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From The Lens: Editing A Screenplay

As a kid, I sometimes thought: Isn’t it unrealistic that the characters in nearly every film never take a break to go to the bathroom? Maybe they aren’t drinking enough water? For that matter, I never see them drinking water either! Later I realized that would be far too much information for the audience.

Editing Screenplays

In any form of storytelling, a character’s life must be edited in one way or another. In filmmaking, the editing is often attributed to a person tediously staring at computer monitors in a dark post-production suite after the film has been shot. However, what about the editing that takes place prior to production?

Before production, a screenwriter has the power to edit their film in a number of ways. Using the power of juxtaposition, re-arranging the order of scenes, and cutting the fat can be very effective ways to strengthen a screenplay, and these decisions ultimately have an effect on cinematography.

Juxtaposition is a great tool which can be used in any sequential art form, including filmmaking. A screenwriter can make subtle suggestions to their audience based on juxtaposing specific visuals or actions. Not only is this technique useful in piecing one scene together, but juxtaposing two scenes can also say something meaningful to viewers.

Many times juxtaposition through “crosscut and parallel action” is considered an editor’s technique. A powerful crosscut parallel action sequence takes place in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather when violent images are juxtaposed with the baptism of a baby. Scenes can also be juxtaposed without crosscutting or without parallels. For instance a very fun moment, cut directly into a boring moment can accentuate that boredom through contrast.

The word juxtaposition is almost always discussed in any editing class you’d take at film school. I find it to be useful in cinematography, in props placement, in wardrobe… just about every creative role on set uses juxtaposition to some degree. Surely there are many writers who use the suggestive powers of juxtaposition in their screenplays too.

Cutting unnecessary parts of a story is all about efficiency, and it can really help the production team later on. I think it’s fair to say that weak or unnecessary scenes are best left on the screenwriter’s floor, not only the editing room floor. Albeit sometimes these things are hard to detect until you’re in production and you have that “ah-ha!” moment. A director may choose a more spontaneous or improvisational approach, and that's fine too. Still, if you have doubts about a scene while writing, and you can’t seem to make it work, then you should at least consider cutting it out.

With today’s financial limitations, and on any low-budget indie project, it’s especially important to think through the details of a film, and come up with a thorough plan before production. These precautions will always save precious time and money.

I think removing weaker scenes is beneficial because this allows the production team more time to focus on everything else, plus it cuts costs associated with every page of the screenplay.

In regards to my field of cinematography, cutting scenes in post-production can really mess with the continuity that a DP works hard to establish within the film. This brings me to my next point…

The continuity of a film is vital to hold suspension of disbelief. What comes before and after each scene is a factor that a DP always needs to take into consideration when breaking down a script.

Continuity of time needs to make sense throughout a film. Most often, time in a film is moving in a linear pattern to mimic real life. The risk of cutting or moving scenes after you’ve shot, or while you’re shooting, is that you could break or distort that linear timeline of day-to-night, or Winter-to-Summer.

These two scenes in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, display examples of contrasting looks within a film

These two scenes in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, display examples of contrasting looks within a film

Depending on the visual style that I’ve developed with the Director, I’ll determine what quality of light signifies morning sunlight, as opposed to the look of an afternoon. Similarly, to portray the gradual change of seasons within a film, I could use any number of lighting effects, lens filters, or perhaps even shot design. There are so many visual cues that can signify the passage of time, and they all need to stay consistent to be believed.

Not only are there often visual progressions of time, but also a DP will devise a visual interpretation of a character’s arc. There are many times where I’ve shifted the look of a film as a character changes.

If scenes are re-arranged or deleted in post-production, the visuals associated with these character arcs might become more fragmented than they were intended to be. Surely these are problems which can be fixed, but things like this should be avoided when possible. I’d say one of the best ways to avoid these issues is to make edits in the script while they’re still more feasible.

Carefully considering the order of scenes in a screenplay can sometimes benefit the story in unexpected ways. Not that every film should follow the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but this could apply in more subtle ways. What the writer originally came up with could be too predictable, or in some cases maybe there’s more payoff to a major plot point when two scenes are switched? Switching a couple scenes or events in the story could help to catch the audience off guard, which is always a rewarding experience.

When I discuss shortlists with the Director, we establish a plan for transitions between each scene and integrate them into the shots we get, rather than tack them on later in post-production. A major part of shot design is determining how the shots will look when edited together. A Director and DP are tasked with thinking heavily about how each shot will cut together, as well as how each scene will flow into the next.

Changing things around later can result in unplanned conflicts between scenes.

When cutting between shots that are too similar, some confusion can occur, similar to a “jump-cut.” When cutting between shots that are extreme contrasts of each other, the effect can be quite dramatic and sometimes jarring. These techniques can be purposefully used to suggest specific things to the audience, or evoke an emotional response, but if these effects are unintentional there’s a risk of unwanted interpretations.

These in-script editing techniques shouldn’t become too technical. I recently wrote about avoiding technical descriptions in screenplays, and I stand by that philosophy. Just as there are ways to avoid writing technical direction for the camera department, there are also ways to avoid telling the editor how to do their job while still suggesting how the story should be told.

I hope that my examples have illustrated that editing a screenplay can strengthen a film, and it’s best to make these decisions before shooting rather than after.Addressing these details in advance saves time, saves money, and keeps things running smoothly down the line.

Now if only I could edit tax paperwork out of my life?

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