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09/23/2005 - BOOK REVIEW - "SETTING UP YOUR SCENES - BY RICHARD D. PEPPERMAN"
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"SETTING UP YOUR SCENES - BY RICHARD D. PEPPERMAN"
Book Review by Matthew Terry
Published by: Michael Weise Productions
ISBN#: 1-932907-08-4

I can't help it. I pick films apart. Watching a film is equally a moving, wonderful, heartfelt, magical experience and equally it is a chore, a "pick-apart" a "how'd they do that," "what did it take to get that shot?" exercise in utter futility. Alas, it is what is - because I'm the one watching it. Just last night I watched a fluff film with my children: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and I found myself saying things like: "That's a set - I'll bet. Costuming is good in this scene. I wonder what time of night they filmed that street scene?" Through my laughter I was picking apart one of Robert Zemeckis's early films.

So it is with "Setting Up Your Scenes" - a very good book on the very art of picking apart a scene from the establishing shot down to the extreme close-up. This is a great companion book to "Cinematic Storytelling" which I reviewed recently. If possible, buy both.

Mr. Pepperman takes scenes from 35 films. Some are popular films ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Sophie's Choice," and "Dial M For Murder") and some are foreign films ("Cinema Paradiso," "Ju Dou") and breaks them down, shot-by-shot to show how the director set the scene up to get across a core theme or message (danger, delight, exploits, etc.).

Being a screenwriter and writing for a screenwriting newsletter - I approach the scenes in this book from a screenwriter's point of view. If I'm to write the scene and I want to get the point across - how do I do it visually? Or how did the DIRECTOR do it visually. Can I use the examples in this book to better heighten my awareness of how the scene should work? And then, should I write the scene that way?

In some ways it is both fascinating and maddening to break scenes down in this way - I'm not faulting the book for doing so - I'm saying that it can drive one to distraction (trust me - I know). Think about a film you have recently seen. Then break a shot down in your head. Let me give you an example, not in the book, how this is done: "Star Wars - Episode 4" opening scene as the rebel ship has been docked:

LONG SHOT White hallway, Rebel Fighters fill the hallway with blasters drawn.

CLOSE ON Rebel Fighter ready for what is going to happen next, aims his blaster

LONG SHOT Door at the end of the hallway explodes and laser blasts come flying out - then Stormtroopers enter the hallway - the battle is waged.

MEDIUM SHOT Two Robots appear in a side doorway

LONG SHOT Battle continues with laser blasts filling the hallway. Two Robots in foreground move across the hallway, seemingly oblivious to the laser blasts, through another doorway unscathed.

This is kind of how the book breaks down the scenes with literally HUNDREDS of photos as examples. It is a fascinating way of breaking down 35 scenes and it gives you a great appreciation for the work that goes in to the film.

My only issues with this book are these: In the example above I listed out the shots as they are on film. In the breakdowns of scenes in the book - they are listed out BY SHOT. So the above would look like this:

LONG SHOT White hallway, Rebel Fighters fill the hallway with blasters drawn.

LONG SHOT Door at the end of the hallway explodes and laser blasts come flying out - then Stormtroopers enter the hallway - the battle is waged.

LONG SHOT Battle continues with laser blasts filling the hallway. Two Robots in foreground move across the hallway, seemingly oblivious to the laser blasts, through another doorway unscathed.

MEDIUM SHOT Two Robots appear in a side doorway

CLOSE ON Rebel Fighter ready for what is going to happen next, aims his blaster

The author explains that he is breaking down the scene via the "set-ups" the director has done. For a wanna-be film-maker this can be very helpful to see how many long shots (usually one long-shot cut up), how many medium shots (usually one or two set-ups depending on the cast and their movement), etc. For a screenwriter, though, trying to look at the scene as how it was done on film (and possibly not being familiar with the film) - it made the scenes somewhat confusing. One way to improve the book would be to place a number behind the set-ups to show the order in which they come when you view the scene and/or put numbers that correspond with the many photos in the book. That way if I wanted to read them in the way they were shot - I could do so - or if I wanted to read them in the order the scene appears on film - I could do so.

Another aspect that would be particularly helpful for the screenwriter (and I acknowledge this book wasn't written for the screenwriter in mind) would be to show what is in the script and then how the director interpreted it:

Mr. Pepperman explains in the introduction: "Dialogue: I have transcribed words spoken from the final release of the films. I did not venture to guess the original written dialogue; but in all likelihood some words have changed from the original screenplay."

It would have been interesting to see how the written dialogue HAD changed (or not been changed) from the original screenplay. Or, more importantly, how the original scene description had changed from what the screenwriter wrote to what ended up on the screen. For instance, if Mr. Pepperman went through and broke down the "Dancing in Underwear" scene in "Risky Business" - it probably would have filled 8 pages in this book but I know that written in the screenplay the scene was described like this: "Joel dances around the living room."

Any book that takes the time to break down the scenes as this book does - is a very valuable tool for anyone interested in film. A few changes here and there would have made the book more palatable for a screenwriter but again I acknowledge that this book was probably written more for the budding director or cinematographer than it was for the screenwriter. And I'm cool with that.

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