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  • Brian Magid

Anatomy and Evolution of a Sideway Scene

Discussing the growth and revision process for a scene on the Sideway platform


Ethan Olson as Joey in Sideway's Hartley

When I first started writing Hartley, which was the first script written for the Sideway platform, I did not know what I was doing. I knew on some level what I had to accomplish story-wise, but the technical aspects were a mystery to me. The platform did not yet exist. I knew that it was social media based, that the show itself would be exhibited in such a way that resembled how information appears on a social media app. But that basic premise gives rise to countless questions.


Now - six months later, on the other side of having written that pilot and described how the platform works to many other writers - I am still figuring it out, discovering new facets of how it works, what's possible on it, what its technical innovations and boundaries imply about character behavior, episode arc, and scene construction. But I have a better grasp of it, if only through the process of trial and error.


I'm going to take you through this process of trial and error, as it played out in the drafting process of one specific scene from the Hartley pilot.


In this scene - which is just one segment of a larger sequence that occurs on Day One of the show - a character named Joey has an interaction with his mother. There are a few key things that this scene aims to communicate. First, Joey is stuck at his parents' house in the titular town of Hartley while his peers have gone on to college. This piece of information is factual, and establishes location. Second, the scene aims to communicate Joey's emotional state. He deeply resents this situation, and is embarrassed by it. He disappears down internet tunnels watching his ex-girlfriend's posts, and then later down deeper tunnels of pornography meant to distract him. The appearance of his mother in his room is an unwelcome reminder of his circumstances.


So these are the things the scene is trying to get across. The question now is about how it goes about communicating that in Sideway specific language.


In the first draft, the scene looks like this:

INT. JOEY BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS

Joey downs the rum in despair, then pours more into the cup.
A KNOCK on the door.
                          JOEY
                What?!

His MOM opens the door. He hurriedly shoves the bottle under his bed. We don’t see her but we hear her voice.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                I’m making tea. Do you want some?

                          JOEY
                No.
                     (impatient pause)
                Thanks. Goodnight.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Do you want me to clear these
                plates and stuff?

                          JOEY
                It’s fine Mom.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Are you okay?

                          JOEY
                A-plus. Goodnight.

She lingers in the doorway, trying to think of a way to get  him to open up.
                          JOEY (CONT'D)
                Goodnight.

She sighs.
                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Sweet dreams.

She closes the door.

In this original draft, the basic scene information (temporal and emotional) comes across, but it's not Sideway specific. How are we seeing this within the framework of the app? My original notion that was that we would either be seeing this through some kind of laptop surveillance cam that is recording this for our benefit, or in the corner of Joey's screen as he scrolls. Both of these are cheats. They are ways of building a conventional scene with ostensibly Sideway grammar. But there is no surveillance camera we can tap into, no all-seeing eye.


A few things would need to happen to make the scene work for the platform. First, we wrote up a list of scene types: differently formatted units of story that any given scene would need to adhere to. These are the types of scenes Sideway is capable of featuring; in short they are our storytelling tools. For example, VC is a Video Chat, VCPR (Video Chat Pre-Roll) is what one sees before the other person answers the video chat, and VCPO (Video Chat Post Roll) is what one sees after they've hung up. DM is direct message live, DMA is direct message archive, as in the messages have already occurred. So on and so forth. Scenes can't stray away from these formats into standard film grammar. Every moment of the story must occur under the umbrella of these formats.


Second, it would be necessary to find a reason for Joey to be filming this interaction on his phone. To break this rule is to break the whole conceit of the platform. We cannot be looking at something unless it's being recorded by one of the characters. We see only what they see.


So, the idea was originated to have Joey calling friends from high school that have gone off to college. This way, the whole time the phone is ringing, and the whole time after, we can be watching the performance of the actor in front of the camera, because there is a reason within the scene for it to be recording him. The platform has a scene type called Video Voicemail (VV), a Sideway-specific device that entails characters leaving messages when someone doesn't pick up their video chat.


Here is the scene in its second version:

INT. JOEY BEDROOM

Joey closes it out, trying to distract himself, trying to stop his downward spiral. Calls another contact from the football list, named "ALEC."

(PRVO) Downs the rum in despair, then pours more into the cup.

Ringing.

A KNOCK on the door.
                          JOEY
                What?!

His MOM opens the door. He hurriedly shoves the bottle under his bed. We don’t see her but we hear her voice.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                I’m making tea. Do you want some?

                          JOEY
                No.
                    (impatient pause)
                Thanks. Goodnight.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Do you want me to clear these plates
                and stuff?

                          JOEY
                It’s fine Mom.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Are you okay?

                          JOEY
                A-plus. Goodnight.

She lingers in the doorway, trying to think of a way to get him to open up.
                          JOEY (CONTD)
                Goodnight.

She sighs. (VV)
                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Good night.

She closes the door. He looks down at the call. No answer. His video voicemail has been recording for about ten seconds. Embarrassed, he collects himself.
                          JOEY
                Hey dumbass. Just saying whatsup.
                Call me back if you can.

He hangs up. (IG) The camera roll is still open to his good times w/ Mia era.


This one is almost there. There's a reason for him to be recording; he's calling his friend, which serves the double function of justifying the camera on him and further communicating the underlying point of the scene, which is that he is stuck at home and all his friends have gone away. And it's tethered to a series of scene formats.


But it became clear for the next draft that each scene format type would need to be tied to a slugline in the script for technical clarity. Each mini-scene needs to consist of a single format, because they will be displayed as separate from each other in the linear timeline of the app. However, that doesn't mean each scene can consist of only one format. Within any given sequence, we can bounce from format to format as the characters switch between them. They are different sluglines, different technical exercises in terms of the app itself; but in terms of the story, one scene, one block of dramatic time, can continue through a multitude of these formats.


And not only did every slugline need a scene format type, it needed to be tagged with the time of day when the scene occurs as well. Sideway's "posts," the events that make up its linear timeline of story, all occur in real time, as they would on the social media apps that the platform emulates. So times are necessary to spacing each moment in the story as it moves between format types.


Here's the third version of the scene, properly formatted, each slugline tagged with a format type and a time:

INT. JOEY BEDROOM - 9:54 PM (VCPR)

Joey closes it out, trying to distract himself, trying to stop his downward spiral. Calls another contact from the football list, named "ALEC."

Downs the rum in despair, then pours more into the cup.

Ringing.

A KNOCK on the door.
                          JOEY
                What?!

His MOM opens the door. He hurriedly shoves the bottle under his bed. We don’t see her but we hear her voice.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                I’m making tea. Do you want some?

                          JOEY
                No.
                    (impatient pause)
                Thanks. Goodnight.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Do you want me to clear these
                plates and stuff?

                          JOEY
                It’s fine Mom.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Are you okay?

                          JOEY
                A-plus. Goodnight.

She lingers in the doorway, trying to think of a way to get him to open up. 
                          JOEY (CONTD)
                Goodnight.

She sighs. 

INT. JOEY BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS (VV)

Without Joey noticing while he talks with his mom, the video call switches to a Video Voicemail.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Good night.

She closes the door.

He looks down at the call. No answer. His video voicemail has been recording for about ten seconds. Embarrassed, he collects himself.

                          JOEY
                Hey dumbass. Just saying whatsup.
                Call me back if you can.

He hangs up. 


Now everything is properly formatted. The scene works perfectly for the platform.


But, one change remained to be made. Joey's Mom's dialogue demanded an upgrade. It was unrealistic she would ask him in this state if he "wanted tea." Obviously it's an excuse to come check on him, but the scene doesn't quite justify it as plausible.


So with this change of dialogue, the scene appears in its final form:

INT. JOEY BEDROOM - 9:54 PM (VCPR)

Joey closes it out, trying to distract himself, trying to stop his downward spiral. Calls another contact from the football list, named "ALEC."

Downs the rum in despair, then pours more into the cup.

Ringing.

A KNOCK on the door.
                          JOEY
                What?!

His MOM opens the door. He hurriedly shoves the bottle under his bed. We don’t see her but we hear her voice.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Hey, are you going out tonight? I'm
                turning on the alarm.

                          JOEY
                No.
                   (impatient pause)
                Thanks. Goodnight.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Do you want me to clear these
                plates and some of this mess?

                          JOEY
                It’s fine Mom.

INT. JOEY BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS (VV)

Without Joey noticing while he talks with his mom, the video call switches to a video voicemail.

                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Are you okay?

                          JOEY
                A-plus. Goodnight.

She lingers in the doorway, trying to think of a way to get him to open up. 
                          JOEY (CONTD)
                Goodnight.
She sighs.
                          JOEYS MOM (O.S.)
                Good night.

She closes the door.

He looks down at the call. No answer. His video voicemail has been recording for about ten seconds. Embarrassed, he collects himself.

                          JOEY
                Hey dumbass. Just saying whatsup.
                Call me back if you can.

He hangs up. 


So that's the full progression of the scene. In the evolution of these drafts, you can see the growing understanding of Sideway as a platform, how it works, what types of scenes and character choices and photography methods work for the conceit of the format. Through the process of revising, of trial and error, we did the work of carving out a new kind of cinematic grammar. But now, as other writers bring their concepts to the platform, the work continues of carving out new space for this nascent format to grow and develop.


Check out the scene in its filmed version below:

Joey played by Ethan Olson. Joey's mom voiced by Erika O'Bar.



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