THE CRAFT: Cut the Scene! No, Don’t Cut (Please)! Cut!

By John Buchanan

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It’s inevitable that a scene you love will be deleted from the finished film, most often for reasons of time or money instead of story. Learning to deal with this reality is part of becoming a true professional.

The scene appeared in the novel, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, but not in screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg’s original outline for the movie. In the scene, Bella and her friend Angela have a conversation about boys. Given Bella’s unique dilemma in the ongoing series of best-selling books and blockbuster films, the conversation is anything but what it seems. Yet, it nicely conveys the characterization of two teenaged girls chatting up their favorite topic.

Left to right: Taylor Lautner as Jacob, Kristen Stewart as Bella, and Robert Pattinson as Edward in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse PHOTO: KIMBERLEY FRENCH COURTESY : SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

“People started telling me how much they loved that scene in the book, that it was a great moment that could show this other side of Bella’s life—the human relationships,” says Rosenberg, who has written all three of the Twilight films and will write the next two. “The intention of the original scene was to have this very real-world human exchange about boys. But for Bella, it goes far beyond boys. So there’s a sort of coding that happens. Angela thinks she’s talking about boys, and for Bella [the discussion is] about vampires and werewolves. But ultimately, it actually does come down to boys.”

After being shot, the scene was deleted from the finished film by director David Slade and the producers.

The reason was screenwriting 101: It didn’t advance the story.

“When it got to the editing process,” says Rosenberg, who was a successful TV writer for 15 years before seeing her first feature script brought to the screen, “David and the producers realized that it was just stopping the flow of the piece—that everything just stopped for this pure ‘character moment.’ And I agreed with them. It was a lovely scene, but it did stop the action.”

Writer Steve Faber had a similar experience on Wedding Crashers (co-written with Bob Fisher), the first feature film produced from one of his scripts. One key scene that was shot, only to be cut from the final film, involved Owen Wilson talking to Christopher Walken at the family estate after one of his daughters is married. In the scene, as a result of his genuine feelings for Rachel McAdams, Wilson wants to convince Walken that he is what he says he is. In response, Walken drops the opinion that Bradley Cooper might not be the right man for McAdams.

“It ended being a great father-son scene, because it was like Owen was the son Walken never had,” says Faber. “And it was comical, but it was more dramatic than comical. I fought hard for that scene, but it got cut for time.”

Did the deletion negatively impact the film?

“Filmmaking is a collaborative process. And nothing is precious.”
—Melissa Rosenberg

“It depends on how obsessed you are with story,” says Faber who, like Rosenberg, began his career in TV. “I am obsessed with story. And I think that scene would have helped [the film]. Did it significantly alter the film for the worse? No, I don’t think so. But I am also really interested in character. And I think it would have helped explore these characters a little bit better. But I understood, for the sake of time, why it was taken out.”

In fact, Faber says, time and money are almost invariably the reasons why otherwise good scenes are cut from movies.

Owen Wilson as John and Vince Vaughn as Jeremy in Wedding Crashers PHOTO: RICHARD CARTWRIGHT COURTESY: NEW LINE CINEMA

Veteran scribe William Wisher Jr. (The Terminator, Judge Dredd, Exorcist: The Beginning) experienced his first deletion of a final draft, filmed scene during the making of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which he co-wrote with James Cameron. In an important scene about halfway through the story, John Connor removed the T-800’s memory chip and switched it from “read” to “write” in order to alter its behavior so it could better understand human beings and their world. In the final film, the scene was replaced by a single line of additional dialogue recording (ADR). In some Terminator DVD sets, the scene is included.

What Wisher observed—and learned from Cameron—was how to “make the film more economical, both in terms of time and in terms of how the information was imparted to the audience. And at some point during that process, we discussed the scene that he said he was going to cut. I said, ‘I don’t know if you should cut it. I think it played better the original way.’ But then we looked at it and I realized it didn’t play.”

Nevertheless, Wisher regretted the scene’s loss. “I always felt bad about cutting it,” he says. “I missed it. It’s the only thing I miss of the things that organically needed to change between the script and the final edit. That was the one scene I was disappointed about.”

On Goldman and Rules

If William Goldman was right and the most important rules of screenwriting are “structure, structure, structure,” doesn’t that mean that, by definition, no scene can be removed from a well-constructed script without creating a story hole?

“What Goldman said is absolutely true, 100 percent of the time … in a college classroom,” says Wisher. “But in the real world, it doesn’t really work that way because sometimes what looks good on paper—what seems to play beautifully in a script—you film it and for one reason or another, it’s not doing what you want. It doesn’t seem as clear as it appeared on the page.”

That’s because filmmaking is a complex process, of which writing is but a part. “It’s really interesting, because when you make a film, you’re really making it three times,” Wisher says.

“The first time is when you’re writing it. The second time is when you’re shooting it. And the third time is when you edit it all together in post. And things change between the first time and the third time.”

For her part, Rosenberg simply accepts change as an inescapable practical reality of the movie business. “It happens with every movie that was ever made in the history of the world, I would think,” she says. “Filmmaking is a collaborative process. And nothing is precious. You always have to adjust and adapt to everything that goes on. You have to be fluid. [A script] isn’t a novel where once it’s printed, it can’t be touched. It is a movie. And that is something I’ve had to learn over the course of my career.”

The simple fact of the matter, Rosenberg says and Faber and Wisher agree, is that film is a collaborative medium. That reality, more than any other single factor, generally drives the process.

“And I think the fact that it is a collaborative process is a net positive and not a net negative for the writer,” Wisher says. “Having the ‘second brain’ of a good director, or a good producer, to help you develop material makes you sharper by necessity. When a lot of people think about the fact it’s a collaborative process, they think of it as a compromise of their authority. To some degree it is. But the tradeoff you get is that you have other really talented people challenging the decisions that you initially made. Out of that comes better work.”

A “Three-Card Monte”

From his long experience in TV and then his feature-film baptism with Wedding Crashers, Faber has formally adopted a lesson that he says he understood instinctively years ago. “I learned a big lesson and that was to overwrite,” he says. “By that, I mean I learned in my own head that there are certain things that are going to be cut, just for time and money. But they will be cut. So now, I throw in scenes that I’m willing to give up in order to keep scenes that I really feel passionately about. There is stuff that is definitely worth fighting for, and as a writer you have the privilege to exercise your passion. So you can stand up and say, ‘This is really good, and I think it will work. We ought to give it a shot.’ And if it’s time you’re worried about, take out this other scene. We don’t need it. We can sacrifice that one.’ It’s a bit like the old three-card Monte, but it works.”

Unfortunately, new writers do not have that option. “If you’re a new writer, you can’t do that,” Faber says. “If you’re new and you’re sending out a spec, then every moment, every word, every scene has to count. Everything has to drive the story forward. It’s the same lesson you pick up in Robert McKee’s book or a screenwriting class.”

However, Faber says, all writers should be prepared to defend the integrity of their work. And they should not be easily intimidated by any claim that film is a director’s medium and that, as a result, writers should know when to defer. “First of all, not many directors have final cut,” he says. “If you’re working with a director who does have final cut, then I respect that. If the director does not have final cut, then I believe everything is up for grabs. And if you do feel passionately about something, you should defend it.”

By the same token, Faber says, writers should be open to constructive criticism about a scene that, in fact, does not drive the story forward. “I’m obsessed with story, so I agree every moment should count,” he says. “But sometimes it depends on your definition of driving a story forward. Does story drive character? Does character drive story? I happen to believe that story drives character in a well-constructed script.”

Regardless of the dynamics of story, one overarching reality now governs the filmmaking and writing process. “In a pragmatic and very practical way, in telling a story, sometimes you have to ‘kill your darlings,’” says Wisher. “And in my experience, that absolutely continues to be true. What I would tell a young writer is that even the stuff you love the most, even the stuff you think is so incredibly clever, in the end it won’t kill a movie if it has to go. You just have to figure out a different way to get the same thought out. And that’s life.”

For Rosenberg, the essential consideration is simply the complicated process of bringing a story to commercial fruition. “New writers have to really understand that film is a collaborative medium, and that they can’t get attached to things,” she says. “The other lesson is to pick and choose your battles and to be open to alternatives, because if you dig in about things, you’re not necessarily helping the process. So fight for the important stuff, but allow that things will change and that they have to change sometimes for very pragmatic reasons. And you should try to be a part of that as much as possible so you can help make sure that things are changing in the right direction.”

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JOHN BUCHANAN is an award-winning, nationally published journalist and magazine writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and also a reporter for the global news agency Reuters.

Originally published in Script Magazine September/October 2010

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3 thoughts on “THE CRAFT: Cut the Scene! No, Don’t Cut (Please)! Cut!

  1. Leona Heraty

    John,

    Thanks for this excellent, informative article. I especially appreciate your tip on overwriting, or putting in a few extra scenes, in case some are cut, which it sounds like at least a few usually are. And, the key takeaway I learned from your article is that as screenwriters, we need to be passionate about our writing, but understand that making movies is truly a collaborative medium, so we must always be flexible and open to necessary changes.

  2. Mayfwriter

    You can see a good example of what the article is discussing by obtaining a copy of the DVD version of Terminator 2 which includes scenes which were cut from the original theatrical version.

    All of the scenes which are added back in this version are well written, well shot, well acted, etc., but if you think about the original version, it has a lot more pace because Cameron (I presume) cut them.

    And for me, on reflection, the scenes themselves are absolutely unnecessary to telling the story.

  3. LFabry

    Phew, I was about to overwrite until Faber explained himself further. Thanks for the great article!

    side note: I respectfully and minimally object to boys being the favorite topic of conversation for girls, with the exception of Bella and any girl she speaks to.

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