Monday, June 29, 2009

Story Vault: Intercut?

Hello new readers to the blog! How are you? You look very well, if you don't mind me saying so. Have you been out in the sun? Smashing. Now that you're here, don't be afraid to dip into the archives, or the 'story vault' to give it its poncey name (link on the right there, just a little bit down).

We've covered a lot of ground on the blog over the last few years so if there's a particular screenwriting subject or area you're interested in, chances are there's a post on it. If there isn't, please feel free to shout and I'll do my best to oblige. If anyone has any questions or screenwriting issues they'd like to go over, even if we've covered it already, then that would be d'groovy also. I've got my head down at the moment, ducking hitting my deadline for EastEnders, so here's a post from this time last year about intercutting in a script. Mind the buses, now.


Wyndham: What's the best way to tackle two long scenes in different locations which happen at the same time and both of which continue at some length. Can you treat them as one long intercut or is it important to always treat them as separate scenes entirely?

Intercut is most common in telephone conversations (or, y'know, telepathic conversations like with Vader and Luke in Empire Strikes Back). For these types of scenes, it’s a simple case of cutting back and forth between the characters. This helps to maintain an easy-to-follow continuity for their conversation. Formatting wise, you can either state where each cut occurs, i.e.


With me so far?


I think so, carry on.

Or set up the first cut to establish that they’re in separate locations, then state INTERCUT AS NECESSARY so the director/editor knows what to do. This can be helpful to let the flow of the scene work to better effect on paper (i.e for the reader/exec).

Now, to get to the meat of the question. What’s the best way to tackle two long scenes that happen at the same time and at different locations? I presume we’re not talking about a simple telephone exchange then. But no need to panic. I’d say it’s perfectly valid to intercut scenes in this way, SHOULD IT BE ESSENTIAL FOR THE STORY. If it’s harming the narrative flow, then it might be better to treat the scenes separately.


This type of intercutting is generally used for three purposes. CONTRAST, SUSPENSE and SUMMARY. And a lot of times, all three. A classic moment in modern cinema beautifully highlights contrast and suspense. Silence of the Lambs - when the FBI and Clarice Starling arrive at Jame Gumb’s house. A tense intercutting sequence reveals that the FBI are at a different house entirely, and Clarice is by herself chatting to Mr Gumb. This link for the script doesn’t have page numbers but do a search for “WIDE ANGLE on what appears to be, at first, a calm, ordinary neighbourhod”, and that would be a good place to start reading.

Then of course there’s the famous sequence where Michael Corleone becomes godfather to his sister’s child while his orders to assassinate the heads of the five families get carried out. This provides contrast and summary. The contrast is of Michael Corleone being a religious and family man - even renouncing Satan - while his men carry out the dastardly deeds (the summary of the action).

Suspenseful intercuts usually build to some kind of twist or reveal in the story. For example, we see a hero finally finding the treasure while cutting to his damsel in distress who is being tied up by the baddies. But when the hero opens the treasure, it’s empty, and we cut to the damsel being unbound by the baddies, a big smile on her face as she’s handed the treasure. That kind of thing.

Basic contrasting purposes are usually good for showing what various characters are doing at the same time. In a romcom, this could be a sequence where the girl tells her friends about her sensitive first date while we intercut with the boy’s beefed up version to his boorish mates (Summer Nights in Grease comes to mind).

I think the important thing to do is to treat ‘intercutting’ as a sequence (or mini-story) rather than simply cutting between two scenes. In other words, ask yourself what is the point of the key scenes being intercut in this way, and try to use each cut so that they develop to a satisfying conclusion. For Silence of the Lambs, it was the electrifying reveal that Clarice had to face the final showdown by herself. In The Godfather, it was the climactic moment where Michael Corleone had become everything he had tried to avoid. It’s not incidental that these two moments are the key dramatic issues of the story, so when done right, this kind of intercutting technique can work wonders.

Not sure if any of that is helpful. If anyone has any good examples of other intercuts, famous or otherwise, then do please share. All I could think of was Lambs and Godfather, and a few generic intercutting sequences in romcoms and the like. There’s bound to be loads more (The Deer Hunter hunting sequence intercut with the wedding?). As a last note, I would say that intercutting is not the same as a montage but they share similar qualities in their style and content.



Mutt said...

Fantastic post

Oh, and I'm doing fine Mr Stack - Very considerate of you to ask.

This is exactly the kind of Blog I've been looking for. And believe me, I am already well on my way through your archives.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks, Mutt!

John said...

Great post, Danny, and well done on the new EastEnders commission!

Anonymous said...


An effective, moving example of intercutting is in the aforementioned Alien 3: when the child, Newt, is cast in to the furnace, the poignant speech delivered by Dillon (head of the prisoner's religious order) is intercut with the birthing of the Alien from the dog, or the Ox, depending on which version you watch.

His words about life being painful, become amplified when intercut with the images of the animal's pain as it "births" the Alien, which in turn also ends the animals life.

Unknown said...

sir..thanks for explanning in detail but i have an another doubt that are intercuts & crosscuts are same terms or different?????

Danny Stack said...

Yes, I would say the same!