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.

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