Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Cutting The Picture [Part 2]

November 11th, 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]:

Naturally you must first run all the film through your projector. Then comes the interminable task of assembling the picture, selecting the best material, and rewriting the sub-titles. The secret of fine cutting lies in a resolve to work with an open mind, to reject your pet scene if the director has evolved a better one, and always to be ready to forsake an old idea for a new and better one.

Once again, we find ourselves in a shocking reality whereby writers are involved cutting movies. In 1920, the movie industry was definitely in a pre-auteur mindset.

One huge advantage filmmakers had in post-production 90 years ago was the ability to salvage what had been shot [assuming the footage was less than good] by rewriting sub-titles. There is no direct equivalent nowadays. We can re-record dialogue, but it has to sync up with the actor’s lips. With silent pictures, that was not an issue. A writer could rewrite sub-titles to their heart’s content to improve scenes.

There is a takeaway from the above description in relation to screenwriting and it’s this: The secret of fine cutting lies in a resolve to work with an open mind… always be ready to forsake an old idea for a new and better one. This is a mindset we need to bring when writing a script.

Don’t get too attached to what your write. Don’t get locked down too soon. Always be willing to look for and accept improved versions of what you have written.

This willingness to embrace such possibilities is one key to succeeding as a professional screenwriter. There is no profession where the adage “writing is rewriting” is more pertinent than screenwriting. Having an open mind is essential in that process.

Next week: More about cutting the picture.

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

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