‘The 5 Page Rule’ – What I learnt From Making The Surrogate #2

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With the release of my feature film ‘Surrogate’ in 2022 I am doing a series of blogs on what I learnt or what my writing process reiterated to me.

As I detailed in my last blog ‘Length Matters – What I learnt From Making The Surrogate #1’, when Beth King and I started writing ‘Surrogate’ I set out a few parameters and one of those was the screenplay needs to be 85-90 pages maximum.

The second parameter was one that I devised myself which comes from my experience as a director who has to manage aspects of the filming schedule.

I call it the ‘The 5 Page Rule’.

During production every time you change location a substantial amount of time is chewed up with the location move.  Most shooting schedules on a film are 10-12 hour work days and when you change locations it can take anywhere from 2-4 hours.  

The drive to the next location is only one time consuming consideration and is often the shortest component of a location change. In reality a location change involves packing up all of the filmmaking equipment, loading it back onto trucks (which can take an hour or more) then drive to the next location. Upon arriving the crew needs to unpack all of that equipment and set it up again (taking another hour). Invariably a crew member will get lost on the drive, caught in traffic or struggle to find a good park, so realistically we’re looking at 2.5 hours for a medium sized production to change location.

Your 10 hour filming day is now down to 7.5 hours not including meal breaks. Now imagine if you do 2 location changes in a day, you’re down to 5 hours filming time. Perhaps 1 location change doesn’t take as long but you’ve still only got 6 hours on location.

This production reality is why I developed the ‘5 Page Rule From’. To make the most of Surrogate’s shooting schedule I said to Beth that any location in the screenplay must have 5 pages minimum, even better if it was 7 pages.

As you know 1 screenplay page equals about 1 minute of screen time so each location had 5-7 minutes of screen time. Why 5-7 minutes? Well, on an indie film that is the amount of pages that will be filmed per day. Your crew arrives at the location, unpacks, films, then packs up at the end of the day.

‘The 5 Page Rule’ means you maximise your schedule to film scenes rather than changing locations.

You might be asking one obvious question, what if there isn’t a 5 minute scene at that location? In this case see if you can maximise a location by setting multiple scenes there. 

The main character of ‘Surrogate’, Natalie Paxton, is a nurse so we tried to write as many scenes as possible at hospitals.  In the end we wound up with 3 different hospital locations in the screenplay but despite this we filmed them all at 1 hospital by using multiple wings and redressing rooms so no location changes were required. In fact 1 room was used for 3 different locations and so far no audience member has detected that – the magic of cinema!

However it’s important to not make scenes longer than they need to be for the sake of having 5 pages at a location as you don’t want to damage the quality of your writing. Instead of padding out scenes come up with ways to maximise a location.  For example if 2 characters meet at a cafe for a 3 page scene, can you set another scene at the same cafe with those characters or can other characters have a scene there.  Now you have 1 location, 2 scenes, 5 screenplay pages and 1 full day of filming at a cafe location.  

Even better, is there potential to set more scenes there and have 10 screenplay pages so the crew can do 2 days of filming at the cafe.  This reduces the amount of set up time for the 2nd day as much of the equipment is there from the 1st day.

Obviously this isn’t possible all the time and unless you are writing a contained screenplay of 1-5 locations such as ‘Rear Window’, ‘Buried’, ’12 Angry Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, ‘Misery’ or ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, you’re going to have location changes, the key is to minimise them.  If your screenplay is full of short scenes at lots of different locations it automatically means a substantial amount of time will be spent changing locations on filming days.  

‘Surrogate’s’ shooting schedule only had 2 days where we stopped filming to travel between locations.  It made a huge difference in the amount of footage we could film per day and ultimately that’s what matters most – what ends up on the screen!

Think about this rule as you write your screenplay.

Picture of David Willing

David Willing

After working as a writer/director for 20 years and a teacher for 15 years I founded Screenplaymethod.com. Using the 1-Step-A-Day Screenplay Technique I help guide aspiring writers to write their dream Screenplay.

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