A while back I was … something (Lead Writer? Script Editor? Co-creator? All of the above?) on PERSONA, a smart-phone delivered continuing drama series (which may, or may not, have been the first in the world).
Now there were a whole host of issues with that show, mostly my personal ones; but now’s not the time to go into them.
Next post. That’s probably a good time to go into them.
But this post, this post is just about a wine glass.
And possibly a tequila glass at a later date.
But definitely, a wine glass. An errant, naughty wine glass which should never have existed.
So the first scene of my first appisode of PERSONA had a man and woman getting on like a house on fire in a romantic setting. They’re sitting side-by-side on the sofa of a dimly-lit lounge. There are two, half-drunk wine glasses on the table and these two people clearly have a lot in common – there’s excitement, there’s laughter, there’s a connection … and then the woman’s flatmate enters, necks one of the glasses of wine, kisses the bloke and tells the woman not to wait up before dragging the guy off for a night of debauchery and leaving the woman alone to feel sorry for herself.
Or something like that.
Okay, so it’s not a great scene; but hopefully you get the point – we’re meant to believe the man and the woman are a couple, then the reveal comes that this is someone else’s boyfriend.
So the scene is shot and there are THREE glasses of wine on the table. Not only that, the camera starts low, focuses on the THREE glasses of wine before moving to the couple, therefore making a huge fucking deal of there being THREE glasses of wine on the table despite there only being TWO people in the scene.
So now, to my eye, the whole scene is fucking ruined. RUINED! Now the audience will be wondering who the third wine glass belongs to, not really paying attention to the conversation and will probably guess what the reveal will be.
Okay, so as it turns out it wasn’t a problem because there was no audience. Not at that point, anyway.
And maybe later on, when there was an audience, they didn’t notice or just didn’t care; but I fucking noticed and I fucking cared and it seemed like a fundamental, yet stupid mistake to make.
The director apologised, he knew it was a mistake too; but had been too busy/stressed on the day to notice.
But how does this sort of thing happen? I specifically specified two specific glasses of specific wine. TWO. Why were there three in the scene? Obviously, some well meaning soul figured there were three people in the scene, therefore there should be three glasses and didn’t stop to consider why there were only two specified.
We writers like to believe there’s a point to every fucking word on the page. If there wasn’t a point, it wouldn’t be there. I would never specify the colour of someone’s jacket, for example, unless it was vitally important to the plot. I find one of the best ways to reduce my page count is to comb through the scene descriptions and ask myself if every word NEEDS to be there. So by the time the script is finished, the remaining words are the important ones. If something (like TWO wine glasses) is specified, it’s because it’s important and holds some plot significance … so why would someone ignore that?
Fast-forward a few years to a recent draft of a feature script I’m currently working on and I’ve written a scene where an upset man is drinking whisky in a bar. A drunken colleague demands the man cheer up and tries to top his WHISKY up with TEQUILA – provoking an irritated reaction.
When the notes came in, the client pointed out the man was drinking whisky, not tequila. The assumption being I’d made a mistake when it came to the attempted top-up line and forgotten what the upset man was drinking.
Initially, this irked me – I know what he’s drinking! That’s the fucking point! It helps illustrate that the man’s upset and it helps show the topper-upper doesn’t care about (or at least doesn’t pay attention to) the upset man. It isn’t a mistake – if you think about it for a minute, it’s perfectly obvious what’s going on. This is clearly a very stupid note!
Except, it’s not.
It was about here I realised there are several problems with my “if it’s on the page, it’s fucking important so just fucking leave it alone/do it as it’s fucking written” stance. The problem is – it’s not true.
Or not entirely true.
Especially not during the script-development process.
I’d love to say every draft I hand in is a work of art with no mistakes anywhere on any page; but that wouldn’t be true. There are mistakes. Some of them are small, some are glaringly obvious. Sometimes things I think make sense, don’t make sense to anyone else. Sometimes that’s my fault, sometimes it’s just because the other person has a different set of experiences and a different world view.
Rarely, and this is important, is it because the note-giver is stupid and/or bad at their job.
This script is set in America, to be made by Americans – therefore, everything is in dollars. Every financial reference uses dollars as its currency … except for one reference on page 107, tucked away in a particularly exciting action line. One reference to millions of pounds which escaped my and the client’s detection for three drafts. It’s a clear mistake, one which an American would pick up on instantly; but because the client and I are both British, our brains just skated over it. It’s normal to us, a phrase we don’t really read – we just know what it is from the shape and skip over it. In the smae way you can wrtie a senetnce wtih laods of lettres in the wrnog plcae and the brian jsut auto-corrcets it to waht it konws it shuold be.
That’s one mistake, there are others. Especially in the early drafts. There are the odd spelling mistake, the odd grammar mistake, a few bits left over from previous drafts, tiny references to things which no longer exist and a load of sentences which can be interpreted in ways I couldn’t even begin to conceive.#
If the client is reading the script in order to make suggestions for things which can be improved, then he has a ‘find the flaw’ mentality. Given there are several flaws to find (because everything can always be improved) then it’s not unreasonable for him to occasionally misinterpret a correct sentence as a mistake.
Especially when it’s not crystal clear.
The information that the upset man was drinking whisky was on one line; the fact someone tried to top his glass up with tequila is on a separate one, half a page later. And that’s how it was worded:
… TRIES TO TOP UP (the man)’S GLASS WITH TEQUILA
Realising this isn’t a mistake takes a certain amount of mental agility. It’s obvious to me because I wrote it. It’s not obvious to anyone who’s looking for mistakes, finding several of them and jotting them down.
In order to establish this isn’t a writer’s error, it needs to be written:
… TRIES TO TOP UP (the man)’S WHISKY WITH TEQUILA
But more than that, it illustrates to me why it’s vitally important I comb through the script and weed out as many mistakes as I can. Every uncorrected mistake increases the chances of other stuff being misinterpreted. If I want actors, directors, producers, wardrobe, props, editing, lighting … everyone, just everyone who reads it to assume every word on the page is important and thought through … then every word on the page has to be important and thought through.
If I want someone to only put the clearly specified TWO glasses of wine on the table, then I need to make damned sure there isn’t a single mistake, be it line, word or punctuation mark throughout the entire script. I want people to follow the script verbatim (except when I don’t) so I have to make sure everything is clear, unambiguous and exactly what I want it to be.
Until I stop making mistakes, how can I reasonably expect anyone else not to?
#Actually, that’s something which never fails to amaze me. People read whatever the hell they like into a sentence – frequently misreading a word to find new and confusing meanings. If the client has a fixed idea of who the character is, then no amount of evidence to the contrary can change their internal vision of that person. Instead of realising they’ve misunderstood what type of person the character is, they just assume everything in the entire script is wrong because the character they’ve invented in their own heads isn’t the same as the one who’s actually written on the page.
A good example of this would be Spock and Bones in Star Trek. You could read one of those scripts and come to the conclusion that those two people hate each other. Maybe you could even interpret them as gay rivals for the Captain’s affections, each hell bent on humiliating/discrediting the other. That version of the characters would hold up remarkably well throughout the entire script … until you come to the one scene where one risks his life for the other.
If you were just reading the script for fun, then that might be a startling revelation which makes you rethink how you’re imagining the characters. If, on the other hand, your job was to look for inconsistencies and errors in the script, you might just decide this was out of character for them.
Actors do that a lot too. Instead of looking at all the things the character does and finding a way to play a person who does those things, they create their own version of the character first and then vehemently argue that their character wouldn’t do that sort of thing.
It’s annoying. Especially when they’re right.