First Ten: Chinatown

They say that a studio reader only gives a spec script TEN PAGES before they know if it’s worthy enough to be shown to their boss.

I don’t find this fair.

But life’s not fair and neither is screenwriting.

So I decided to turn the tables a bit. Instead of judging the first ten pages of a spec, let’s judge the first ten pages of a script that has already been sold.

This week: Chinatown by Robert Towne
The Link - http://www.sendspace.com/file/cjphyd

[If you wish, you may read the first ten pages of the script before reading this blog. There maybe many versions of this script floating around the internet. I chose this one.]


Page 1:

* First: there is very little white space. But because this is the first page where you have to establish so much, it can be allowed.

* “FULL SCREEN PHOTOGRAPH” - This could have easily been: “CU - PHOTOGRAPH”. But Towne doesn’t write that. It’s still breaking the fourth wall, but in a much more subtle way and that’s why it works.

* I’m not a big fan of Curly physically biting into the blinds. Its tone doesn’t match what has already happened and what will happen from this point.

Page 2:

* “(settling back, breathing a little easier)” - This is a little long for a parenthetical. On the page it stretches down three lines. Ideally, you want your parentheticals to only be one line.

* (almost the manner of someone comforting the bereaved) - Same goes with this parenthetical. Parentheticals need to be fast in order to justify being on the page.

Page 3:

* We get our theme on page 3. The whole “you gotta have money to kill someone” speech. It’s a good theme and a great way to introduce it.

Page 4:

* “He's now walking him past SOPHIE who pointedly averts her
gaze.” - This is an example of not active writing. Instead of: “he’s now walking”, try “He walks”. You can make it even more active by changing the word: “He stumbles past SOPHIE who averts her gaze.” (I don’t think the adverb: “pointedly” is needed).

* “He shuts the door on him and the smile disappears.” - This one line tells us EXACTLY who Gittes is. Very nice.

Page 5:

* By page five, we meet Mrs. Mulray (or do we) and the mystery is up and going.

Page 6:

* “A drunk blows his nose with his fingers into the fountain at the foot of the steps.” - Now that’s a great detail! Gross, but you get the image immediately.

Page 7:

I’m a big fan of the first six pages of this sceenplay. They’re almost perfect pages. It’s page 7 where the problems start for me.

* That speech by Bagby needs some serious trimming. You can pull a speech like this off later in a script, but before page 75, a speech like this if daunting.

If a studio reader today saw this, he would skim it faster than you can say Chinatown.

Page 8

* Towne follows up Bagby’s speech on page 7 with a speech that is almost as long from Mulray. This one even more exposition heavy than the last. And it’s only page 8!

Page 10:

And then there is page 10. If this script was written today, this page would be unacceptable.

* That first paragraph makes my brain want to pop.

In a screenplay, you never want a paragraph of description to go longer than four lines. This paragraph has fourteen! I’ve seen stuff like this in plenty of amateur screenplays (from people who just didn’t know) but this has to be the longest paragraph I’ve ever seen in a professional screenplay.

* Notice anything missing from this page? Dialogue.

Not a line of dialogue on the page. A page without dialogue reads like a text book.

* If you zoom this page out far enough, you’ll truly see how much black is on the page. It’s enough black to kill any chances of anyone reading this page all the way through (there are five or six more pages just like this throughout the script).

In a spec, you want the reader to be able to read each page in under thirty seconds. I dare anyone to try and read this page in under a minute.

* This page does have excellent use of secondary slug lines, moving us to different locations or people quickly.


The Verdict: Would a Reader Keep Reading?

Past page ten, I’d say yeah. Those first six pages are killer, and enough to entice any reader.

However, the next four pages are so slow that it’s almost hard to get through. And with almost half of the script just as slow as those pages, I probably wouldn’t give the script twenty five pages before the reader gives up and starts skimming.

Now obviously, this script was written in a different time. A time where overwriting wasn’t a screenwriting sin.

The reason these problems need to be addressed in 2010 is because plenty of screenwriting classes, teach this script to their students. Exposing them to all the nasty little habits inside.

I think that there are plenty of great scenes in Chinatown, but as a whole, the script feels so daunting. Like something you HAVE to read, just because everyone else says it is so good. But the fun factor is set very low.

To use a famous scene from the movie, this screenplay is good *slap* is bad *slap* is good *slap* is bad *slap* is good *slap* it’s both good and bad!

(note: I do not condone violence towards women, or blogs.)

Coming Soon to the First 10: The Hurt Locker


  1. Fantastic! Please let me know what you post more of these 10-pg examinations. Great idea!

    I felt the same as I read the pages with very little white and lots of descriptors. When I turned the page and saw it, I gasped, thinking "SIN, SIN!" But I kept imagining Jack hiding, spying and forgave Towne... a definite advantage over reading an unproduced script.

    Btw, you made me laugh out loud with the *slap* ;)

  2. If screenwriting teachers are using the actual script in classes and NOT addressing the issues of writing style necessary for modern spec screenplays, they are doing a SEVERE disservice to their students.

    You can NOT write like that today and get away with it!

    But as a _movie_ and _story_, there are many great things to be learned here and that's what should be studied: a motivated protagonist, cause and effect plotting, powerful metaphors and a cautionary theme that doesn't let up even as it leads its flawed hero to a tragic ending.

    It would be an interesting example to take the CHINATOWN script and, while keeping the characters, story, scenes and dialogue _exactly_ the same, rewrite its pages to better reflect the modern spec screenplay style.


    Thanks for the article and insight.

  3. Love that idea Scripteach! Maybe you should try it in your next class ;)