MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

CHAPTERS & SPLIT SCREENS


Our screenplays aren't just stories - we're in charge of the method used to tell those stories. I call this the "story form". Most scripts use a standard form - beginning, middle and end, but some benefit from using unusual story forms. Films like RUN LOLA RUN and MEMENTO turn standard stories into exciting new experiences by finding unusual ways to tell the story.


CHAPTERS

Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT, like his last screenplay and film INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, is broken up into chapters hand written onto the pages (CHAPTER ONE: LAST STAGE TO RED ROCK)... and you may be wondering if it's okay for you to do that. Sure! Remember, Tools Not Rules: if you find an unusual tool that helps to tell your story, use it! But like all tools: you want to use the right tool for the job. You wouldn't use a chainsaw to pound in a nail, it wouldn't make sense. Though a sledge hammer might work to pound in that nail, it's still not the right tool (are you just showing off or something?). You want to use a regular claw hammer to pound in that nail: the tool that fits the job. Same thing with writing tools: you don't want to do something like Chapters or Split Screen or Reverse Chronology just as a gimmick, you want to use tools like that because your story requires it... works much better with that tool than without. The reason why MEMENTO is told backwards is not a gimmick, it's to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist. He can't remember what happened five minutes ago, and neither can the audience (because it hasn't happened yet). Tools like this are all about the best way to tell the story. So use them if they are the right tool!

coupling

CITY OF GOD is a Brazilian film that was nominated for a whole bunch of Oscars a few years ago (and didn't win any) - a true story - about a kid who grows up in the slums, kid brother of a big time gang-banger, who becomes a famous photographer. It's a great little film, worth renting or adding to your NetFlix cue. This film uses so many interesting storytelling techniques, it's a smorgy of cool tools we might want to use in our own future screenplays... including Chapters, like HATEFUL EIGHT.

The movie opens with a bunch of heavily armed teenagers about to kill & cook a chicken. But the chicken gets away, and they chase it through the streets - shooting at it. A wild scene as a huge gang of kids chases the chicken down the street blasting away and laughing. People on the streets dive for cover. Then we meet our hero - a teen with a camera around his neck. He's talking to a friend... then the chicken runs towards them. The gang-boss yells for him to grab the chicken. Hero misses it... and all of the gang-bangers draw their guns and aim at him. Over a chicken? Then we see behind our hero - a couple of police cars, doors open, armed cops spilling onto the street. Our hero and his friend are trapped between gangbangers and cops in an all out war!

Now that might be enough - what a cool situation - but the story flashes back (like SUNSET BLVD) to our hero as a little kid defending a soccer goal (same exact position - trapped between a kicker and the net) and we see how he came to get the camera, came to be in that dangerous position.

But the story is not told the way we are used to - it's in "chapters". Each chapter has a chapter title, and each chapter focuses on one element of the big story. So there's a chapter called THE FLAT that is all about how one apartment is the headquarters for drug dealing in the favela (slum city). For that chapter, the apartment is the star and our hero is a supporting player. That segment is about our young hero and his peripheral involvement in the drug culture of the favela. Even though the apartment is the "star" of that chapter, every scene is about the hero in the apartment. His first visit, hanging around older kids, to the day he's given a camera so that he can become the official photographer for the gang.

The idea of using chapters is interesting. Maybe something I can use - or use a variation - in a screenplay of mine. That input stimulated my creativity and may result in some completely different output... but seeing things done in a way I've never seen before prodded my imagination.


SPLIT SCREEN

candyland

After seeing TIMECODE I thought it was an awful story with an interesting device - the split screen.I saw the film several different times with director Mike Figgis doing the audio mix live to highlight one of the four frames we were watching. Unfortunately. all four frames had people talking simultaneously, so there is no way an audience can actually watch the whole film... we have to watch it one quarter at a time (depending on how Mike switched the audio). In the cinema, the prints had audio chosen for us, making the film very frustrating because there were always three conversations we could not hear! Was that conversation important? The split screen here was just a gimmick, and had nothing to do with telling the simple story. It added nothing... and actually took away three quartesr of the story!

We don't want a gimmick: that's a sledge hammer to pound a nail. What we want is the right tool for the job. So how about doing a rom-com with a split screen? Her side and his side? Or a cops & robbers movie with a split screen - one side showing the bad guys pulling their heist, the other side showing the cops trying to prevent it? Guess what? There's a Don Westlake novel that alternates chapters between bad-ass crooks pulling a kidnaping and inept crooks trying to pull a copycat kidnaping (using the bad-ass guys plans). That's kind of a split screen. There's an Ed McBain book (CANDYLAND) where the first half is about a normal guy who becomes a crime victim and the last half is about the cops trying to solve the crime. Kind of like LAW & ORDER but with the victim & the cops. That might be an interesting thing to do in a script. All of that Tarantino playing with time stuff comes from novels - the flashbacks within flashbacks in OUT OF THE PAST.

coupling

In fact, the split screen rom-com idea was done in the third season of the British sit-com COUPLING (a zillion times better than the cancelled Americanized version). In the episode, called THE SPLIT, the couple at the center of the series gets into an argument and breaks up. As they do, the screen splits and the rest of the episode is split screen - one side following the guy and the other side following the gal. Humor is derived from the different ways they deal with the exact same issues. Both are sitting by the phone waiting for the other to call... their friends come over to console them, and each side has a different method for dealing with the situation. When the guy breaks down and dials her number, she almost answers... but her friends say she should give it a few rings in case it's him. Meanwhile he realizes calling her so soon is a mistake and hangs up. When she picks up the phone there's no one there. But now there's a huge problem - if she *69s, she'll know he called. So he has to get one of his pals to call her on their cell and then hang up. This creates suspense because her friends are trying to get her to *69 and find out who called her. The split screen adds a source for contrast between the two camps, creating humor. The split screen ADDS humor.

coupling

Brian DePalma is the king of split screen - and it is used for a specific purpose in his films. Basically, he created suspense cross cutting where the audience did the editing by looking back and forth between both sides of the screen. In the movie SISTERS one side of the screen shows a man cleaning up a crime scene - after his estranged wife kills a guy she’s spent the night with. The other side of the screen shows a witness to the crime calling the police and the police arriving and approaching the crime scene. Will he get all of the blood cleaned up before the police arrive? Split screen creates a form of cross cutting for suspense, except the viewer does the cross cutting by looking from one side of the screen to the other. The perfect tool for this scene!

These are all tools - put it in your tool box and use it if you need it. You aren't going to use an unusual story form on every script, but "Chapters" and "Split Screens" may be the storytelling method that makes your script idea work better. MEMENTO uses backwards chronology to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes. It wasn't just a gimmick - it was the best way to tell the story.

Think about your story. Think about what you want the audience to feel. Find the way to tell the story so that the audience feels/reacts the way you want them to. It is not just the story, but how you tell it.

More on Split Screens in STRUCTURING YOUR STORY Blue Book!


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