I have from time to time commented on the difference between a “selling” script and a “shooting” script. Today I want to go into that topic in more detail. Let’s start with definitions. A selling script is a script that’s designed to sell – to a producer, star, director, financier or studio, for example. A shooting script is what you want when you have a “go” picture. It’s designed to make the best movie possible.
So why are these two different kinds of scripts? Why wouldn’t a good shooting script also be a good selling script? There are two big reasons. The first is the conditions under which scripts are read when they are not yet go pictures. People who buy scripts have to read a lot of them. They’ll take a stack home with them on the weekend. They may read half of your script while watching their kid’s soccer game on Saturday afternoon, and then finish it Sunday after a cocktail. So you have to be a little bit more explicit with a selling script.
The other reason is that a script, obviously, is not a movie. Some things don’t translate as well on the page as they will on screen. Sometimes an actor can give a look that eliminates the need for a paragraph of dialogue. But in the script you don’t have that actor’s look. For a selling script you have to make sure it reads well because you’ll never see that actor’s performance if someone doesn’t first buy the script.
This doesn’t mean you should use on-the-nose dialogue. You still want to write well. But you want to make sure important points don’t get buried. So let’s say you have a scene where a husband makes a joke at his wife’s expense. She gets angry. How do you show that?
On-the-nose dialogue would be, “You’re a real jerk, you know.” Better would be something like, “Do people actually find you funny?” And on screen the actress might be able to deliver a withering look that gets the point across without dialogue at all. (This is another reason to avoid unnecessary description and camera direction. It doesn't read well.)
The challenge is actually not writing the selling script. You’re dealing with stuff on the page and you’re probably showing it to other people to see if they get confused (if you’re not, you should be!) The trick is if you are lucky enough to have a script go into production. Then you have to really consider how the scenes will play on screen and cut the extra exposition and talkiness. If the director, cast and editor are any good, they’ll cut even more during production and post.
When you’re writing a selling script, you may occasionally want to violate the rule that you can only write what we can see and hear. This is particularly true with characters. On screen, subtle clues of costuming, posture, looks and inflection will get across a lot of information that may not be on the page. So you might write something like:
JOE steps up to the bar. Joe’s easy smile, casual charm and good manners make him an expert at seduction. However underlying it all is an angry misogyny born from a horrific upbringing that only surfaces once he’s made his conquests.
Now technically that’s cheating. We might be able to see his easy smile, but how do we know about the angry misogyny and about his upbringing? This is risky – the reader now has information the viewer won’t. The danger is that the scene will be clear on the page but confusing on screen. But sometimes we need to cheat just a little to make the point clear when we don’t have the benefit of the image. My rule of thumb is you can include things that will color the performance or tone of the scene, but no information that’s required to grasp the plot.
There’s another key difference between selling scripts and shooting scripts that I think many people in the industry forget to the detriment of their films. That is what information the audience knows when they walk into the theater. By the time a moviegoer buys a ticket, they’ve almost certainly seen trailers or commercials for the film and probably read a review of some kind. So at the very least they know the subject and the basic story concept. But when an executive plucks a script from the weekend read pile, they know nothing about it.
This has several implications. It’s the primary reason that the first ten pages of your script are so important. In a way, you have to do the job in those first ten pages that the trailer and commercials have done for the film ahead of time. You have to explain what the story of this script is about. In the theater the audience might not mind if the catalyst doesn’t come for twenty minutes as long as the build up is reasonably entertaining. They have an idea what's coming, and they've already made a big effort to get to the theater so they don't really want to get up and leave. But a producer will have no problem tossing a script aside after ten pages if they don’t know what it’s about. After all, they’ve got six more to get through.
The reverse of this for the shooting script is you have to realize you can’t surprise your audience with the concept of your movie. I noticed this in the 2003 Hulk (story by James Schamus, screenplay by John Turman and Michael France and James Schamus). For about forty-five minutes we watched as something strange was happening to Bruce Banner. The movie seemed to be trying to build up suspense – what could it be? What’s wrong with him?
I wanted to shout, “I know what’s wrong with him, I’ve seen the poster! He’s the Hulk! Get to it already!”