Should you “cheat the page” to alter your script’s page count? The Zookeeper’s Wife screenwriter says absolutely not.

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Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

The best-selling book, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, tells the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who used their Warsaw zoo to hide and shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.

Screenwriter Angela Workman sat down with ScreenwritingU to talk about the challenges of bringing this powerful story about animals and war to film.

Trained in classical acting at the Yale School of Drama, Workman started her career as an actress. Relying on temp jobs to pay the bills in between acting gigs, she soon started temping at film production companies in New York City. Eventually, she went on to become a screenplay reader.  “I can read really fast and write coverage really fast – I did it for years in New York and later, L.A. That’s how I learned to write screenplays.”

Workman managed to get a literary agent and began selling screenplays almost immediately. “I didn’t officially give up acting, I just felt that the writing life suited my personality better.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an intense story of persecution, triumph and animal instincts. Workman loved the book so much, she wanted to include as much as she could in the screenplay. But that strategy backfired.

Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

“I tried to put a lot of things into the first draft. The script was huge, and I will admit to cheating the page.  Eventually, the producers wanted to shoot me.  They budgeted for a certain length and they realized, ‘Oh, no. It’s about twenty pages longer than we thought.’”

Screenplays are formatted so that each page can accurately represent one minute of screen time. “Cheating the page” is when you alter the format of your screenplay to allow for more words on the page by cramming them together. This makes each page longer than one minute of screen time and can cause huge budgetary problems. To do this in Final Draft, you click on Format, then Leading. There you have the option of choosing to make your sentences Very tight, Tight, Regular or Loose. Workman had set hers to Very tight, while the industry standard is Regular.

“I swear, I will never do it again. I’ve learned my lesson!  Once you get into preproduction, they need to know how long it is.”

Iddo Goldberg in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

After being found out, Workman started cutting. And cutting. And cutting.

“My initial thoughts for the film were that it would be the size of Schindler’s List. You would see all of Warsaw fighting. You would see the uprising. You would see hundreds of thousands of extras. But at some point, a producer came to me and said, ‘Could you maybe say, tens of thousands, or just hundreds of extras instead?’”

In all business, including film, sometimes you just have to be practical.

But there was one element from the book Workman knew she couldn’t keep from the get-go. “There was a little dog that one of the characters brought into the villa from the ghetto. I said you cannot put a dog in this movie. It will upstage everything. No matter what scene you show subsequent to that, the audience is going to want to know what happened to the dog.”

Workman says the same is not true for cats in movies because, “You know they prowl and we don’t have to worry about them.”

Speaking of animals in the film – and there are many, from elephants to monkeys to hippos – Workman shared this lighter moment while shooting on set.

Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

“Camels make really funny noises. When you’re on the headsets, trying to be silent in the producer tent, you can hear the camels groaning. They sound like old men with gas. I was trying to be the quiet screenwriter who’s very professional, but I burst out laughing. Then everyone burst out laughing. It was so funny and no one else felt they could acknowledge it, but then we did acknowledge it and I think we ruined a take.”

Beyond camels making fart noises, Workman had another, more profound animal experience.

“One of the greatest experiences of my life in the movie business was getting to watch the elephant Tembo run on cue. The trainer would feed peanuts to this beautiful, beautiful animal that we couldn’t see from the distance, then the director would yell ‘Action’ and we’d watch this animal charge. It was stunning.”

More than anything, Workman wants people to know that The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t your run of the mill Holocaust movie.  “It’s about animals, animal nature and animal instincts. We need that story right now because it is about saving refugees and not distinguishing them as people who aren’t worth living. They’re just like us under the skin – we’re all human animals.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife stars Jessica Chastain and opens March 25.

 

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

11 Replies to "Should you "cheat the page" to alter your script's page count? The Zookeeper’s Wife screenwriter says absolutely not."

  • comment-avatar
    James Bigwood March 20, 2017 (5:24 am)

    I find writers doing this all the time, especially in television. In Ms Ackerman’s case, her motives may have been of the purest, but it usually happens when a writer is too lazy to hold to the page count necessary to deliver a show at its required length. The rationale always is, “We will figure it out in Post and cut it during the editing process,” which guarantees that an already cramped schedule and inadequate budget will be forced to accommodate scenes that everybody in production knows will never be in the final cut. Inevitably the episode as aired suffers when crucial connective tissue has to be cut for time. If, instead of cheating, writers’ thought their scripts out properly in advance, the final result would not only be better better creatively, but on-budget as well, a winning result for everyone.

    One of the first things I look for when I get a script is fudged margins.

  • comment-avatar
    Ross Farley Schriftman March 20, 2017 (5:27 am)

    As screenwriters we want to tell so much. But we still have to be cognizant of what a production will actually cost and also make sure we hold the audience’s attention throughout the story. Not easy to do, but something we must do. It is painful at times to cut what we think is interesting or important.

  • comment-avatar
    Jeff March 20, 2017 (5:27 am)

    Is this a joke? Why would you even teach someone how to cheat the page? This is something that even a basic screenwriter knows NOT to do.

  • comment-avatar
    James Bigwood March 20, 2017 (6:46 am)

    I find writers doing this all the time, especially in television. In Ms Workman’s case, her motives may have been of the purest, but it usually happens when a writer is too lazy to hold to the page count necessary to deliver a show at its required length. The rationale always is, “We will figure it out in Post and cut it during the editing process,” which guarantees that an already cramped schedule and inadequate budget will be forced to accommodate scenes that everybody in production knows will never be in the final cut. Inevitably the episode as aired suffers when crucial connective tissue has to be cut for time. If, instead of cheating, writers thought their scripts out properly in advance, the final result would not only be better better creatively, but on-budget as well, a winning result for everyone.

    One of the first things I look for when I get a script is fudged margins.

  • comment-avatar
    Brian Sheets March 20, 2017 (7:10 am)

    I’m surprised Final Draft even has that as an option. Why provide something that would so blatantly be outside of the Hollywood Standard?

    • comment-avatar
      Tammy Gross March 20, 2017 (1:54 pm)

      NO! NO! NO! To answer the question clearly. DO NOT CHEAT THE PAGE. Ever. (Unless you’re established & commissioned.)

      So here’s the article you were expecting from the title:

      Any reader or director who doesn’t immediately notice the cheats at a glance is probably not very experienced. You don’t want your cheated pages in their hands in the first place.

      MovieMagic Screenwriter inexplicably BUILDS IN not one but TWO cheats as a DEFAULT fudging the right & bottom margins. One of my jobs as an editor is to keep the page count true, & I must start at basic settings with every MovieMagic script.

      Final Draft makes it easy too, but it’s not a default. There are many many ways to cheat the page with margins, font & spacing, & even pretending you’re British by using A4 paper instead of US Letter. (If you are British, you need to change the paper size to US for Hollywood readers.)

      But the #1 cheat nearly every screenwriter does is not done by the software, yet it’s the most self-defeating: WHITE SPACE (or lack thereof). By creating text-packed paragraphs rather than using the natural paragraphing for every change in POV, shot or angle in the Action element (or by stuffing the script with long dialogue speeches), you can “cheat” the page & tick off a reader who thinks they’re in for a 2-hour read only to find out that what should be 18,000 words is over 25,000, wasting 3+ hours of their time. If they’re a judge giving feedback, you start with points off & the reader’s annoyed from the get-go. If they’re a reader not obligated to read to the end…they won’t.

      As for the complaints about the antiquated industry expectations, they exist for a VERY GOOD reason. No one’s ever heard of you. No one wants to spend 3+ hours reading your probable amateurish masterpiece. In fact, the limit may be 120, but most readers don’t want anything over 105 pages from a newbie. 105 HONEST pages.

      Readers will be ticked at you before they read even one word if it’s over 110 pages.

      If you’re Sorkin, 200+ is fine. If you’re Joe Blow, don’t cheat.

      Tammy Gross
      proofreader@proofmyspec.com

  • comment-avatar
    Charlie Frazier March 20, 2017 (8:39 am)

    I’m sorry, the subject/title of this post had me under the assumption that I would learn something new about “cheating the page count” (or not).

  • comment-avatar
    Hank Isaac March 20, 2017 (8:58 am)

    I agree if the goal is to, say, squeeze 150 pages of screenplay into 110. But if a potential recipient individual indicates he won’t read anything over 120 pages and yours is 121, it makes more sense (IMHO) to compress each page by the 0.003″ necessary to accomplish that. Minute-per-page is not always possible to achieve. Dialogue can be so brief and delivered so fast that 10 seconds of it could fill a page (Gilmore Girls scripts were often nearly twice as long as an episode’s running time). Filming and editing are the final determiners of running times. And BTW, the need for a writer to compress a page by a couple thousands of an inch to meet a draconian limitation ought to give the industry pause. IMHO.

  • comment-avatar
    Les Bowser March 20, 2017 (9:40 am)

    Aside from cheating the page, script writers should get beyond the confines of the 120-page rule. Schindler’s List has a running time of 197 minutes and The Zookeeper’s Wife is 126 minutes long. If unknown writers submitted two scripts of 197 and 126 pages today, they would be rejected outright. Some scripts simply need more explanation than others.

    Recall the story (perhaps apocryphal) about a film shoot that was taking all day because the cast & crew couldn’t get it right. Take after take, they knew something was wrong but they kept trying different ideas. Nothing worked. Then near the end of the day they finally figured out what was needed, and everyone knew they’d nailed it. The writer had been patiently sitting beside the director who turned to the writer and said, “Oh, so that’s what you meant.” This is what every script writer wants to avoid at all costs, even if the script is more than 120 pages.

  • comment-avatar
    William Sowles March 21, 2017 (11:11 am)

    Sounds like wordsmithing to me.

  • comment-avatar
    Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry March 28, 2017 (3:52 pm)

    What if you’re in a contest e.g. CoWriteScript (with Benderspink) where the format is 41-char.-dialog from the first-ten-winner and it persists to the last…

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