Shh... Don't tell anyone this.
We screenwriters cannot (and SHOULD NOT and WILL NOT) allow ourselves the LUXURY of (GASP!) discussing insights about the craft. With anyone.
So let's just keep this between us, okay?
(Because I honestly don't know what'll happen to me if I tell you this.)
Are you ready? This is my secret:
I do. Go ahead and LAUGH. I don't care! I LOVE Secondary Headings! AND THERE'S NO TAKING IT BACK EITHER! IT'S OUT, BABY, IT'S OUT! I'VE COME OUT! THE WORLD KNOWS MY DEEP, DARK SECRET! I LOVE SECONDARY HEADINGS! AND I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT THEM!
And do you know what else? I can't believe HOW GOOD IT FEELS to tell someone! I love READING them. I love WRITING them. I love ALL THE POSSIBILITIES they bring to the screenwriting table! It’s my MOST FAVORITE device in a screenplay! THREE CHEERS FOR SECONDARY HEADINGS! HOORAY! HOORAY! HOORAY!
Pardon me while I have a quick smoke.
But ya know, amateurs and pros alike hardly ever use them, which I cannot fathom. I do not see how any truly devoted craftsman can live without Secondary Headings. They are nothing less than your golden ticket to freedom in screenwriting.
So let's take a look at them. As I’m sure you know very well, STUPID BORING Master Scene Headings usually look like this:
INT. LOCATION – DAY
Trottier is pretty strict about how Master Scene Headings should look. It’s INT. or EXT., LOCATION, only ONE DASH, and then DAY or NIGHT (or CONTINUOUS or SAME or LATER). There are very few liberties you can take with Master Scene Headings. You can, at times, have two dashes in the event of a FLASHBACK SEQUENCE, but that’s about it.
To me, Master Scene Headings have always felt so confining and full of limitations with the way they force you to be stuck in one location until you move on to the next Master Scene Heading. Does that not feel completely wrong to you guys? All the great movies I’ve seen are FULL of movement. Thus, I love so very much Secondary Headings, which is a perfectly groovy and acceptable industry standard technique.
If you have different scenes taking place in the same building (or general location), all you need are Secondary Headings. For example, if you have, say, early in your script, one big talkative 6-page scene with 5 characters in a kitchen, you’re running a huge risk of losing the reader and the audience. However, you could (through Secondary Headings) break up that monster conversation into short vignettes that take place in, say, the Family Room, Master Bedroom, Back Patio, and Garage. Plus, in the process of breaking up that long talk, you can eliminate all the non-essential lines in that one scene and shrink those 5-pages down to maybe 2 good, tight pages full of movement.
Spacing wise, you should treat Secondary Headings as you would Master Scene Headings. They're painless, too, because all you have to type is the location:
INT. MYSTERY MAN’S KITCHEN – NIGHT
Jack the Ripper grabs a steak knife.
Mystery Man foxtrots with Mystery Woman.
Or (praise the movies gods) Secondary Headings can also be prepositional phrases:
IN THE GREAT HALL
Mystery Man foxtrots with Mystery Woman.
Secondary Headings can also offer movement:
Jack the Ripper tip-toes into the
and hides behind a statue of David.
Question - using today’s industry standard format, how would you handle multiple conversations taking place in different locations at the same party? Like, for example, the wedding reception at the beginning of The Godfather? Secondary Headings, of course - BY THE BUFFET TABLE, ON THE STAGE, IN THE PARKING LOT, etc.
How would you handle long tracking shots like the great ones we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s films? Secondary Headings. (I love long tracking shots. There was always a point to Kubrick’s tracking shots, too, you know. Kubrick was, in essence, marrying his characters to their environment and saying, “Hey, look, these characters are products of their environment” or “They are being horribly affected by this environment.”)
How would you handle the dogfight sequence at the end of Top Gun? EXT. BLUE SKY – DAY and then fill it with Secondary Headings - INSIDE MAVERICK'S TOMCAT, JUST ABOVE THE WATER, INSIDE MIG TWO, etc.
Are you seeing the possibilities? Because great movies are EXCITING and full of movement and (to me) Secondary Headings is just one of many keys to great craftsmanship.
The Other Side by Mickey Lee – The opening sequence took place inside a Television Studio. With the use of Secondary Headings, Mickey Lee cut seamlessly between the DRESSING ROOM, the SET, and the CONTROL BOOTH, and all the while, he established his characters, built tension, and got his story rolling along in great style.
The White Pyramid by Ross Mahler – Ross offers a wonderful sequence about 30 pages into his story that takes place at the far end of the Great Wall of China at Lao Long Tou in which the hero, Chance, dives into the ocean where the dragon's snout meets the sea and he searches for a stone with a serpent carved on it. With Secondary Headings, Ross cut between Chance UNDERWATER and his friend Benny standing at the END OF THE DRAGON'S SNOUT. Very cinematic.
The Mine by Matt Spira & Russell Totten – This story takes place primarily in mines underneath No Man’s Land during WWI. However, in one of the early sequences, Matt and his partner Russell take our mind's eye sweeping across No Man's Land in the Ypres Salient and thanks to Secondary Headings, we spend time IN THE GERMAN TRENCHES and IN THE BRITISH TRENCHES. It was exciting.
Of course, like everything, there can be pitfalls to Secondary Headings. One can have too much movement, movement that makes no sense, too many quick scenes in a row, etc. It’s a technique that, like everything else, has to be mastered. But, ohh, how fun it is when an artist masters the form and delivers a truly great cinematic experience.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
I fucking love Secondary Headings.