Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Cutting The Picture [Part 1]

November 4th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: Cutting The Picture [P. 79]:

While a feature photoplay usually contains from 4,500 to 7,000 feet of film, the director in making the picture, may probably take 70,000 to 100,000 feet by expanding upon ideas as they occur to him and by taking his scenes in several different ways for close ups, long shots, and so forth.

It is therefore obvious that some one must condense this fifteen miles or so of motion pictures back into the conventional commercial length.

The studio that calls you in to cut a picture will supply you with a hand projector, a mechanical device which enables you to grind the film into animation without the necessity of projecting it on the screen. A laboratory will take your orders as to sequence and length of scenes.

Yes, you read that right. A studio. Calling in the writers. To cut the movie. After the director has shot it.

I mean… Holy Shit!

For years, the WGA has been negotiating to bring the writer even slightly more into the production and post process. And here we were 90+ years ago when writers – WRITERS!!! – would routinely cut movies.


Then along came the auteur theory, directors became the Big Dogs, and the rest is, as they say, is history.

Well, I say screw that. The next few weeks, we will learn what these writers saw as essential knowledge in cutting a movie and how that relates to the writing process.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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3 thoughts on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Cutting The Picture [Part 1]

  1. Bryan Colley says:

    Seems like if the writer is also editing the film, the may as well be directing it too.

    1. Scott says:

      I teach a History of American Screenwriting class. In some ways, the earliest days of movies [first three decades] had a similar dynamic as TV nowadays: where the writer-producer is ‘king’ being responsible for creating multiple episodes, and directors were more hired hands to execute the writer’s vision. Early movie production outfits focused on creating a lot of content and for that they needed stories. And for that they needed writers.

  2. That’s fascinating, Scott.

    It’s such a new medium, it’s interesting how locked-in certain ideas and forms are. The screenplay form itself is presented as if it’s an immutable thing, but it’s actually quite odd and idiosyncratic. I keep reading, ‘Don’t write anything that can’t be shot,’ then I met with a producer who said, ‘you’ve got to write a lot of stuff here that can’t be shot, just to communicate with the readers–that’s your job, communicating with readers (ie, at the networks) not with the viewers. You talk to to the director. Director talks to the viewers.”

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