Written by Deborah Osment

The Art of Film Produing: How to Break Down a ScreenplayYou can never prepare too much before shooting a film. For instance, I just watched “Saving Private Ryan” for the umpteenth time and there it was: a mistake that I’d never noticed before. The translator has rounded up a group of Germans. One of the Germans mouths off and the translator shoots him, then tells the rest of the group to move off. We cut to a shot of the Germans marching off and there’s no dead German on the ground.

Someone made a mistake in breaking down the script and no one caught it.

For me, breaking down a script is another step in catching the mistakes I made while writing that script. I print out a copy on 3-hole punched paper, grab my ruler and my colored markers and settle in. Each page of a screenplay equals roughly one minute of running time. The ruler is to draw a line under each scene so that you have a rough idea of each scene’s running time on screen as well as a very rough guide to its shooting time, necessary when you move on to scheduling the shoot. One of the mistakes I catch most often is, well, let’s call them run-on scenes. In this particular script, there’s a moment when our heroine gets into a taxi and our hero is talking to her from outside the taxi. I’ve written this as part of a larger scene but the truth is that there are places where she’s sitting in the taxi by herself that really should be their own scene and this is where I can catch that. The producer has to learn to start thinking in terms of camera set-ups. Every breakdown I do is a preliminary one for the director to change but, remember, my job is to make his or her job as easy as possible.

With my scenes neatly lined off, their lengths circled on the right side of each page: 1-2/8, 4-5/8, etc., I go through the script and underline each category in a different color. (There are formulae for what should be which color but I just draw a key at the top of the first page and go with that. A stroke of red for characters, a stroke of orange for background, blue for props and so on.)

I should point out that it is possible to do this directly onto your computer using production software which is a necessary tool to my way of thinking. I use Gorilla because I like the software and because I can call them and get real help from a real person if I need it.

There’s something important to me, though, about doing this by hand. That tactile relationship with a script and then with a film is crucial.

So I’m making my key up as I go along and then I begin to underline each of the categories. “They” recommend that you go through and do each category separately. I do them all at once. Following is an example of what a couple of paragraphs from my latest script should look like:


JOHN,30-ish, handsome, pristinely dressed, clearly an English gentleman, does his best to load several suitcases, trunks and boxes into a waiting taxi. Strictly speaking, umbrella raised, he’s overseeing the TAXI DRIVER’S attempts to shove everything into the taxi’s too small trunk.



Please, would you …?


MELINA, a figure muffled from head to toe in rain gear, pushes her way in and takes a trunk from the Taxi Driver’s hands.


At this point, the key looks like this:





Production Notes


By Characters, I mean those who have speaking parts or perform specific activities. Those without speaking parts are extras or background. Props are absolutely any item that needs to be in that scene. Wardrobe means what the character is wearing at the time. If the hat he was wearing in the last scene is now sitting on a sideboard in this scene, it goes from wardrobe to prop. If it gets torn halfway through a scene, it becomes either (or both) art department or a production note. Vehicles are on-screen vehicles. Production Notes are anything that anyone getting ready to shoot that scene might need to know. Like there needs to be a dead German lying on the ground. If that Production Note isn’t there, no one’s going to know to put German #14 there.

There are a number of other categories: Sound effects, special effects, extras, animals, music, etc.

It is important to remember that almost all movies are shot out of sequence and that even scenes will be broken down into shot sequences so that scenes 23a, c and e and 37 and 39 may all be shot on the same day while scene 23b was shot two weeks before.

The only way this can be reasonably achieved is if the script is broken down and the information thereon transferred to what are known as breakdowns which are distributed to all the department heads. Makeup knows that the leading lady has been crying. Props knows that the broken vase is lying in the middle of the floor.

And everybody knows there’s supposed to be a dead German soldier in the street.

Deborah Osment, is an award-winning screenwriter and producer. Her work has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, HBO, AFI and many other venues throughout the world.


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