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Screenwriting for Editing

“The humbling truth is that the film is made in the editing room”. -David Mamet

The screenwriter is the first step in the film making process and the editor, the last. How do you write a script that’ll produce an edit-ready film?

Editors are often called the last re-writers of the show. Another way to put this is that the editor is the architect of the show. Our blueprint is the script (or outline on a nonfiction show). Our building materials are the footage: long shots, wide shots, medium shots, close ups, over-the shoulders, inserts, raking shots, reverses, master shots, and two-shots. From these we design the show with sound, dialogue, music, and the placement and duration of the shots.

The editor is the architect of the show.

Just as a bridge transports travelers from bank to bank with good design and construction, so good editing conveys viewers from the beginning of the show to the end by giving them what they need to see, hear, and experience along the way to get there.

Truism: There’s the picture that’s written, the picture that’s shot and the picture that’s edited.

So why not write for editing?

How do I do this, you ask. Here are a few suggestions:

Write visually.

Editors write not in words but with images and sound. So mentally run your script in your head. This will also help sell your script and guide the director in shooting it.

Make sure your story is strong and clear.

I worked on an MOW where the lead editor and I took the project but found the story murky as written. The producer and well-known director loved the script and the story and were awed by all the research that the writer had done on the subject. During shooting, they realized the story wasn’t making sense or paying off. They called the writer, asking for some re-writes. The writer was affronted. The calls became increasingly unproductive and antagonistic. During post, the writer loved the show as shot and edited but it made no sense to anyone else. Some VO was added, there were extra screenings, and editing ran two weeks over but the movie was not saved. And the writer substituted a familiar nom de plume for their actual name in the credits.

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Understand the rhythm of your story and your scenes.

“Editing is not so much a putting together as it is the discovery of a path“.
-Walter Murch, A.C.E., Academy Award for Picture and Sound Editing on The English Patient.

Just as you develop a rhythm in writing dialogue and other scenes, so does an editor develop a rhythm when cutting. Quentin Tarantino’s editor, Sally Menke said in the current issue of Editor’s Guild Magazine, “I do feel there’s an internal rhythm in every person that is reflected in her or his work.  Somehow a painting looks like its painter. There’s an innate response to footage that I feel is very much mine.”

Ask yourself:

•    What tempo would your scene have if put to music? Having a sense of this will help you understand the riffs, trills, arias and dissonances in your movie and its many scenes. And many of the scenes will be put to music during post production.

•    If they were an instrument or a piece of music, what would each main character be? Intuiting this will help you understand your characters’ internal rhythms better and how they flex – or don’t – when reacting to situations and other characters.

Make your transitions clear and fresh.

Every time your movie cuts from one scene to the next, imagine how this will look. Don’t leave it to the director or editor to figure out – direct everyone with your writing. You don’t have to figure out every transition, just major ones. Good examples: Julie & Julia did an interesting job with the transitions between the two women’s stories as did Cinema Paradiso as it moved back and forth from the main character as a boy and as a grown man.

Make your characters thoughts, dreams, and psyches accessible.

“Editing is the closest thing to thinking”. -VI Pudovkin

You are the original thinker of the show. Your thoughts and words are transformed into sounds and images. From these images and sounds and the editor creates a movie that puts the audience in your scenes and in your character’s heads. Make sure your thinking is rock-solid and will ring true to your audience. You want them to live in your characters’ heads and situations while they’re watching the movie just as the characters and situations lived inside you as you created it.

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Exercises

To understand editing better, put on a DVD of a great, contemporary movie.

1)    TURN THE SOUND OFF and watch a few scenes – action, dialogue, and montage. You may want to watch the scenes several times.
•    Notice each time the picture cuts.
•    Notice the different rhythm of each scene.

2)    TURN THE PICTURE OFF and listen to the same scenes.
•    Hear the different types of sounds: dialogue, sound effects, Foley, music.
•    Notice the different rhythm of each scene.

gael_chandlerGael Chandler has edited dramas, documentaries and corporate videos, and received a Cable ACE nomination twice for editing a comedy series. She taught digital editing systems to professionals and editing theory and practice at LA area colleges. She has written feature scripts and two books, Cut by Cut: Editing your Film or Video and Film Editing: Great Cuts Every Filmmaker and Movie Lover Must Know. She also creates e-Learning materials and blogs on her website, www.joyoffilmediting.com.

About the Author

Cherie Lee

I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney's UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I've been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I'm now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.

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