Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When Terry Rossio rewrites your scene...

One of the best panels at the Austin Film Festival last October was a two-hour session screenwriter Terry Rossio did on rewriting. People taking part (there was maybe 50 of us) were asked to submit a page and a half from one from their scripts in advance. He then went through a couple of the submitted scenes on screen, with some participation from the group, and demonstrated several different ways of rewriting them.

On the one hand, I was dying for him to pick my scene. On the other, how terrifying is it to have someone go through your script in front of everyone? So I sat there sweating, half-hoping, half-not-hoping.  Anyway, in the end 2 hours flew by and he didn't have time to do more than 4 or 5 scenes. BUT - he promised to do a re-write of each person's scene and send them back to us by email. One for everybody in the audience.

I didn't really believe that he'd do it. I mean, doesn't he have much bigger fish - and much bigger scripts - to fry? But I was wrong, because a rewrite of my scene landed in my inbox two days ago.

I've decided to post both my original version and his version for educational purposes. Because Terry Rossio knows a hell of a lot more about screenwriting than I do, so surely he can teach us all a few things about writing a good scene?

So here's the scene I chose to submit - it's a (frankly, very corny) midpoint scene from my script Searching for Summer.

INT - OLD PECAN COFFEE BAR - NIGHT

Summer sits at the back with Rachel, Carrie and Emily. The bar is full of a rowdy crowd who are singing along with the band.

Up on stage Shane is enthusiastically murdering a U2 song, flanked by his college-age band. He finishes to a cacophony of cheers and boos and bows, grinning.

SHANE


Thanks for the support!


More catcalls.

SHANE (CONT’D)


Up next is someone with a much better set of pipes! Sandra, where are you?


EMILY


She's here! Go, Sandra!


Summer freezes in her seat, looking terrified. Shane spots her.

SHANE


Come on up! Folks, Sandra only moved here three weeks ago so give her a warm welcome!


The noisy crowd cheers.

RACHEL (As she passes)


Summer, you're gonna be great!


Summer makes her way to the stage like a woman facing execution. Shane puts his hand over the mic when he sees how scared she is.

SHANE


You okay? Don't worry, they're in a good mood tonight.


Summer nods in apprehension.

SHANE (CONT’D)


What are you gonna sing?


SUMMER


Ruby Tuesday.


Shane uncovers the mic.

SHANE


Here's Sandra with a classic -Ruby Tuesday!!


The crowd cheers as the band starts to play the intro. Summer steps up and starts to sing. Her voice is quiet and cracks from nerves. She's barely audible. The crowd go a bit more silent as people strain to hear her.

ROWDY GUY


Sing up!


ANOTHER GUY


We can't hear you!!


Someone laughs. Summer falters.

She stares out at the room full of people, all looking at her, some expectantly, some in derision.

She looks around: beside her, holding his guitar, Shane looks nervous. In the audience, Rachel has her hand over her mouth...

Determination suddenly floods into Summer's face. She starts to sing again, this time loudly and confidently. Her voice is strong and slightly bluesy, an unexpected sound.

The crowd cheers and the pro in Summer comes out as she starts to work the crowd, getting them to sing the second chorus along with her. The bar is full of sound as everyone sings at once. The song is suddenly over and Summer stops, beaming.

The crowd goes crazy as people chant, "More, more, more!" Summer smiles at Rachel, who's cheering, and at Shane, who staring at her in amazement.

And this is the Terry Rossio version of the same page and a half:

INT - OLD PECAN COFFEE BAR - NIGHT

A rowdy crowd sings along with the band. Summer watches from a booth in the back, with Rachel, Carrie and Emily. 

ON STAGE, Shane enthusiastically murders a U2 song, flanked by his band. He finishes to a cacophony of cheers and boos. 

SHANE


Thanks for the support!


(more catcalls) 


Up next, someone with a better set of pipes! Sandra, where are you? 


EMILY


She's here! Go, Sandra!


Summer looks terrified. Shane spots her. 

SHANE


Come on up! Folks, Sandra moved here three weeks ago! 


The crowd CHEERS. Summer rises -- 

RACHEL 


Summer, you're gonna be great!


Summer leads herself to her own execution. Shane notes her fear, puts his hand over the mic. 

SHANE


It’s a good crowd. They love you already. What are you gonna sing? 


SUMMER


Ruby Tuesday? 


Shane uncovers the mic.

SHANE


Here's Sandra with a classic, Ruby Tuesday! 


The crowd CHEERS as the band slides into the intro. Summer steps up and sings. 

Her voice is quiet and cracks from nerves. Barely audible. The crowd quiets as people strain to hear her. 

ROWDY GUY


Louder! 


ANOTHER GUY


We can't hear you!!


Someone laughs.

Summer falters. She stares out at the room full of people, all staring, some smiling and hopeful, others already starting to smirk, ready to turn. 

Beside her, holding his guitar, Shane nods, already into the music. In the audience, Rachel holds a hand over her mouth. 

Determination floods into Summer's features. 

She starts to sing again. Loud, clear, and confident. Her voice is strong and bluesy, an unexpected sound. 

Yells of approval, and the pro in Summer emerges. She works the crowd. They join in for the second chorus. 

ANGLE - THE BAR, rocking and rolling, everyone sings at once, having a good time. 

The song is suddenly done. Summer beams as the crowd applauds, then chant, "one more, one more, one more!" 

Summer catches Rachel’s eye, cheering with the rest of them, then notices next to her, Shane, who stares at her, halfway to falling in love. 

First thing is, his version is much shorter. And this is a good thing. There's a lot more meat for a lot less fat.

I like the way he capitalises the important noises like the CHEERS - this is something I'm always forgetting to do but it really makes those bits jump out at you.

And it's also a lot more definite - Sandra "leads herself to her own execution", she's not "like a woman facing execution". The crowd is "ready to turn", not just "looking at her with derision". And Shane's reaction at the end - that this is where he starts to fall in love with her - is clearly marked. Which is at it should be, because it's an important moment.

I had two reactions to seeing his rewrite. One was to admire his work and the other was "I want the rest of the script to be that good!" So it's off to the coal face - the real work is beginning....

Thanks a million to Terry Rossio - and to the AFF for setting up the rewrite session. It should be fours hours this year!

2 comments:

Steven Kogan said...

This was one of my favorite sessions at AFF as well! Terry was not only a real nice guy, but you could tell he was the type that simply loved writing at its most basic level.

Now I didn't get a chance to send in a page (because I didn't actually pre-register and only managed to slip in the door and sit in the back corner on the floor when no one was watching,) but I agree that it's very interesting what he did with your scene here. It is much leaner, much punchier, and gets the scene across with more room to move around.

Here's my question though, did he keep the "spirit" of your scene? I ask because I've had this problem doing rewrites with others. He was reading six dozen scenes out of context, and while I don't know if this is part of a larger idea I imagine he did a pretty good job rewriting without making any core changes to the story, right? Do you think any changes he made ended up changing the scene from what you intended?

eilism said...

I certainly think he made the script more definite - he states that this is where Shane starts to fall in love with Summer, whereas I'd only implied that. I would agree that some of the time I felt during the session that the spirit of a script was being changed - BUT this was a session showing us how to rewrite. I guess it would be up to each writer to interpret that themselves in terms of their script?

It's certainly true that removing excessive parenthicals (one of my big problems) and making your writing cleaner and less wordy is a good thing.