Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to be a Screenplay Sniper: a Tony Gilroy guide

In the past, I have expresses my admiration for Academy-Award winning screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne Trilogy, etc) In my opinion, he is hands-down the most talented screenwriter working today. But my admiration is not just for what he writes, but far more importantly, HOW he writes it. What makes Gilroy's writing what it is, is his rock-solid understanding of the key differences between just being a writer, and writing for the screen.

The great advantage held by literary authors is that time is on their side. An author has the freedom to use entire pages to communicate a single action. An author can digress for thick, flowing paragraphs at a time and use the most beautiful, ornate language to express to the most infinite detail such simple things such as the look of an old house, the expression on a character's face, or the flow every every single unseen thought that runs endlessly through the hero's mind. Authors are armed with a literary machine gun. They have unlimited ammo to mow down their targets, they can pump out their language with power and fury for endless lengths of time until their objective is completely, and exhaustively achieved.

But such a method of writing- though it may be beautiful and captivating in a book, lacks any point or use in screenplays. Writing in a literary style -no manner how intricate, clever, or poetic the words- is inappropriate to screenwriting simply because you are writing words that will never be READ. Your words - with the exception of dialogue, of course- will never reach the audience. They will not have the script in their laps. All the audience has in order to enjoy a movie are the images on the screen, and the sound on the soundtrack. No matter how much cleverness you use to describe your protagonist's dog, the audience will only see- just a dog. No matter how breathtakingly poetic the words you use to describe the farmhouse by the lake, the audience will only see – just a farmhouse by a lake. Anything in a screenwriter's action & description paragraphs that cannot be translated directly into visuals is lost as noninformation- information that is incapable of being given to the audience.

Overwritten screenplays will also have a profound negative effect on those people who DO read screenplays word-for-word; readers, producers, agents, talent, etc. A screenplay may have an excellent story and the potential to become a good movie, but how the writer uses language to tell that story may threaten to warp the reader's perception of that story, often causing the reader to come up with unfair or erroneous conclusions. Ornate writing forces the reader to read slower that usual, making the reader feel that the work is ponderous and slow-paced. Thick blocks of paragraphs might make the reader believe that the script is inactive, too complex, or much longer than its page count suggests. Poorly written language, vague language, ambiguous language (which usually results from a writer attempting to become too poetic with their words) disallows the reader from visualizing how the script will play out on screen, misleading the reader to believe that the work is “dull,” or “thin” and not fleshed out, or “uncinematic”- a story that is alright on paper, but just will not work on screen. When readers, already weighted down with an inbox full of scripts already, open your screenplay, they want a quick, breezy ninety-minute to two-hour read – something that imitates on paper the experience of sitting down and watching a movie for that same length of time. They do not want to curl up for hours on end with War and Peace.

Which brings us to our point. Half of the storyteller's art is not the story they tell, but HOW THEY TELL IT. The ultimate goal of screenwriting style should be to write in a way that guides the reader to SEE the movie playing in their head, scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, as if the script has already been produced, edited, and shown to them on DVD. Now, this by all means does NOT mean that you should fill your scripts with camera angles and instructions to the editor. This means that you should wield your use of language so that it communicates information in a manner that mimics the audio-visual movie experience. To achieve this, a writer must:
1.write with clear, concrete, visually-oriented language.
2. use strong, active language, with precisely-chosen nouns and adjectives, and action-orientated verbs.
3.and above all, the writer must do this in as a concise and efficient manner possible, so that the writer accurately communicates the exact information they wish the audience to see and hear in detail, while at the same time using as few words as possible.

This seems like a difficult contradiction. To be both detailed and concise at the same time. But let's take a look at the opening scene from The Bourne Identity and see how it's done.




The darkness is actually water. A SEARCHLIGHT arcs across heavy ocean swells. Half-a-dozen flashlights -- weaker beams -- racing along what we can see is the deck of an aging FISHING TRAWLER.

FISHERMEN struggling with a gaff -- something in the water --



THE BODY sprawled there. The Sailors all talking at once -- three languages going -- brave chatter to mask the presence of death --

-- Jesus, look at him --

The literary masters of book and novels may decimate their targets by shooting their words out of machine guns, but not Tony Gilroy. Tony Gilroy is an Academy Award winning writer because he has armed himself with a sniper rifle. He gets maximum impact with minimal ammo. Every sentence fragment is a bullet of information straight to the head.

Here is another sequence, this one from Michael Clayton.


Cold, rural Wisconsin. A tired old room in a tired old house. A WALL PHONE RINGING. BIG SISTER, the Farmer’s Wife, hauling a baby on her hip as she moves to answer it. THE FARMER and YOUNG DAUGHTER sitting over breakfast in the BG.

(grabbing the phone)

Is Anna there?

Hang on...
(calling into the house)
Where’s Anna?
(continuing, as--)


Same time. A PANEL TRUCK parked here. It’s a scuffed-up, late model vehicle. Some half-assed electrical supply logo buried beneath the graffiti. About as anonymous as it gets.

“...Anna! Where is she? ANNA!”


Surprise. Welcome to a perfect mobile, urban surveillance HQ. Ugly and state-of-the-art. Purely functional. Nothing Gucci about it. A cot. Tool cases. Cooler. Folding table. Couple laptops. Space heater. IKER just now clambering in the back door. VERNE wearing headphones, already plugged in, waving for him to hurry up --

To me, the most interesting thing about Gilroy's style is that it achieves such success in spite of- and possibly because of- breaking nearly every one of the quote-unquote “rules” laid out in the several dozen copy-cat screenwriting books out there. If one were to post something written in this style on a messageboard where wanna-be writers like to gather such as, every nerd with a line of Syd Field books on their shelf would rise up as if heresy has been committed against the holy scriptures. But god-damn if you can't see the movie happening right there on the page.

Most screenwriters, as well as cinematographers and editors, generally approach a script with the idea that each sentence on the page should equal one shot on screen – or one edit in the finalized film. The opening scene of Bourne suggests only four shots. One of the dark water. A shot of the searchlight over the ocean waves. Another shot of the fisherman on boat searching with flashlights. And then cut to a body being dragged in with a gaff. Gilroy's penchant for punchy, verb-free sentence fragments work to emulate the final shot-and-edited movie experience. Their simple job is to communicate, THIS is what is on screen at the moment. THIS is what you are looking at.

“This is happening now.” His language tells the story with a voice of authority. He is not describing to the reader what he wishes to happen. He is TELLING the reader what IS happening. Believe it or get out.


When it comes to communicating something that is a little larger than what is merely on the screen at the moment, when the writer needs to communicate something more complicated- not only get across what is happening, but how it is happening, how people behave while doing it, and how the audience is expected to feel about it- while not slowing down the pace of the story with unnecessary details, a well-chosen metaphor or simile can work wonders. A smart literary comparison in the description can accurately communicate an exact visual in a few words where long paragraphs of description cannot.

Observe how Gilroy communicates this scene, in which the failed restaurant that Michael Clayton had invested his life's savings into is being auctioned off for pennies on the dollar. This information is an important detail for Clayton's character background, yet it is mostly irrelevant to the action of the main plot, and thus should not slow down the story by taking up too much time.


FIFTEEN BUYERS bunched like starlings around the AUCTIONEER. Men with clipboards. Equipment all tagged and stacked and ready to roll.

...five hundred, I’ve got five --
five-fifty. Six. This is two units,
folks. Six, I see six-fifty. Seven...


Dark. Stripped down. Stools, blenders, cash registers -- everything stacked and tagged. MICHAEL alone at a table. Sounds of the carcass being picked over in the BG. GABE ZABEL, loanshark, enters from the kitchen.

He says you’re still gonna be short.

First off, notice that in this scene, Gilroy sticks strictly with communicating visuals. In sentence fragments. What the audience will see. Telling visuals. That work together to communicate some more important meaning. Visuals are all you have to communicate.

Secondly, check out the two literary devices Gilroy uses to describe the scene, first a simile, then a metaphor. He starts the scene by saying the buyers are “bunched like starlings.” The phrase instantly gives us a vivid visual about these people's behavior- we can imagine them sitting bunched together in anticipation like birds on a wire. The second device occurs when Gilroy describes the events in the other room as “the carcass being picked over.” Until now, all we have seen is an auction. In reality, an auction is a pretty neutral event. It could be a good thing, or a bad thing, or neither at the same time. But with the help of this four-word shorthand, this visual of a dead animal being stripped by scavengers, the reader is led to understand what is going on, how the people behave while doing it, the intended tone of the scene, and how we the audience are supposed to fell about it.

Good visual shorthands like this can also work wonders to communicate subtleties in character behavior that would otherwise be difficult, if not next to impossible to describe in plain English - slight shadings of action, essential for an actor to understand the scene and prepare an appropriate performance. Observe:

This awful pause. MICHAEL wielding the silence like a club.

ARTHUR marching through the night. Same glorious smile. Just another madman loose in Manhattan.
A ratty old espresso machine. THE MAN standing there, staring at the thing like it's a test.
THE MAN. Holding these objects close -- as if by holding them he might absorb their essence.

However, a writer must not overuse these devices. The more a writer sees them, the less effective they become and the work devolves into hackery. The use of a simile where one is not required will take you back to the purposely ornate, overwritten style that started this article. Metaphors and similes should only be used to communicate a SPECIFIC VISUAL that simple language cannot efficiently do otherwise.


Michael Clayton begins at its ending. We see a man who has been worn down by the stress of events that we the audience still know nothing about. Since the audience does not yet know what has happened to Clayton, it is impossible for them to understand Clayton in these opening moments, or why he is acting the way he is. However, it is still the writer's responsibility to convey to the audience that something is going on beneath the surface, to let them know that something is wrong, without giving away too much information too early and ruining the mystery. Here is a piece of how Gilroy handles it:


THE MERCEDES speeding away from the house --


MICHAEL driving. Escaping. Running from more than Mr. Greer and Jerry Dante. More than just a bad night boiling behind his eyes. Driving hard and wild. Turning suddenly and --


THE MERCEDES racing along.


MICHAEL -- turning again -- aimless -- windows open -- cold air whipping through -- braking suddenly -- impulsive -- turning -- suddenly -- faster now and --

Clayton's subtext- the thing that the audience cannot see or understand at the moment- is that he is a man at the end of his ethical rope. He is mired in a network of filth and corruption and is incapable of freeing himself. However, the writer works to communicate this through something the audience CAN see and understand- how Clayton is driving. In order for subtext to work, it must first be anchored to something physical and active. Something that can physically exist on screen. The only way to get across ideas that cannot be directly communicated to the audience is through something that can be – visuals, sounds, and actions. Neglect to do that and the idea is lost into the ether.

Subtext cannot exist on its own. The writer must first create the text, and then place the subtext behind it. Do it right, and it's a sniper's bullet. Maximum impact with minimum ammo.

This text-subtext execution also works well for introducing characters within the description when they are seen on screen for the first time. When a new character arrives, the writer must take one or two short sentences in order to describe this new person in a way that allows the reader to visualize the character in their head. For important characters, the writer should want to go beyond a flat, physical description, yet avoid vague, generalized descriptors of the person's personality or general character that are not filmmable on the screen and thus will not be communicated to an audience. To achieve this balance, a writer should start with something visual and communicable on screen, and then anchor to it a shade of subtext to give a hint of what lies underneath. Some examples:

IVY, Michael’s exwife. She is 38. Her youthful beauty perhaps a bit too delicate for life’s perpetual harassments.

HENRY CLAYTON is ten -- small for ten -- all bones and intelligence.

TED CONKLIN. Ivy League Ollie North. Buttoned down. Square jaw. Everything tucked away.

Meet MARIE KREUTZ. German. Big energy. Real beauty hidden beneath the armor. And armor it is, because this is a warrior in full, crisis battlemode.

Each one of these descriptions starts with something physical, something easy to imagine: Ivy has youthful beauty, Henry is small, Marie is pretty, German, and energetic, Ted looks like Oliver North. And then behind that concrete, physical anchor some subtext is shaded in. Something that makes their physical appearance a little more than meets the eye. Something that is intangible, hard to put into words, yet is still there on screen. Something that turns them from just images into real, living people.

So, in conclusion...I never know the best way to conclude these things, so I will try to follow the advice I have given in this article and be concise and straight to the point:

Stop writing with words, and start writing with images.

And don't waste your ammo doing it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Things I Learned from Die Hard, Part V: Planting, the Writer's Time Machine

There is a concept mentioned in a number of books on screenwriting called “Plant & Payoff.” The thing that makes the concept hard for beginning screenwriters to understand is that these books seem to present this tool as something the writer should apply superficially onto his or her storytelling as a way of “spicing things up,”or perhaps as a way to impress the audience with what wonderful intelligence and foresight the storyteller had in order to hide clues throughout the script like an easter egg hunt, stitching one end of the story to another. These books seem to imply that when constructing a story, the writers should already have this collection of marvelous plants in their heads ahead of time, already mapped out in a linear fashion, “I'm going to plant some information in Scene 12, and then pay it off in Scene 33.” This approach not only doesn't work, but it is not what this device is intended for.

Plants can be a marvelous tool for screenwriters, but they do not work this way. The writer should not create them in a forward-moving manner where the writer comes up with a planting device and then later in the story comes up with a way to pay it off. Real plant and payoff works by moving backwards.

Planting comes into play when the storyteller has managed to paint the character in a corner, putting him or her into a situation where the only way out would be for something to happen that would be arbitrary, implausible, or come right out of the blue. The only way the storyteller can solve this problem and create a solution that seems natural and organic is by going BACK in the script and setting up information (the “plant”) that will make the solution to the character's problem not only seem plausible, but logically inevitable.

This process is called back-planting. It is not a way to spice things up, it is not a way to make your storytelling seem intelligent or clever, it is instead the cinematic storytellers' #1 tool to working a way out of the impossible jams and dead-ends in their story. One good back-plant can save an entire stymied storyline and allow the storyteller to keep moving forward to the story's end.


In the process of creating the storyline for Die Hard, the script's writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza (working separately) no doubt ran into some difficult problems when it came time to make some of their ideas work. They had plenty of great ideas, scenes they wanted to happen, action stunts they wanted to see on screen, but the problem was to set up these ideas in a way that would make them believable. True, the writers wanted some amazing, unbelievable things to happen, but in order for them to work on screen, each unbelievable thing must make logical sense, the audience must be able to see that in the context of the story and all of what has happened up to this point, that this bizarre event makes perfect sense.

Usually when a writer gets “stuck” in their storyline, it happens because they have painted their character into a corner and the only way out is to have something implausible happen. Audiences cry 'bullshit' and turn on a movie when storytellers pull solutions out of thin air. There cannot be any deus ex machina, the character cannot be wearing his Batman utility belt with its 1001 devices for every possible situation, and help cannot magically arrive from nowhere. 

I have never met Stuart or de Souza, so I have no idea how smoothly Die Hard's writing process went. But in my imagination, here are two examples of story problems the writers might have struggled with:

(NOTE: For the sake of accuracy, I must acknowledge that the script for Die Hard was adapted from the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with the novel, so I cannot know how much of the story was adapted from the original source and how much was the invention of the screenwriters. However, for learning purposes, I am going to portray the writing process as if it were a completely original work.)

*The writer has just envisioned the thrilling sequence where John McClane escapes from the homicidal Karl by climbing down an elevator shaft and sliding into an air vent. He wants to continue the sequence. They want Karl to know McClane is in the vent and hunt him down, leaving our hero trapped like sardines in a can. There is only one problem: HOW DOES KARL KNOW THAT MCCLANE IS IN THE VENT?

* Late in the writing process, the writer thought it would be great to make John McClane's life suck even worse by having him run barefoot over broken glass. They perhaps became excited over the prospect of creating the scene where McClane has a serious, character-revealing talk with Sgt Powell to distract him from pulling the broken glass from his feet. But there's a problem: WHY THE HECK WOULD MCCLANE BE BAREFOOT?

The writer's can't move forward as long as these problems exist. The only solution is to go backwards.

Do you remember the movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, (1989)? Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter play two boneheaded high school seniors who get caught up in a ridiculous adventure in an attempt to pass history class and graduate. Bill & Ted don't have many brains to help them out of the problems they encounter, but they do have – a time machine. Whenever the two find themselves stuck in a dead-end situation: a door is locked and they have no key, a bad guy has them cornered with no way of escape, their solution is simple: they merely make the mental note to, once everything is all over, get into the time machine, travel back in time, and set up a way to get around the obstacle. They decide to go back into the past, steal the key, and hide it under a rock by the door. They decide to rig a bucket so it will fall on the head of the bad guy when he has them cornered. And viola! Suddenly, everything is solved. They look under the rock and the key is already there. The bucket falls on the bad guy just like they said it would. Bill & Ted get around the obstacle and continue toward their goal.

This is what back-planting is. It is the writer's time machine. It allows the writer to travel backwards in their story and set up information at an earlier time that will work to solve that later problem in a way that is not only logical, but makes perfect sense to the audience.

HOW DOES KARL KNOW THAT MCCLANE IS IN THE VENT? The writer decided to have McClane ignite a zippo lighter in order to see where he is going and have Karl sees the light flickering from the vent's hole in the elevator shaft. But how did McClane get the zippo in the first place? Did he pull it out of his Batman utility belt? To solve this problem, the writers went BACK in time, twelve minutes back in the story to the scene where McClane searches the first dead terrorist and finds the radio. Only this time, McClane finds the zippo as well. When the movie plays forward, the audience sees John take the zippo and stores that information away. When they see McClane later use the lighter to see in the vent, they remember where it came from, and now it makes sense why and how Karl figures out McClane's location.

WHY THE HECK WOULD MCCLANE BE BAREFOOT? It would make no sense to have McClane, in the midst of running for his life in a building full of terrorists take the time to stop and remove his shoes. The only thing that makes sense is that he has his shoes off BEFORE the terrorists invade, and he wasn't able to put them back on. So, the writers traveled backwards, all the way to the middle of the first act and had McClane take off his shoes and socks. But for what reason would he do this? Why would he go barefoot at a fancy corporate party? McClane is supposed to be a tough guy. I don't think he would bother to do that no matter how bad his feet might be hurting him. Again, the writers needed to plant a reason. Travel backwards in time again, to the very first scene in the movie. The writers planted a seemingly innocuous line, which at the time, the audience heard and quickly disregarded. Here, the traveler sitting next to McClane on the airplane sees how tense he is, and he comments that the best way to relieve the stress of air travel is to take off your shoes and socks and “make fists with your toes.”

Play the line of action forward and it all makes perfect sense. The traveler gives McClane some advice. McClane tries that advice just as the terrorists invade. Therefore, McClane is barefoot when he must escape over broken glass. As a result of that, McClane forces Sgt Powell to talk to him to distract him from the pain of digging the glass out of his feet, resulting in Powell revealing a big character secret. The writers traveled all the way back to Scene 1 to make Scene 154 work.


Hans and his team do not show up until minute 17 of the story. Until then, Die Hard's story is driven by the subplot, the conflict between John McClane and Holly. John and Holly's marriage has not been going well. John is upset that Holly is now going by her maiden name Gennaro. When Holly telephones home and learns that John still hasn't even bothered to call, she turns down her family photo of him in anger. To the audience, both of these behaviors make perfect sense. They are both the natural outcome of an endangered marriage. And as far as the audience knows, both of these things have no meaning beyond John & Holly's marriage. There is no need for them to. But it is not until Hans and his men invade that we learn their REAL story importance.

The big question is, how does a writer plant story information without it looking like a plant? How can you set up information without the audience realizing it is being set up and predict what will happen ahead of time? How does one hide the plant to keep it from being obvious?

In early drafts, the writers most likely encountered a problem that went something like this: Holly is one of Hans' hostages. Hans is willing to do anything to stop John. At a certain point in the story, Hans learns John's name and identity from Ellis. Once Hans knows John's last name is McClane, what is to stop him from instantly realizing that this Holly McClane is John's wife? What is to keep Holly safe? Hans couldn't just not notice. He's supposed to be too smart for that.

So the writer came up with a solution that works so well, one that is entirely plausible, because it has already been established in a pre-existing character conflict. Holly's use of her maiden name isn't just a cause for friction between her and John, it also turns out to coincidently be the one thing that helps keep Holly alive.

John and Holly's argument over the use of her maiden name in Act One, Holly turning over the family photograph of John, isn't just the execution of inter-character conflict, it isn't just a device to communicate character information, it is more importantly two perfect examples of a DOUBLE-PRONGED PLANT. “Double-pronged” because it is information that has dual significance in two different, unrelated areas: one here in the present, and a far more important one in the future.

A double-pronged plant works to invisibly set up a piece of information that will become very important later in the story (but not now) by masking it as something IMMEDIATELY relevant to the current conflict at hand. The audience does not see the plant, they never suspect that they are being “set up,” because they believe that the information's only use is the current one, the smaller conflict going on upon the screen at the moment. Then, later in the story, that piece of information- info that may have been lying dormant for quite some time- is revealed to have far more significance than the audience could have ever imagined. The audience is shocked and delighted as they are finally allowed to put two and two together- not so much by the plot twist itself, but because the information has been lying right under their noses the whole time.

After Hans the the terrorists invade Nakatomi Tower, the audience all but forgets John & Holly's arguments. That is until the Act Two scene where we find that Hans has taken residence in Holly's office. We see Holly's nervous glance to the overturned photo behind her desk. We hear Hans ask her name and her respond with Holly Gennaro. Suddenly, it all comes back to the audience. The plant is paid off, not only with a revelation, but with SUSPENSE. Suspense, because the payoff's revelation raises questions: Will Hans find out the truth? What will happen when he does? For every scene with Hans seated at that desk, that overturned photograph becomes a ticking timebomb waiting to blow everything apart. And it all started with a simple, logical action that happened only because it was true to Holly's character and the conflict at hand.


This has been the fifth and final article in my “Things I Learned from Die Hard” series. As of this date, I have spent something close to eight months watching DH, analyzing DH, and writing about DH. I have probably put more thought into this movie than anyone since the movie was originally made. And as said before, I have probably learned more through the process than I ever did in four years of film school. But the things I have learned are in no way exclusive to this movie, or solely to movies in its genre. The lessons learned from this tightly constructed, entertaining action flick can be applied to any story anywhere. It is just good craft.

Die Hard is a testament that brilliance in writing can be found even in the most mass-audience pleasing, explosion filled, genre movie you can find. Excellent writing and summer blockbusters do not have to be mutually exclusive. Die Hard became an icon of its genre because it worked. Its plot worked. Its characters worked. The way its scenes were constructed worked. The relationship it forged and maintained with its audience worked. All of Hollywood's ensuing attempts to imitate Die Hard failed because they tried to copy Die Hard's content, but not its form. It's form is universal. It can be applied to any story in any genre. Hollywood, in its attempt to print off its carbon copies, failed because it did not realize one simple fact; writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza, as well as director John McTiernan found success because they knew how to CREATIVELY COMMUNICATE their story's information in a way that served the audience's needs. When it came to the atoms of cinema, they were master chemists. They knew how to arrange their atoms to excite the audience, arouse their curiosity, fear, and desire, manipulate the audience's mind on a fantastic emotional journey. And that's all ANY movie needs to do.