Monday, October 24, 2011

You Gotta Make It Shorter

Christopher Tillman, a friend and fellow actor/writer/producer, writes this guest blog about something he experienced at the Ojai Film Festival last weekend. I was at the festival too, but missed this particular moment because I was off looking for cookies.

Recently I was in Ojai for their film festival and attended a Q&A with screenwriter Steven de Souza. Really great event – the perfect balance of brass tacks and theory.

After the event was over, I (along with a few others) approached Mr. de Souza for a few follow up questions. One of these individuals was a gentleman who was literally clutching a screenplay to his chest. I knew this wasn’t going to go well.

The gentleman approached Steven and started talking about his screenplay. Steven snatched it out of his hands and turned to the last page. "140? It’s too long."

"You told me that last time," the man replied.

"It’s still true," Steven batted back. "If you show this to anyone they are gonna do what I just did – turn to the last page, see that it’s 140 pages, give it back to you and say it’s too long."

"I cut it down to 120..." the man started.

"Still too long," Steven interrupted.

"...but I felt like I lost the story, so I put the pages back," the man finished.

"It’s too long," Steven said as if the man hadn’t understood the first three times.

The man’s faced hardened and I knew what was coming next. 'Don’t do it,' I thought. But clearly the man wasn’t a mind reader, because he did it anyway.

"Would you say The Social Network was too long at 170 pages?" the man said, thinking he was being clever. Now it was on.

"You are talking about a movie based on already popular source material, written by an Emmy-winning writer and backed by an Oscar-nominated director. The studio will let those guys do whatever they want. James Cameron can write a 200 page script, ‘cause he’s James Cameron. Don’t even think you are on the same level as those guys!"

Photo / Creative Commons / Horia Varlan
Now some people might say Steven was being harsh. I chose to see it as being direct. Is it possible that this guy was holding the next break-the-mold, one-in-a-million story? Sure it’s possible. Is it more likely that Steven is right and every person this guy shows his script to is gonna turn to the last page and say "140? Too long." Yes, that is more likely.

The whole exchange reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Sports Night. Sometimes it’s just as simple as you gotta make it shorter.

Now it may sound like I'm picking on this guy, but learning to edit is a hard lesson – one that I am not above learning. When I had finished the script for my short film Misusing Irony, it was 17 pages and I thought there was no way I could make it shorter, nothing I could lose. Enter director John Lopez who loved the script, but his first words were still, you guessed it, "Make it shorter."

John, Teresa (the producer), and I spent several breakfasts at Bob’s Big Boy hacking at the script till we got it down to its fighting weight of 14 pages. And even then we lost one more scene in editing to get the piece to just under 13 minutes. "Get to the nut," John kept harping on me. "It’s a short. You don’t have time to linger." And while I respected John, I didn’t always agree with him.

Until we went to our first festival and sat through the first of many half-hour long "shorts." Then I dropped to my knees and thanked God he sent me John and the idea to keep it short.

You can follow Christopher Tillman on Twitter at @christophertill

1 comment:

  1. The dude won't learn and he won't learn etiquette either. How many people fail to listen that it's not okay to shove unsolicited biz card, photos, and screenplays in people's faces? There are appropriate channels for that. That's why they have them.