How They Write A Script: Paul Schrader

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Paul Schrader

In a previous post, I noted two radically different approaches to writing as represented by Neil Simon, who doesn’t “make outlines at all” and Paul Schrader, who not only creates an outline, he re-outlines it. Let’s look more closely at how Schrader writes a script:

“I know exactly where I’m going beforehand. I know to the half page if I’m on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages. You may go two, three pages ahead or behind, you may add or drop dialogue or scenes; but if you’re two pages ahead or behind, you have to work that into the timing. Especially if you get five pages ahead, or, worse, five pages behind, then something you had planned to work on page forty may not work the same way on page forty-five.”

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Schrader’s handwritten outline for ‘Raging Bull’

The thing is as a writer works with screenplay structure over time on a number of projects, they can start to get a Gestalt sense of how it works. Schrader describes that experience this way:

“It’s like running the mile. You start to recognize signposts peripherally, and you know as you’re running past this house, the corner, whether you’re ahead or behind your time. And if you’re pushing too hard, you back off, if you’re not pushing hard enough, you speed up — because you have to reach that point at the end of the mile where you are totally spent. If you have any energy left, you have failed; and if you run out of energy before the end, you have failed.”

Schrader is a cerebral individual, so perhaps his intensely analytical approach to screenwriting shouldn’t be too surprising. Also, he was raised as part of a strict Calvinist family, so perhaps a certain amount of his, shall we say, ‘rigor’ toward the prep-writing process might echo from the theological experiences of his youth. That said, most screenwriters I know, have heard speak, or read about adopt some sort of analytical approach to prepare them before they type FADE IN. In some ways, it’s born out of the unique necessities of screenwriting as Schrader points out:

“Like in the movie American Gigolo (1980), I have the characters meet eight times in the movie, and I can see what pages they would meet on those eight times, and the different things that happen between the times they meet, so that there’s always something to talk about when they meet, something to pick up, something they had discussed previously, something to develop.”

“You have to try — in the structure of an hour-and-a-half movie — to arrange scenes that appear to follow each other in what seems to be a natural way, but is anything but natural. Because you can choose only forty, forty-five, fifty scenes to tell a story. You have to pick those fifty scenes very carefully if you’re going to get a rich story.”

Even Neil Simon admits, “I don’t make outlines at all. I make an outline only in my mind.” So while Simon may not put it down onto paper, he’s got some sort of idea of what he’s going to write rattling around in his head.

These excerpts with Schrader are taken from an excellent book called “The Craft of the Screenwriter”, which features interviews with Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, Neil Simon, Robert Towne, and Schrader.

[Originally posted 6/18/2008]

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