry up and order your copy of Chicken Run, Hatching the Movie. For some reason they’re giving them away for next to nothing …


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

For example, in the script Goodfellas, there are so many things one would cut but it works well on screen. Why is this?

I find I tend to edit more only when I get my "karate chops" by having the script read in a workshop setting with live actors.

Any thoughts on this?

Benjamin Ray

Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi Ben,

This is less about writing as lean a script as possible, and more about accepting the fact that as the writing proceeds you will inevitably have to cut some of the stuff you really loved earlier on.

As for Goodfellas, I guess it's one of those movies where some scenes and performances are so good, they carry me right through the less thrilling bits.

For me, the scene in the night club where Tommy de Vito (played by Joe Pesci) pretends to be insulted by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and totally freaks him out, is one of those scenes. It's a simple little beat, but it's so full of tension and it's such a clever way of showing who the characters are!

I'm certain that during the writing process of Goodfellas, plenty of great scenes were cut for the sake of the final product. It's not being afraid of doing that, which I'm referring to in my post.

Warm regards,