Important Elements Of Screenplay Format For The Actor

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A screenplay is an ever-evolving written form that changes many times in its life. The first form that could possibly come into the actor's hands is a spec script. A spec script is what writers use as a selling tool to agents, producers, star actors, directors, etc., anyone who will possibly be influential in buying the script and making the movie. Directors who write their own material also do spec scripts because they are easier to read and include much descriptive information that will be excluded from the production or shooting script.

A spec script is more about the story and the actors; a shooting script is more about the visuals and the camera. The shooting script will have scene numbers, camera angles and what we see; it will have less description of the characters. A shooting script usually has less dialogue as well; there is no need to repeat in words what has already been made clear in pictures. Once a director has started to visualize the story, his vision will be incorporated into the wording of all the elements of the script. The script gives you the characters, dialogue, plot, and structure, and the director decides how to put them on the screen. So let's take a look at the elements of the screenplay format and what they mean to the actor.

SCENE SLUGS

A scene slug is one line in caps that describes the location of the scene. It has three essential elements:

1. The location type—this tells us whether we are inside or outside. INT. for an interior, EXT. for an exterior location. Interior is inside of something—a room, a car, a ship, a hallway. An exterior is in the open air— on a street, in a meadow, on a rooftop, the back of a pickup truck. Special a effects make it possible to have exterior locations in a studio, but that & probably will not be noted in the screenplay; that information will come to ™ you through the production staff.

< 2. The location description—a brief description of the place. For example:

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT

The scene that follows this slug will take place in either a real apartment or in a set built in a studio (or a studio-type setting, like a warehouse) that will look like the inside of an apartment. In either case, you will be inside.

INT. JOE'S BAR

The same is true for this slug, except the location will be a bar, either a real one or a studio set. The nice thing about shooting in a studio set is that it is constructed for the needs of filmmaking—the ceilings are high, with plenty of space for hanging lights, and the walls move for the various needs of the camera. Shoots always go faster in a studio setting than in a real place. Real places constrict the movements of the crew and equipment, which causes everything to move much more slowly.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE

The scene following this slug will be outside on a street, either the real Times Square in New York City or some other street that is going to double for Times Square. You will be outside on the street in either case.

EXT. BEACH

This is very simply outdoors on a beach. Shooting in a barren location like a beach can be very challenging, because you are at the mercy of the weather, and as we all know, that can be very unpredictable.

The description always goes from the general to the specific.

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN ,s|

This location will be inside the apartment, and the scene will take £ place in the kitchen. In filmmaking, it is quite possible to have the living room of Alina's apartment in a rented real apartment in ^ New Jersey and the kitchen built in a studio in Los Angeles. It's also possible that the kitchen is the only room that exists in this apartment because it is the only room that appears in the screen-play.

3. The time of day—this is limited to DAY or NIGHT. If the actual time of day is absolutely necessary to the plot it will be included. Mostly it is left out.

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY

Here we are in Alina's apartment, in the kitchen, and it's daytime. However, since we are inside it could actually be any time of day, because the light will be artificially created anyway. If it is an exterior location (EXT.), then it would have to be the time of day that the slug suggests. This is particularly important to note if there are a lot of exterior night scenes in the script. Exterior night shoots, especially in the colder months, can be brutal.

If the date is important, it will be included in parentheses.

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY (1950)

This scene will take place in the year 1950, and every effort that the budget permits will be made to create the look of that era. That includes dressing the actors in the clothes, makeup, and hairstyles of that era. This could mean quite a lot to actors, depending on the fashions of the day. Some fashions could require a long preparation and greatly affect your mannerisms and movement. It's always a good idea to do some research into the current events and fashions of the time that is depicted in the script, because this knowledge can greatly inform your portrayal of the character.

If the scene is a flashback, dream sequence, or projection to the future, ™ it will also be included in parentheses.

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY (1950) (FLASHBACK)

This scene slug tells you that most of the narrative takes place in the present day, but this particular scene is a flashback to the year 1950. It might be a character's memory or a storytelling device to inform the audience of something that occurred in the past that affects the present-day plot. If Alina's kitchen appears in the present-day portion of the script as well as in a flashback sequence, the art department will have to re-dress the present-day set for 1950. What this means to the actor is that all the present-day scenes will be shot in succession, you will shoot somewhere else while the set is being dressed, and then all the flashback scenes at this location will be shot in succession. This will occur regardless of the order in which these scenes appear in the script.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - NIGHT (1944) (DREAM SEQUENCE)

Well, a dream sequence is anybody's guess because it is so subjective. Be prepared for anything. How this will appear as a dream can only be conveyed by discussions with the director or assistant director. It is possible that the camera and special effects make it look like a dream, or it could be conveyed by the actor's interpretation of the scene. In either case, the sky's the limit.

When the sequence is over it is also noted in the slug. Sometimes the next scene is not in the same location in the script, but it still will be noted that the scene is occurring in the present, whatever the present of that particular film is.

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY (BACK TO PRESENT) or

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - NIGHT (PRESENT DAY) -

to to

The slug line places the scene in time and space. If you can read the slug lines correctly and understand how much information is in them for you, you can start ^

a building your character by constructing the world that she lives in; the world that she frequents in the film.

If you are a day player, in one scene, in one location, then time and place aren't so much of a problem. But if you are a lead or supporting character, who appears many different times throughout the movie, it is absolutely necessary to pay close attention to your scene slugs. Actors who know how to carry a movie have paid close attention to the information given to them in the slugs of a screenplay and they are prepared for each and every one of them.

When you are reading a screenplay it should flow from one location and time period to another. There should never be any confusion about where and when a scene is taking place and who the characters in it are. Each new location is given a slug line. If you are moving from room to room in the same apartment, each room has a new slug line.

DESCRIPTION: COPY BLOCKS

Active descriptive copy, written in the present tense, describing what is taking place always follows a slug line; it never stands alone. A slug line tells you where and when; the description tells you what you see and what you hear. Those are the two senses that dominate in films because those sensorial experiences can be directly communicated to an audience—sight and sound.

Copy blocks do not include subtext; that is the job of the actor and director. Subtext is conveyed through the visual impact of the pictures that make up the movie and the performers' inner life. Example:

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY

Alina cooks at the stove. She listens to a Lithuanian program on an AM radio station.

If you are playing Alina, you will be standing in your kitchen cooking, or pretending to cook, depending on the shot. More than likely there will be

^ no radio program playing; the sound track will be laid down in

* postproduction. What this moment reveals about your character is a point cl of discussion with your director. If the director has no opinion on it, which x is often the case, or asks you what your opinion is, then you should use the u scene to reveal something about the character. The actor is often free to make sensorial choices that will enlighten an aspect of the character whom she is playing. For instance, in this case you are listening to something; it is your choice completely what you are listening to and how or if it affects you. Whatever you choose to create is part of your imaginary reality as an actor and should move the character forward in the life of the script.

Moving pictures are very powerful images that shouldn't be wasted; always make a choice for every moment that your character appears. Make a choice about revealing a private moment in a person's (your character's) life. Making a choice in this case doesn't mean making an ironclad decision. It just means that you have thought about it in your preparation, at least enough to have an opinion and something that you could bring to the moment.

Many sounds that are heard in a description are written in caps.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - NIGHT

Joe walks down the street. He stops to look at the movie marquee. He takes out his cigarettes and smokes.

He hears a GUNSHOT.

If we assume that character is shown through action, we will have to develop our characters from the descriptions that follow the slugs. These descriptions clue you in to which imaginary realities you will have to create while performing what actions. In the above example of Times Square, the actor will have to create place, even though the scene will be shot on location. If the director wants to do close-ups on you, and every actor hopes that will be the case, you will need to create something that you're looking at when the camera's lens is in your line of vision. It is very risky to rely on a location to give you reality, you should always be prepared with imaginary objects that are like the actual place that you are in, but with which you have a personal, parallel relationship.

Let's say you happen to have a personal relationship with Times Square; then you must make your imaginary work very specific. Choose a place in time and a particular event, and work on it during your preparation. Select keys from this exercise that you can carry with you onto a set £ and re-create if needed. Remember, the key must be a sensorial element. It must be light and easy to control, and it must occur in the senses in order ^

to transfer successfully to the character; it cannot be just a thought. To think about something, that is to say, to have a mental image to create a sense of §

Qi reality while acting, only serves to place you in your head, make you tense, and cut you off from your surroundings. This disconnects the actor from the character and the story. Depending on the nature of the thoughts, it can also become extremely self-indulgent. The thought that registers best on the screen is the thought process that is the natural reaction to sensorial response, not an intellectual process of reminiscence.

The actor playing Joe will also have to create the sound of the gunshot and his reaction to it. The description tells you that the audience sees Joe as he hears the gunshot. That means the audience experiences the meaning of the gunshot as it is relative to Joe and his predicament. That can require a lot of preparation work on the part of the actor, depending on the particulars of the script and what the director has explained.

Most people, I would presume, have never heard a gun go off on a busy city street, so the actor must give consideration to the "what if's" of the situation and find a response grounded in his own life that is like the one in the film. "What if's" are a series of questions that you ask yourself that begin with the words "what if." It is similar to the questions that one asks oneself while assessing the exercises of the previous chapters, only now you place yourself in the center of a dramatic moment and pose the question as if the event were happening to you. The answers come from the knowledge that you have garnered from frequent self-observation and intuitive knowledge of self. The questions you pose to yourself are formulated from the given circumstances of the script:

What if I knew someone was trying to kill me and I heard a gunshot while I was walking down the street? How would I react?

What if I heard a gunshot and it shocked me so that I couldn't move out of harm's way? How would I react?

What if I got shot and was killed or badly injured? How would I react? Where did the bullet enter? What are the clinical realities of such a wound?

What if I was erroneously accused of a crime? How would I react?

And so forth.

o£ You always start with how you would react to a given circumstance, then ™ move to the character's needs. Starting with yourself puts you in the human arena. If you feel that your character reacts differently than you would, i you must identify the cause on an experiential plane and implement that difference in the form of sensual reality. If you don't do this the character's reactions remain ideas, and they will render themselves thin and false on the screen. Again, it takes a highly developed sense of observation and a keen sense of focus and concentration to accomplish this successfully.

A problem that occurs with young actors today is that they have seen a lot of movies in their lives, and they observe those movies to see how to act and react to given circumstances. This creates a watered-down, shallow version of human behavior. It becomes a parody, an impersonation of life, rather than an honest observation of oneself and the surrounding world. When acting for the camera you must be yourself even in imaginary circumstances. Since any given scene may have a various number of takes, it is possible to offer multiple interpretations of a reaction from which the director can choose when editing. The beauty of filmmaking is the freedom of the choice. If the budget and your relationship with the director permits, you can always ask to try something for an alternate editing choice if you feel the need to do so. Most directors are happy to oblige if there is time.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

When a character is mentioned for the first time in a screenplay, the name appears in caps and is followed by a brief description. If the character of Alina was being introduced for the first time, it might read something like this:

INT. ALINA'S APARTMENT - KITCHEN - DAY

ALINA, a sturdy grandmother with a weathered face, cooks at the stove. She listens to a Lithuanian program on an

AM radio station.

Every time the character's name appears after the introduction, it appears in normal upper and lower case spelling: Alina.

Characters that supply only a function are called by that function, even if they have lines and are important to the plot, for example: WAITRESS, POLICEMAN, DRUNK, etc. If there is more than one drunk in the script, they will be DRUNK #1, DRUNK #2, DRUNK #3, ^ and so on. Example: C

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - NIGHT

Joe walks down the street. He stops to look at the movie marquee. He takes out his cigarettes and smokes. He hears a GUNSHOT.

Two POLICEMEN run toward the movie theater with their guns drawn.

POLICEMAN #1

Everybody clear this entranceway! NOW!

POLICEMAN #2

Roles like Policeman #1 and Policeman #2 can be a lot of fun to play because you, the actor, are often given free reign to create an entire character from whatever small morsels the script has handed to you. Usually the interpretation that you make at the audition is the interpretation that they want you to do on the set. If you were hired for the part, they want you and whatever it is that you did at your audition to show up when the camera is rolling. You will be expected to offer a strong, complete character without any discussion about it. Actors are expected to make strong character choices on their own, and often, directors will only speak to you if you are doing something that displeases them. It is quite possible to work on a movie and never meet the director, except for a brief introduction. You get all your information from an assistant director or from a production assistant, who gives you blocking and logistical notes.

DIALOGUE

A character's dialogue is marked by a centered character slug (the name of the character written in caps) with the dialogue that is to be spoken by that character directly beneath it.

Hey, Aggie, gimme a cuppa coffee and a toasted bialy to go.

AGGIE

Cream 'n'sugar, butter on the bialy?

in a

Dialogue is almost exclusively in the context of a scene, taking place in an active state and spoken to other cast members. It is rarely spoken directly to the camera and the audience. The illusion of a parallel-enclosed reality on the screen is strictly enforced. When a direction or action is needed, it is included in a parenthetical directly underneath the character slug or interspersed between the dialogue.

(yells above the

Hey, Aggie, gimme a cuppa coffee to go.

AGGIE

Cream 'n' sugar, butter on the bialy?

(sees something out the window)

Here we know that Joe is speaking in a loud voice and that he sees something outside, through the window of the coffee shop, that catches his attention. Again the particulars of the script will tell you what the nature of this reaction will be, but, as in the case of the gunshot, Joe has to be prepared to create an isolated reaction shot separately for the camera.

The ellipsis marks (a series of three dots) means there is a nonverbal action that takes place in that spot; it does not mean that you should ad lib the rest of the line. In the above example, you have been told exactly what is happening. Many times a direction is omitted, in which case the action is often of an emotional nature.

ALINA

I'm so sorry...I didn't mean to...hurt your feelings

The ellipsis marks in the above example signify a pause in speaking, C

in which something nonverbal is happening. It isn't necessarily indecision ^

or hesitation; the choice is open to an actor's interpretation. Directors don't -g care for parenthetical directions in scripts much, they prefer to give direc- ^ tion on the set based on what is happening in the moment, but if they are left in, then it means that the direction should be taken.

din)

and a toasted bialy

ALINA

(bursts into tears) I'm so sorry...I didn't mean to...hurt your feelings.

The parenthetical in this case must be executed in a fashion that will read as real emotion for the camera. If the director wants a certain type of tear flowing down the cheek for a certain look and you are not able to produce it satisfactorily, there are always synthetic tears. However, it is assumed that behind the synthetic tears, the actress playing Alina can produce the underpinnings of true emotion that will be humanly appropriate for this particular dramatic moment. The actress is expected to be able to manufacture the necessary emotion on cue, without help from the director. Many actors pride themselves in never having to use synthetic tears. I personally think that a combination of the real ones and the fake ones makes for the best results in many instances.

People erroneously think that a great director pulls the performances out of actors and shows them the way to all this emotion. A great director chooses the right actors for the job; actors who know their own emotional landscape and are ready, willing, and able to create whatever is necessary for the picture. The director supplies the space, a few words of encouragement, and the guidance of showing you his vision of the project. Actors know what they have to do to produce that vision on their own.

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