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By David Schmüdde · August 9, 2011
In most scripts, one page is roughly equivalent to one minute of screen time. The Lobby Scene from The Matrix (Scene #150) breaks this rule. It is a single page, but it lasts a little over three minutes total on screen. The Wachowski brothers left out significant detail to accomplish this. Some screenwriters may hesitate to do such a thing, fearing that the picture they see in their mind’s eye will not fully translate to screen. But filmmaking is a collaborative process. A strong narrative will dictate the elements that need to arrive in sound and picture because they will ultimately resonate with the story.
The example below demonstrates the confidence implied by brevity and how it was manifested on screen.
FROM SCRIPT: How It Reads
The Matrix (1999), screenplay by The Wachowski Brothers
INT. GOVERNMENT BUILDING – DAY
In long black coats, Trinity and Neo push through the revolving doors.
Neo is carrying a duffel bag. Trinity has a large metal suitcase. They cut across the lobby to the security station, drawing nervous glances.
Dark glasses, game faces.
Neo calmly passes through the METAL DETECTOR which begins to WAIL immediately. A SECURITY GUARD moves over toward Neo, raising his metal detection wand.
GUARD: Would you please remove any metallic items you are carrying: keys, loose change —
Neo slowly sets down his duffel bag and throws open his coat, revealing an arsenal of guns, knives, and grenades slung from a climbing harness.
GUARD: Holy shit —
Neo is a blur of motion. In a split second, three guards are dead before they hit the ground.
I fourth guard dives for cover, clutching his radio.
GUARD #4: Backup! Send in the backup!
He looks up as Trinity sets off the metal detector. It is the last thing he sees.
The backup arrives. A wave of soldiers blocking the elevators. The concrete cavern of the lobby becomes a white noise of ROAR of GUNFIRE.
Slate walls and pillars pock, crack, and crater under a hail storm of EXPLOSIVE-tipped BULLETS.
They are met by the quivering spit of SUB-HAND MACHINE GUN and the RAZORED WHISTLE of throwing knives. Weapons like extensions of their bodies, are used with the same deadly precision as their feet and their fists.
Bodies slump down to the marbled floor while Neo and Trinity hardly even break their stride.
THE SCENE: How It Looks
TO SCREEN: How It's Improved (Or Not)
As a screenwriter with a unique vision, it is tempting to try and pack as much detail as possible into a script. These details can obscure a good story by making the script laborious to read. Above all, film is a collaborative process, and directing on the page can restrict the organic growth of a film when every single shot or choreographed action is written into the screenplay with painstaking detail.
Consider how Larry and Andy Wachowski drafted The Matrix. When they wrote the script, they knew that choreographers, gaffers, cinematographers and actors were all going to bring their specific expertise to the set. The stylized violence and unique production design that helped make the film an international franchise are evidence of the aforementioned process and not completely dictated by the screenwriter's pen.
It takes confidence and restraint to draft a script this way. The written word in the first two thirds of the scene is nearly identical to what ends up on screen. The last third, however, leaves much to the production team. Watching the scene with this in mind, you may be able to catch the subtle stylistic shift from theatrical drama to intricate choreography and camera techniques. This is the danger of writing an uneven screenplay, where detailed scenes are interspersed with broader gestures.
Considering the last third of the scene on its own, the film's blocking and scenery is loosely described: the lobby as a concrete cavern bathed in the white noise of GUNFIRE. This single sentence provides the production designer and the sound designer with a clear idea of how the scene opens. The shattering columns convey the visual chaos that the audience goes on to witness.
The actions of Neo and Trinity are purposely vague. All we know is that everything that they do, they do in rhythm. The weapons are as precise as their bodies and their bodies that do not break stride. This provides the choreographer a note that there is order in the room's chaos. That order emanates from our heroes.
It's not so much that the final scene has improved upon what's been written; it's more so that the scene has grown from the seeds that have been planted on the page. Brevity and restraint allow the story to shine through in the screenplay. The story directs good choices on set while detail can often obscure them for both the screenwriter and the director.