Stybz Communications
Writings: Articles

What's My Line???
August 2000

When it comes to scripts, there's been much interest and debate as to how they're written and how much of the original idea ends up in the final product. Here is an attempt at making the process easier to understand.

If you are starting a script, one thing you should bear in mind is that each page is roughly the equivalent of one minute of footage. That principle is the same for TV or movies. So if you are writing a one-hour TV show, your first draft should be roughly 60 pages long.

But a TV show is usually around 45 minutes or less when you subtract the commercial time.

That's very true.

So why bother writing 60 pages when you know it won be that long?

Because it's always best to write more. Despite what people may think, whether you like it or not, the script will be edited or changed. There's no way around it. That's the nature of the business. That being the case, it's better to write more and have it cut out, than to write exactly the length of the episode and have to add stuff later.

But if it fits the time frame, what's there to add?

Nothing is ever set in stone. There are many reasons why things might change. The producer might want it tweaked, the director might want it tweaked, the location changes, the characters change, a better idea comes along for a scene… anything can change. If you submit a 45 minute script and scenes are cut, if no one gives you a rough idea what to replace those scenes with, you're going to have to wrack your brain to fill the rest of the time.

Most episodes get filmed with much more footage than what appears in the final cut anyway. That's why there's occasionally a special featurette of deleted scenes. These are scenes intended for the film, but cut out for many reasons, sometimes they're merely replaced with different scenes. So it's best to have more and be able to have the freedom to utilize and remove scenes. Consider it more to work with.

Why rewrite a script if the producer likes it to begin with?

He may love the concept and the premise. He may love the whole package, but as stated above other factors can cause the change. It's all about what works and what won't. Budget can affect change also. If a scene is deemed too expensive to film, the script has to be revised to incorporate a scene that's more reasonable for the budget of the production.

How does someone submit a script?

The most important thing is to have an agent. This day and age, many producers will not look at scripts that are submitted without representation. This is because of the rise in plagiarism lawsuits. Having an agent is easier on both the writer and the producer. Having a lawyer involved helps as well. It also doesn't hurt to submit your script to the copyright office to ensure that its copyright protected.

The script that's submitted to a current TV series is called a “spec script”. This is considered a sample script. It can be of that show or another one. The spec script is designed to be a sample of your work to demonstrate what the writer can do. Then, if the producer likes their work, he/she will contact you (through their agent) and asks them to write an episode for their show. In many cases the writer will receive a plot idea, and write the script for it.

Once the requested script is submitted, that might be the last time the writer sees it until the episode airs. They'll get paid and top credit, but they won't have anything more to do with it. Why? Well, the script has now been bought by the producer. The show owns it now and they have the right to do what they want with it. And that includes the rewrites. Some shows have an in-house staff that will do the revisions. For example, Producer Michael Sloan told me he considered himself the writer of all the episodes of the TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Why? Because he not only had the final say as to who wrote what, but he, or his own staff, did all the rewrites. So the writer composed the idea from Michael's head, and then Michael who tweaked it for the final filming.

Sounds sad, but this is the nature of TV production. The final product does contain elements from the original writer's work, and since their name is in the credits, it can still help them get ahead in the industry. But, yes, once that script is sold, the ownership belongs to the producer to do what he wishes.

Sometimes the original writers may be asked to do the rewrites of their own scripts, but again they are following the wishes of the producer.

The same holds true for feature films, the production company will buy the script from the screenwriter, but it's up to them whether to use that writer for the rewrites.

Just keep in mind that many producers have started out as writers once too, so this is something a writer can aspire to one day. Then they too can employ other writers...and the process continues.

How much is changed from the original script, and why?

That depends on the producer and the production. If you're lucky very little may change, but some scenes may be cut.

How many rewrites are there, and how do you tell them apart?

There's no standard number. Revised scripts are usually identified by colors. Each new revision has to be reviewed carefully, so they need to standout. Usually the cast and crew are notified as to what the new revision color is, plus they note the revision number and date on the front page, and on the top of each revised page.

The first draft (or original version) of a script is always white. The first revision, for example, may be blue. All those changed pages will be that one color. After that, each new rewrite will be a new color. So the next revision may be red. The next green, etc.... While I don't know the key off-hand (some productions may be different from others), they can go as far as colors like salmon, greenish yellow or some other combination. Not everything is revised, so everyone has to look for the asterisks (*) in the margins to see where changes have been made. Sometimes only those pages are sent around, so as to make it easier for people to identify the revisions. So by the time they're done with the filming, they'll have a rainbow script, filled with pages of various different colors.

If a last minute change is made, the actors have to be clued in. Sometimes it could be frustrating learning new lines, etc. It eats away at what little time they have to film.

How much of a script is used and how much is added by the actors and the director?

The major contribution from an actor is the ability to take what's on the written page and bring it to life.

One thing I've noticed in scripts is that some emotional aspects of the character may be open to interpretation. You can have ten actors read the same line in ten different ways, but it's up to the director to decide what they're looking for. So in that aspect an actor contributes a lot.

Actors tend to put themselves into the roles they play. That doesn't mean that what we see on the screen is the actor and not the character. It's the actor's interpretation of the character. Another actor in the same role might respond differently in a given situation. It may not be a radically different portrayal, because the final decision is the director's, but it still could be different. If someone other than Elijah Wood portrayed Frodo in Lord of the Rings, he'd be different. Again, not extremely, but it would be noticeable. If Director Peter Jackson ever released the audition tapes for Frodo, it would provide an interesting look at all the different approaches to the character. In a sense, that actor owns that character to the point where the audience can't picture anyone else in the role, and yet still keep to the dialog and direction. This is their input to the role.

Outside of bringing the role to life, actors don't usually contribute much to the script itself unless they've written it. Sometimes if a show is on long enough they may try to give some story ideas to the producers, but whether they're used is based on how receptive a producer will be to the suggestion. Sometimes it's best for an actor not to think that they have that kind of power to influence the producer, though it doesn't hurt to try fielding an idea.

Michael Sloan did use an idea from the cast of his series. At a convention in Toronto in 1995 the cast of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues was asked for their episode ideas. Someone on the panel said that they'd like to see an episode where all the police officers in the precinct were crazy, while the usually odd Caine was the normal one. Michael Sloan acted as if he was writing the ideas down. Everyone laughed, but two years later an episode called ‘Dragon's Lair' had that similar premise. So anything is possible.

Other ways actors may try to contribute is when some may be lucky enough to request to change a scene, because they feel the integrity of the character may be questioned. Sometimes the director might listen. Sometimes he might not.

As for a director, he has more influence, because he brings the visuals to life. The script may dictate how a scene should look, but each director has a different vision as to what the writer is looking for. The producer hires the director who closely matches his vision of the script, then works with them to bring that vision to life.

So what carries more weight: The script, the acting or the directing?

I'll have to say it's the script. That's the foundation, the basis of the story. It's the ability of the director and the actors to make the script something wonderful, but they're still bound by the dialog and direction of the script. There's just too many other things to take into account, like props, sets and locations. All are based on what the script calls for. And since scenes are timed in order to fit the length of the show, there's very little to stretch the lines given. You can reword a line here and there, but go too far than the scene can be reshot.

I often marvel at George Clooney's ascension to where he is today. He was in some good and some not so good TV series in the 1980's. People noticed him, but his name was only memorable due to being related to Rosemary Clooney and for his short term role on Facts of Life.

Then ER came along and he became a star. What happened? Did he suddenly become a better actor? Maybe he got better looking as he aged? Perhaps. But I think it was the writing. I think people sat up and took notice of his acting skills, because finally he had some good material to work with.

Also, actors have to “play off one another,” so ad lib too much and you might stray from the point and confuse your co-star who is feverishly fishing to find something to steer you back on subject. Keeping to the script maintains the flow of the dialog, the acting, and theme.

Are scenes added by the director that may not be in the script?

Sometimes. It depends on how much leverage the Director has with the producers. If they give him the freedom all directors dream of, they can make changes as they wish. Sometimes the script revisions are from the Director. However, if they don't have that kind of freedom, they can run their idea by the producer and get an agreement from them. Sometimes a Director might make the change anyway and hope that by the sheer lack of time to reshoot will force the producer's hand. , It's all a matter of money, timing and cunning.

There's also the issue of resources. A lot of people and factors are involved. For example, when a script is ready for filming, it's given to a Script Supervisor usually a week or two before production begins (revisions during filming might be given to them the night before to ensure the right props are on set the next day). They take it and mark down all the props needed for every scene. Just like the ring Frodo wore in Lord of the Rings. That was a prop that the script supervisor kept track of in every scene Frodo was in. Unfortunately, because scenes are filmed out of order, the script supervisor has to keep track of when an actor has a prop and when they don't. In Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo's first scenes before he is given the ring might not have been filmed first. They could have been broken up and filmed around scenes when he did have the ring, which means someone had to keep track. So when a scene is added at the last minute, things like that reduces the risk of one of the actors missing a cue or losing their direction with the character.

So how hard is it to write a script?

It depends on who you are. Not all script styles are alike. Some scripts can go into a lot of detail for a scene, and some do not. The best way to find out if you can write is to get a book or attend a course on the subject, preferably one that will not only show you how to write the script in the proper format, but also tell you the best way to market it.

There's also screenwriting programs available on CD which will put your work in the proper format for you.

A lot of times I hear people wonder if a line was scripted or ad tithed. How do I find out?

Find a script of that episode, if you can. Though, I must warn you that even if the version of the script you have doesn't have the line, it might still have been written in a later script. It's hard to know whether you have the final version or not, because all scripts say, “Final revision” on them no matter how many rewrites follow it.

If you're lucky enough to encounter the actor from that scene, you can ask them, but depending on the project and how long ago it was, he or she might not recall exactly. However, it doesn't hurt to ask. It might conjur another story that they do remember ad libbing.

Hopefully I've answered the main questions people have about scripts. I basically compiled what questions I remembered from various sources and tried to answer them here. If you have any additional script questions, feel free to let me know and I'll address them in a fixture article.

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