Tag Archives: dialogue

CHINATOWN’s opening scenes… cutting fat…

t doesn’tBeen wanting to do this for a long time.

It’s difficult for beginning writers to understand the value of cutting, much less the value of cutting really good stuff they took the time and trouble to write. The more you see how a scene improves by slicing away fat, the happier you’ll be to pull out your flensing knife.

The first draft of CHINATOWN is different from the one you’ve probably read.

It opens on Hollis Mulwray, Chief Engineer for the Department of Water and Power, driving to the dried up L.A. River.  THAT’s different!  Conversely, the movie opens on a scene between Jake Gittes, the P.I. hero, and client, Curly.  It’s generally a good idea to attach our emotional wagon to the good guy right off the bat…

The movie is all about water, so opening on a dried river and Q & A with a Mexican boy about when the water comes make sense but it doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.  Then Mulwray talks to a character we never meet in the movie, and after that we go to Gittes’ office and meet his associates, Walsh and Duffy.  Still haven’t laid eyes on the hero…!  They chit chat about the client in Jake’s office, a tuna boat skipper.  They’re telling us what, later, the film shows us.

At last, at the top of page 5, we meet our hero in the familiar what-is-now-the-opening scene, with the photos of Curly’s wife breaking her marriage vows while picnicking.

Curly says he wants to kill his wife, which Jake understands but he rants about “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it.”  A powerful theme that echoes through the whole movie, only it gets cut.

Another interesting thing about CHINATOWN #1 is that the interview with the new client, Mrs. Mulwray, is between her and Walsh and Duffy, not with Jake like in the rewrite.  Give the good stuff to your hero or die trying!  In #1, Walsh and Duffy find out what Jake discovers in the rewrite, and in #1 we never see Jake in the room with her.

Check out how much time is taken up with Curly in #1, and how brief the scene actually is when you get to film.  27 sides of dialogue in #1 vs. 11 in the film!  The “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it” dialogue is still there in the rewritten script, but not in the movie.

In the rewrite, when Jake says, “Now — what makes you certain that your husband is involved with someone?” she says, “A wife can tell.”  In the first draft she said, “A wife can tell.  I mean I followed him.”  The second line is about her, not Jake.  It doesn’t affect the story at all.  It makes us think about something that isn’t the main railroad track of the tale, Jake’s problem, so it got cut.  A perfectly lovely line, but when it went away, who cared?  Nobody.  The beginning writer would have kept it in.

Finally, the Curly / Mrs. Mulwray scenes are intercut (a lot) in script #1, only once in the rewrite, and none at all in the film.

The reason to take heart from all this fat flensing is that Robert Towne was already one of the finest writers in the business, yet he had a long way to go from Draft #1 to the script they shot.  The best writers in the game make plenty of mistakes… they just don’t leave them in there.

That said, here are the first scenes in CHINATOWN #1 and the same scenes in the rewrite, with the changes marked for your edification…

CHINATOWN 1st two scenes First Draft and Last Draft


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process

What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.

Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.

1961 Ferrari GT California


Filed under character, Details, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

No dumb questions.

If someone says, “What are you doing?”… in your writing… beware. Unless they are a blind person, they are going to know what the other person is doing. It’s amazing how often that line can just be cut.

Are you hammering nails into the coffee table?

Trust me, she’d know.

Also, a tip that you may want to cut some dialogue is “what?”.

Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.

I don’t wanna bake these cookies.


I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.

Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!

Could be shorter. Could be better.

Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.

I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.

Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!

See? I’m right!

1 Comment

Filed under Bad Writing, Dialogue, Good Writing, Rewriting, Uncategorized

Panic Dialogue Edit

I may have mentioned that the editing room is where hope dies. A line I heard from writer Alec Berg. Yepper, it’s twue, it’s twue, it’s really twue. When you get to that nicely air conditioned room, you’ve shot the material and you’ve either got it or you don’t. All your great dreams for this script are now a reality. Sometimes a cold brutal reality. It’s never as good as you’d hoped… But, take heart… it’s never as bad as you fear.

And, in that editing room, there is nothing more horrible than facing your own mediocrity and the panic over trimming dialogue. When your movie is staring you down with the twin double-barrels of boredom aimed at your face, you will cut every speech, every line, all the way down to every unneeded breath between lines… Flop sweat is a great way to induce you to trim dialogue. When you are terrified blind, the unneeded dialogue leaps off the screen and tries to strangle you, muttering, “Why didn’t you cut me before?”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Cue FLASHBACK MUSIC…

Try to work yourself into the Panic Dialogue Edit mode during the script stage. Cut dialogue NOW! You can save yourself a ton of grief in the editing room if you put on your emerald green panic glasses NOW and cut all that dialogue that you’re going to cut later NOW.

If you are scared, it’s easy to trim dialogue. So, imagine you are awash in fear and panic and hack away — before you shoot, before you edit. If dialogue CAN go, it goes. It’s simple.

Here’s one example. A nebbishy college professor welcomes two burglars into his home. This was Draft B.

Ron pours a second drink, smiling the whole time.

I’m Ron, by the way. Welcome to my humble home. Excuse the mess, okay? Relax, relax. How has your day been?

He hands the brandy to Spike.

It’s top drawer brandy. Why skimp, I always say. Can’t have a drink with a fellow I can’t see. Why don’t you get those masks off and we’ll knock the chill right off.

He drinks.

Down the hatch!


By Draft H, it got shorter.


Ron pours a second drink, smiling the whole time.

I’m Ron, by the way. Relax, relax.

He hands the Scotch to Spike. Spike takes it, but handles it like a live grenade.

20 year old Scotch. Even on a professor’s salary, why skimp?


You may sneer at my Draft B, there from the comfort of your own living room. You may say to yourself, “That Akers guy, what does he know, the schmuck? I’ll never write that much crappy dialogue. I don’t have to pay attention to what he’s suggesting.”

AT YOUR PERIL, foolish one. At your peril.

All I have to say is “Panic now.” Because if you get to an editing room with your film (or you send it to an agent who passes!), you’ll wish you had heeded my simple little lesson.

If there is ANY way you can cut it, it’s history.


Filed under Rewriting, Screenwriting