Screenwriting & Editing: The Shawshank Redemption

The movie version of the story’s opening is much better than the script.

[Originally posted September 1, 2009]

Over the weekend, we had an interesting discussion in response to this post about the [thus far] ill-fated movie project “Moneyball”. In comments, Carpet made the following statement:

i agree, this movie [Moneyball] sounds like a money-loser any way you look at it. i’m just speaking against the simplistic idea that soderbergh’s script sucks. the totality of a visionary director’s vision has to be accounted for, and script it just one part of that.
by the way — i’m an editor, not a screenwriter. although i suppose i get to do the final rewrite, don’t i?

In my update to the original post, I basically agreed with Carpet. An excerpt from my comments:

Speaking to Carpet’s broader point, one need only look at the making of the movie Annie Hall to see how important the edit process is. From the movie’s Wikipedia entry:
The film was originally intended to be a drama centered on a murder mystery with a comic and romantic subplot, and was filmed that way. According to Allen, the murder occurred after a scene that remains in the film, the sequence in which Annie and Alvy miss the Ingmar Bergman film Face to Face.[2] After shooting had completed, the film’s editor persuaded Woody Allen to cut the mystery plot and make the film a romantic comedy.”
The movie turned from a drama / murder mystery into a rom-com after it was shot — in the editing process.
So yes Carpet, you’re right: The director and editor get the final ‘rewrite’ on a movie. But it’s fair to say that screenwriters have a role that no one else has in the production of a movie: We are involved in the genesis of the movie’s story universe.
All part of filmmaking’s collaborative process — and we each have our part to play. What’s more, we can learn from each others craft. Certainly screenwriters can learn a ton from studying what editors do.
I’ve got a great example of how even a simple editorial choice can transform good script pages into a great movie sequence. It’s from The Shawshank Redemption. And I’ll post that on Monday.

Well, today is Monday and what follows is what I was referring to in my post: The opening sequence in The Shawshank Redemption.

Here is how it was scripted:

INT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946)
A dark, empty room.
The door bursts open. A MAN and WOMAN enter, drunk and
giggling, horny as hell. No sooner is the door shut than
they're all over each other, ripping at clothes, pawing at
flesh, mouths locked together.
He gropes for a lamp, tries to turn it on, knocks it over
instead. Hell with it. He's got more urgent things to do, like
getting her blouse open and his hands on her breasts. She
arches, moaning, fumbling with his fly. He slams her against
the wall, ripping her skirt. We hear fabric tear.
He enters her right then and there, roughly, up against the
wall. She cries out, hitting her head against the wall but not
caring, grinding against him, clawing his back, shivering with
the sensations running through her. He carries her across the
room with her legs wrapped around him. They fall onto the bed.
CAMERA PULLS BACK, exiting through the window, traveling
smoothly outside...
2 EXT -- CABIN -- NIGHT (1946) 2
...to reveal the bungalow, remote in a wooded area, the
lovers' cries spilling into the night...
...and we drift down a wooded path, the sounds of rutting
passion growing fainter, mingling now with the night sounds of
crickets and hoot owls...
...and we begin to hear FAINT MUSIC in the woods, tinny and
incongruous, and still we keep PULLING BACK until...
...a car is revealed. A 1946 Plymouth. Parked in a clearing.
3 INT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 3
ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20's, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit.
Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly
dangerous, perhaps even meek. But these circumstances are far
from normal. He is disheveled, unshaven, and very drunk. A
cigarette smolders in his mouth. His eyes, flinty and hard, are
riveted to the bungalow up the path.
He can hear them fucking from here.
He raises a bottle of bourbon and knocks it back. The radio
plays softly, painfully romantic, taunting him:
You stepped out of a dream...
You are too wonderful...
To be what you seem...
He opens the glove compartment, pulls out an object wrapped
in a rag. He lays it in his lap and unwraps it carefully --
-- revealing a .38 revolver. Oily, black, evil.
He grabs a box of bullets. Spills them everywhere, all over
the seats and floor. Clumsy. He picks bullets off his lap,
loading them into the gun, one by one, methodical and grim.
Six in the chamber. His gaze goes back to the bungalow.
He shuts off the radio. Abrupt silence, except for the distant
lovers' moans. He takes another shot of bourbon courage, then
opens the door and steps from the car.
4 EXT -- PLYMOUTH -- NIGHT (1946) 4
His wingtip shoes crunch on gravel. Loose bullets scatter to
the ground. The bourbon bottle drops and shatters.
He starts up the path, unsteady on his feet. The closer he
gets, the louder the lovemaking becomes. Louder and more
frenzied. The lovers are reaching a climax, their sounds of
passion degenerating into rhythmic gasps and grunts.
WOMAN (O.S.)
Oh god...oh god...oh god...
Andy lurches to a stop, listening. The woman cries out in
orgasm. The sound slams into Andy's brain like an icepick. He
shuts his eyes tightly, wishing the sound would stop.
It finally does, dying away like a siren until all that's left
is the shallow gasping and panting of post-coitus. We hear
languorous laughter, moans of satisfaction.
WOMAN (O.S.)
Oh god...that's sooo good...you're
the best...the best I ever had...
Andy just stands and listens, devastated. He doesn't look like
much of a killer now; he's just a sad little man on a dirt
path in the woods, tears streaming down his face, a loaded gun
held loosely at his side. A pathetic figure, really.
FADE TO BLACK: 1ST TITLE UP
5 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 5
THE JURY listens like a gallery of mannequins on display,
pale-faced and stupefied.
D.A. (O.S.)
Mr. Dufresne, describe the
confrontation you had with your
wife the night she was murdered.
ANDY DUFRESNE
is on the witness stand, hands folded, suit and tie pressed,
hair meticulously combed. He speaks in soft, measured tones:
ANDY
It was very bitter. She said she
was glad I knew, that she hated all
the sneaking around. She said she
wanted a divorce in Reno.
D.A.
What was your response?
ANDY
I told her I would not grant one.
D.A.
(refers to his notes)
I'll see you in Hell before I see
you in Reno. Those were the words
you used, Mr. Dufresne, according
to the testimony of your neighbors.
ANDY
If they say so. I really don't
remember. I was upset.
FADE TO BLACK: 2ND TITLE UP
D.A.
What happened after you and your
wife argued?
ANDY
She packed a bag and went to stay
with Mr. Quentin.
D.A.
Glenn Quentin. The golf pro at the
Falmouth Hills Country Club. The
man you had recently discovered was
her lover.
(Andy nods)
Did you follow her?
ANDY
I went to a few bars first. Later,
I decided to drive to Mr. Quentin's
home and confront them. They
weren't there...so I parked my car
in the turnout...and waited.
D.A.
With what intention?
ANDY
I'm not sure. I was confused. Drunk.
I think mostly I wanted to scare them.
D.A.
You had a gun with you?
ANDY
Yes. I did.
FADE TO BLACK: 3RD TITLE UP
D.A.
When they arrived, you went up
to the house and murdered them?
ANDY
No. I was sobering up. I realized
she wasn't worth it. I decided to
let her have her quickie divorce.
D.A.
Quickie divorce indeed. A .38
caliber divorce, wrapped in a
handtowel to muffle the shots,
isn't that what you mean? And then
you shot her lover!
ANDY
I did not. I got back in the car
and drove home to sleep it off.
Along the way, I stopped and threw
my gun into the Royal River. I feel
I've been very clear on this point.
D.A.
Yes, you have. Where I get hazy,
though, is the part where the
cleaning woman shows up the next
morning and finds your wife and her
lover in bed, riddled with .38
caliber bullets. Does that strike
you as a fantastic coincidence, Mr.
Dufresne, or is it just me?
ANDY
(softly)
Yes. It does.
D.A.
I'm sorry, Mr. Dufresne, I don't
think the jury heard that.
ANDY
Yes. It does.
D.A.
Does what?
ANDY
Strike me as a fantastic coincidence.
D.A.
On that, sir, we are in accord...
FADE TO BLACK! 4TH TITLE UP
D.A.
You claim you threw your gun into
the Royal River before the murders
took place. That's rather convenient.
ANDY
It's the truth.
D.A.
You recall Lt. Mincher's testimony?
He and his men dragged that river
for three days and nary a gun was
found. So no comparison can be made
between your gun and the bullets
taken from the bloodstained corpses
of the victims. That's also rather
convenient, isn't it, Mr. Dufresne?
ANDY
(faint, bitter smile)
Since I am innocent of this crime,
sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient
the gun was never found.
FADE TO BLACK: STH TITLE UP
6 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 6
The D.A. holds the jury spellbound with his closing summation:
D.A.
Ladies and gentlemen, you've heard
all the evidence, you know all the
facts. We have the accused at the
scene of the crime. We have foot
prints. Tire tracks. Bullets
scattered on the ground which bear
his fingerprints. A broken bourbon
bottle, likewise with fingerprints.
Most of all, we have a beautiful
young woman and her lover lying
dead in each other's arms. They had
sinned. But was their crime so
great as to merit a death sentence?
He gestures to Andy sitting quietly with his ATTORNEY.
D.A.
I suspect Mr. Dufresne's answer to
that would be yes. I further
suspect he carried out that
sentence on the night of September
21st, this year of our Lord, 1946,
by pumping four bullets into his
wife and another four into Glenn
Quentin. And while you think about
that, think about this...
He picks up a revolver, spins the cylinder before their eyes
like a carnival barker spinning a wheel of fortune.
D.A.
A revolver holds six bullets, not
eight. I submit to you this was not
a hot-blooded crime of passion!
That could at least be understood,
if not condoned. No, this was
revenge of a much more brutal and
cold-blooded nature. Consider! Four
bullets per victim! Not six shots
fired, but eight! That means he
fired the gun empty...and then
stopped to reload so he could shoot
each of them again! An extra bullet
per lover...right in the head.
(a few JURORS shiver)
I'm done talking. You people are
all decent, God-fearing Christian
folk. You know what to do.
FADE TO BLACK: 6TH TITLE UP
7 INT -- JURY ROOM -- DAY (1946) 7
CAMERA TRACKS down a long table, moving from one JUROR to the
next. These decent, God-fearing Christians are chowing down on
a nice fried chicken dinner provided them by the county,
smacking greasy lips and gnawing cobbettes of corn.
VOICE (O.S.)
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty...
We find the FOREMAN at the head of the table, sorting votes.
FADE TO BLACK: 7TH TITLE UP
8 INT -- COURTROOM -- DAY (1946) 8
Andy stands before the dias. THE JUDGE peers down, framed by a
carved frieze of blind Lady Justice on the wall.
JUDGE
You strike me as a particularly icy
and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne.
It chills my blood just to look at
you. By the power vested in me by
the State of Maine, I hereby order
you to serve two life sentences,
back to back, one for each of your
victims. So be it.
He raps his gavel as we
CRASH TO BLACK: LAST TITLE UP.

And here is a partial version of the sequence and how they edited what they shot in the movie:

Straightaway there are two big differences between the script and the movie:

(1) Where the script starts inside the cabin [Scene 1] with Dufresne’s wife and lover already going at it, the movie starts with a shot of the cabin in the woods [Scene 2], then inside Andy’s car [Scene 3].

Why the change? First, by not revealing what’s going on in the cabin upfront, the movie creates a question for the viewer: Why are we here?. Then when Andy pulls out the pistol, the situation shifts into a full-blown mystery: What the hell is going on? I’m guessing the movie’s writer-director Frank Darabont and his editor on the film Richard Francis-Bruce figured the audience is going to find out about Andy’s wife cheating on him soon enough, why not arouse some curiosity first, then pay it off later?

(2) Where the script stays with the action on the night of the murder, at 1:12 in the movie, we hear the V.O. of the District Attorney from the trial: “Mr. Dufresne, describe the…” Then cut to a C.U. of Andy on the witness stand at his murder trial. Thereafter, the scenes are cross cut — from the night of the murder to the trial, back and forth.

This is a huge change and much for the better. First, it doesn’t force the viewer to go through the events twice: The night of the murder, then hear the details again in the trial. By intercutting the two sequences, the viewer experiences the night’s events one time — so no wasted exposition.

Speaking of exposition, in the script, there are 34 sides of dialogue in Scenes 5–8, where the story cuts in on Andy’s testimony to the judge’s sentencing. That’s a ton of ‘talking heads’. By cross cutting between the trial testimony with what was happening on the night of the murder, inside and outside the cabin, the exposition transforms into commentary on the action, the words ‘connected’ to visual images — much more cinematic.

Here’s the breakdown of the cuts in the movie version of the opening. The italicized segments are where the trial V.O. is laid over visuals of the night of the murder:

0:00–1:12: Scene 2 + Scene 3 (partial) — establish the cabin / Andy in car

1:12–2:00: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy trial testimony: background of the night of the murder

2:00–2:06: Scene 1 (partial) — Andy and D.A.’s V.O. over visual introducing Andy’s wife and her lover Glenn Quentin as they enter cabin and embrace

2:06–2:20: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy trial testimony: talks about how he ended up outside the cabin

2:20–2:33: Scene 3 (partial) — Andy’s V.O. describing his state of mind over visual of him inside his car, loading up gun with bullets

2:33–3:40: Scene 5 (partial) — Andy and D.A. back and forth about the whereabouts of the gun

3:40–4:28: Scene 3 (partial), Scene 4, Scene 6 (partial) — D.A. summary argument to the jurors V.O. over visuals of Andy taking a last drink in his car, emerging from the car, and stopping outside the cabin

4:28–4:50: Scene 6 (partial): D.A. asserts “this was revenge of a much more brutal and cold-blooded nature”

4:50–5:12: Scene 1 (partial): D.A. V.O. explains how murderer had to reload to fire 8 bullets over visuals of Andy’s wife and lover as “he enters her”

5:12–5:33: Scene 8: Judge sentences Andy

There are many other reasons why the movie version works better than the scripted version. I look forward to your impressions in that regard in comments.

The takeaway is that you can use cross cuts to enhance the visual nature of your story. A great script to read that employs cross cuts / intercuts a lot is The Dark Knight which you can get here.

UPDATE: Funny to read up top the comments about Moneyball which was definitely a troubled production and came this close to not getting produced. But in the end due to the combined writing efforts of Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, and the persistence of Brad Pitt, it turned out not only to be an excellent movie, it turned a profit.