Interview with Ted Tally
American Film Institute has ranked The Silence Of The
Lambs as the 5th highest film of all time in the thriller
genre. Arguably it could be number one. It is an incredible
piece of work that deserves to be seen multiple times to
catch all the nuances. One of the key personnel behind this
film is screenwriter Ted Tally. In 1992, he won an Academy
Award for best adapted screenplay. He brought to life one
of the most memorable villains of cinema history, Hannibal
Lecter. He again revisited Lecter's psyche for Red
Dragon and is currently at work on Alexander The
Great which slated for a 2004 release.
than discussing his films, this interview focuses on his
Interviews: You studied at the Yale School of Drama. Did you take
classes that dealt with screenwriting? If so, do you feel that
they helped with your current work?
I took no screenwriting classes at the Yale School of Drama. (None
were offered.) But I did study playwriting, with specific classes,
tutorials and workshops, and really, the two kinds of writing
craft are very closely related. My formal studies in "script-writing",
therefore, were very helpful to me (especially when scenes or
plays could be rehearsed on their feet), though of course academic
training isn't the best route for everyone.
There are many screenwriters who refuse to read books on screenwriting
or take classes for fear of being homogenized. You also said "academic
training isn't the best route for everyone." So, do you think
there is some truth to this fear?
I can understand that some screenwriters, especially new ones,
might hesitate to take screenwriting courses or read screenwriting
guides for fear of becoming "homogenized." But these
things can also offer valuable basic guidelines in terms of structure,
action description, character development, etc., even down to
the proper professional "look" of a screenplay. Like
any other influence, they should not be considered uncritically,
but rather as just another possible resource. Take from them anything
that feels useful and fits your style or your story, and ignore
You mentioned in the screenwriting seminar at the Palm Springs
Film Festival that it is possible to analyze a script after it
is done, but it is not really possible to write a script based
on formula. Can you elaborate on this statement?
I don't remember or quite understand that comment from Palm Springs.
But yes, any script written completely according to a
formula or screenwriter's guide would almost certainly feel mechanical
and lifeless. At some point we all have to let some real-life
sloppiness creep into our work, and not be afraid to go more out
on a limb. I guess what I'm trying to say about all this is: yes,
rules (as in screenwriting) are made to be broken. But first it's
helpful to know what those "rules" are.
In regards to a novel that you will adapt, you've stated
that you will read it twice and then initially write six or seven
decide on the seven or eight (or however many) key scenes from
a novel will have to be in the screenplay, but I don't write those
first. I write them only as I get to them in story order. I always
work very methodically through the screenplay, from first scene
to last, polishing as I go - I don't jump around inside the scene
order. I have a neurotic need to feel that every page is as good
as I can make it before I move on, because every page that follows
is going to have to build on and be influenced by what came before.
Do you ever utilize notecards to write out scenes so you can manipulate
their order and also to determine which scenes to throw out?
I don't work with scenes on notecards, shuffling them, etc., though
I did back in my ancient pre-computer days. It's easy enough to
move text with a word processor, one of its great blessings for
I realize that structure is already set when adapting, but you
did state that there are times when you have to create other characters
if many scenes have been altered from the original storyline.
Can you discuss this further?
You mention creating new characters to cover cuts in a story (from
novel to screenplay). I'm sure I've done that, though I can't
right offhand remember an example. Most often this would result
in introducing some new, minor character, who has to carry the
burden of exposition to cover a story gap (you hope of course
to do this subtly). Creating a totally new major character in
an adaption would be extremely rare. More common would be combining
characters, especially supporting ones; i.e., taking some attitudes,
actions, etc., from a character you don't have room for, and reassigning
those to another character who will remain in the story.
Are there some rules/guidelines which are almost impossible to
ignore (such changing emotion in every scene - either positive
to negative, etc). If so, at what stage do you think about the
There are indeed some "rules" that cannot be broken.
Chief among them: Don't Bore The Audience. And also: Make The
Stakes High For the Characters (i.e., don't waste the audience's
time and patience with trivialities). Every story, in some sense,
is a matter of life and death. And also: Make the Main Character(s)
End Up Somewhere Different Than Where They Started The Story (in
terms of knowledge, emotion, experience - whatever). These and
other "rules" become ingrained with writers (not just
screenwriters), so I'm not sure you even consciously think about
them after awhile. But certainly they'd better be in the back
of your mind during the notes-and-outline stage, long before you're
writing the screenplay.
What is the average number of drafts you complete for a screenplay?
TT: I usually do about three major drafts of a screenplay, with
first draft by far the most important. After those three, there
further revisions, but they're usually minor - not a fulltime
a beginning screenwriter is interested in adapting a novel. It
seems like it would be a waste of time to write one without obtaining
rights to the book. Would it be best to write an original screenplay
and then shop it around or write an excerpt of the book in which
For a beginning screenwriter wanting to create a "writing
sample," either an original or adapted screenplay would be
fine. A complete script is best, rather than an excerpt.
it's an original, then obviously there are no "rights"
issues, but of course there is more pressure creatively to make
it good; it's a "lonelier" way to write, but more personal
and possibly fresher. It all depends on how good your ideas are.
one can also adapt a novel or short story that is old enough to
be in the public domain, and therefore you don't have to option
it or worry about copyrights. Or you can "adapt" a historical
(non-fiction) episode, event or character, which will also give
you plenty of story material without having to pay for it (I'm
reading a novel right now - it might just as well have begun life
as a screenplay - about Julius Caesar as a teenager. It's an "original
book" but the author was able to draw on all sorts of histories
and biographies to help with his story).
Some screenwriters impose a minimum number of pages to write per
day. However, if the creative juices just aren't flowing, do you
try and hit your quota or do you give it some time and come back
to it? What is your technique?
My goal on first drafts is to write about three pages a day (rewrites
in subsequent drafts tend to go faster). If I'm struggling a bit
that day, I'll settle for less, maybe a couple pages. I try not
to let myself completely off the hook no matter how slowly the
"creative juices" are flowing; I find that it you just
keep writing, eventually you can get yourself into it, even if
a lot of what you've written that day has to be tossed out later.
frustrating thing is when you hit your three or four page goal
for the day, but then when you read it over the next day, you
realize you should cut a page and a half of it! (Maybe that's
why first drafts take me four months). It's always "two steps
forward, one step back," but if you just keep plugging away,
eventually you get 120 -130 pages.
Outside of the "'rules' that cannot be broken", what
are some common mistakes made by beginning screenwriters?
One of the most common mistakes made by young screenwriters is
"overwriting," especially in terms of too much description,
but also verbose and often overly-explanatory dialogue. It's okay
to "write longer" in rough drafts, but successful revision
involves trying to say more with less effort; it's a matter of
continually honing down and cutting back to get to the essence
of each act, each scene, each line. Other common mistakes involve
a certain "tone-deafness" about dialogue - remember,
the words are written to be spoken aloud, and one has to at all
times be sensitive to the needs of actors - and the mistake of
thinking that just because some semi-autobiographical event, such
as a failed love affair, was enormously important to the young
writer, that it will automatically also be important to an audience.
It won't be, not unless it's shaped into an exciting fiction.
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