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Between The Lines

An Interview with Ted Tally
by Anup Sugunan

The 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.

Rather than discussing his films, this interview focuses on his writing techniques.

photo of Oscar-winning adaptation screenwriter Ted Tally

Filmmaker 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?

Ted Tally: No, 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.

FI: 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?

TT: 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 the rest.

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.

FI: 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?

TT: 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.

I have a neurotic need to feel that every page is as good as I can make it before I move on,

FI: 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 memorable scenes.

I 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.

FI: Do you ever utilize notecards to write out scenes so you can manipulate their order and also to determine which scenes to throw out?

TT: 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 screenwriters.

FI: 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?

TT: 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.

There are indeed some "rules" that cannot be broken. Chief among them: Don't Bore The Audience.

FI: 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 rules?

TT: 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.

FI: What is the average number of drafts you complete for a screenplay?

TT: I usually do about three major drafts of a screenplay, with the
first draft by far the most important. After those three, there will be
further revisions, but they're usually minor - not a fulltime job.

Say 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 she's interested?

TT: 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.

If 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.

But 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).

One of the most common mistakes made by young screenwriters is "overwriting,"

FI: 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?

TT: 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.

The 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.

FI: Outside of the "'rules' that cannot be broken", what are some common mistakes made by beginning screenwriters?

TT: 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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