Unfilmables & Directing on the Page | Script Revolution

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Unfilmables & Directing on the Page

So, there's this game I've been playing for years on screenwriting forums. Every now and then a complete sociopath will join the community and start throwing their weight around, often boasting about ambiguous successes they are having, and trolling threads in an attempt to knock others down via very basic screenwriting advice. At some point, someone will ask if they can write "unfilmables" in their script such as a character's thoughts and emotions. I'll often post the following and ask for advice on it.

Those words. The way he said it. She's grabbing her purse, clearing out of the room. Slamming the door behind her. Click. It's locked.

They almost always fall for it. They can't help themselves. They leap at the chance to tell me what a terrible writer I am and how I will never work in the industry. I then point out this is line from the screenplay The Bourne Identity by Edgar Award winner and Academy Award nominee Tony Gilroy. I can feel their face turning red through my monitor.

Unfilmables, along with directing on the page, are often contentious subjects where the vast majority of writers will state that you should never do either. This is bad advice when it's presented so sweeping and conclusively. The reality is, it's actually okay to do in moderation and in certain ways. In fact, a script will often be better for it providing it's done well.

Those that say unfilmables are unacceptable and a writer should never direct on the page are also presenting a hypocritical argument. If you want a character to express something internal then what could be more directorial than writing down specifically how you want them to physically act.

I can say from talking to veterans in the industry that many believe nothing pulls in talent like prose that has some whit and soul to it. I can also say from experience that clearly giving actors guidance rather than instructions will work much better for them in building their performance. It makes far more sense to state a character is worried what someone will say next than try to describe the complex set of subtle mannerisms a person may show in that situation.

Please also note this; a big part of an actor's love for playing role stems in discovery. This is one of the reasons that, as writers, we have to accept the script is something organic within the production. There is no greater gift you can give an actor than the permission to explore their performance. Dictating every physical move they make because you've gotten it into this mindset that you can only write prose that details what the camera can see will only make the actor's job harder trying to decode what the motivation is behind it.

You can also hack the problem so easily. If the following line "Jane's worried he's about to fire her" is sacrilegious to craft then simply changing it to "Jane looks worried he's about to fire her" breaks no rules since it makes the same statement from a visual context and certainly reads better than "Jane's eyes bulge and nostrils flare a little as she takes a short sharp intake of breath and grips the edge of her desk, the veins on the side of her neck pulsing and sweat forming on her brow". Try giving that to an actor and see if it helps them give their best performance.

It's also fine to use terms like "we see" and imply camera significant camera movements or editing tricks if it helps sell the scene just the same as you are effectively blocking and choreographing your cast with your words and determining locations by simply writing a scene with characters in it. There has to be something to work with and nobody with production experience is reading a script and seeing any of it as permanent.

As ever, there's always a line that can be crossed and knowing where it falls can be subject to many factors. The best thing any aspiring writer can do is read spec scripts that have gotten other previously unknown writers work. That will help find the balance.

Good prose is simply good prose and writing something that's vivid and concise with a good flow while still production orientated is an art form in itself. It cannot be dumbed down to "never do x or y".