On annotations in screenplays

I had an interesting conversation with Terry Rossio recently at the Austin Film Festival in which he told me that he has begun to include detailed endnotes in his most recent screenplays.

The use of footnotes or endnotes or other annotations in screenplays is not common. In fact, the few times I saw the idea suggested in all the years I studied screenwriting, it was shouted down as an amateurish move (usually by other amateurs).*

Rossio is anything but an amateur, however, and he ran down for me a number of reasons for this new practice, which he says has been very positively received by the producers and directors he works with.

First, a little background for those not familiar with screenwriting: The general rule of thumb is that one page of a script will translate to one minute of screen time. So if you write a 110-page screenplay, that means you’ve got a 110-minute movie.

Now, common sense will tell us that not every page is exactly sixty seconds. Some pages are mostly dialogue and can play out fast or slow. Some are dense with action sequences that the director will want to linger on. Some contain a lot of scene-setting description that doesn’t take up any real screen time.

But common sense often does not enter into the discussion when it comes to notes from the studio.

A problem that Rossio was seeing was that somewhere a studio executive wanting to trim the expenses for a film would send the command down the line that a story needed to lose three pages.

The writers would then keep the story as intact as possible by leaving the action and dialogue alone, but trimming scenery description from the script. They could cut three pages that way without ever hurting the story they had written or even effectively changing the actual run time of the film.

The trouble would come, though, when the film crew and actors arrived on set to find that critical pieces were missing—a gallows without nooses, for example—because the art director no longer had the instructions he needed to do his job. Production would grind to a halt, costing more and more money, as they scrambled for solutions.

And so detailed endnotes are how Rossio is preemptively dealing with these situations. It’s still a 110-page screenplay, but now it has an additional twenty or thirty pages of notes after the end, keyed to every little detail from the story. And it’s not just descriptions that he’s highlighting. He’ll make notes regarding even small moments that a director might be tempted to cut: “This line of dialogue on page 30 is part of the setup for a joke that pays off on page 45,” for example.

When it comes to feature film production (unlike television) the writer is often thought of as a second-class citizen, not all that important to the finished product. Endnotes are Rossio’s way of reminding people that, when a writer is good at his job, pretty much every word in a script is there for a reason. If the director or producer or actor wants to change something on a whim, at least with endnotes they’ll now have an idea of what the repercussions might be.

 

*Note that I’m not advising you to start including endnotes in your spec scripts. There might still be this perception of “amateurishness” out there since the practice is not widespread. If you have a working relationship with a director or producer, however, along with a complicated story that warrants it, this might be something to discuss and consider.