Just in time for the Oscars, guest blogger Kirk Shimano muses on the differences between writing for the stage and screen.
Last year, with the help of PlayGround, I had the opportunity to adapt my short play, “Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos,” into a short film. It’s the story of a downtrodden school librarian who changes her life by entrusting all her decisions to the flips of a coin.
Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos at the 16th Annual Best of Playground Festival, with Lisa Morse, Cathleen Riddley, Roselyn Hallett, Michael Asberry, Lauren English and Maryssa Wanlass.
I had written short films before (including my student film opus, “Shoe and Rock: The Adventures of Shoe and Rock,” starring a shoe and a rock), but this was my first experience in adapting a short play. It’s been nearly a year since our film was first shown to audiences, but I still find myself mulling over the experience, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share four of the most memorable lessons I learned along the way.
1. LOCATION. LOCATION? LOCATION!
If you take a look at any screenplay, you’ll find that the pages are filled with “slug lines” that tell you where and when each scene takes place. A page will start with:
EXT. GOLDEN GATE PARK – MORNING
INT. ABANDONED WALMART – EVENING – FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE RAPTURE
I used to think that the prominence of these slug lines was just an organizational tidbit that helps the assistant director keep on track, but it turns out they can have a big influence on all of the writing that follows.
My original script began Miss Finknagle’s journey in her home (on stage, this amounted to a nondescript table and a chair). My earlier drafts kept the same location for the film, but thankfully our intrepid director, Amy Harrison (more on her later), suggested that we instead move the opening to the school library.
Director Amy Harrison and Production Designer Alex Dixon putting far more thought into the library location than I had.
What I had forgotten was that our movie audience would be seeing more than just a table and a chair. Picking a unique location was the first step to putting the audience in a unique world and got me thinking more about how our characters would interact with the world around them.
2. THINGS SHOULDN’T BE, YOU KNOW, HAND-WAVEY…OR SOMETHING
My stage script opened up with this:
(The stage is divided into two areas. Although MISS FINKNAGLE often enacts the events described by the teens, the two spaces remain distinct throughout the play)
It was intentionally ambiguous, because in the space of ten minutes I didn’t want to spend too much time establishing specific locations.
It turns out, in a movie it’s pretty difficult to keep that level of ambiguity. The actors aren’t walking into a blue-tinged spotlight that represents the outdoors – they’re walking past actual trees and actual cars in actual streets (well, for those of us productions that can’t afford soundstages and green screens, at any rate).
Jessica Hecker and Haley Anderson as BFF’s Kaylee & Tiffany in a real life, non hand-wavey cafeteria. Set photos taken by Leo Robertson
The point is that movies have a certain literal quality to them, which provides the immediate you-are-there magic of omigod-I’m-with-Sandy-Bullock-on-a-space-station but also makes it more difficult to leave amorphous images for the audience to decipher on its own.
I found that I had to tool my script to make the relationships between the scenes more concrete. Where we used to have two ambiguously connected locations, we now had the teens definitively driving a narrative that had cutaways to support their descriptions. It did mean sacrificing a bit of the fairy tale feel I had liked about the original script, but it made for a much smoother flowing audience experience that I’m glad we adopted.
3. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SHUT UP
Here’s how the original stageplay started:
So, like, Miss Finknagle was home alone.
Well, duh, she’s always alone.
That’s not the point of the story dork-face.
Does she even have a home? I heard that when all the kids leave school she just stays in the library and sleeps between the computers and the encyclopedias.
Here’s how the screenplay starts:
Oh. My God.
Kaylee takes something from her purse and SLAMS it on the table. It is a COSMO-LIKE MAGAZINE.
Omigod Kaylee –
What used to be a few lines of dialogue became just a few words. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that movies provide the ability to replace character-establishing dialogue with a single reaction shot. Another is that stage dialogue has to carry more of the expositional weight, explaining that the nondescript table on stage is supposed to represent a house. I also suspect that audiences in a theater are more willing to listen to long stretches of conversation, because you’re watching two people talk in front of you instead of light flickering on a screen.
But whatever the explanation, I found that long passages of dialogue that used to sound breezy on stage now seemed leaden on film. Of course, it could just be that those lines were always a drag and everyone was too polite to tell me, but I’m choosing to interpret this as a life lesson to keep movie dialogue short and to the point.
4. IT’S THE DIRECTOR’S MOVIE
As a playwright, I can’t help but notice that plays tend to belong to the playwright (as in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar) while movies tend to belong to the director (Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street). Of course, any production is the result of a collaboration between many people, but screenwriters seem to have less ownership than playwrights.
I can’t speak for every movie, but ours definitely belongs to our director / producer Amy Harrison.
In a small film like this, the director is called upon to do a host of tasks that would be delegated in a Hollywood studio film – things like negotiating for locations or keeping a constant eye on the budget – but even if you remove all of those additional responsibilities the director’s contribution is by far the one that makes the biggest impact.
On stage, the audience watches the actors bring the script to life, giving them a direct line to experiencing what was originally written on the page. But in a movie, every moment is filtered through a thousand more directorial decisions. Do we watch the person speaking or see a reaction shot instead? Does the music quietly underscore the entire scene? Is the entire world viewed through a warm haze of soft focus?
Camera Op. Tyler Cushing readies the shot as Production Designer Alex Dixon and Design Assistant Roary Racquel set the stage
I was amazed at the difference between our first rough cut and our final version and the script didn’t change at all – just the directorial and editorial decisions. I’ve had the privilege of great relationships with directors in theater who have helped to shape the script and bring the cast and crew together, but in a movie every second of the audience’s experience has been crafted by the director.
Of course, that might be undervaluing the contribution of the editor, the sound designer, the cinematographer, or any number of other people I haven’t thought to mention. So maybe trying to figure out who “owns” a film is the wrong approach altogether. What’s important is to appreciate how many collaborators put their stamp on bringing this story to life. The end product was better than what I had initially tried to put on the page. I’m glad I had the chance to be part of a moviemaking team and would recommend it to any playwright given the opportunity.
Lisa Morse as Miss Finknagle, ready for the camera.
‘Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos’ will next be screened at the Portland Oregon’s Women Film Fest, March 6-9, 2014. For all the latest information, follow https://www.facebook.com/missfinknagle