Skip to main content

THE CRAFT: The Business of Cutting Scenes - Education By Omission

Cutting scenes can be brutal for a screenwriter, but even more so when a studio orders it. John Buchanan explores why Hollywood cuts character-driven scenes.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Making a movie that audiences will respond to is a complicated endeavor. Almost always, as a result, scenes that played well on the page will end up on the cutting-room floor. Often, that helps the film, but sometimes it hurts.

Like it or not, scenes that you think are essential to the success of your brilliant cinematic tale will be shot and then deleted from the finished film that results from your script. It’s a fact of life for screenwriters. Yet there are lessons to be learned from both the negative and positive manifestations of the reality. And, perhaps most important, is its inevitability.

“I have yet to work on a movie where we didn’t cut at least one scene in post-production,” says Simon Kinberg (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, X-Men: The Last Stand, Sherlock Holmes). “But, in general, I’ve found that such deletions are good for the finished film. Once you see the film put together, you realize that the scene was redundant or that it hurt the flow of the movie. There are a lot of good reasons for cutting a scene, other than just running time.”

THE CRAFT: The Business of Cutting Scenes - Education By Omission | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break

Gregory Poirier (Rosewood, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Spy Next Door) agrees. “It’s inevitable that cutting is going to happen,” he says. “I’ve also directed a film (Tomcats). So then it was up to me to delete scenes I had written.”

From his experiences, Poirier—and most of his professional peers—have learned a simple practical lesson. “It has helped me when I’m writing to look at a scene in a critical way and decide whether or not that scene is absolutely imperative for the script,” Poirier says. “A lot of times, I will take scenes out of the script before anybody even sees it because I’ll realize those scenes are never going to make it to the screen.”

The issue reaches beyond creativity and craft. In one sense, it goes directly to the heart of the business of movies. “It seems in Hollywood that there is a real studio incentive to have films be as short as possible,” says Peter Iliff (Point Break, Patriot Games, Under Suspicion), who has watched as significant scenes were shot and then deleted from all three of his best-known films. “The studios clearly want to have as many showings a night as possible in the theater. And with all the prerelease test screenings, they seem to find that the shorter the film, the higher the scores. So, that is what we face as writers.”

Unfortunately, Iliff says, it’s always character-related scenes and not action scenes that are cut. “Then, when the film comes out, the reviews say the characters are shallow and undeveloped,” he says. But, he adds, “This is a business. So, you need to adjust your creativity to the ‘format’ the business has success with.”

Missing in Action

As one example of a good character scene that added complexity and suspense to a film, but got deleted nevertheless, Iliff cites an encounter between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break. In the scene, in a truck on the way to the airport for the skydiving incident, they play a classic cat-and-mouse mind game that builds tension. “It was a delicious character scene about two men caught between being close friends and realizing the betrayal of that friendship,” Iliff says. “It was their way of processing the betrayal that was going on.”

 Nicolas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Nicolas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets

But despite that, it got cut—and Iliff concedes that the finished film did not suffer.

Of more consequence, he says, were scenes he intended for Patriot Games that did not make it to the screen. One, which he calls the “Old Bailey Courthouse sequence,” provided important action and built tension as Harrison Ford, as Jack Ryan, testified in the courthouse against Sean Bean.

“In the movie, you see Jack Ryan testifying in court against Sean Bean,” Iliff says. “But because it was called Patriot Games, the bad guys were plotting an assassination in that courthouse.

And so as you saw this courthouse scene of Jack Ryan testifying, you were cutting back and forth to the bad guys getting in place for an assassination—which you clearly assume will be the assassination of Jack Ryan. So, every time you cut back to the courtroom, you’re filled with tension because the bad guys are getting in place and it’s all happening right now. Then, as Jack Ryan is finally walking out of the courtroom and the bad guys converge, the twist is they don’t kill Jack Ryan. They kill the judge. It was a fabulous sequence that added a much-needed action scene at about the 30-minute mark.”

However, because the studio had disliked the first two weeks of footage shot for the film and ordered a re-shoot, the additional Old Bailey scenes were cut for budget and scheduling reasons.

Iliff thinks their inclusion would have improved the film. “It gets a little slow around that point in the story,” he says. “That sequence would have helped. But, it was cut as a business decision, not a story decision.”

The original ending, as shot, was also dumped as a result of test screenings. “The original ending showed Harrison and Sean fighting underwater in this sort of vague, murky scene,” Iliff says. “Then one body rises while the other body drops to the bottom of the sea. Then you see Jack Ryan pop to the surface. But test audiences didn’t like that ending. So we redid it on the out-of-control speedboat where Ryan impales his adversary on an anchor. It was a more gnarly, bloodthirsty ending. But it was clear from the test screenings that audiences preferred to see the villain pulverized.”

Iliff learned a similar but slightly different lesson on Under Suspicion. At the climax of the film, Gene Hackman, a lawyer, confesses to homicide investigator Morgan Freeman about a murder he did not commit. However, the ending of the film never explains why a lawyer—or anyone else—would falsely confess to a crime. “The director, Stephen Hopkins, wanted a more ‘European’ ending,” Iliff says. “So, it was left vague. In my opinion, that decision damaged the film because American audiences do not like vague endings. There should have been a clear resolution to the story, and the audience should have understood that Hackman confessed as a way of punishing himself because of the fact his marriage was bad and his wife didn’t love him. That’s why audiences were confused. They liked the movie until the end. Then they didn’t understand what happened.”

Film School” Lessons

As a newly working screenwriter, Kinberg learned an important lesson on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, his second produced film, from a spec script that had been his film-school thesis at Columbia.

“In my original draft and in the shooting script, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have bosses who played more integral roles in the film and essentially became like the ‘supervillains’ of the third act,” he says. “Brad’s boss was played by Angela Bassett, and Angelina’s was played by Keith David. And there are these ‘check in’ moments with them in the second act, then in the third act they become much more integral and active in sending their armies after Brad and Angelina. There was even a scene shot in which the bosses actually showed up in the IKEA shootout at the end.”

Cutting scenes can be brutal for a screenwriter, but even more so when a studio orders it. John Buchanan explores why Hollywood cuts character-driven scenes. #scriptchat #screenwriting

However, Kinberg came to understand that as the film was being edited, the inclusion of those scenes changed the essential focus of the story. “Instead of being a metaphor about a broken marriage that was being healed, it was a movie that had these genre conventions like ‘big bad guys’ whose hands were in the small of your heroes’ backs, pushing them to fight each other. Then the bosses show up in the third act and all hell breaks loose.”

As the film was being completed, Kinberg, director Doug Liman, and producer Akiva Goldsman realized that the “boss” scenes muddied the film’s theme and overall focus. As a result, Liman cut them all from the finished film.

“Those deletions benefited the film greatly,” Kinberg says. “And that film served as my second film school. I learned a valuable lesson. What I learned is that you must stay focused on theme and character.”

The very process of making a movie, says Poirier, involves learning important practical lessons that can’t be learned any other way. “No amount of education equals having things shot and put up on the screen,” he says. “That’s when you really start to learn about what works and doesn’t. You learn when you actually start to see stuff translated from your script onto the screen. You can read all the books in the world, and you’re not going to learn those lessons until you have those experiences because there is a big difference between the page and the screen.”

And a major element of the most fundamental lesson is that as a writer, you surrender your work to a collaborative process. “It is your script until the day a director is hired,” Poirier says. “And then it’s his. At that point, your job is to be of service to that director. That’s what this business is all about.” And at times, he says, such service requires a good argument for why a scene should not be deleted.

Lines of Defense

In order to be able to fight for scenes that are candidates for the cutting room floor, Iliff says, writers must adhere to a simple, strict rule. “If you want to protect a scene you really want, make sure there is something in the scene that turns the story,” he says. “Make sure that it’s written so that if that scene were cut, the story would not make sense.”

And the best way to accomplish that goal, he says, is by creating a precise outline before ever writing a word of the script. “I spend at least half of the time I work on a script doing the outline,” he says. “And most professional screenwriters work the same way. If you’re a professional, you have to carefully plan every scene in the film. You can’t just write a scene because it’s fun to write. And once you’re working on the actual script, it becomes much harder to cut scenes because now they’re meaningful to you. That’s why it’s important to do the hard work in the outline— and make sure every single scene belongs in the story, that the movie can’t be made without them. There has to be something in every scene that drives the story because there is this pressure for shorter films. So in the editing room, the editor and director are going to cut out everything that can be cut. And it’s a lot easier to cut in the editing room than it is on the page.”

Looking for an out-of-the-box screenwriting contest? Try Industry Insider Contest Today!

Working from this A-list logline, you’re challenged to create up to the first 15 pages of an original script based on the given concept. Make it your own - drama, action, comedy... anywhere your imagination takes you.