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Pace or Play.

Photo by Linda Perez Johannessen on Unsplash

This is a love letter to a thing called pace. Believing in it. Letting it be your guide. I’m talking about having a flat-out affair with pace at the expense of your… gulp… own written words.

But first, a little context. And context usually comes from readers. Professionals. Those with skin in the game. As for their reviews, I’ve heard most of ‘em. So maybe have you:

“I like it a lot, but it could use a little pruning.”

“Starts like a house-a-fire. Finishes just as strong. But still feels a little fat in the middle.”

“Good story. But I’m kinda worried about the pacing of the thing.”

“Great writing. Yet I’m wondering if you can see yourself through all these trees.”

“Looks kinda description heavy, yeah?”

Then there’s two of my favorite, non-dialogue retorts. Upon handing my work to producers or editors, they immediately turn to the end to take a gander at the page number with their faces frozen in mock-shock. Or there’s others who will merely heft it in one or two hands and like some bad carnival act, guess the length by the tome’s weight.

Agents, producers, executives, directors, development minions, and editors, all have a version of the same note. Which put succinctly and to the point is thus: the script is too slow, needs cutting, so get to thinning it into something that moves like the wind before we bring on somebody who knows how to shave pages.

Why? Because it’s all about pace. Otherwise known as the fear of being boring.

After all, they are called the movies – ergo moving pictures – in other words, keep the story moving, keep the scenes moving, keep the shots moving and the dialogue to the dramatic point. And this doesn’t apply to only the writing phase. It’s every phase. The script needs to be cut to length and budget. The budget needs to be bled. The picture, once assembled, needs to be trimmed to fit neatly around that two-hour mark so desired by the studios and exhibitors in order to add that one extra play per day.

I have scrubbed umpteen scripts of two or three lines of dialogue-slash-description per page in order to whittle the length. I’ve sat in editing rooms with directors and editors seeking to find frames to remove from the front and back of shots just to reduce the film length by a minute.

Once again. All in the service of pacing.

Now mind you. I’m not saying the shorter the script the better. During my Warner Brothers tutelage, I recall asking a top executive what he thought the perfect page length of a screenplay was. He didn’t have a firm reply. The night before, he’d read Michael Mann’s first draft adaptation of Red Dragon (later to be released in theaters titled as Manhunter).

“At a hundred-seventy-five pages it’s the best script I’ve ever read,” said the executive. “Seriously. I’ll add that there’s absolutely no way we’re making the movie at that length. It’s gonna be two hours or we’re not in it.”

True to form, Warner Brothers ended up putting the project in turnaround. The short-lived mini-studio D.E.G. stepped in and, in its final release form, Manhunter clocked in at two hours, four minutes. Though I never had opportunity to read the epic draft, the finished movie is one of my favorites of all time.

Me? Not only do I prefer to err on the side of pace, I view it as one of my best editors. My primary mantra is always don’t be boring and make sure the reader wants to turn the page. How is that done? By rewriting. And by that I mean being brutally honest about my own ability to fall in love with my own words. That follows by getting honest reads and despite their flowery approvals of my work, I still make them rethink themselves and tell me if any of it felt slow, turgid, heavy, over-complicated, or any other descriptor that might swing a hammer on my sense of pacing.

Yeah. A few sentences back I mentioned falling in love. There’s a measure of narcissism to writing. After all, why would we endure so many painful days, weeks, months toiling over our work if we didn’t think somebody was going to read it, like it, make a movie out of it, and pay Hollywood-sized coin? Inherent in the act of writing is the danger of falling head over heels for one’s own wordy imaginings. And that is nearly always a recipe for a composition deader than week-old road kill.

This is the point where I’ve learned that despite my affection for my own work, I must care that much deeper about pacing. Because pacing doesn’t care as much about me as it does for my readers.

And now, this bit of amusement…

I recall a true story told to me by a well-known producer. It was about a picture he’d worked on, a long time vanity project of a big time actor who’d at last leveraged his power into both directing and starring in the movie. The studio contract required the director-slash-star to deliver the movie at a running time of less than two hours. With a release date looming and precious editing days running out, the director was only able to reduce the picture’s length to two hours and forty-five minutes. In a panic, he dialed an Oscar-winning director pal and begged for help. The director pal agreed, requesting all relevant footage to be delivered to his Bay Area home. Both the studio and star breathed sighs of relief. The award-winning genius would surely deliver.

Weeks went by, the director pal assuring the studio and star that he was making great strides, had already cut unnecessary scenes from the film and would soon present them with a finished product certain to fit everyone’s needs.

Once completed, executives, the producer, and the star boarded a private jet and flew north to the great one’s dojo for a private screening of the final product. The lights dimmed. The movie unspooled. And forty-seven minutes later the film credits rolled. Shocked, the studio and star wanted to understand.

“I cut the movie to its essence to serve story and pace,” said the director. “And forty-seven minutes is how long it should run.”

Okay. Severe you think? The studio thought so, as did the embarrassed movie star. Another edit was ordered. The picture made its release date at a studio-clocked time of ninety-two minutes. The picture bombed. The reviews were disastrous, most lamenting that even at an efficient time of an hour and a half that it was turgid, slow, and dismally paced.

Is there a moral, you ask? You tell me.

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  1. Milo says:

    Well, Doug, know this people better than us, “mortals”. I always wondered why studio execs insist on, for e.x 2hrs, when countless other movies simply run over it and were very successful? High math for my brain. Some of them don’t have acclaimed director or over-payed star, if that plays any role.
    But to tell the truth, I never believed in pace when it comes to movies. For me, no one can really know on which proper length should a picture be a clocked at. Rambo 4 with 80 minutes of film was like a pie to audience faces.
    As for writing, I remember started doing a script with intention to participate a contest (pretty frivolous on my behalf), but later dropped it as the length of script should be less than 120 pages. Which doesn’t cut for me, I simply like to crowd a scene with details. Maybe other don’t see it that way, but I do.

    p.s Manhunter? Just yesterday I had a kinda nerdy quarrel on a IMDB board forum on why is Red Dragon better than MH. For better or worse, pacing is okay, but I couldn’t help myself not to giggle before throwing myself into tantrum, “Mann should burn for this”. Really, these words.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      I suppose “to each his own” Milo. Unfortunately, unless you have the dollars to finance your own pictures, those with the gold get to make the rules. They like scripts at a certain length (for reasons I’ve outlined). Movies to be brisk because they test and sell better. There are plenty of outliers to be found – exceptions to the rule. And I’m all for breaking the rules if the final product works. But in the world in which I live, I can’t afford to be dull.

  2. fbluhm says:

    Pace is everything for me. It’s the first thing I notice in a film, and the main ingredient that keeps me watching. Poor pacing, especially if it’s too slow, gets a `come on, come on… let’s go,’ out of me. So you’re right, Doug: no one wants their film to be boring, which is oftentimes the residue of poor pacing.