Before editing was created and perfected as its own art form, every film was in real time. (Although this isn’t entirely true: before sound, films were shown at whatever speed the projectionist decided.)
However now, even though editing opens up so many possibilites, the real time screenplay is still popular.
There are several levels of time in films and TV, as follows:
The run time of the film or episode. This is how long it takes to watch. For writers, a rule of thumb is that one page of script equates to one minute of screen time. A one hour episode for BBC, HBO or Netflix (no adverts) might be around 60 pages. A feature might be anywhere from 80 to 110.
The story time. This is how long the story takes in the fictional world the writer has created. A biopic can take place over decades. An action film can take place over a few breathless days.
The plot time. The story might be told linearly and chronologically, or it might not. There might be flashbacks, flashforwards, cross-cutting, framing devices, and so on.
Even a linear plot, however, usually omits some story time for the sake of saving run time. Audiences aren’t really interested in seeing the minutiae that makes up most of our lives: eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom…
In a real time screenplay, however, all three levels of time are equal.
The classic real time screenplay
The real time screenplay is not exactly a new trend.
There are several examples from classic cinema.
The Hitchcock film ROPE unfolds as if it was shot all in long takes. In reality however, Hitchcock was limited by the size of the film magazines, which could hold only 10 minutes of celluloid. This leads to a few concealed cuts.
Still, the real time screenplay creates a great amount of tension. Two young men commit what they believe to be the “perfect murder” and hide the body in a wooden chest. They throw a party, inviting the victim’s family, leaving the chest in plain view.
They even use it as a buffet table.
Gradually, they unravel and eventually their murder is discovered and their philosophy rejected.
HIGH NOON is not filmed in one take, but it does have a real time screenplay.
In a Western town, newly married Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) prepares to retire. However, he learns that a criminal he sent to jail has been released and arrive on the noon train.
He speaks to various townspeople. None of them are willing to help him, even though he’s risked his life many times to save and clean up the town.
Both examples use real time screenplays to create very clear ticking clocks, literally in the case of HIGH NOON.
Kane frequently looks at clocks so he and the audience remember that time is running out.
The real time screenplay in the modern age
With the advent of digital, it is possible to make a film entirely in one take. Some brave filmmakers have taken this challenge on, however this does not always equate to a real time screenplay.
RUSSIAN ARK was shot entirely in one take. However, it did not use this device to tell a narrative, rather to explore Russian history.
The story time really stretches through centuries, and it ends with a grand ball from 1913.
The German film VICTORIA uses one take (of over two hours!) to tell the story of a Spanish woman in Berlin who’s caught up in a bank robbery.
BIRDMAN, by contrast, creates the illusion of being filmed in one take, but the story takes place over multiple weeks.
There’s been a trend for confined dramas that, by their nature, often have real time screenplays.
BURIED takes place in a buried coffin that’s running out of air.
PHONE BOOTH takes place entirely within a phone booth as a publicist (Colin Farrell) is terrorised by an unseen sniper (Kiefer Sutherland).
Stu, if you hang up, I will kill you.
The same writer, Larry Cohen, has a story credit on CELLULAR – the same basic story but on a cell phone – proving it’s never bad to recycle a good idea!
PHONE BOOTH uses split screen to show multiple angles at once, as does the more experimental TIMECODE.
Written and directed by Mike Figgis, the screen is split into four showing four continuous takes shot at the same time.
This device was, of course, was de rigueur for the terrorism thriller 24 and its offshoots. Each season took place over the course of a single day. Phone conversations and other interactions were shown in split-screen. A clock would appear on screen before and after commercial breaks to remind the viewer when this episode was happening.
Similarly, the ITV drama STRANGERS is in eight parts and takes place mostly over eight hours, as a Professor searches for answers around his wife’s death in Hong Kong.
The advantages of the real time screenplay…
The real time screenplay can really ramp up tension, forcing a writer to find every possible variation on a single scenario.
It can give a lower budget film an edge and a marketing hook while being cheaper to film as they are often limited in the number and size of locations.
It can be easier for an audience to suspend their disbelief with a real time screenplay. After all, we experience life in real time. There aren’t any jumps in time that remind us we’re watching a film.
… and its downsides
On TV, a real time premise that is exciting for one season can become restrictive or repetitive over multiple seasons. Other shows experiment with real time storytelling for a single episode without being limited by a premise that revolves around it.
For example, when 24 returned with the event series LIVE ANOTHER DAY, it was only 12 episodes. The story was then restricted to taking place in just 12 hours.
Writers need to be a lot more careful with real time plotting and story logic to keep it exciting while not stretching credulity.
It won’t suit every story and genre. However, perhaps the potential of the real time screenplay hasn’t been fully explored. LOCKE is a character drama, not a thriller or murder mystery, that takes place across one car journey. We watch, in real time, as a man’s life unravels.
While not every story or genre is suited to the real time screenplay, thinking about these films and shows can be helpful.
What if a scene or sequence in your script played out in real time? What would keep the characters together, force them to confront each other and escalate the conflict?
Alternatively, what happens in those transitional moments that are normally left out? For example, what do hit men talk about on their way to a job? This thought experiment leads to the iconic “royale with cheese” exchange in PULP FICTION.
Of course, not everything will stay in the final script. But in the early, exploratory drafts, it could be worth exploring and borrowing from the power of the real time screenplay.