On reading the WEST WING Scriptbooks, you come to realise that the legends about Aaron Sorkin are true. Specifically, the one about directors having to lean on the actors to speak faster.
I’m writing a half-hour show. That means the script needs to come in around thirty pages (I’m budgeting the scenes today). An hour-long show — and remember this is American maths, where a “half hour” show has a runtime without ads of 22 minutes, and an “hour” currently comes in around 43 minutes on network tv — should run about sixty pages.
By the time the last act is wrapping up in a Sorkin script, page sixty is somewhere in the distance behind you. The one I re-read last night before bed came in at sixty-nine pages. That’s something like an extra five minutes of runtime.
On a lot of shows, you’d expect someone above the writer on the authority ladder to thin out the script somewhere. But Sorkin was running the show. Sorkin is also a writer who loves actors; if you watched the show in its first four seasons, you’ll note that the actors get to do their physical work. No-one’s biting into the scenes to take out Richard Schiff bouncing up and down on his heels, or Alison Janney’s pauses.
What happens is, as per the legend, the actors speak faster. They’ll put away two pages of dialogue in under a minute, and that buys forty-five seconds on the clock.
One of Brian Eno’s more famous aphorisms was “honour thy mistake as a hidden intention.” The contortions the show goes through to contain the script becomes one of its hallmarks; fast, crisp dialogue, creating the air of a place of business that cannot afford to slow down.
Reading ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT scripts is something different. Total awareness of the clock. Michael Caine once described acting for the screen as surgery with a laser, and these guys script that way. The madness of the filmed episodes is very carefully timed in the script. Every last one of those hard cuts are down on the page.
It’s perhaps notable that AMC sent me the scripts when I asked for good examples of writing for the 22-minute form.
The adjustment, for me, is going from images to dialogue as the “real estate” of the piece. Working in American comics, I’m tied to the 22-page unit. I can budget out one of those in my sleep because I know instinctively how many images get me to the bottom corner of page 22 and how many words those images can contain. Now I have to work with a clock in my head; writing very few images, and dialogue doing all the work and eating up the pages.
So if anyone wants me tonight, I’ll be speaking dialogue aloud and generally acting like a schizophrenic until 4am.