Screenwriting & Editing: The Shawshank Redemption

[Originally posted September 1, 2009]

Over the weekend, we had an interesting discussion in response to this post about the [thus far] ill-fated movie project “Moneyball”. In comments, Carpet made the following statement:

i agree, this movie [Moneyball] sounds like a money-loser any way you look at it. i’m just speaking against the simplistic idea that soderbergh’s script sucks. the totality of a visionary director’s vision has to be accounted for, and script it just one part of that.

by the way — i’m an editor, not a screenwriter. although i suppose i get to do the final rewrite, don’t i?

In my update to the original post, I basically agreed with Carpet. An excerpt from my comments:

Speaking to Carpet’s broader point, one need only look at the making of the movie Annie Hall to see how important the edit process is. From the movie’s Wikipedia entry:

The film was originally intended to be a drama centered on a murder mystery with a comic and romantic subplot, and was filmed that way. According to Allen, the murder occurred after a scene that remains in the film, the sequence in which Annie and Alvy miss the Ingmar Bergman film Face to Face.[2] After shooting had completed, the film’s editor persuaded Woody Allen to cut the mystery plot and make the film a romantic comedy.”

The movie turned from a drama / murder mystery into a rom-com after it was shot — in the editing process.

So yes Carpet, you’re right: The director and editor get the final ‘rewrite’ on a movie. But it’s fair to say that screenwriters have a role that no one else has in the production of a movie: We are involved in the genesis of the movie’s story universe.

All part of filmmaking’s collaborative process — and we each have our part to play. What’s more, we can learn from each others craft. Certainly screenwriters can learn a ton from studying what editors do.

I’ve got a great example of how even a simple editorial choice can transform good script pages into a great movie sequence. It’s from The Shawshank Redemption. And I’ll post that on Monday.

Well, today is Monday and what follows is what I was referring to in my post: The opening sequence in The Shawshank Redemption. Here is how it was scripted:

 INT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946)  A dark, empty room.  The door bursts open. A MAN and WOMAN enter, drunk and giggling, horny as hell. No sooner is the door shut than they're all over each other, ripping at clothes, pawing at flesh, mouths locked together.  He gropes for a lamp, tries to turn it on, knocks it over instead. Hell with it. He's got more urgent things to do, like getting her blouse open and his hands on her breasts. She arches, moaning, fumbling with his fly. He slams her against the wall, ripping her skirt. We hear fabric tear.  He enters her right then and there, roughly, up against the wall. She cries out, hitting her head against the wall but not caring, grinding against him, clawing his back, shivering with the sensations running through her. He carries her across the room with her legs wrapped around him. They fall onto the bed.  CAMERA PULLS BACK, exiting through the window, traveling smoothly outside...  2 EXT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946) 2  ...   to reveal the bungalow, remote in a wooded area, the lovers' cries spilling into the night...  ...and we drift down a wooded path, the sounds of rutting passion growing fainter, mingling now with the night sounds of crickets and hoot owls...  ...and we begin to hear FAINT MUSIC in the woods, tinny and incongruous, and still we keep PULLING BACK until...  ...a car is revealed. A 1946 Plymouth. Parked in a clearing.  3 INT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 3  ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20's, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit. Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly dangerous, perhaps even meek. But these circumstances are far from normal. He is disheveled, unshaven, and very drunk. A cigarette smolders in his mouth. His eyes, flinty and hard, are riveted to the bungalow up the path.  He can hear them fucking from here.  He raises a bottle of bourbon and knocks it back. The radio plays softly, painfully romantic, taunting him:   You stepped out of a dream...  You are    too wonderful...  To be what you seem...  He opens the glove compartment, pulls out an object wrapped in a rag. He lays it in his lap and unwraps it carefully --  -- revealing a .38 revolver. Oily, black, evil.  He grabs a box of bullets. Spills them everywhere, all over the seats and floor. Clumsy. He picks bullets off his lap, loading them into the gun, one by one, methodical and grim. Six in the chamber. His gaze goes back to the bungalow.  He shuts off the radio. Abrupt silence, except for the distant lovers' moans. He takes another shot of bourbon courage, then opens the door and steps from the car.  4 EXT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 4  His wingtip shoes crunch on gravel. Loose bullets scatter to the ground. The bourbon bottle drops and shatters.  He starts up the path, unsteady on his feet. The closer he gets, the louder the lovemaking becomes. Louder and more frenzied. The lovers are reaching a climax, their sounds of passion degenerating into rhythmic gasps and grun   ts.     WOMAN (O.S.)  Oh god...oh god...oh god...  Andy lurches to a stop, listening. The woman cries out in orgasm. The sound slams into Andy's brain like an icepick. He shuts his eyes tightly, wishing the sound would stop.  It finally does, dying away like a siren until all that's left is the shallow gasping and panting of post-coitus. We hear languorous laughter, moans of satisfaction.     WOMAN (O.S.)  Oh god...that's sooo're  the best...the best I ever had...  Andy just stands and listens, devastated. He doesn't look like much of a killer now; he's just a sad little man on a dirt path in the woods, tears streaming down his face, a loaded gun held loosely at his side. A pathetic figure, really.  FADE TO BLACK: 1ST TITLE UP  5 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 5  THE JURY listens like a gallery of mannequins on display, pale-faced and stupefied.     D.A. (O.S.)  Mr. Dufresne, describe the  confrontation you had with your  wife the night she was murdered.  ANDY DUF   RESNE  is on the witness stand, hands folded, suit and tie pressed, hair meticulously combed. He speaks in soft, measured tones:     ANDY  It was very bitter. She said she  was glad I knew, that she hated all  the sneaking around. She said she  wanted a divorce in Reno.     D.A.  What was your response?     ANDY  I told her I would not grant one.     D.A.   (refers to his notes)  I'll see you in Hell before I see  you in Reno. Those were the words  you used, Mr. Dufresne, according  to the testimony of your neighbors.     ANDY  If they say so. I really don't  remember. I was upset.  FADE TO BLACK: 2ND TITLE UP     D.A.  What happened after you and your  wife argued?     ANDY  She packed a bag and went to stay  with Mr. Quentin.     D.A.  Glenn Quentin. The golf pro at the  Falmouth Hills Country Club. The  man you had recently discovered was  her lover.   (Andy nods)  Did you follow her?     ANDY  I went to a few bars first. Later,  I decided to drive to Mr. Quentin's  home    and confront them. They  weren't I parked my car  in the turnout...and waited.     D.A.  With what intention?     ANDY  I'm not sure. I was confused. Drunk.  I think mostly I wanted to scare them.     D.A.  You had a gun with you?     ANDY  Yes. I did.  FADE TO BLACK: 3RD TITLE UP     D.A.  When they arrived, you went up  to the house and murdered them?     ANDY  No. I was sobering up. I realized  she wasn't worth it. I decided to  let her have her quickie divorce.     D.A.  Quickie divorce indeed. A .38  caliber divorce, wrapped in a  handtowel to muffle the shots,  isn't that what you mean? And then  you shot her lover!     ANDY  I did not. I got back in the car  and drove home to sleep it off.  Along the way, I stopped and threw  my gun into the Royal River. I feel  I've been very clear on this point.     D.A.  Yes, you have. Where I get hazy,  though, is the part where the  cleaning woman shows up the next  morning and finds your wife and her  lover in bed, ri   ddled with .38  caliber bullets. Does that strike  you as a fantastic coincidence, Mr.  Dufresne, or is it just me?     ANDY   (softly)  Yes. It does.     D.A.  I'm sorry, Mr. Dufresne, I don't  think the jury heard that.     ANDY  Yes. It does.     D.A.  Does what?     ANDY  Strike me as a fantastic coincidence.     D.A.  On that, sir, we are in accord...  FADE TO BLACK! 4TH TITLE UP     D.A.  You claim you threw your gun into  the Royal River before the murders  took place. That's rather convenient.     ANDY  It's the truth.     D.A.  You recall Lt. Mincher's testimony?  He and his men dragged that river  for three days and nary a gun was  found. So no comparison can be made  between your gun and the bullets  taken from the bloodstained corpses  of the victims. That's also rather  convenient, isn't it, Mr. Dufresne?     ANDY   (faint, bitter smile)  Since I am innocent of this crime,  sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient  the gun was never found.  FADE TO BLACK: STH TITLE    UP  6 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 6  The D.A. holds the jury spellbound with his closing summation:     D.A.  Ladies and gentlemen, you've heard  all the evidence, you know all the  facts. We have the accused at the  scene of the crime. We have foot  prints. Tire tracks. Bullets  scattered on the ground which bear  his fingerprints. A broken bourbon  bottle, likewise with fingerprints.  Most of all, we have a beautiful  young woman and her lover lying  dead in each other's arms. They had  sinned. But was their crime so  great as to merit a death sentence?  He gestures to Andy sitting quietly with his ATTORNEY.     D.A.  I suspect Mr. Dufresne's answer to  that would be yes. I further  suspect he carried out that  sentence on the night of September  21st, this year of our Lord, 1946,  by pumping four bullets into his  wife and another four into Glenn  Quentin. And while you think about  that, think about this...  He picks up a revolver, spins the cylinder before their eye   s like a carnival barker spinning a wheel of fortune.     D.A.  A revolver holds six bullets, not  eight. I submit to you this was not  a hot-blooded crime of passion!  That could at least be understood,  if not condoned. No, this was  revenge of a much more brutal and  cold-blooded nature. Consider! Four  bullets per victim! Not six shots  fired, but eight! That means he  fired the gun empty...and then  stopped to reload so he could shoot  each of them again! An extra bullet  per lover...right in the head.   (a few JURORS shiver)  I'm done talking. You people are  all decent, God-fearing Christian  folk. You know what to do.  FADE TO BLACK: 6TH TITLE UP  7 INT -- JURY ROOM -- DAY (1946) 7  CAMERA TRACKS down a long table, moving from one JUROR to the next. These decent, God-fearing Christians are chowing down on a nice fried chicken dinner provided them by the county, smacking greasy lips and gnawing cobbettes of corn.     VOICE (O.S.)  Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty...  We    find the FOREMAN at the head of the table, sorting votes.  FADE TO BLACK: 7TH TITLE UP  8 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 8  Andy stands before the dias. THE JUDGE peers down, framed by a carved frieze of blind Lady Justice on the wall.     JUDGE  You strike me as a particularly icy  and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne.  It chills my blood just to look at  you. By the power vested in me by  the State of Maine, I hereby order  you to serve two life sentences,  back to back, one for each of your  victims. So be it.  He raps his gavel as we  CRASH TO BLACK: LAST TITLE UP.

And here is a partial version of the sequence and how they edited what they shot in the movie:

Straightaway there are two big differences between the script and the movie:

(1) Where the script starts inside the cabin [Scene 1] with Dufresne’s wife and lover already going at it, the movie starts with a shot of the cabin in the woods [Scene 2], then inside Andy’s car [Scene 3].

Why the change? First, by not revealing what’s going on in the cabin upfront, the movie creates a question for the viewer: Why are we here?. Then when Andy pulls out the pistol, the situation shifts into a full-blown mystery: What the hell is going on? I’m guessing the movie’s writer-director Frank Darabont and his editor on the film Richard Francis-Bruce figured the audience is going to find out about Andy’s wife cheating on him soon enough, why not arouse some curiosity first, then pay it off later?

(2) Where the script stays with the action on the night of the murder, at 1:12 in the movie, we hear the V.O. of the District Attorney from the trial: “Mr. Dufresne, describe the…” Then cut to a C.U. of Andy on the witness stand at his murder trial. Thereafter, the scenes are cross cut — from the night of the murder to the trial, back and forth.

This is a huge change and much for the better. First, it doesn’t force the viewer to go through the events twice: The night of the murder, then hear the details again in the trial. By intercutting the two sequences, the viewer experiences the night’s events one time — so no wasted exposition.

Speaking of exposition, in the script, there are 34 sides of dialogue in Scenes 5-8, where the story cuts in on Andy’s testimony to the judge’s sentencing. That’s a ton of ‘talking heads’. By cross cutting between the trial testimony with what was happening on the night of the murder, inside and outside the cabin, the exposition transforms into commentary on the action, the words ‘connected’ to visual images – much more cinematic.

Here’s the breakdown of the cuts in the movie version of the opening. The italicized segments are where the trial V.O. is laid over visuals of the night of the murder:

0:00 – 1:12: Scene 2 + Scene 3 (partial) — establish the cabin / Andy in car

1:12 – 2:00: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy trial testimony: background of the night of the murder

2:00 – 2:06: Scene 1 (partial) — Andy and D.A.’s V.O. over visual introducing Andy’s wife and her lover Glenn Quentin as they enter cabin and embrace

2:06 – 2:20: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy trial testimony: talks about how he ended up outside the cabin

2:20 – 2:33: Scene 3 (partial) — Andy’s V.O. describing his state of mind over visual of him inside his car, loading up gun with bullets

2:33 – 3:40: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy and D.A. back and forth about the whereabouts of the gun

3:40 – 4:28: Scene 3 (partial), Scene 4, Scene 6 (partial) — D.A. summary argument to the jurors V.O. over visuals of Andy taking a last drink in his car, emerging from the car, and stopping outside the cabin

4:28 – 4:50: Scene 6 (partial): D.A. asserts “this was revenge of a much more brutal and cold-blooded nature”

4:50 – 5:12: Scene 1 (partial): D.A. V.O. explains how murderer had to reload to fire 8 bullets over visuals of Andy’s wife and lover as “he enters her”

5:12 – 5:33: Scene 8: Judge sentences Andy

There are many other reasons why the movie version works better than the scripted version. I look forward to your impressions in that regard in comments.

The takeaway is that you can use cross cuts to enhance the visual nature of your story. A great script to read that employs cross cuts / intercuts a lot is The Dark Knight which you can get here.

Go Into The Story

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